There’s a moment early in the new season premiere of the FX crime drama Fargo when a parole officer recalls how he met his fiancée, a slick hustler named Nikki Swango (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead). As the episode flashes back to Nikki at a police station, getting booked and photographed, fans of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen might experience some deja vu. The situation, the way it’s shot, and even the way the crook gets yanked around by the authorities – it’s all right out of the Coens’ 1987 comedy Raising Arizona. (And that’s not even counting Ewan McGregor asking “Are you gonna do what’s right, or are you gonna do what’s right?!?” – which sounds a whole lot like this line.
Sure, Fargo‘s based on the classic movie of the same name. But throughout its first two seasons – and at the start of Round Three – the show’s creator Noah Hawley has sprinkled in references to nearly all of the Coen brothers’ work. The list below is far from comprehensive, but it should give a sense of just how deep the showrunner’s fandom runs.
Some of these nods are obvious, while others are more obscure. Some are specific, while others fall into more general categories. All together, they illustrate how what started as an adaptation of one motion picture became Hawley’s interpretation of the entire Coen-verse.
The TV series has never attempted to adapt the plot of the movie, nor does it strictly function as a sequel or a prequel; each season presents a story with characters who exist in the same reality as the film. To this point, the show’s clearest connection to Fargo‘s fictional universe has been a scene in the fourth episode of Season One, when Minnesota “Supermarket King” Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) remembers how his business was saved by a miracle. Specifically, it was the moment that he found a suitcase full of cash in the middle of nowhere, buried under snow and marked with an ice-scraper. This is the same satchel full of ransom money that cranky kidnapper Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) hid at the end of the motion picture – effectively planting the seeds for an entirely new screenplay, in another medium.
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The Flying Saucer
Periodically throughout Season Two, characters get distracted by the sudden appearance of a beeping, flashing spacecraft hovering in the sky. The image is in keeping with the story’s late 1970s setting, reflecting a time when Close Encounters of the Third Kind had turned the culture UFO-crazy. But it’s also a wink at one of the Coens’ weirdest movies: the existential noir The Man Who Wasn’t There, where a 1950s-style flying saucer has its own wild, inexplicable cameo.
The Unstoppable Killer
Next to Fargo itself, the Coen brothers picture that Hawley borrows from the most is their Oscar-winning 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. The show’s particularly drawn to the character of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a remorseless hitman who rages through the film like a supernatural force of destruction. In the first season, Billy Bob Thornton played the similarly malevolent, emotionless (and hairstyle-challenged) monster Lorne Malvo, while in Season Two, Zahn McClarnon’s henchman Hanzee Dent fills that role. So far, no super-killer has emerged in year three. But it’s only a matter of time, given that this particular archetype is a Coens favorite – see Randall “Tex” Cobb’s “Lone Biker of the Apocalypse” from Raising Arizona and John Goodman’s Karl “Madman” Mundt from Barton Fink.
The Cabin Near the Lake
The first season has been the most directly connected to the events and arc of the film. Fargo‘s second round, however, did swipe one big chunk of the movie’s plot, by masking a kidnapping victim in a burlap sack and tying him to a chair in a remote cabin with a malfunctioning old television set. The show even uses similar language to describe the mindset of the kidnappers, as an innocent bystander who encounters them says they’re restless and bored … or, “Going crazy out there at the lake.”
The White Russian
Coen brothers devotees weren’t entirely sure what to expect from the TV series when it started, but one of the earliest indications that it’d at least be filled with fan-friendly Easter eggs came in the very first episode, when Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard walked into a restaurant advertising a special on White Russians – the drink of choice for The Big Lebowski’s “Dude.” (Lester didn’t order one though, so we’ll never know how well this small town dive can mix “a Caucasian.”)
Hotels and motels are such standard-issue settings for big- and small-screen action, so it’d be a stretch to call any scene that takes place at one an unmistakable homage. That said, there’s a slow tracking shot down a sad hotel hallway in Fargo‘s second season that looks exactly like a similar image from Barton Fink; and Season Two’s bloody motel shootout resembles the carnage that Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell rolls up on late in No Country for Old Men.
