The second season of Fargo is a pretentiously well-directed television show that purports to be a crime drama, but is really just a vehicle for two men to urgently discuss the nature of the universe. In this regard it is a familiar thing. It’s also a familiar thing, of course, because it’s a spin-off of the acclaimed Coen Brothers film, previously discussed in these parts by Jack Graham, and more broadly is a show that giddily raids the Coen Brothers back catalogue for imagery and style. The fusion of these two familiar things, however, is gloriously unfamiliar.
Let’s start with the True Detective and Hannibal links, the better to cover up the fact that I’m not a huge Coen Brothers buff and haven’t actually seen the film version of Fargo or the first season (I’m working on it). On one level, it is True Detective that Fargo most fundamentally resembles, with its propensity for lengthy ruminations on the cultural decay and its ostentatious intrusion of the Weird in the form of occasional appearances from UFOs (a nod to the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There; I didn’t say I was a complete n00b). It’s tempting to say that the difference is that Fargo has a sense of humor, but of course, True Detective is often wryly hilarious in its own right (“True crime. That’s the genre, not the title.”), and emphasizing Fargo’s sardonic sense of humor mostly serves to play at some drama/comedy distinction that’s too tinged with value judgment to be useful.
No, the core of the difference, and the one that Fargo seems at times to be evoking True Detective specifically to emphasize, is that Fargo is studiously uninterested in the tragic mythologizing of the Detective as something that can possibly be True. Its two main detectives, Patrick Wilson’s Lou Solverson (a young version of Keith Carradine’s character from the first season) and Ted Danson’s Hank Larsson, are of the mould established by Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, described by Jack as “extraordinarily unextraordinary, she is simply competent at her job, fond of her husband, polite to her colleagues, etc.” They do not solve the case through any extraordinary response to pain and suffering nor through any astonishing powers of insight or deduction. They’re just good men doing their job.
In one sense, of course, this is also how it distinguishes itself from Hannibal; it does not engage in any Miltonian romanticization of murder. It comes close in the form of Bokeem Woodbine’s Kansas City heavy Mike Milligan, who deploys a practicedly folksy conversational style in the pursuit of intimidation and violence, but he’s carefully and deliberately undercut in this regard, most obviously by his ultimate fate as a middle manager in the generic office headquarters of the vast Kansas City criminal empire. But it is more complicated than that. Fargo’s response to True Detective is an outright negation of the premise. Its response to Hannibal – which seems equally self-conscious – is something else. Not anti-, but post. (And it’s notable that the first season does have exactly the sort of romanticized Miltonian villain that the second avoids in the form of Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo, so it’s clear that this is not something Fargo rejects as such.)
It is worth making explicit that although Fargo does not romanticize or mythologize detection or murder, it is nevertheless a profoundly romantic and mythic show. On its most basic level, it appears to mythologize the sort of decency that Jack talks about in his essay. Men like Lou Solverson and Hank Larsson are the most capable figures in its world; the sole things that can keep the awful violence of it at bay. And this is true. Indeed, it’s baked into the premise of Fargo, which is at this point a sort of anthology series about the Eternal Champion of good, decent police officers who pragmatically and sensibly face down the tenebrous void of crime’s absurdity in the northern midwest.
And yet awful things happen to decent people throughout Fargo, indeed in all of its iterations. Jesse Plemons’s Ed Blumquist, for instance, is a profoundly decent man who has the misfortune of applying his decent man instincts to the protection of his deeply problematic wife. This ends badly for him in essentially every single episode. More broadly, it’s worth considering the role of Ronald Reagan in the plot. Reagan hangs over the entire story – indeed, he’s a fundamental part of Fargo’s mythic heft. The first episode opens with a scene on the set of an old Reagan film, and he drifts into the narrative at key points, including actually appearing in one episode where his campaign bus is escorted by Lou. Played brilliantly by Bruce Campbell, Fargo’s Reagan is on the one hand affable and charismatic. Indeed, he’s portrayed as being basically aligned with the “Minnesota Nice” values, which is ahistorical on a number of levels, not least of which is that Minnesota is the only state Reagan never carried. But he’s also very clearly an empty suit; when he and Lou briefly discuss military service, he responds to Lou’s account of awful events in Vietnam by recounting a movie he was in, and when Lou pushes him on how his statements of values will translate into any actual policy or action Reagan is unable to respond. Reagan, in other words, is decency reduced to a cartoon – a hollow and impotent shell. The result is clearly a declaration that decency is nice and worthwhile, but in no way sufficient to solve the world’s problems in and of itself.
