None of this is necessary, nor timely.
It also contains all the spoilers.
The film of Fargo begins with the opening scrawl:
THIS IS A TRUE STORY.
The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.
At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.
Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
The TV series of Fargo (currently two seasons and twenty episodes), continues the tradition, altering only the year when the events are alleged to have occurred. As has been widely documented, Joel and Ethan Coen were intentionally setting out to deceive audiences by labelling their black Minnesotan tragedy a ‘true’ story.
For Noah Hawley – who wrote and produced both seasons of Fargo, as well as directing an episode and recording a song for another – he found it important to continue this facade, keeping the series in the same reality of the film by masquerading a fiction as fact. In Season 2’s penultimate episode ‘The Castle’, Hawley frames the story through the introduction of an actual book, of which the episode’s contents serve as a small chapter.
‘It was always my idea to open that hour with a book – The Big Book of True Crime in the Midwest. I always had a conceptual idea that there was a big book of true crime and each of these Fargo stories was a chapter…the idea that a show, even in the ninth hour, is trying to tell a story in the most interesting way, and get the audience to ask these questions.’
This is clearly integral to how Hawley saw Fargo as he inherited it, and how the series portrayed itself to its audience. The show is a story, and it is conscious of being a story, but at the same point this story is about ‘True Crime’, even though the truth of these crimes is a lie. The show layers reality upon unreality, until it forces us into a corner: do we accept stories as lies, or as truths hidden in lies?
The ‘true crimes’ of Season 1 of Fargo are the murders committed by real estate agent Lester Nygaard, hitmen Mr Numbers and Mr Wrench, and master villain-at-large Lorne Malvo, set in 2006. Their crimes are countered by the efforts of Deputy Molly Salverson and Officer Gus Grimly, and the entire season operates as almost a meditative exploration of good and evil forces working in small, domestic situations. Lester’s impulsive decision to murder his wife in response to the banality of his Bemidji life invites all-consuming blackness into the snow-covered Minnesotan landcape, which can only be held at bay by the gentle and polite ‘niceness’ of Molly.
This season also doubled back on the story from the Coen’s Fargo, set in 1987 and focused primarily on the bungled abduction and murder of Jerry Lundegaard’s wife, and the pursuit of this crime by police chief Marge Gunderson. The maguffin of this film – a briefcase loaded with $1 million dollars – returns as a key plot point mid-season in the TV series. The silent and talkative kidnappers from the film are replayed as a two hitmen, one hearing impaired and the other his irritable translator.
In addition to these direct lines to the original film, as well as countless references and homages to other Coen Brothers’ films, Hawley commented that
‘It’s fun to put them all in there, and to always be thinking about them…we do a lot of things that hopefully aren’t gimmicky or distracting. I think the great thing about this moment in time is that people who watch your show, they want to spend more than an hour thinking about it. It was a nice way to start a dialogue.’
This intertextual nature of the show added to the delivery of Hawley’s Fargo, whether through superficial details that alluded to the earlier film, or through direct plot connections like the briefcase of money, that suggests one story generates the other.
Fake Real Stories
None of this is new, textually, cinematically, or televisually. And ultimately it only serves as foregrounding for the direction Hawley would take the series in the second season. But it is important to establish the relationship of the series to the film, not just as an intertextual game of spot-the-reference, but as a story that increasingly draws attention to itself as artifice, but artifice that wants to suggest it is ‘a true story’.
Umberto Eco comments on this aspect to stories in The Name of the Rose:
‘Now I realised that…books speak of books; it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this discovery, the library seemed all the more disturbing for me. It was then a place of centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind…’
This is the vision Hawley has for The Big Book of True Crime in the Midwest. Season 2 is set before Season 1, in 1979, which also places the story before the events of the film. It begins with a scene that immediately elevate the aims of Fargo beyond what it has attempted before.
The black-and-white scene of the filming of Massacre at Sioux Falls – a film that never existed – supposedly stars Ronald Reagan near the end of his acting days. That this massacre was referenced as a past event in Season 1 establishes not only direction for the new season, but that this direction is inextricably tied to America’s past. A Native American actor, in full dress, converses with a crew member as they wait for Reagan to arrive, and there is the suggestion of trying to discuss past conflict without the two ever seeming to understand one another. In the background, a ‘dead’ extra sits up and asks for a blanket.
The fictional and the real have become connected here, and Fargo is drawing our attention to the ‘reality’ behind stories. If Season 1 was merely an extrapolated riff on the film, Season 2 attempts to bring to the surface the blurry lines between stories and reality.
This scene, and particularly the moment when the dead extra becomes alive again, is not dissimilar to a key scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Itself a nightmarish rabbit-hole of Hollywood and the terror that comes in a world of illusion and image multiplication, Lynch is just as interested in pointing out the trickery that exists in a story. His characters enter a midnight theatre and are told that everything is an illusion, only to be moved to tears by a singer performing Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’. Their mood is shattered with the collapse of the singer while the music continues – this was all pretend, a mime, a charade. Stories are fake, but they generate real emotion for Lynch.