The Exhausted Mentor
Returning again to No Country – the movie’s Sheriff Bell is something a wizened codger, dispensing knowledge to younger cops (while also getting some advice for himself from a retired buddy played by Barry Corbin). That’s also pretty much the position that Keith Carradine’s Lou Solverson holds in Fargo‘s first season, as well as Ted Danson’s Hank Larsson in Season Two. They’re the seen-it-all lawmen who try to help the next generation, even as they’re quietly heartbroken about the dark turns the world has taken in their twilight years.
Is there a better way to dispose of a body than to cram it into an industrial dismembering machine? In the movie Fargo, the bad guys use a wood-chipper. On the show, Jesse Plemons’ Ed Blumqist prefers his butcher shop’s meat-grinder. The effect is the same: a grim, gory method of destroying evidence.
The Digressive Tales
Season Three opens with a strange scene in East Germany that, as of yet, has zero connection to the rest of the story. That may change by the time this latest batch of episodes is done; but even if not, there’s precedent in the Coen brothers filmography for a prologue that functions more like an overture. After all, that’s the way A Serious Man starts, with an old European folktale. There are digressions aplenty in the Coens’ pictures too, including the Serious shaggy dog “story of the Goy’s teeth” – which Hawley nods to in Season One by having a character pass along a long, fairly pointless parable about a rich man who gave away all his possessions. In similar vein, Cristin Milioti’s Betsy Solverson in season two slips into a dream of the future that’s a lot like H.I. McDunnough’s reverie in Raising Arizona.
Since almost no one outside of No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh has ever casually used the term “friendo,” it stands out whenever it happens in Fargo. Stephen Root’s Burt Canton drops the word in Season One; Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan says it in year two. It’s only a matter of time before someone slips the colloquialism into the new season. Place your bets now on whether it’ll be Jim Gaffigan’s character (who has yet to be introduced).
The Nervous Gas Station Attendant
In one of the most memorable No Country scenes, the movie’s resident cattle-gun-toting killer torments the proprietor of a rural convenience store, asking him to call on a coin toss to determine if he lives or dies. Scoot McNairy’s Maurice LeFay doesn’t kill the gas station attendant he encounters in the first episode of Fargo‘s third season, but he does give the poor fellow an awfully hard time. Hanzee Dent is even more threatening to the clerk at the station near the lake in season two, but at least that anxious old man gets his revenge, by calling in the authorities.
The Cash-Strapped Instigator and the Crime Gone Wrong
There are many elements that tie the movie and TV Fargos together, but none moreso than the kind of character who always seems to set the plots in motion. On the big screen, it’s William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, a desperately broke car salesman who thinks he can get the money he needs by hiring someone to kidnap his wife. The details are slightly different, but in the show’s first season, Lester Nygaard is essentially Jerry Redux: another businessman who gets pulled into the underworld after a act of violence involving his spouse.
In Season Two, Ed Blumqist makes some terrible choices to support his ambitious wife Peggy (Kirsten Dunst), and this year Ewan McGregor plays Emmit and Ray Stussy, a pair of brothers from very different social classes, who both get into deep trouble because they’re low on dough. In each case, the criminal scheme goes horribly awry – which is actually a common Coen brothers theme, dating back to their earliest films, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona.
Aside from lifting motifs from Carter Burwell’s film scores, the show’s first season more or less steered clear of copying the Coen brothers’ actual music cues. But in the second year, the show loaded up on leftovers, serving up covers of “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Oh Death” from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” from The Big Lebowski and Jose Feliciano’s “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight” from the movie version of Fargo.
