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The Worst Ways to Die in ‘Fargo’

A show about the unavoidable fact of life, ‘Fargo’ has been killing off its characters in darkly creative ways for three seasons now

(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Though Noah Hawley’s Fargo is an anthology series, one common theme runs through the whole thing: the sweeping, twisted, unavoidable cruelty of fate. The show, which kicked off its third season Wednesday night, is resolute in its belief of cause and effect — that one event sets off a chain of occurrences leading to a result that became inevitable the second the inciting action took place. It’s a philosophy adapted from the Coen brothers, who made the original Fargo and have specialized in dread-filled stories like it since the ’80s. Fargo is like a more artful Final Destination, a fact that was emphasized once more when an air-conditioning unit fell on the head of Scoot McNairy’s character at the end of the Season 3 premiere.

Literally speaking, the AC unit’s screws were loosened from a fourth-story window by Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and it was kicked out by Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor), but it really began its descent right after Ray decided to steal the rare, expensive stamp his brother, Emmit, inherited from their father. That decision led to the hiring of small-time crook Maurice LeFay (McNairy), a terrible case of mistaken identity by the character, a subsequent standoff between LeFay and Stussy, and finally, the resolution: the 50-pound home appliance hurtling toward and eventually onto the unsuspecting frame of LeFay. Fargo’s depiction of death is so winding and unapologetically gruesome, it’s almost humorous.

But a man getting crushed by a falling air-conditioning unit (and fate) may not even be the worst way someone has died in Fargo. Since 2014, this show has been providing viewers with some of the most creative, confounding, darkly humorous deaths on TV. So where does the AC incident land on the spectrum? We’re glad you asked.

7. Buried Alive in a Pit of Asphalt

(FX)
(FX)

Who: Skip Sprang

When: Season 2, Episode 3

Why: Skip Sprang is the owner of a small typewriter shop in Fargo, North Dakota, who gets involved with Rye Gerhardt, the youngest son of a local crime family. When Rye goes missing, older brother Dodd and his associate Hanzee confront Skip at a dig site for information he does not have. Unsure whether Skip is lying or woefully uninformed, Hanzee instructs Skip to lie in a hole; soon after Dodd orders a dump truck to cover the hole — and Skip — with hot asphalt.

How Bad Was It? Immediately upon meeting Skip Sprang, you understand that he is a character in way over his head, so much so that his death feels like a mortal lock. While he’s killed by a pair of sociopaths who most likely would have gone through with it regardless of what Skip said regarding Rye’s whereabouts, it’s his reckless decision to engage in business with a crime family, particularly its most incapable member, that buries him. As for the method, it could be worse. Fresh asphalt checks in at about 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

6. Crushed by an Air-Conditioning Unit

(FX)
(FX)

Who: Maurice LeFay

When: Season 3, Episode 1

Why: We’ve been over this, but to fill in a few blanks: Ray Stussy sends Maurice to Emmit Stussy’s residence in Eden Prairie, but Maurice, having lost the directions, goes to Ennis Stussy’s residence in Eden Valley, where he proceeds to rob and kill the elderly man. After the dustup that occurs once Ray finds out about these mistakes, Maurice pulls out a gun and demands $5,000. Then he goes outside and has a smoke … under a window with an AC unit in it.

How Bad Was It? While the twisted karma that contributes to Maurice’s death is mind-boggling — there are so many ways things could have gone differently for him — the actual death isn’t too bad. That AC unit was about 500 pounds of force (and instant death) landing directly on his head.

5. Blunt-Force Trauma With a Hammer

(FX)
(FX)

Who: Pearl Nygaard

When: Season 1, Episode 1

Why: Well, because she was married to Lester Nygaard, an awful man with a severe inferiority complex who had just met Lorne Malvo, another awful man who unlocked Lester’s murderous instincts.

How Bad Was It? Pearl’s death is dismal and grisly. Still, her murder doesn’t carry the sort of deranged fatalism that defines many of Fargo’s worse deaths.