For Hawley, it’s not necessarily emotion, but the truth that he wants to get at.
Fargo lives in the world of multiplied images – the intertextual references, the timeline that doubles back on itself, the connection to real history through a fake lens – and just as there is real emotion in Mulholland Drive, there is truth in the pretend truth of Fargo. A Nietzschean eternal recurrence, where time and story and reality return and return and return.
A flat circle of time, if you will.
Season 2 is primarily focused on the crimes that lead to the big crime – the massacre at Sioux Falls – and the escalating conflict between the Gerhardt crime family and Kansas City syndicate, as well as the involvement of hairdresser Peggy Blumquist and her butcher husband Ed, and State Trooper Lou Solverson and his father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson.
In contrast to Season 1’s classical treatment of good and evil, Season 2 muddies our view. Good characters become villains. Villainous characters are treated sympathetically. Our hero Lou wins in the end, but fails to understand his antagonist in Peggy, and dismisses her motivations as meaningless, in a move that clouds our satisfaction in his victory.
This ambiguity is everywhere in Season 2, and exemplified by characters who fail to understand one another. The characters of Fargo – from the film to the TV series – love to revel in conversation as a catharsis. Season 1 is structured around the use of several parables, paradoxes and koans – characters understanding the conflict they are in through story. In the finale, Molly tells a parable to Lester, instead of explaining herself to him. The parable remains unexplained in the show’s dialogue, and yet we all understand how it can serve as a key to understand the primary protagonist and antagonist:
‘There was a fella once. Running for a train. And he’s carrying a pair of gloves, this man. And he loses a glove on the platform. But he doesn’t notice. And then later on, he’s on the train sitting by the window, and he realises that he’s just got this one glove left. But the train’s already started pulling out of the station. So what does he do? He opens the window and he drops the other glove on to the platform. Now whoever finds the first glove can just have the pair.’
The characters of Season 2 also have a predilection for parables, but there isn’t the same result. Their conversational tangents are met with confusion, not epiphany. Characters speak with different colloquialisms and different accents. Characters who represent the past are rendered mute and those who stand for the future drift into meaningless allusion, like Mike Milligan’s recitation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’, as he and his goons set their assault on the Gerhardts. And the season’s most noticeable stylistic addition – the use of split screen – renders characters separate even when they occupy the same frame.
And then the two caught in the middle – Peggy and Ed – struggle to be understood by anyone at all, despite their constant search for illumination:
Ed: ‘I can’t stop thinking about that book…It’s like stuck in my head.’
Lou: ‘What? What book?’
Ed: ‘It’s about this guy who, every day, he- he pushes this rock up this hill. Like a boulder. And then every night, it just rolls back down. But he doesn’t stop. You know, he just keeps going. And he wakes up every day and starts pushin’. By which I guess I’m saying it doesn’t matter what they throw at me. I’m gonna take care of what’s mine. And…’
Lou: ‘These boys aren’t gonna rest until you’re dead, son. Possibly Peggy, too.’
Ed: ‘I want a lawyer.’
The Myth of Sisyphus gives another episode its title, but in this episode when Ed invokes the story as some way of grappling with his own life, Hawley brings in a different story as a title entirely to shed light on the characters in Fargo: Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. The transformation of characters in that play into monstrous beings who care not for sympathy or understanding and ultimately obliterate any meaningful dialogue is indicative of the world Hawley wants to portray. Lou doesn’t care for Ed’s search for meaning through story, only that there is an imminent conflict that needs addressing. Ed isn’t offered epiphany, but instead is snapped back to the reality of his story: get a lawyer.
Stories are used to make sense of the real, until the real defies meaning. And then we must return to stories once more to try and make sense of the world again.
The arc of Peggy in Season 2 is the most important for this idea. Introduced as someone who could consciously drive home after committing a hit-and-run, with the victim still stuck through her windshield, her character is the most fascinating addition to the world of Fargo. She is caught in a state of wanting recreation, of wanting change. She constantly refers to ‘a plan’ to get her on the path she craves, one which will give her greater control over where her life is going. She bristles at Ed’s comfort in domesticity, and yearns to escape to a new, ‘fully actualised’ version of herself.
‘I just wanted to be someone.’
Peggy doesn’t like the story she finds herself in, but this leaves her in the situation where she not only isn’t understood by the characters around her, but she invents a new reality to exist in. She converses with non-existent characters and places herself in a recreated version of a day-time movie she saw on TV. Fargo flattens the relationship between the audience and the story, between the real and the imaginary. We are watching a story of a character who seeks solace in a story, and we’re constantly reminded that none of this story is real. And yet, Hawley wants us to recognise ourselves in this, recognise our search for meaning in the meaningless.
The Castle & The Aliens
Peggy’s sad story reaches its apotheosis in the ninth episode of the season. The Castle is an episode that also the pinnacle of the ideas that Hawley has been throwing up during Fargo’s second season, show most overtly through the use of a frame.
