“Some roads you shouldn’t go down. Because maps used to say ‘There be dragons here.’ Now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there,” Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a hit man on assignment in Minnesota, tells Duluth cop Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), when Gus pulls Lorne over in the first episode of FX’s new drama “Fargo.” The show, which premiered last night, is a riff on, rather than an adaptation of, the 1996 movie of the same name by Joel and Ethan Coen. But the miniseries, written by Noah Hawley, feels perfectly suited to the moment in television into which it arrives.
The first episode focused on what might happen if an actual ordinary man stepped up to inhabit the anti-hero fantasies that have become so popular. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a put-upon life insurance salesman when we meet him. His wife, Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar), envies Lester’s brother’s family, telling him, “Guess I married the wrong Nygaard” over breakfast. Lester’s high school bully, Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady) is not only still in town, but rather than growing out of his childish fixation with Lester, Sam continues to torment him, and enlists his teenage sons in Lester’s immiseration. Lester’s younger brother tells people Lester is dead.
That is a lot to deal with. And because he is so put upon, Lester turns out to be ripe pickings for Lorne, who is amusing himself between killings by leading others into temptation. When they meet in the hospital where Lester is seeking treatment for an injury inflicted during an encounter with Sam, Lester initially declines to elaborate on how he got hurt. “It’s not good to dwell on these things,” Lester tells Lorne. “Why?” Lorne wants to know “Why is it not good to dwell on these things, especially things that put you in the hospital?” With that question, Lorne smashes through not simply Lester’s facade of Minnesota nice, but also the wall he has erected between himself and his feelings of rage and humiliation.
Where fans who cheer on Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” or Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos,” fantasize, but do not act, Lester suddenly starts behaving like the anti-heroes we see so often on television. Without really believing it is possible, Lester asks Lorne to kills Sam for him. And after he gets news of Sam’s death, an emboldened Lester takes a hammer to Pearl’s head, then tries to make himself look like a fellow victim. Unlike Walter, though, Lester is no genius. And unlike Tony, Lester has a reasonably well-developed capacity for guilt and shame.
“Fargo” is a show about a lot of things, but prominent among them is what really might happen if we embarked on the dreams of bad behavior that have drawn such large audience and garnered such critical attention. People die badly and painfully in “Fargo,” and the people who kill them feel horrible afterwards. The show is incredibly, darkly hilarious, but the joke is on the people who indulge in fantasies of badassdom, not on the supposed rubes who play by the rules. Lorne is telling Gus not to ticket him with his speech about maps and dragons. But he is speaking to the rest of us as well.