What Is It About Fargo?

This past week, the third season wrapped up in FX’s Fargo. Just like the first […]

Ethan Richardson / 6.27.17

This past week, the third season wrapped up in FX’s Fargo. Just like the first two seasons, I remain blown away that show creator Noah Hawley and company have continued to create new narrative worlds that fit so perfectly into the landscape of the Coen brothers’ original film. What I’m writing here below is not just for those who have seen this season—the final episode of this season just got me thinking about what it is exactly that makes the show’s (and the original film’s) storytelling so compelling, beyond the impressive cinematography and soundtrack and Minnesotan accents and Peter and the Wolf tomfoolery.

For those who haven’t seen any of the TV seasons, they’re all standalone: new actors, new characters, new plotlines, new villains, everything. But at the same time, everything is strangely the same—just like most of the Coens’ films are—in keeping with some understanding of the universe and of people. That shouldn’t be surprising. The Coen brothers like making films that are all, whether zany or brooding or just plain fun, deeply rooted in a philosophy. And the TV show has tapped into that philosophy convincingly. What is it all about?

Life Is Absurd

With each of the seasons, we are brought into the lives of humble, marginal characters living a basically ordinary life. Then, in a flash, these characters are thrown into a living hell. Nice, quaint Midwesterners, local folk, grocers or hair dressers or travel agents, are pulled into a destiny they never expected would be theirs. Usually, it begins with “good intentions”—to make more money, to finally chase after a dream, to finally stand up for themselves—and, usually, it ends in a bloodbath. Woodchippers, bus accidents, shootouts in diners, mouths superglued shut. In the same way that Tarantino has always done, with Fargo, comedy and gore are not mutually exclusive.

This is because, in the framework of the Fargo world, life doesn’t make sense. Life may be journey, okay, fine, but the road signs are in hieroglyphics, and you are lost. You may head down the road, with a good sense that where you’re heading is the promised land. You may be enjoying a late-night scoop of ice cream, just like always. Next thing you know, if your name is Ennis Stussy, you’re sitting in front of an open freezer with your nose and mouth glued shut, dead. Or if you’re Maurice LeFay, an air conditioner just turned your head into a canoe. Of if you’re Sy Feltz, what was a career built on (mostly) honesty and integrity, is washed down one day with a brain-paralyzing poison in your English Breakfast tea.

It’s graphic, it’s violent, and it’s merciless. But like any good absurdist, it’s also funny. Fargo exaggerates and caricatures a truth we all know too well—that control and meaning, much as we seek them, are never treasures we fully possess. With Fargo (as with other Coen projects), you are woven into a complex web of misdirection and misunderstanding, buried in layer upon layer of complication. You can see what’s happening, but you’re left aghast at the meaninglessness of it all. Like the “useless machine” which gets a big cameo in the L.A. episode of this season, we’re given a glimpse of the great existential quandary: Is “truth” a thing? Do my actions matter? Does what I “know,” in the end, solve anything?


Evil Is Real

Despite the fact that TV Fargo is an anthology series, the main “hero” or “heroine” is always a cop. She is stacked up against all the odds, all the meaninglessness just above discussed, and the only thing shoring her up against all that meaninglessness is her quaint, simple-minded deference to the law. The cop is usually mythically old-fashioned in some way: they don’t get on Facebook, or aren’t interested in power-brokering in the office, or helps dad in the diner—they have a small-town air about them. This season’s cop, Gloria Burgle (played by the amazing Carrie Coon), goes to L.A. and is treated like a three-legged ostrich.

This trope, the lovably simple “good cop,” is almost there as a familiar if futile backdrop to the real main character, evil. Whether Malvo or Varga, the villain in Fargo seems to be a personification of the idea of evil. Like Javier Bardem’s Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, they are a-personal. Their character structure is built on what is missing in them.

In this season’s rendering, V.M. Varga is almost like a ghost. He lives in a eighteen-wheeler, his first name is never known; he appears in the office of Stussy Lots as if in a dream. He eats and then vomits, he steals and then disappears, his wealth is apparent in nothing he wears. He slowly wreaks havoc on Emmit Stussy’s home, to the point that no one in his family is left, but he and Emmit live there together. Like Augustine’s understanding of privation, he is an invisible force with nothing to track, no home to trace things back to. In the final episode of this season, Sheriff Burgle asks Varga where he lives, and he says, “Everywhere. Nowhere.”

