Season 1, Episode 1: “The Crocodile’s Dilemma”
Directed by Adam Bernstein
Written by Noah Hawley
* For a review of the next episode, “The Rooster Prince” – click here
Riffing wonderfully off the Coen Brothers classic Fargo, Noah Hawley and his team of directors have given us a worthy tribute, and sort of follow-up, to the movie. Blending homage to the Coens with new situations of mayhem in Minnesota, Hawley has impressed me through two full seasons of this show. Starting now, I’m reviewing the first season.
“The Crocodile’s Dilemma” starts off with Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) driving in the dark on a snowy highway near Bemidji, Minnesota, mostly only his eyes are visible in the night. He swerves when a deer runs across the road and flies into the snow. From his trunk escapes a man in his underwear. He runs into the wilderness, as Malvo walks over and watches the deer die instead of run after him.
Fade in on Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) and his wife Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar) are eating together. He is an emasculated man. Pearl even says she “married the wrong Nygaard“, as his brother is a much more successful man it seems. Immediately we get the sense their marriage is rocky, but under the covers sort of rocky. The kind nobody talks about in the open, especially not the couple in question.
Above all else, Lester has a very dull life. Or rather it’s quaint. But already there’s a sense Lester finds things dull. Maybe he prefers them that way, or perhaps it’s just what he’s used to, not sure. We’ll see, though. At work nothing is much different from home. He deals in insurance of various kinds. He isn’t particularly a great salesman, but he is an honest one. Too honest, at times. Hawley writes Nygaard as an almost hopeless man. On the street he runs into Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady) and his two sons, Mickey and Moe. Sam is a bully from a high school who picked on Lester for years, and not much has changed; he even told his sons about stories of bullying Lester back then. Now he corners Lester, who doesn’t like confrontation obviously.
Becomes pretty clear when Hess pretends to throw a punch and Lester ducks it, right into a pane of glass behind him.
Cut to the hospital.
Lester is sitting with a broken nose waiting to be seen. Lorne Malvo watches on as Lester painfully tries to drink a can of soda. He ends up handing the whole thing over to Lorne, in fact. They talk a little. Lester tells him about the “misunderstanding” which lead to the nose, but Lorne wonders: “Who misunderstood whom?” Though we already know Lorne is less than an upstanding citizen, he makes a few good points. Then Lester tells him all about what happened. Even telling Lorne about Sam Hess: “He was a bully in high school and he‘s a bully now.” Eventually, Malvo says he would’ve killed Hess. If it were him. This makes Lester pretty uncomfortable, yet still he continues talking with Lorne.
But then Lester makes a joke, saying Lorne ought to just “kill him for me“. Nygaard gets called in to be looked after while his new friend takes the request as real, repeating Hess’ name. Should Lester be worried?
Out on the side of the highway, where Lorne’s car is sitting, Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) meets her Chief, Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle). They start having a look at the car and what may be going on. Molly has a few ideas, though, her superior seems a little dopey. Even if he is fairly perceptive. They head into the woods, chatting about their daily lives and having a look for more evidence, clues to what could’ve happened. Then, the man with the underwear is found: frozen to death behind a tree stump.
At home, Vern’s wife Ida (Julia Ann Emery) is cooking, and eating. And she appears happily pregnant. Their new baby’s room is ready, almost. They’ve got themselves a nice, happy little Mid-Western life. Side note: Shawn Doyle is awesome, he’s from Newfoundland and Labrador, Wabush specifically with is in Labrador; he has been in lots of stuff, notably this and NBC’s Hannibal which I love. Nice to see him on this series.
Meanwhile, Lorne Malvo shows up to Mickey and Moe Hess wrestling. He gives them fighting tips. He’s looking for Sam Hess, giving lip already. He says the younger son is a bit “dim“. They have a funny confrontation, which is great because of Lorne’s dry demeanour. He walks out leaving the Hess gang and their friends confused.
Lester and Pearl go over to his brother Chazz’ (Joshua Close) place with his wife Kitty (Rachel Blanchard) and their family. Their son, Gordo (Spencer Drever), is a bit of a loner. His father thinks he may have “the autism“. The two brothers Chazz and Lester head into the garage, where the obviously more outgoing brother shows off some big assault rifle he bought, along with a ton of other guns in a huge rack. Completely unnecessary amount of firepower. Chazz hands the big rifle over to Lester, who drops it and the thing smashes on the floor. Afterwards, it comes out Pearl has “had it“. She says Lester has been strange lately, and so on. Clearly, though, Lester is just sick of his wife and their unhappy marriage. Sadly, Chazz says: “Sometimes I tell people you‘re dead.” He doesn’t respect his older brother, nor does he look up to him.
Things in the world of Lester become more complicated, after Lorne goes to a strip club where Sam Hess is having sex with a woman out back. Malvo puts a knife in his head. Let’s hope for Lester’s sake nobody remembers him talking with Malvo at the hospital. Yeah, like that’ll happen, eh?
