Fargo TV Series a Hit: “You Betcha!”

Fargo TV Series

By Paul Levine

The ten-episode Fargo TV Series, based loosely on the Coen Brothers darkly comedic feature film, went out with a bang — several bangs — and fans can finally let out a deep breath.

HUGE SPOILER ALERT: Hit man Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is dead.

PAT MYSELF ON THE BACK ALERT:  Several episodes ago, I told my wife Marcia that meek cop-turned-mailman Gus Grimly, not protagonist Deputy Molly Solverson, would kill Malvo. Dramatically, it  had to happen that way. More on why below.

Meanwhile, a lawyer friend asked last night. “Okay, what’s it all mean?”

Well, where to begin? The Fargo TV series was many things. On the surface it’s a serial killer story with the usual question: Will justice be done? But that’s the issue in virtually every cop show in the history of television.

Fargo TV Series: Malvo
Fargo TV Series: Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) was one icy killer.

Just as “True Detective” (another many-layered serial killer story) was deeply rooted in the psychological traumas of the two main characters, much was going on beneath the surface in the Fargo TV series:

* It’s a father-daughter story. Two stories, really. Lou (Keith Carradine), the retired and wounded cop, fears for his daughter Molly, (Allison Tolman), the deputy-who-should-be-chief. And widower Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) fears that if he’s killed, his daughter will be an orphan.

* It’s a story of two sociopaths, though one doesn’t know it in the beginning.

* It’s a story of two cowards, but one really isn’t.

* It’s a story of redemption for the coward who was really a hero.

* But most of all, it’s a story about a very smart female cop whose talents are ignored by her donut-chomping male superiors until the very end, where she prevails, just as the former chief had foreshadowed.

Fargo TV Series, Molly
Deputy Molly Solverson is frustrated by the incompetence of the chief in the Fargo TV Series

Fargo TV Series: In the Beginning, a Shocker!

Let’s go back to the beginning. All is well with the world in little Bemidji, MN. Vern, the nice guy police chief, recognizes Molly’s superior intelligence and dedication and expresses the hope that she’ll be the next chief. Then, BOOM! Hit man Malvo kills Vern in a scene of shocking violence.

That shooting came hard-on-the-heels of Malvo killing the town bully in a whorehouse, and meek insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (the incomparable Martin Freeman) splattering his wife’s brains with hammer.  A true coward, Lester has learned from Malvo that having no conscience can get things done. You can kill your nagging wife, frame your irritating brother, lie to the widow of the town bully and have sex with her, then finally set up your second wife to take a bullet intended for you. All with hardly a second thought. It was Malvo who brought out Lester’s sociopathic tendencies, though I suppose there was always an underlying narcissism.

Fargo TV Series: Gus Grimley’s “Desires” and “Needs”

Midway through the season, we discover we have a co-protagonist. It’s widower-cop Gus Grimly, who takes a shine to Molly, marries her, and gets her pregnant. But there’s a “ghost” looming over him, to use the screenwriting term. Early on, he freezes up and lets the murderous Malvo go, after stopping him for speeding. But if you recall, it was Gus’s fear of leaving his daughter an orphan — not cowardice — that prompted Gus’s action…or inaction. Still, that left Gus despondent, and after a second screw-up, accidentally shooting Molly in a white-out blizzard, he’s canned from the force. Now he can pursue his real dream…becoming a mailman. No, really.

Fargo TV series
Killer Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and reluctant deputy Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) in the Fargo TV series.

Gus might not be cut out to be a cop, but neither is he a coward. In the finale, he sneaks into Malvo’s hidden cottage to await his return. Logically, Gus should have called the cops, right? Wrong! As wife Marcia pointed out while we were watching the show, Gus knew that his wife, the pregnant Deputy Molly, would rush to the scene, directly into harm’s way.  Gus was protecting her with his seemingly illogical action.

Another reason, too. Let’s go back to film school (a place I’ve never been). In screenwriting, they talk about a character’s “desires” versus a character’s “needs.” On the surface, Gus desires a peaceful life. A family. A pleasant drive through the countryside delivering the mail. But his “need” is interior, perhaps even unconscious. He needs to prove to himself that he is not a coward. He needs to protect his wife and daughter. (In this regard, he is just like Molly’s father Lou, who sits on the porch all night with a shotgun to protect Gus’s daughter from harm). In short, Gus needs redemption. That’s why it was clear to me, early on, that Gus will kill Malvo. And boy, was it satisfying! Seldom is a shooting in cold blood so damn well earned.

Fargo TV series lester
Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) takes his lumps en route to becoming a killer on the Fargo TV series

Hey, speaking about redemption, let’s say a word about the knucklehead police chief Bill (Bob Odenkirk), who, as another observer pointed out, is “not the sharpest blade in the woodchipper.” He gains redemption by recognizing his weaknesses and Molly’s strengths and retiring so she can become chief. In an unusually introspective moment, he admits to not being up to the job in an era of cruelty and inhumanity:

“I used to have positive opinions about people. Used to think the best. Now looking over my shoulder — an unquiet mind — that’s what the wife calls it. The job has got me staring into the fireplace, drinking. I never wanted to be the type thinking about the nature of things. All I ever wanted was a stack of pancakes and a V-8.”