And anyway, this doesn’t even touch the UFOs, which are clearly a key part of any claim that there’s a mythic dimension to Fargo. So let’s look at the broader mythologizing of Fargo. Perhaps the biggest clue is the ninth episode, which features one of the two major appearances of the UFOs as one shows up and distracts people in the midst of a massive gunfight, altering the course of things. But this isn’t actually the key aspect of the mythic. Rather, it’s the episode’s frame, which describes the events of the gunfight as a reading from The History of True Crime in the Mid West that emphasizes the “complex and nuanced” chain of causality that leads to the Massacre at Sioux Falls, arguing that “even though most of the murders took place in North and then South Dakota,” the events ought be classified as a Minnesota crime because the true heart of them is the Blumquists. But their involvement, as the audience has already seen at length, amounts to little more than Kirsten Dunst’s Peggy Blumquist making a catastrophically poor decision in the wake of a UFO-enabled accident. Later in the episode this sense of happenstance is emphasized again, when the narrator debates the precise moment at which a particular character decided to betray the crime family he’d been employed by, accompanied by a series of flashbacks to seemingly minor and quiet moments across the previous eight episodes, while speculating that the decision could have been spontaneous or in fact brewing since the character was eight.
This sort of thing is omnipresent in Fargo, again in all of its iterations. It is the sentiment that underpins the declaration at the start of every episode (and the film) that “this is a true story.” This is, of course, completely false, and moreover transparently false – even if one decided to accept the UFOs, the claim that the story “has been told exactly as it occurred” can’t survive in the face of the intense aesthetic stylization of basically everything in the story. But its presence highlights the fact that Fargo is engaged in a particular type of storytelling – one that de-emphasizes what in fiction is called “realism” in favor of the messy and coincidence-laden noise of unauthored real life. This is the heart of what Fargo mythologizes. At its most basic level, its mythic content is that crime in the Mid West – a thing portrayed as a bleak comedy of errors pushed forward primarily by greed and incompetence – constitutes a Historical Narrative. That’s clearly not mythologizing decency; if anything, it’s mythologizing indecency, and then proclaiming decency to be the best refuge within the resulting maelstrom.
Curiously, we’ve talked our way back to Hannibal. After all, a fundamental part of Hannibal’s ethos is the idea that there is an inherent aesthetic appeal to eating the rude. As with Fargo decency is not an absolute insurance policy, but it’s consistently a better approach than rudeness. And indeed, it’s worth noting that Will Graham is repeatedly defined in terms of a basic decency (established most blatantly in the form of his dogs) that exists uneasily alongside the perversity of his empathy. One can, with only a bit of determination, extend the points of comparison, noting how the first season of Hannibal repeatedly sets events in Minnesota, for instance, creating its own haunted version of the desolate landscape that plays such a foundational part in Fargo.
But the Minnesota Shrike also highlights what is so different about Fargo. It’s not just that the second season eschews any sort of Miltonian Satan of a character. It eschews the entire model of obsessive desire that underpins Hannibal’s murderous tableaus. It’s not that characters in Fargo don’t want things. I mean, it’s still a functioning piece of drama and all. But they are not generally defined by the pathological totality of their hunger. They want sensible, banal things – to advance in their organization, to protect their loved ones, or to do their jobs. There are two significant exceptions to this, however, one throughout the show, the other at a brief but key moment. The first is Peggy Blumquist, who talks endlessly about her desire to “actualize” and “become her best self.” This is many things, including an at times uncomfortably mean-spirited joke about feminism, but it’s also a fairly straightforward response to the psychological rhetoric of Hannibal, who is endlessly focused on helping people actualize into their best and most murderous selves. But, of course, Peggy’s desire to actualize is a flaw, and a comedic one at that – a propensity, as Ed eventually observes, to make problems where none exist.
Past that, there is almost no obsessive hunger or drive within Fargo. Indeed, one of the most fundamental elements of Hannibal’s worldview is almost entirely absent from Fargo: the creative urge. Nobody in Fargo makes art, or seems driven to. It is tempting to see this as a deficiency, but of course, it isn’t. Rather, it’s a declaration that a sense of art and beauty doesn’t actually require the furious obsession that occupies Hannibal. It emerges out of the simple conjunction of ordinary humanity and the world’s propensity to go absurdly and baroquely strange. Ordinary human relations are as sufficient to generate beauty as they are cruelty and violence.
This forms the heart of the show’s post-Hannibalistic vision; one that is just as baroque, aestheticized, and mythic, but that studiously refuses to require any sort of deforming obsession to generate this. And nowhere is this clearer than the other major exception, in the show’s closing moments, which alight upon a minor subplot involving a room full of strange and seemingly occult symbols in Hank’s house. Far from being some sort of visionary magus, however, it turns out that Hank has just adopted trying to create a universal language of symbols that will bring harmony to the world by eliminating miscommunication. Not, to be clear, out of any prophetic inclinations – Hank is aware that the project is a boondoggle. Just as a sort of passionate hobby undertaken in the wake of his wife’s death.
And when his daughter, Lou’s wife, earnestly takes his hand in response and tells him that he’s a good man, it feels true and earned, not just for the naive decency involved in believing that the way in which a six-year-old drawing a heart clearly communicates love might be universalized so totally, but for the fact that it is born of such simple, unpretentious instincts, and so devoid of pathological hunger. It is a utopian vision that, improbably, serves as an is without an ought. And if it, like Reagan’s vapid ideologizing, seems utterly unsuited to saving the whole world, well, that’s what UFOs are for.