Chief Thurman, Molly and Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) are at the scene of Sam’s death. Poor Bill is having a tough time, wanting not to puke up his wife’s nice dinner. For all the small town-ness of Fargo and its atmosphere, the police aren’t dummies; not all of them. Thurman is dopey yet smart. Molly is on the nose, almost always, or at least ready to learn and to go from there.
Under the radar, Malvo is getting a room in a motel. He makes the mistake of being memorable, asking strange questions of the lady at the front desk. However, I’m not so sure Lorne cares about anything, let alone people remembering him enough to talk to anyone about it later. He’s like the wandering demon, infecting everyone around him to do their worst instead of standing idly by to be abused. While some of his advice is less of an evil nature than other bits, he’s still always causing mischief. At the motel he pits the owner versus a young man working their against one another, just for the hell of it.
Molly is over at the diner, owned by her father Lou (Keith Carradine; played as a younger version in Season 2 by Patrick Wilson). Chief Thurman meets Molly and they have a little talk over the evidence so far in the murder of Hess. He claims she’ll “make a good Chief one day“, which of course makes her happy.
Later, the police talk with Gina (Kate Walsh), Sam’s wife. She is not at all happy about the situation in which her husband was found. Obviously. Even better is the fact Mickey gets a call, from Lorne claiming to be an attorney, also claiming the other brother received everything in the inheritance; this prompts Mickey to nearly beat his brother Moe to death with a hockey stick. Already, Malvo is proving to be such an instigator and an outright antagonist off the bat in this first episode.
Lester, fixed up nose and all, is back at work and being asked to pull information on Sam Hess. He receives the news of Sam’s death, and the wheels in his brain begin to turn. He ends up at a diner where Lorne is eating quietly by himself. Darkly comedic, Malvo is smart about what he chooses to say in conversation, out in the open. At the same time, he makes clear Lester did say the words; even if it was a joke.
And it finally comes out – Molly tracks down info that “the fella with the head injury“, Lorne, was talking to “another fella“: Lester Nygaard, apparently. I knew it, even the first time I watched the series on its premiere. Lester’s world is about to drastically change. Chief Thurman says he knows Nygaard and will go to see him about the possible conversation with Malvo at the hospital.
Back at his place, he tries to fix the washing machine in a desperate attempt to make his wife Pearl happy, to impress her with his manliness or anything. When the machine all but explodes, she insists on abusing him further and further with more psychological torture within the shackles of their rough marriage. Fed up to the point of no return, Lester grabs the ball-peen hammer and cracks Pearl over the head quickly. A thick trickle of blood runs down her face, then he gives her another whack, then another, and another, and more. Until there’s not much left to her face. What has he done? I mean, yeah, she treated him poorly. But I suppose everyone has their breaking point. Lester, unfortunately, chose murder. He immediately begins to take his clothes off, bag them up, to try and start hiding the evidence. Where will he go from here?
In a frantic fit of panic, Lester asks him for help in order to clean things up. “Lester, have you been a bad boy?” he asks in that dry tone Billy Bob Thornton affects so well in the character. Only problem with Lorne wanting to help: Thurman is on the way to see Lester, in regards to Lorne. Uh oh. At the same time, it appears Lester wants to frame Lorne for the death of his wife, practicing “You killed her” and drawing a gun at the door while waiting for him to show. Then, at the door is Thurman. An awkward, tense conversation begins, with Pearl’s blood still drying on the wall downstairs. After a bit of talk, Thurman sees blood on the floor as Lester spies it, disappointed in himself; he starts rambling while Thurman finds Pearl dead down the stairs. Behind the poor Chief appears Malvo, blasting him away to his death. Things have changed even more now, for the worse. And sadly, Thurman bleeds out on the floor quickly right there and then.
With Molly showing up, lights flashing, Lorne vanishes into thin air. Downstairs, Lester continues to panic but makes it look as if he and his wife were both attacked after running himself head first into the wall. Molly finds them on the floor next to one another, Bob Oswalt arrives as back-up with a much needed “Ah geez“. Nobody is the wiser. Not yet, anyways. On top of it all, Lester ends up with a piece of buckshot embedded in his hand. As if things weren’t stacked against him high enough in a pile of shit as it is.
Sad scene when Molly brings home paint for the baby’s room at Thurman’s place, the wife immediately knowing why Molly is there. Tragically emotional moment.
In Duluth, Minnesota, Officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) talks over the radio to his daughter Greta (Joey King). They have a pretty sweet relationship, as he works and takes care of his daughter as much as possible at the same time. When a car speeds by, Grimly takes a sip of his coffee then reluctantly takes off after the culprit. Pulling him over, the man turns out to be Lorne Malvo. The criminal offers Gus an ultimatum: drive away, or face bitter consequences. Whatever insidious darkness Malvo has in him comes out here, threatening Grimly: walk or die, even plainer this time. Leaving in the night, Gus is left with barely any breath in his chest. But what are the consequences of Malvo leaving? What further destruction will he cause?
Stay tuned with me for another review of the next episode, “The Rooster Prince”. I love this show and going back over it a second time is lots of fun, picking up on things I missed and generally enjoying all the wonderful bits over again.