Some of the most iconic moments in modern cinema history belong to one film and focus on one character. As pregnant Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) tries to solve multiple crimes in Fargo, her plain-speaking way of perfectly summarising any given situation is instantly memorable – whether she’s telling her colleague that she doesn’t agree 100 per cent with his police work or informing a culprit that there’s more to life than a little money.
Actually, everything about the double Oscar-winning film has proven memorable over the past 24 years. The blend of black comedy and crime thrills, told in the offbeat way the Coens have made their own since Raising Arizona, is smartly and savagely entertaining. The movie’s performances, from a cast that also includes Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare and William H. Macy, are all top-notch as well. The accents, and the constant exclamations of “you betcha” and “geez”, echo to their own melody. And then there’s the story – and the now-infamous (but not at all accurate) claim that it’s based on reality.
Given all of the above, it’s no wonder that Fargo has not only earned its place in cinematic history, but also spawned its own TV spinoff – or that, since it first premiered in 2014, the latter has become one of the best shows on television.
After a three-year gap since the series’ third season, Fargo, in its anthology drama version, is finally heading back to the small screen on SBS. If you need a refresher on where things sit before the new Chris Rock-starring season kicks off on Thursday 8 October, here’s everything you need to know.
It all started with a shady ransom scheme
Solving money troubles through crime never works out well. Since the first frame of the 1996 movie, this truth has been baked into the Fargo universe.
Sparking the drama in the Coen brothers’ 1980s-set film is a shady scheme cooked up by car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), who is desperate for cash. His solution: hiring out-of-town crims Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare) to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) in order to extort a ransom out of her father Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell).
After Carl and Gaear have a run-in with a trooper near Brainerd, the whip-smart Marge is on the case – and Jerry, Carl and Gaear’s troubles keep going from bad to worse to the woodchipper. And as for the cash Jerry is so willing to upend his life for, a snowy patch beside a Minnesota highway proves pivotal.
Next: a detour to Japan
Before Fargo leapt from the big screen to the small screen, it lured in a Tokyo woman in 2014’s Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. The film isn’t an official part of the Fargo franchise – in fact, it openly references Fargo’s existence as a movie – but it captures the ongoing fascination this story just keeps evoking.
Here, the eponymous Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is lonely, yearning for an escape from her routine life, and also a keen treasure hunter – so when she comes across a VHS copy of Fargo, she’s instantly convinced that it’s real. Yes, that means she thinks the money Jerry tried to extract from Wade is real and buried by a road, too, and heads to America to find it.
Returning to the upper midwest, 21st-century style
Where Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter gave all things Fargo an intriguing detour, the Fargo TV series actively and officially expands the film’s world. The idea, which is both straightforward and clever, is that tales like Jerry and Marge’s echo throughout the franchise’s chosen patch of the US – including over multiple time periods.
In Fargo’s first television season, that means following three characters: hitman Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) and Duluth police deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). Primarily set in 2006, all three cross paths after a wintry roadside altercation, a couple of murders and Lester’s angry outburst at his abusive wife. In other words, it’s classic Fargo territory, complete with purposeful nods to the movie. And yes, that buried money once again plays a crucial part.
A blast from the past
Returning with an entirely new cast for season 2 – each season stands alone – Fargo next jumps back to the late 1970s and to another attempt to cover up an illicit incident. This time, it’s hairdresser Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) and her butcher husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) who’ve run afoul of the law thanks to a hit-and-run accident. The victim is tied to the Gerhardt crime family, and Minnesota trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) is tasked with investigating.
As the name gives away, Lou is related to season 1’s Molly. He’s her father, and Wilson plays the same character that Keith Carradine brought to the screen the first time around. Indeed, one of the joys of Fargo, the TV series, is how thoughtfully it makes connections when and where necessary, and with an aim of fleshing out its increasingly sprawling narrative rather than simply letting fans spot overt nods and references.
A tale of two brothers
Chiefly set in 2010 and 2011, Fargo’s third season stepped away from the Solverson family, and into the lives of twins Emmit and Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor). The former, in his own words, is the “parking lot king of Minnesota”. The latter is a probation officer, and despite their physical resemblance, their lives have taken different paths ever since Emmit positioned himself to receive a more favourable share of their father’s estate.
The brothers’ squabbling over their inheritance takes several turns through the course of the season, all stemming from a plan by Ray and his fiancée Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Newstead) to steal what Ray believes is rightfully his. Their scheme goes awry, naturally, which is where Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) comes in, with the police chief looking into the series’ latest murder.
Stepping back to the 1950s
While season 2 already jumped back to the 1970s, prior to the events of the film that started it all, Fargo’s fourth season is venturing even further into the past. In the show’s latest self-contained narrative, two crime syndicates – one African American, one from the Italian mafia – tussle for power in Kansas City, Missouri in the 1950s, including one led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock).
As well as Rock seemingly playing against type, the new season also features Jessie Buckley, Jack Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw and Timothy Olyphant, continuing the show’s always star-studded line-up. And, in addition to serving up another twisty part-comedy, part-thriller tale of upper midwest law and order, it’s set against a backdrop of black Americans escaping the Jim Crow laws in the nation’s south.
Fargo is the gift that keeps on giving.
Watch the season 4 trailer here:
An all-new Fargo story will premiere with two weeks of double episodes, beginning 8.30pm Thursday 8 October on SBS. Episodes will continue weekly at 9.30pm from Thursday 22 October. New episodes will be available at SBS On Demand each week on the same day as broadcast. Relive the first three standalone seasons of Fargo now at SBS On Demand.
The horrors of 1950s America become all too real in the new HBO series 'Lovecraft Country', prompting a deep dive into recent HBO dramas 'Perry Mason' and 'Watchmen'; a tribute to Chadwick Boseman in 'Get On Up'; and a look at Netflix health and wellness exposé '(Un)Well' and SBS On Demand's 'Sydney Super Tunnel'.