The subtext becomes text, when the show breaks with tradition and employs a narrator who reads from The Big Book of True Crime in the Midwest, to tell the story of the massacre at Sioux Falls, a small section of the chapter that is Season 2. That this narrator is played by the actor who portrayed Season 1’s antagonist – Martin Freeman – shows not only another instance of Fargo bending the concept of linear time, but also smacks the audience in the face with its brazen display of conscious artifice yet again.
The massacre occurs, much as the audience anticiapted it, and yet for a minute we are caught in a bind. The hero, Lou, is pinned by Bear Gerhardt, and certain to die. Yet the tension is that we have seen an older Lou in Season 1. We know he survives. The conflict exists not between the characters, but between us and the story. The story needs to make sense to us (just like for Peggy), otherwise all is chaos.
And so, the aliens intervene.
There was much ongoing speculation about the presence of UFOs in Season 2 of Fargo, a strange and jarring addition to the tapestry of the show. Were they just another detail? Would they remain unexplained? Was the show driving at some deeper commentary on post-Watergate conspiracy-saturated America?
In the end, it was about us. The UFO arrives for the first time in the first episode of the season, distracting Rye Gerhardt so that he wanders into the road and into the path of Peggy’s car. This is effectively the beginning of the ‘story’ of Season 2. This moment binds the characters together around a unified narrative. The return of the UFO at the massacre of Sioux Falls is the return of us as the audience to control the story, to ensure that it remains a story. All the aerial shots during the season are suddenly placed into clear understanding: we have been watching this story, and so now we have a responsibility to it. Our presence distracted Bear, who is shot by Lou, and the story can continue.
This happens because it has to. For Peggy, fully actualised and on the run with Ed,
‘It’s just a flying saucer, Ed.’
This is her reality, one where she can recognise – like us – that stories are fake and yet we make them real by our presence in them. The inference here is that if we treat reality as something without narrative, something without meaning, it becomes horrendous. Lou’s cancer-stricken wife Betsy rejects the absurdity and nihilism of Albert Camus, declaring that
‘Nobody with any sense would say something that foolish. We’re put on this earth to do a job. And each of us gets the time we get to do it. And when this life is over and you stand in front of the Lord, well you try telling him it was all some Frenchman’s joke.’
Peggy, ultimately, is arrested. Her husband dead, she is left with no life that matches up to one she had imagined. For all her actualising, she was not the storyteller. This is the truth Hawley is driving at: we are in a position to recognise the tragedy of Peggy’s end, the horror of the massacre, the sanctity of the Solversons, and bring this truth back to our own reality.
It’s our fault this happened, but also our responsibility.
A Universal Language of Symbols
By introducing a frame – a story within a story – Fargo runs the risk of breaking the reality to the audience. This is the mise en abyme – the abyss that is created when we reveal the fakery of art. The illusion is shattered and the audience loses trust, and faith. And yet in Fargo we are told from the opening scene that these are all actors playing roles (dead men sitting up and asking for a blanket), but that risk allows for a greater proximity to the truth in the story. Here, the frame confirms the reality. The story Peggy watches on TV confirms something in her life, and we watch Peggy on TV and bring that confirmation back to our own lives.
To return to Eco:
‘to read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of the things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative.’
And this, ultimately, seems to be what Noah Hawley is driving at with the most recent season of Fargo. It’s only possible through the adapting of the story from film to TV, and through its evolution from one season to the next, but there it is nonetheless.
The characters in Fargo all experience tremendous horror. And yet the good characters, those who receive our sympathy, all conclude their narratives safe in their bed, surrounded by family. Good wins out.
The conceit that Fargo is based on a true story is partly a joke, but also not. The Coen Brothers admitted there were real crimes that influenced their story, just as there have been for the crime in Hawley’s seasons. Just because they happen differently and are dressed up in a ‘fake’ story doesn’t diminish the truth. How else are we to reconcile our world, our reality, with the crimes that occur?
We return to stories. In one of the final moments of the season, Sherriff Larsson confides in his family about the obsessive series of glyphs and symbols he has rendered all over his study. What was initially hinted might be a sense of dementia or madness instead becomes the thesis for the entire story:
‘After your mother died I got to feeling pretty low…I started thinking…so much senselessness, and violence, I got to thinking about miscommunication. Like how isn’t that the root of it? Conflict, war, doesn’t it all come down to language? The words we say and the words we hear, which aren’t always the same thing. So I thought what if there was one language, a universal language of symbols because, to my mind pictures are clearer than words…we see a box with a roof on it, well everyone knows that means home and my six-year-old granddaughter draws a heart, means love, no question…the more I worked on it the more it became all I could think about.’
And there isn’t much more to say, than that, really. Hawley has presented to us a world that we know is not real, and we know it exists in a fictional framework that relates to other stories. And yet through this we are drawn into the story, implicated in it, and bear witness to the conflicts and the horrors witnessed upon the citizens of this world, so that we can make sense of it. Draw meaning from it and not suffer the fate of miscommunication. Of living along one line of a story that doesn’t intersect with anyone else’s. Of not feeling misunderstood or without agency.
This is what stories give us.