I think that was intended to pay homage to the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” where Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones  bemoans the passing of simpler times. Here’s a truncated version of that monologue:

“I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe. My grandfather was a lawman; father too. Me and him was sheriffs at the same time; him up in Plano and me out here…Some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lotta folks find that hard to believe…The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.”

Sharp observers might remember a couple weeks back, Malvo told the story about the bear who chewed his leg off to get out of a trap, then died in a stream, but on his own terms. Then Malvo gets his leg broken in Lester’s bear trap…leading to his own death at Gus’s hands. No biggie. Just the screenwriter showing off a bit.

Finally, there is the wonderful ending of the Fargo TV series. On a comfy sofa, preganant Molly, Gus and Gus’s daughter Greta are watching television. Gus is a tad embarrassed that he’s getting a citation for bravery for taking down Malvo. Says he thinks Molly should get it. “Nope,” she says, “that’s your deal. I get to be the chief.”

(Paul Levine is the author of the “Jake Lassiter” and the “Solomon vs. Lord” series of legal thrillers).

Author Interviews: The Harvard Square Grills Crime Novelist

Author Interviews: Author at work

(Author Interviews Note by Paul Levine: The closest I ever got to Harvard was in 1973 when its law school offered me admission to its LL.M. program. I was just about to graduate from the University of Miami Law School and thought I wanted to be a professor. Oh, that was a long time ago! Anyway, I was a new father and needed a paying job, not more tuition, so I reluctantly said “no thanks.” This week I sat down with Mary Yuhas of The Harvard Square who grilled me with questions, both literary and personal. (Hemingway was unavailable). This is adapted from her article, which appeared February 12, 2014).

Author Interviews: Lawyer-Turned-Novelist Paul Levine

The author of 18 novels, Paul Levine won the John D. MacDonald fiction award and was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, and James Thurber prizes. A former trial lawyer, he also wrote more than 20 episodes of the CBS military drama “JAG” and co-created the Supreme Court drama “First Monday” starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. The critically acclaimed international bestseller To Speak for the Dead featuring Jake Lassiter was his first novel. Levine is also the author of the Solomon vs. Lord series and the thrillers Illegal, Ballistic, Impact, and Paydirt. His most recent novel is State vs. Lassiter. He is a graduate of Penn State University and the University of Miami Law School.  More information on his website.

Author Interviews: The Q & A

H.S.: How did you begin your writing career?

Paul: I blame windsurfing. I was on vacation in Maui and got injured windsurfing off the North Shore. It was hard to walk so for two weeks. I had nothing to do but lie on the beach. I had a pen and a yellow legal pad, which was useful because, at the time, I was a lawyer. I was thinking about a case of mine in which an old man’s busty secretary set up the theft of $2 million in negotiable bonds from his home office. In real life, the story was fairly boring. I got the bonds back; no one went to jail, but I saw possibilities for fiction…involving windsurfing.

H.S.: So you started writing in longhand on a legal pad?

Paul: This was a long time ago.  A “laptop” was a dance in a strip club.  Anyway, I scribbled one sentence on the legal pad: “The old man loved money, gadgets, and large-breasted women, and at the moment, he had all three.” It’s the first line of fiction I ever wrote unless you count all the legal briefs I filed over the years. The sentence got me started. It opens chapter one of Riptide, one of the Jake Lassiter series.

Author interviews: Paul
Paul’s image of himself hurrying to court as a young, nasty lawyer

H.S.: Your novels “often have a sly, sardonic tone,” according to Wikipedia.

Paul: They’re one to talk.

H.S.: Seriously, you often write about murder trials, and yet you often bring humor into play.

Paul: As Jake Lassiter points out, there’s a hilarious sign in every courtroom in Miami: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.” Then there’s Steve Solomon who makes up his own rules: “When the law doesn’t work…work the law.” Let’s just say that, having tried cases for 17 years, I have a healthy skepticism about what Lassiter terms the “so-called justice system.”

Author Interviews. Paul as lawyer
As a young trial lawyer, the author tries to look older and wiser. As an older man, he attempts to look younger and hipper.

H.S.: If you were starting out today, would you look for an agent or publish via an e-book?

Paul: I would definitely try the traditional approach of a getting an agent and a legacy publisher. Self-publishing a single work without a backlist is very, very difficult. How many ebooks are out there? Five million? Six million? More? How do you get noticed? The optimum way is the old hardcover/paperback deal. Or trade paperback by a recognized publisher.

The Equation: Writing Equals Rejection Squared

H.S. Did you ever have doubts about your writing ability, especially after harsh criticism or literary agent rejections? How did you handle it and what do you suggest to others?

Paul: I am filled with self-doubt! I am always surprised when a story works, or dialogue zings, or a character becomes real. I wrote two books on spec that never sold to publishers. Yes, that hurt. I also now see the weaknesses in those books. I also wrote many spec features that didn’t sell to Hollywood and wrote TV pilots (both hired by the networks and on spec) that didn’t were never made. There should be an equation. Writing equals Rejection Squared. Advice? Handle it! Persevere. Don’t whine. Put your butt in the chair and write!

