As we’ve previously discussed, every story belongs in a family – or genre. Every genre contains key ingredients without which the consumer of the story will be left hungry. A western without cowboys, a love story without at least one nearly-irretrievable misunderstanding – who’d be satisfied by that?
Crime drama is perennially enduring. One reason for this may be that its genre requirements are so well-understood by everybody that the basic template can withstand any manner of story-telling shenanigans whilst still providing that satisfactory hit to the reader or viewer.
Quickly, off the top of my head, a crime drama must include: a victim – often a dead body (or two. Or three), a perpetrator, an investigator, several red herrings, the investigator under threat from the perpetrator, the investigation hindered by other circumstances, a point where it really, really looks as if the investigation is doomed, some kind of definite resolution for good or for bad.
Fargo S3 is drawing to its end here in the UK. With a film and three television series to its name, it seems to me that it has now evolved into a sub-genre of its own – the Fargo-esque crime drama. While it adheres faithfully to the necessary generic conventions, Fargo has also established some tropes that are specifically and consistently its own.
1: The Blurred Boundary
The original film asks the audience to believe that its events might just be based upon truth. There appears to be some deliberate obfuscation by the Coen brothers as to how far this is or is not the case. With the television series, the convention is playfully continued although I don’t think there’s any genuine suggestion that the dramas are anything other than fiction.
2: The Location
Location is often important in crime drama (Rebus in Edinburgh, Morse in Oxford, Trapped in a remote corner of Iceland) and this is particularly true in Fargo. The physical geography provides an instantly recognisable ambience, a vista of endless straight roads unrolling through a snowy, hostile landscape.
Equally, if not more, important is the fact that the specific location comes complete with specific people. Fargo is predicated upon protagonists who could come only from Minnesota. Had Lester Nygaard or Gloria Burgle hailed from Miami or Seattle, things would have been very different.
3: The Perpetrator
A small-town, morally unformed character with a mouth full of monophthongs and a bundle of carefully-nurtured grievances buried within their “Minnesota Nice” exterior. Never a deliberate villain, their ambition is disproportionate to their ability. They promptly get into trouble from which their limited resources cannot extract them.
4: The Investigator
A police officer with – and this may be Fargo’s most innovative feature – a loving family life. Like The Perpetrator, they are indigenous Minnesotans, decent and unassuming. However, in stark contrast, they are also competent, logical, steadfast of purpose, have a clear moral sense and are not are easily fooled. They are often undermined and usually female. Sometimes pregnant.
5: The Villain
A charismatic, off-beat and utterly ruthless character who arrives out of the blue from somewhere unspecified but clearly very different. This is no bumbling amateur but a highly competent and completely amoral criminal, with a uniquely idiosyncratic manner. The Perpetrator is appalled by The Villain but quickly becomes enmeshed with them. If you’re feeling especially poncy, you might make a case for The Villain representing the long-repressed Id of the The Perpetrator finally breaking out.
6: The Families
Families are important in Fargo. The Perpetrator is generally at odds with theirs, The Investigator comes from a loving family that, nonetheless, has its own troubles. Family conflicts cause problems on all sides. While these disputes may escalate into properly serious crimes of abduction, blackmail or murder, the family aspect reinforces the small-town feel of events.
7: Accidental Death
The Perpetrator never means to kill anybody but, somehow, the people around them end up dead and a whole chain of events starts to spiral inexorably upwards out of control.
8: The Violence
Fargo is black comedy as well as crime drama. It contains violence so graphic that it would be unacceptable if it wasn’t meticulously choreographed in a such a way as to render it horrifically funny.
9: The “Eeeeuww!” Scene
Self-explanatory. Generally enacted by The Villain to underline their power and lack of limits. There’s always at least one, take your pick.
10: The Cars
I’m not sure if this really counts but from Jerry’s dealership Oldsmobile to Ray Stussy’s Corvette, particular cars have been integral to the plot of each strand so far.
11: The Connections
Fargo’s separate threads stand alone but are also all connected into a coherent universe. The satchel of money connects S1 to the film. Lou and Molly Solverson connect S2 to S1, as does Sioux Falls. Numbers and Wrench connect S3 to S2 and S1. I’m sure there are others.
There’s plenty more (supernatural sightings, flashbacks, goofy haircuts) but this post is too long already. These ingredients are not all unique to Fargo and that’s fine. A Victoria Sponge and a Black Forest Gateau both contain flour, sugar and eggs. That doesn’t diminish their individual identity – or their deliciousness.
But the characteristic and consistent way these ingredients are handled (particularly the small-town venality exploited and enhanced by big-time villainy, brought down in turn by exemplary small-town policing) has resulted in an accumulated body of work with a recognisable flavour all its own – a sub-genre, no less.
1 “This is a true story. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
2 Fargo itself is, of course, in North Dakota. Just.
3 F:William H Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, S1: Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard, S2: Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blomquist, S3: Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy
4 F: Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, S1: Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson, S2: Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson, S3: Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle
5 F: embryonic at this stage. Hired hitmen, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare were perhaps prototypes, S1: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo, S2: Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan, S3: David Thewlis as VM Varga
7 F: the killing of the police officer and witnesses during the bungled kidnap of Jerry’s wife, S1: Lester finally snaps and bludgeons Pearl to death with a hammer, S2: Peggy accidentally runs over Rye Gerhardt and then drives home with him on the windscreen, S3: Emmit fights with his brother, Ray, and accidentally stabs him in the neck with a shard of broken glass.
9 These are my picks. I’m sure you have your own. F: the woodchipper scene, S1: the shower of blood scene, S2: the head-in-a-hatbox scene, S3: the pissing in a mug scene
10 F: the Oldsmobile from Jerry’s dealership, used in the kidnap, S1: Lester’s car, driven by Malvo, stopped, but then released by Gus Grimly (yes I know. That one’s a bit tenuous), S2: Peggy’s car which hits Rye Gerhardt, S3: The Stussy Corvette.