The Devil Comes to Fargo

How the deliciously dark FX mini-series combines elements of The Master and Margarita, Doctor Faustus, and Twin Peaks

This week, Fargo finally gave us confirmation that Lorne Malvo is, in fact, the Devil. 

Not that it was necessary. In the first episode, Billy Bob Thornton's grinning, Vulcan-banged assassin waltzed into Bemidji, Minnesota with the same cocksure attitude that Satan brought to Moscow in The Master and Margarita. He proceeded to infect the town with evil, never caring who witnessed him or what evidence he left behind. 

But in this week's episode, the second-to-last, he identified himself as explicitly as he could without resorting to the chorus of a certain Rolling Stones song. "I haven't had pie this good," he said, "since the Garden of Eden."

Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo/FX

Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo/FX

I love Fargo – the new mini-series on FX, not the movie. In large part it's the otherwordly camerawork, the engaging characters, and the sheer suspense. But I think it also has to do with the inherent novelistic potential of television. I've awaited each episode of Fargo like, I imagine, readers of Dickens awaited installments of his serialized novels in the 1800s. Today, any adaptation of a Dickens story for the big screen inevitably disappoints: it's just not possible to cram that much texture, plot, thematic layering, and character development into two hours. Fargo the series may never have been a novel itself, but in its aspirations, it is absolutely an audio-visual novel. 

I also can't help thinking that Malvo's remark about pie (it's apple) is more than a confirmation of his identity. It's got to be an allusion to Twin Peaks, the show's spiritual predecessor. Pie was famously the dessert of choice for Agent Cooper at the Twin Peaks diner (cherry, to be specific). But that's just the tip of the iceberg: Fargo echoes Peaks in so many ways: its remote, small-town setting, its dark humor, its ensemble of quirky characters, its stark battle between good and evil. 

David Lynch has rejected rumors of reviving Twin Peaks. And thank goodness for that – the movie follow-up, Fire Walk With Me, stunk. (I'm not really a fan of any of Lynch's movies, actually. Hmm.) But no matter: Fargo creator Noah Hawley did Lynch one better: he took the concept of Twin Peaks and gave it the gift of a finite end.

Twin Peaks should've been a time-limited series, like Fargo, or BBC's Broadchurch. It could've used the narrative discipline. After a promising start, the show drifted, until at last its final episode gave us one of the most brilliant conclusions ever broadcast. Anyone launching a new dramatic series should seriously consider a limited format, if the suits will let them.

Like Twin Peaks, Fargo has one of its main characters undergo a transformation to evil. But Lester Nygaard, Fargo's meek, bullied insurance salesman, is a Faustus figure: he sells his soul for power and fortune. He mimics the devil, but, similar to Doctor Faustus, retains just enough basic humanity to be shocked at his own capacity for evil, every time he commits or witnesses a heinous crime.

The theology of Fargo is like the Faustus tale's too, at least Christopher Marlowe's version of it, which brings the concepts of fate and free will into unresolved tension. Repeatedly, Fargo begs the question of how much Lester's actions are his own choice, and how much they're the product of an external force. He actively wants bad things to happen to the people who have ruined his life. He conspires to achieve them. But if Lester has been rewriting his life, it was Malvo who turned the first page. Like Mephistopheles, who tells Faustus: 

'Twas I, that when thou wert i' the way to heaven,
Dammed up thy passage. When thou took'st the book
To view the scriptures, then I turned the leaves
And led thine eye.

And when Lester no longer has reason to descend further, he does it anyway. His choices are so utterly boneheaded that it makes you wonder if he's simply unable to stop himself. The moments that immediately follow the murders in this week's episode show a sudden horror in Lester's expression that is utterly perplexing. He must have known what was going to happen. And yet he's completely surprised. 

A lot rides on Fargo's tenth and final episode. For Deputy Solverson, truth and justice. For Gus Grimly, absolution. For Lester Nygaard, his immortal soul. But for viewers, at least this much is settled: television's artistic soul is redeemed. 

Patrick D. Joyce