The Woodland Plea
The series hasn’t really tapped Miller’s Crossing as a source that much, apart from the occasional worm’s-eye-view shot of tall, swaying trees. But Season Two does include one blatant reference, when Rachel Keller’s Simone Gerhardt begs for her life in the forest, just like John Turturro’s Bernie Bernbaum does in the movie. Unlike the film, she ends up getting shot, after which the soundtrack plays “Danny Boy,” a song prominently featured in … you guessed it, Miller’s Crossing.
The Dirty Notepad
In the first episode of Season Three, Ray slips Maurice an address, written on a piece of paper that has “Things To Do Today” printed at the top over an illustration of two cartoon people having sex. Intentionally or not, that recalls one of the funniest moments in The Big Lebowski, when the Dude tries to play detective by rubbing a pencil over one of the notepads on Jackie Treehorn’s desk, only to reveal a doodle of an enormous penis.
Fargo‘s television universe contains a Mike Zoss Drugs, which is the name of the same real-life chain that Chigurh raids to fix up his gunshot wound in No Country – and is also the inspiration for the Coen brothers’ company, Mike Zoss Productions. There are several common Coenverse names strewn throughout the TV series, including No Country‘s Carson Wells and O Brother, Where Art Thou?‘s Everett McGill, who show up on the labels of Malvo’s cassette tapes. Take note also of Season One’s Deputy Knudsen (similar to Bunny Knudsen in The Big Lebowski), Uli’s Sporting Goods (from Lebowski’s Uli Kunkel) Riedenschneider Cleaning Service (named for The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s Freddy Riedenschneider), and the McDunnough & Snoats accounting firm (as in H.I. McDunnough and the Snoats brothers, in Raising Arizona).
The Parking Lots
“Consider the parking lot!” is a useless bit of advice delivered by the junior rabbi in A Serious Man, but it’s something fans of all the different version of Fargo should probably do. The film has multiple key scenes set in and around a parking garage, which the show’s first season nods to by having Stavros Milos haggle over a fee with the lot’s attendant, just as Carl Showalter does in the movie. The facility where that argument happens is “Gustafson Parking Garage,” which is a sly reference to the name of Jerry Lundegaard’s father-in-law. And in the new season, Emmit Stussy is Minnesota’s “Parking Lot King” – which raises the question of whether his backstory will involve usurping the Gustafson empire.
The Dopey Personal Trainer
Glen Howerton’s Don Chumph appears in Season One about as much as Brad Pitt’s Chad Feldheimer does in Burn After Reading; but in both cases, these stylishly coiffed, super-buff gym rats are around long enough to make a total botch of things, by charging into situations far more dangerous and complex than they’d imagined. They’ve got looks and charm; criminal savvy, not so much.
Here are the members of the Coen brothers repertory company who’ve appeared on Fargo: The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s Billy Bob Thornton, O Brother, Where Art Thou?‘s Stephen Root, The Hudsucker Proxy‘s Bruce Campbell, The Big Lebowski‘s David Thewlis, and A Serious Man‘s Michael Stuhlbarg. Hail, Caesar!‘s Fred Melamed (who was also Stuhlbarg’s A Serious Man co-star) is waiting in the wings for later this season.
The Good Cop
Like the Coens’ films, Hawley’s Fargo is sometimes criticized for being cartoonish and emotionally distant. But it’s actually one of the rare modern prestige TV dramas that puts its faith in unambiguous heroes over morally relativistic anti-heroes. That’s why, no matter how many variations the series works on the movie, the one constant is always the upbeat, diligent, easily underestimated but surprisingly capable police officer.
The movie’s iconic Marge Gunderson, of course, set the standard. For the TV show, in year-by-year order, you’ve got Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson; Patrick Wilson’s Lou Solverson (as a younger version of the character Keith Carradine plays in Season One); and Carrie Coon’s Gloria Burgle. When the first run of Fargo ends with Molly snuggled up with her man, watching television, that’s both a direct visual quote of the movie’s ending and an affirmation of what this show’s really saying. The stories Hawley tells aren’t just about the untamed evil running rampant through the world. They’re also about the good people working to stop it, one clean collar at a time.