Fargo – A masterclass in character progression

I recently finished watching Fargo and, I have to say, I loved it. I think it’s really smart, really well made and with good direction and acting to back it up, but I’m not here to talk about that today. Today I wanted to talk about how it does character progression right, and how it took people who, on the surface, are really quite boring characters and made them into people you would instantly recognise from just reading a quote.

However, I start with something very important that aided my enjoyment of Fargo: I didn’t marathon it. I have a habit of watching a couple of episodes of something during the week but then finishing the series during the weekend. I urge you to not do this with Fargo because trying to marathon it will make you hate the whole series and you won’t see its brilliance. I don’t like the reasoning of “it gets better later,” but it’s not like that, instead it transforms and shifts mid series. I can’t really explain that without explaining the whole plot but I have to say that watching it slowly will benefit your enjoyment of it.

With that out of the way we can get started. I’ll start with the main character; Lester Nygaard played by Martin Freeman. It goes without saying that there are spoilers ahead, though mostly for just the first episode and a bit of the second. When we meet Lester in episode one we can’t help but pity him. He’s mid 40s with a failing marriage stuck in a town with his high school bullies and a bunch of other people who he knows but who have also surpassed him. He is very mild and, fundamentally, fairly likeable, even if it is in a quiet way. His brother is unlikeable and has a temper, his bully makes an appearance and his wife can be described as nothing besides cold. He meets the other protagonist, a hitman, in the hospital after being beaten up by his bully and herein we see Lester’s decent into something unrecognisable. By the end of the episode 3 people are dead, one at Lester’s hand, one indirectly because of Lester and one because of a chance of fate that could be blamed on Lester.

But you don’t stop feeling sorry for him. Lester knows that he’s done a terrible thing and can’t help but feel remorseful. However, he’s smart enough to know that pity won’t get him out of this mess, much like it hasn’t done any time in his life, so he knocks himself out against a wall and makes it appear, to the police that have just showed up, that Lester is just another victim of a home invasion. This is where the audience starts to like Lester. He always seemed before that he was a bit of a weak character, but now they are shown that he has a brain and, in dire circumstances, he uses it and uses it well.

This theme continues throughout the series but, as he starts to put himself further and further away from the police, he starts to alienate the viewer. You try to root for him because, at one point, he was a nice guy and you can see that come through later in some scenes. He’s still the slightly pitiful character but he eventually makes a few too many bad decisions and crosses a few too many people and you realise that, actually, he is no better than the hitman who kicked this whole thing off for him. Everyone has a different point where this happens but it will happen eventually, even if it’s in episode 10. The most amazing thing that the writers did with Lester was change him slowly. At the end of the series Lester still has the light of his original, episode 1 nice-self shine through but he has become so cracked over the series that you have to really look hard to see his former self and not just a broken window content to shatter evermore.

I’m not sure that’s a very good metaphor but, hey, I’ll role with it.

But now we move onto the hitman. He doesn’t change so much throughout the series but his character is naturally mysterious and revealing more about him is a fantastic way to make him look like he has a character progression like Lester. He brings the dark humour out of the series because, if he was written differently, the series would lose its serious tone and lack a lot of mystery and tension it builds up so well. He likes riddles, he likes to mess around with people and he likes to change his character in an instant to another role in order to intimidate someone or just to make them regret ever talking to him. One of the best lines of the series was when he is pulled over by a policeman and he is trying to intimidate him saying “Some roads you shouldn’t go down because maps used to say there’d be dragons there. Now they don’t but that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.” It conveys his character so perfectly and I found myself eagerly anticipating when he’d finally be on screen each episode because his performance conveyed so much and you never knew how his character would be acting that day.

This has dragged on somewhat so I may comeback to this or I may not. The moral of the story is to watch Fargo.


One comment

  1. popdepravity · September 30, 2015

    I’m definitely taking your advice and not binge watching. I haven’t seen the first season, but the new season looks so incredible I’m going to have to go back and watch the first one.


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