One reason I loved Fargo so much — the FX drama that builds on the 1996 Coen Brothers movie with the same title — was that it is filled with allegories, digressions, and asides that may, or may not, mean something but always make me think. (More to come.) Let’s get into the spirit of the show by starting with one of mine — or, rather, one that builds on another’s.
Walter Percy, in his 1961 novel The Moviegoer uses the term “certification” as a way to describe how your view of your neighborhood changes when it is featured in a movie. The novel’s protagonist realizes that he is watching a movie in the same area as the movie. Percy writes:
Today, a person who lives in a place, or within a community, is not licensed to live there. He will most likely live there in sorrow and the emptiness that resides within him will spread to the whole neighborhood. If he watches a movie that shows his neighborhood, he can live there for at least a while as someone who is Somewhere.
Rex Sorgatz is a native of North Dakotan who brought up this scene in Percy’s book. It was a wonderful piece about the way that the movie Fargo made North Dakota feel like it was somewhere and not anywhere. It made Fargo feel just like Fargo. It records your experience of a place and then replaces it with a movie. It begins to see scenes from your own life as if they were written by the Coen brothers.
This is what I experienced while watching Fargo television. The drama takes place in Minnesota, which is where I lived for five years, despite the title. As I recall the days I walked home in sub-zero temperatures, my eyes freezing, I look up to see the snow falling from the white sky. When I try to recall that scene, I only see the stunning chase scene from Fargo in which Molly (the amazing Allison Tollman) crunches through the snow looking for two hitmen. Warning: Spoilers ahead. The camera is pointed at the sky and it’s my first time back in Minnesota. It’s a strange feeling of being lost, with white falling from white.
Noah Hawley (HMO ) is the showrunner of Fargo. He has one superpower: he can record people’s memories. He has one particularly difficult to tape over. In 1996, the film of the Coen brothers was a top pick on many critics’ best-of-the-year lists. Some fans were not thrilled about the idea that anyone would rework their favorite dark comedy. Hawley was smart. He acknowledged the brilliance of the original by casting his project as a mirror reflection, albeit one that’s through-the-looking glass. The Renewed TV Series, which is based on the film, focuses on Lester Nygaard (a weak-willed Midwesterner played by Martin Freeman) who murders his wife. Tollman, a female cop, is investigating the case. Russell Harvard and Adam Goldberg, two goofball hitmen get involved in the murder. The film does not have a comparable to Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) who assists Lester in disposing of his wife’s body. Hawley multiplies everything because there are two Fargo versions. Two cops are present: Molly (Colin Hanks) and Gus (Colin Hanks). To counterbalance the group of criminals, there are a few goofy FBI agents (Kegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele are perfect cast). Lester murders his wife, then he marries again and is killed by his second wife.
The movie’s characters repeat or echo the following phrases: “And for what?” “Go Bears!” (For more information on these and other Easter eggs, visit EW’s extensive master list. They even make nods to other Coen brother’s movies, such as ordering white Russians, Big Lebowski’s favorite beverage, or listening to a parable by a Rabbi, which reminds them of a speech in A Serious Men. Hawley uses the original Fargo to make inside jokes about minutia as if to reward those who might have turned against him. One character calls another a muffled in the original; the TV series has one of the hitmen mute. The film features the husband of the female cop cooking eggs for his wife’s breakfast. On the TV series, Bill Odenkirk (the police chief) insists that he must eat the omelet made by his wife before he can talk about the crime. Odenkirk is funny and heartbreaking in his portrayal of Bill, a chief police officer who isn’t the sharpest knife in the woodchipper. That big suitcase with all the money that was lost in the snow? A supermarket chain owner named Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) finds it. (The TV series is set 19 years after the film.
This is not a simple game of “spot the reference”. Some scenes are more Coen brothers-y than anything the Coen brothers have directed. One particularly funny and Coen-y conversation between two hitmen made me laugh out loud.
“Nobody enjoys being watched while eating.”
“Some people do.”
“Oh yes? “Oh yeah?
This scene made me google “Mormon” as well as “Coen Brothers” until I realized this was Hawley’s joke. Although Coen brothers fans may love Hawley’s aesthetic, his Fargo can be considered its creation. This show is an excellent example of what Jean Baudrillard called simulacrum, which is a copy that depicts things that don’t have originality. Think of the American throwback diner that is now part of so many chain restaurants. In the 1950s, diners didn’t look like this. It was invented by Johnny Rockets and other people. Hawley’s vision is what I love the most. I find myself comparing it less and less to the Coen brothers’ masterpiece.