H.S.: What’s the biggest mistake first time authors often make?

Paul: Impatience, which causes poor writing. With beginning writers, there’s a tendency to think you’re done when you’ve finished with your first or second draft. Unless you are a genius, which I’m not, you’ve just reached second base. To score a run, you’ve got to rewrite and rewrite. Hemingway said, “all good writing is rewriting.” Take his advice. Rewrite and polish.

Author interviews: Hemingway shoots
When he wasn’t polishing his prose, Hemingway was polishing his aim.

H.S.: Any other tips for first-time-authors?

Paul: Read good authors in a field you enjoy. But DON’T copy their style. There’s nothing worse than a faux Elmore Leonard. Read books about story structure and writing novels. There are really too many to recommend, but Stephen King’s book On Writing comes to mind. And, of course, write!

H.S.: Is it easier or harder to get into writing today than when you started?

Paul: It’s harder to break into traditional publishing than when I started in the 1980s with Bantam because there are fewer major publishers. There has been some growth in smaller, independent presses, which is good, but the flip side is that the amount of the advance is generally less. But then, there is the new world of self-publishing on the internet with Amazon and its competitors. Nothing wrong with that, but there seems to be a myth that self-publishing ebooks is an easy way to riches and fame. That’s not the case.

H.S.: Author Interviews wants to know: how long does it take you to write a book?

Paul: From idea to concept to research to outline to writing and revisions, it takes me nine months to a year for most of the series books. I already have my protagonist and his world in my head. I don’t need to drive to the courthouse to see what a courtroom looks like. For standalones, such as Illegal, it took closer to a year and 1/2 to two years Part of the book is written from the point of view of a young Mexican woman and part from her 12-year-old son’s POV. I was terrified I could not write in the voice of a 30-year-old female illegal alien. In the end, I believe it turned out well.

H.S.: How did you break into writing TV screenwriting?

Paul: I became friends with fellow Penn State grad Don Bellisario, the creator of “Magnum, P.I.,” “Quantum Leap,” and “JAG,” among others. He enjoyed my books, and I enjoyed his shows. When he wrote the two-hour pilot of “JAG,” he shared it with me. I told him I liked it very much, but did television really want a show about Navy lawyers? (What did I know! The show ran 10 years and about 220 episodes). Anyway, in the third season, Don asked if I wanted to write a script as a free-lancer. I’d written a couple of TV pilots that hadn’t gone anywhere, and I thought I understood the voice of the show and could write those characters, so I did it, and the episode aired pretty much the way I wrote it.

Author Interviews.  Paul's credit
The television writer gets immediate gratification (or sorrow). It’s just weeks from script to air.

The next year, I freelanced another script for “JAG,” and the year after that, Don asked me to move to Los Angeles and work full-time on the show. Initially, I didn’t want to do it. But I had just written one of those spec novels that didn’t sell. So I took the job, which frankly paid WAY more money that I expected. And the Writers Guild has a helluva health plan and a pension plan, something book authors don’t get. Of course, occasionally you have to stop working and hit the picket lines.  I’m a big believer in unions, by the way. Without Hollywood unions, there’d be no royalties, pensions, or health plans.

Author Interviews: Strike
The author with fellow scribblers Larry Moskowitz and Randy Anderson bring Disney to its knees during the 2007 strike.

In my second season on the show, I took an idea to Don for a drama set at the Supreme Court, focusing on the interactions between the justices and the law clerks. (It was loosely based on my Supreme Court thriller, Impact.) Don liked it; Les Moonves at CBS liked it; and it became the short-lived “First Monday.” Don and I co-wrote the pilot, which starred James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning and folded after 13 episodes, with some of the oldest demographics in the history of television. Or as I like to say, we were a hit with the crowd between Medicare and the mortuary.

Author Interviews: First Monday
The coveted “Created By” credit. Even more coveted if the show succeeds, which “First Monday” didn’t

H.S.: Any Author Interviews tips for writers interested in script writing?

Paul: Read Robert Towne’s script of “Chinatown.” Read “Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee. And good luck.

H.S.: Any truth to the rumor that you steered a nuclear submarine?

Paul: One of the perks on “JAG” was that the writers got to hang out with the U.S. Navy, without having to be in actual danger. One day, we flew from a naval base to an aircraft carrier. The landing was pretty cool. Another day, we spent on a Los Angeles class attack submarine. And yes, they let me steer it for about 30 seconds. No international incidents occurred as a result.

H.S.: Finally, thank you for sitting down with Author Interviews.  What’s in your future?

Paul: I read a lot of emails from readers. The ones who don’t point out typos are evenly divided between writing a new Lassiter or another in the Solomon vs. Lord series. If anyone out there has an idea, I’m open to it and can always be contacted through my website. And, living in Miami, I am still trying to make the perfect mojito.

More information on the Paul Levine Website.