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The FX cable channel’s ten-episode “Fargo” series is a dark comedy with a darker drama undertone. It is humorous entertainment with serious portraits of human nature. Conceptually adapted from the 1996 Coen brothers’ movie by the same title, this Fargo also offers eccentric characters with deadpan humor and with deadly evil. During an interview, its writer Noah Hawley described the series as a portrayal of what is best and worst in America. Set in the wintery rural town of Bemidji (I have been there in winter) in Minnesota. The best is the town folks’ common goodness. They are polite, kind, even-tempered, trusting and trustworthy. They grace their conversations with “aw jeez” when confused or embarrassed and “oh shucks” when things don’t go well or as expected. The worst is some folks’ propensity for senseless brutality against others. Without remorse, they kill for no apparent justification.
Wrestling with the holocaust, Hannah Arendt coined “banality of evil” to make sense of it. At the trial of Adolph Eichmann, Arendt listened to the proceedings and concluded that ordinary individuals, like Eichmann, were capable of horrendous acts of evil by simply doing what they were told. They went about performing “ordinary evil” against other human beings out of duty. In Fargo, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a meek and clumsy insurance salesman. He is a disappointment to his wife who chides him at every impulsive disdain. A chance encounter with Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) at a hospital turns this innocuous wimp into a downward spiral deviant toward banal evil. Malvo is a mysterious, and goofy looking, drifter who enters this rural community and into Lester’s life with savagery beyond comprehension. He is a personification of rudimentary evil. Highly intelligent and mild mannered, he goes about his brutal killings as casually as a stroll in the snow.
Then there is Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). She is a personification of goodness. A heavy set deputy sheriff, Molly is slow talking and slow moving with a quick wit. Although compassionate for others, gullible she is not when in the face of evil. Her goodness is nurtured soberly by what is bad in others. A conversation between Gus, a deputy sheriff of another town, and her offers how unsettling it is to live with banal evil. Gus: when a dog goes rabid, there’s no mistaking it for a normal dog. Us people, we’re supposed to know better, be better. Molly: must be hard to live in this world if you believe that. Gus: you have no idea.
The bumbling Sheriff Bill Oswald has no idea. At first, he refuses to let Molly investigate the brutal murders. He simply refuses to believe that a former fellow student, Lester, is capable of cold-blooded murder. But as the events unfold, even the hapless chief yields to the ruinous havoc of banal evil. Actually, in their own means, these folks cope quite well in a world severely broken. These simple folks simply do what is right without malice or slander. At times awkwardly, sometimes stupidly and other times naively, but at all times, they lead their lives in the midst of evil with integrity of heart and a steadfast goodness.
If you have not seen the original broadcast, look out for it in reruns. Fargo is a good story well told. It is a study of human nature in its extremes. You just might take away from it a lesson in what it means to being human. It affirms Psalm 1’s affirmation: (The righteous) are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruits in its season . . . . The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. . . and the way of the wicked will perish.