4. Bound and Dropped Into a Freezing Lake

(FX)
(FX)

Who: Lenny Potts

When: Season 1, Episode 2

Why: Potts’s death is a simple case of mistaken identity. Fargo henchmen Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench are tasked with a hit on Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), after Malvo kills Sam Hess, a man with business ties to the Fargo mob. Numbers and Wrench come upon Potts at the club where Hess was killed, and, noting that Potts possesses Malvo’s two defining features — a goatee and a head wound — they kidnap him. Before dunking Potts into an ice-cold lake, Numbers and Wrench are told they got the wrong guy, but they go through with it anyway.

How Bad Was It? You gotta feel bad for Lenny Potts, even though he was a pretty schmuck-y guy who frequented dingy strip clubs and carried a knife. He got murdered because he sort of looked like Billy Bob Thornton — that’s a tough break. And to be wrapped up, handcuffed, and dropped into a freezing lake? That’s torturous. Lester Nygaard, the main character of Fargo’s first season, also fell into a freezing lake, but he doesn’t make this list because he ran out onto a strip of ice of his own volition while fleeing the police. Also, he was a murderer.

3. Freezing to Death

(FX)
(FX)

Who: Phil McCormick

When: Season 1, Episode 1

Why: Phil McCormick is better known as “that guy who escaped from Lorne Malvo’s trunk at the beginning of Fargo.” But let’s rewind: Malvo came for McCormick because he owed someone money. Malvo dragged McCormick out of his St. Paul, Minnesota, office building and made him strip down to his boxers and get into the trunk of a car. All is going according to plan — and McCormick’s chances of survival were perhaps decent — until a deer runs out in front of Malvo’s car. The accident leads to McCormick making a run for it — straight into the empty, freezing cold tundra of rural Minnesota.

How Bad Was It? I mean, look at him up there. That’s gotta be a bottom-five dying pose. And while he certainly wasn’t pure of heart — the guy owed a shady character a shady amount of money — his death was directly influenced by the random whims of a deer. Maybe if that deer doesn’t crash into Malvo’s car, Malvo merely hazes McCormick until he agrees to pay up. Or maybe Malvo dumps him into a lake like he’s Lenny Potts. The fact that his chance for survival plummeted to zero because of a deer is pretty gut-wrenching.

2. Police Raid

(FX)
(FX)

Who: Don Chumph

When: Season 1, Episode 6

Why: Don’s first mistake is trying to blackmail Stavros Milos. That leads to Milos hiring Lorne Malvo, who quickly traces the blackmail note to Don. Using that leverage, Malvo recruits Don to be his de facto assistant/patsy in a long con against Milos. Their relationship, which for its entirety Don interprets as a partnership, takes a hard left when Malvo deploys Don as a distraction for police. Malvo duct-tapes him to a workout machine, puts an unloaded shotgun in his hands, and starts firing a rifle out of the front window of Don’s house. After a standoff, the police barge into the home and toss in a couple of smoke bombs for good measure. Seeing only a silhouette of a man pointing a shotgun through the smoke, they open fire on Don.

How Bad Was It? The dread is what makes this death so bad and so hard to watch — in part because it doesn’t carry any humor. The scene is not darkly funny, it’s just dark.

1. Car Accident … Caused by a Rainstorm of Fish

(FX)
(FX)

Who: Wally Semenchko and Dmitri Milos

When: Season 1, Episode 6

Why: I don’t know, man, you tell me why fish started falling from the sky.

How Bad Was It? This whole sequence has a biblical feel, but much like Season 2’s recurring UFO sightings, the phenomenon goes unexplained. “The fish symbolize what they symbolize,” showrunner Hawley told Yahoo after this episode aired. For me, these deaths get right at the heart of Fargo’s message concerning fate and our lack of control over our lives. The fish storm occurs just as a life-threatening blizzard dissipates. Just as Wally and Dmitri are sharing a moment of relief, the first fish smacks into their windshield. While there may not be a logical explanation for any of this (although maybe there is?), Fargo is using it as a reminder that death can come at any time, under any circumstances, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Getting crushed by an AC unit is nothing compared with that.