Ok, now for one more comparison. While you can debate whether the Coen brothers made fun of North Dakotans or not, Hawley takes Midwesterners very seriously. His Midwesterners can still be funny (“Ah jeez”, “Yah sure”) and can be very pious. Lorne sets off locusts at Stavros’ grocery and orders blood to pour out of his showerhead. Stavros thinks he is witnessing Biblical plagues. This is a deeply spiritual show that unironically wrestles with the Big Questions the God-fearing people of the Midwest and many others too. Gus is genuinely moved by Gus’s question about how he can be a good person living in an imprudent world. His rabbi neighbor says that only a fool believes he can solve all the world’s problems. Bill isn’t making fun of small-town residents when he worries about the loss of sense of community. He’s speaking directly to them. He asks, “What happened to saying hello to your neighbors and shoveling each other’s paths and bringing in our Toters?” He’ll be able to explain his point to anyone familiar with Toters. Even hitmen seem to have a moral code that values friendship over the job. The hit man’s riddle may suggest that they are spiritual, too. Mormons enjoy being watched while eating, but only if God watches.
Hawley, of course, is also watching them. He’s quite good at playing God. It feels like he is playing God in this recap-crazy age where everyone is analyzing and going online to find the same references. Each episode of Fargo has a philosophical problem named after it — Morton’s Fork, A Fox, A Rabbit, and A Cabbage,” The Crocodile’s Dilemma.” The characters speak in puzzles that beg for decoding. Some of these puzzles are full of meaning. Lorne tells Gus in one scene a riddle about the human eye’s ability to see more colors of green than any other color. He asks, “Why?” Molly later explains that humans have evolved to see predators through trees and grass. After hearing this, I realized that many scenes in Fargo were shot in different shades. This is a challenge for viewers. When looking across a town that looks almost identical, how can you tell the difference between predator and prey?
Sometimes, Lorne’s puzzles are not so clear. Lorne tries to scare Stavros with a fable when he decides to blackmail him. It is about a boy who was raised in the woods, and the wolves who start circling him. Are Stavros and Lorne the same boy? Perhaps! Oder is Stavros the boy? It’s possible, too! Is it possible that wolves continue to appear on the show right before someone dies? Perhaps! It’s possible to over-analyze the situation, but I wonder what else might be going on. The Midwest is known for its folk wisdom and colloquialisms. Some stories have a deeper meaning. Many of these stories involve animals, and they don’t make sense. My husband is from North Dakota and has a favorite saying: “If it’s a horse each, who cares?” Some of these metaphors feel almost like MacGuffins. It’s hard to believe that everything can be used as a metaphor in a TV-watching environment. Even the most profound stories can become meaningless and random.
It can also feel meaningless and random. Fargo also points out this. Although the original film claimed it was “based upon a true story”, Ethan Coen stated later that Fargo is a retelling of a “true story”. This makes Fargo feel smarter than other Midwestern storytelling approaches, such as gossip that spreads in small towns. It also raises questions about the possibility that a film, even one that is based on actual life, can ever tell the truth. Hawley told NPR recently that real life does not unfold as a story. “Things don’t fit neatly in a box,” Hawley said. Lester’s story does not end with a shootout. Sometimes you make a wrong turn and it’s over.
Fargo horror has an everyday, mundane quality that doesn’t mean it normalizes violence. The violence is almost invisible in the most dramatic death scenes. It’s amazingly shot from the outside of Fargo’s mob headquarters when Lorne kills all the mobsters. The camera tracks Lorne around Fargo, and you can hear the mobster’s screams. However, the one-way window prevents you from seeing what’s inside. This isn’t your usual anti-hero drama where evil is glorified or good people do terrible things for sympathy reasons. Lester transforms from a henpecked wimp into a meek monster. Lorne can even make his second wife wear his jacket, so he dresses in it. This man was not good. He was polite. His evil is banal, which only makes him more frightening.
Perhaps that’s what makes the last scene in Fargo so satisfying. Bill encourages Molly to become his chief of police. Gus shoots Lorne before he can get up. We are created by Molly, the show’s true hero, getting justice for the case that she so worked hard to solve. She refuses to feel sorry for herself. Gus is told by her, “This is your deal.” “I get the chief,” She tells Gus that her story will go on beyond that dramatic showdown. Because, as Hawley said, real life isn’t like a story. I would like to see her ordering take-out from Gus and then watching the Coen brothers’ movie. I would like to see her as someone who is Anywhere, not Somewhere. But I can’t. But not anymore. She can only be here.