The conceptualization of a villain is powerful for Fargo’s M.O. because everyone seems to be operating in an oscillating relationship between him and goodness. Besides Varga and Burgle, everyone else is stuck somewhere in the middle, not good, not evil, both. And the trouble that causes the impending bloodbath has something to do with the evil’s presence there. I suppose that’s why so many Coen projects end with the devil getting away in the end. The world continues on.

Myths are Real

Which is where “stories” come into play. Every episode of Fargo begins with the words, the playfully confusing disclaimer that the Coens started in 1996: “This is a True Story.” (None of the stories actually are based on true stories.) The letters disappear until you are left, usually, with “True” or “Story.” Story is a big deal in the Fargo universe, and not just in the crime “stories” that either acquit you or convict you. There is, at the heart of the show, a deep belief in the power of stories to shape how we see the world—and that there are true stories that may not have happened factually, but are true to the heart of reality.

The Bible plays a big role, too: the central instigator of this season’s conflict is the Cain-and-Abel relationship between Emmit and Ray Stussy, the gift of a dying father, and the longed-for favoritism that created the rift between them, long ago. Whether the favoritism was real or imagined isn’t what matters—it’s the story. Just like how Sheriff Burgle’s divorce has caused her to feel invisible, she thinks the soap dispenser and hand dryer and automatic doors don’t recognize her presence. As it was written in the A/V Club this past week:

I’m impressed at how well this season makes its case, how it ultimately comes down to the way humans need patterns and story to forge reason from chaos, and how the stories we choose are as much (or more) about who we are as they are about reality.

Noah Hawley, though, seems honed in on the power of this particular story—the Fargo story—as a redolent of a story as old as the Bible; a story about good facing evil, about good’s seeming powerlessness before the forces it’s up against. His characters are downright biblical, both good and bad, being chased by their pasts, trying to remain standing after each cruel twist of fate. And Hawley wants us to see that these stories, these “true” stories, are just as true in the lives his viewers are living right now.


Faith Is Absurd

Hawley, Coens, and company leave it up to you to decide which story you believe. Throughout each season, we are left in the double-bind of rooting for the good guy—yet knowing that the good guy is fighting a losing battle. We wonder, longing for them to win, if justice will have its say on the matter. Much of the time, as I wrote above, it doesn’t. Life is unfair.

But the existence of Burgles and Solversons in the narrative seem to justify the showrunners belief in them—even though they’re always, ultimately, unsuccessful. No matter how relativistic or nihilistic you want to get, the story seems to say, there is something undeniable about goodness. Even if goodness is the losing story. As our villain V.M. Varga says towards the end of the penultimate episode, after picking up Emmit from the police station, “The problem is not that there is evil in the world. The problem is that there is good. Because otherwise, who would care?”

Nonetheless, faith in goodness—a good God (played by Ray Wise?) or a good mother (again, Carrie Coon)—is absurd. As absurd as the rest of life is. That’s what I think Fargo is getting at.

And you are left to decide for yourself. In the final scene (SPOILER ALERT) of season three, Burgle and Varga finally meet face-to-face in a Homeland Security interview room. Burgle gives him the nice-but-not-naïve Minnesotan cop talk—mentions going to have dinner with her son. Varga is evasive, but coolly so. He doesn’t remember her until she mentions Emmit Stussy. But then they get to their stories about what will happen next. While Varga explains that, “In five minutes, that door is going to open, and a man you can’t argue with will tell me I’m free to go, and I will stand from this chair and disappear into this world so help me God.” Gloria Burgle, though, just as devoutly, asserts the opposite, that he will be eating mashed potatoes from a box in Rikers. The camera pans away from the table, to the door, the waiting door. One of them is right. Someone will come, but who will it be? Will truth, justice, goodness, win out? What do you believe?

It ends there. It is the climax we have been waiting for. And it is the conclusion—the same hoped-for conclusion, of good guys getting the bad guys, of some cosmic justice—that we’ve been waiting to see arrive. But it’s held in suspense. It’s for you to decide. Fargo wants you to see which story you really believe.