Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

The Absurdity of the Fargo Franchise

Fargo | MGM/FX
MGM/FX

In the fall of 2012, Deadline broke an unusually startling announcement: cable channel FX had closed a deal to produce a TV adaptation of Fargo.

It was a counterintuitive prospect. The Coen Brothers’ 1996 film is one of the few that could plausibly be called perfect, a precisely calibrated story that begs no expansion, and any optimists could be directed to the 1997 adaptation that was canceled before even making it to air. Though the movie remains one of the Coens’ undisputed masterpieces, it was by now nearly two decades old, so those of us reading this peculiar announcement were left with nothing but questions: Why Fargo? Why now? And what could it possibly look like?

Though the Coens were listed as executive producers, it was clear they did not plan to be directly involved, and so there was another man announced as the show’s creative mastermind: Noah Hawley. Known at the time (if he was known at all) as the showrunner for multiple failed series—most recently the ABC drama My Generation, canceled just eight days after premiering—Hawley has, as of this writing, recently engineered one of the more remarkable cinematic fiascos of 2019 with his directorial debut Lucy in the Sky.1

Fargo premiered in 2014 with a season that garnered acclaim and accolades but remained fundamentally indebted to the film that shares its name.

In 2017, the third in this anthology of 10-hour stories proved a bitter affair so removed from the spirit of its inspiration that it approached toxic unwatchability.

But in its second season, which spent the autumn of 2015 spinning the tale of the Sioux Falls Massacre, Noah Hawley’s Fargo graced us with one of the decade’s truly great works of serialized fiction.

This is a true story. 

As we’ll get to shortly, the question of what exactly Fargo is can be surprisingly subjective. But in the simplest terms, any entry in this most unlikely of franchises spins some story of greed and cruelty playing out against the frosted landscape of the upper Midwest, where improbably decent officers of the law must race to untangle the bloody knot before too many people get hurt. When Stephen King characterized the works of mid-century noir maestro Jim Thompson as “terrifying cameos of small-town hurt, hypocrisy, and desperation…urgent in their ugliness,” he could just as easily have been talking about Fargo.

 In its earliest form—the sixth film by Minnesota-born writer/director duo Joel and Ethan Coen, which won Best Director at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival before netting Academy Awards for the Coens’ screenplay and Frances McDormand’s lead performance as virtuous police chief Marge Gunderson—Fargo concerns car salesman Jerry Lundegaard’s plot to arrange his wife’s kidnapping and indirectly extort her father, a theoretically simple plan that goes awry when the kidnappers kill a state trooper along with two witnesses.

Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996) | MGM
Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo

By the end of the story, both Jerry’s wife and father-in-law are dead, as is one of the kidnappers (his partner-turned-killer disposing of the body via woodchipper in one of the decade’s most indelible images); with the remaining conspirators exposed and balance on its way to being restored to this corner of the American heartland, Marge reflects on the whole ugly business as she transports the surviving kidnapper—stoic Norseman Gaear Grimsrud—to headquarters:

So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the woodchipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit’a money. There’s more to life than a little money, ya know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are. And it’s a beautiful day. I just don’t understand it.

This brief speech, so prosaic yet imbued by McDormand with enough weary pathos to render it virtually Shakespearean in portent, serves as an apt summation of the Fargo universe: on one side of the scale is humanity’s potential for unimaginable cruelty, on the other the world’s potential for quotidian grace, and the combustible balance can be maintained only so long as a few unshakably decent people are left to put up the fight.

Fargo is a unique entry in the crime canon. It’s a disturbing story, but a consistently engaging one. It’s a story that’s often surprising, and at times pleasurably inscrutable. And it’s a story that ends on a note of unusually cathartic harmony, as Marge climbs into bed with her devoted husband Norm to reflect on the day and ponder the upcoming birth of their first child. Of course, we suspect Marge will be faced with the world’s cruelty again, but today the forces of good have won, and even the film’s most ardent fans would likely agree this story is best left closed.

Though they decided to reopen the book on Fargo, the executives at FX agreed the Gundersons had earned their happy ending, so among Noah Hawley’s instructions was the provision that Marge be omitted from his project. And thus Hawley was left to attempt a paradoxical party trick: adapt Fargo without adapting Fargo.

Hawley’s chosen approach was to mimic the film in structural and surface elements while telling a story almost (but not entirely, linked as they are by the recurrence of a significant ice scraper) independent of the Coens’. In production design, the stories are virtually identical—crimes are planned in dingy motel rooms and executed in anonymous wood-paneled homes, criminals in parkas are chased across frozen tundra by police in trapper hats, and the swarming morass is silently judged by the Paul Bunyan statue that looms in the night like a homespun American deity. The hope, as Hawley described it to Get in Media in 2014, was to cultivate a feeling that he was “swapping stories with the Coen brothers.”

The plot centers on meek insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, who inadvertently puts out a hit on his childhood bully and then impulsively kills his own spiteful wife, finding himself forced to spend the balance of story covering his tracks while evading the investigations of police detective Molly Solverson and state patrolman Gus Grimly. True to the film’s shape, by the end of the story, Lester and his co-conspirator/sometime nemesis Lorne Malvo are dead, while Gus and Molly—for whom the story has served as a bloody meet cute—survive to curl up on the couch with Gus’ daughter, watching Deal or No Deal as they await the birth of their own child.

Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in Fargo season one

Once the show proceeded past initial bursts of recognition, Hawley’s voice emerged as distinct from his ostensible inspiration. Where the film’s observing eye remains as neutral as possible, the series indulges in flourishes from ironic slow-motion to shots taken from inside appliances, and this overt stylization extends to the series’ narrative voice. Hawley’s reimagining skews towards the overtly comedic, with the majority of the series’ supporting characters presented as bumbling grotesques whose mishaps allow the audience to chuckle and wait for the scales to be lifted, often violently, from their eyes. These buffoons would be appropriate to one of the Coens’ outright comedies—the slow-witted sons of a cretinous shipping magnate call to mind the political lackeys of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, while the vain personal trainer who falls victim to Malvo’s plot could be a colleague to Brad Pitt’s sweet simpleton of a fitness instructor in Burn After Reading—but it’s hard to imagine them inhabiting the same deadpan universe as Marge and Jerry.

Going back to his earliest conceptions of the series, Hawley had planned to incorporate elements from across the Coens’ body of work. Yet while the Coens’ filmography is unquestionably of a piece, those individual films tend to be wildly divergent in tone and effect, an omnivorousness that has elevated the term Coenesque to the status of Lynchian in connoting a style that’s instantly recognizable yet impossible to define. But this factor means any attempt to synthesize their worldview into an urtext will be difficult, if not impossible; even the Coens’ neo-noir experimentations range from the straightforward brutality of Blood Simple to the arch throwback of The Man Who Wasn’t There, a spectrum so comprehensive that to suggest one is generally inspired by the Coens’ style would seem to mean little more than saying one is inspired by the very concept of cinematic storytelling. 

On initial release, Fargo was certainly marketed as a comedy, with print advertising that played up the dissonance of wanton violence occurring in the world of needlepoint and tea cozies, and a trailer crafted for maximum focus on “Minnesota nice.” In practice, however, the film is more tragedy than farce. As Ethan told French magazine Positif in 1996, “when we wrote the script, and when the actors interpreted their roles, none of us thought of the story as a comedy.” Their screwball homages may be dense with wordplay and pratfalls, but the closest Fargo comes to any type of conventional gag is the recurring inability of eyewitnesses to describe Steve Buscemi’s character as anything but “kinda funny lookin’.”

Noah Hawley was by no means obliged to formally imitate the film; in fact, filtering this property through his own distinctive style was likely the only way the project could have withstood scrutiny. And this would seem to be something of which Hawley was aware, as evidenced by one of his most notable digressions from the source: the choice to use his odd work-for-hire job as an excuse for, as he put it in a 2017 New York Times interview, a “philosophical exercise, as if we can look at those tragedies of the world and find meaning in them.”

Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo in Fargo season one

These lofty concerns are perpetually evident in Lester’s downfall. Hawley named the season’s episodes after renowned logic puzzles and Zen kōans, all dealing with the question of how to make the correct choice in difficult situations,2 and for a story that begins in humble relatability, the season soon spirals into a broadly moralistic examination of good and evil. Molly’s father, retired cop Lou Solverson, describes the cases of Lester and Malvo as going beyond typical criminality into a realm of “savagery, pure and simple” committed by “devils with dead eyes and shark smiles.” In the Fargo series bible (a document distributed to production crew prior to the start of principal photography but subsequently disseminated online), Malvo is described as a plague, and the comparison is no poetic flourish, as his crimes include tormenting an adversary with hordes of insects and quite literal showers of blood; early on, Malvo introduces himself as one of the dragons that maps used to warn lay beyond established boundaries, and by the end of the season he is openly suggesting he could be the reincarnation of the Biblical serpent.

 This sense of evil as a totemic force clearly fascinates Hawley, and he’s continued to probe the idea across the series’ three seasons to date—in the third, this position is filled by V.M. Varga, a revolting enigma characterized as a virus infecting every sphere of the story. Hawley tends to trace this tradition directly to the Coens’ work; in a 2017 Nylon interview, he argues there’s “something elemental” to Coen antagonists, a sense that “a version of this character [has] always been blowing through the American landscape,” and across years of press engagements he has continually cited three characters as planting this seed in his mind: Anton Chigurh, preternaturally dispassionate hitman of the Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men; Leonard Smalls, demonic bounty hunter created to embody the feverish nightmares of Raising Arizona protagonist H.I. McDunnough; and Fargo’s Gaear Grimsrud.

At first glance, the sociopathic Norseman would seem to fit alongside Chigurh in a lineup. However, Gaear is lacking in any of the philosophical curiosity or violent whimsy of those others in the Coen rogues gallery. For all his taciturnity, Gaear is driven by resolutely human urges—among his earliest lines of dialogue are petulant complaints of hunger, and the majority of his subsequent violence results from his inability to cope with irritation. Where Molly’s arc in the first season of Fargo explores how to face an inhuman evil and emerge with your soul intact, Marge’s in the film is far more concerned with the ways good people can maintain stability while navigating a needlessly cruel world, a question immediately relatable to any viewer who attempts to live a decent life. The Coen filmography may include stories with the heft of myth, but Fargo is not one.

Peter Stromare as Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo

In conceiving his adaptation, Hawley gravitated towards the core conceit that this film is a fictionalized rendering of a true story, one the film foregrounds with an opening textual disclaimer:

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.

It’s a ruse the Coens perpetuated as they promoted the film—“Generally speaking, the movie is based on a real event,” Joel told Positif, with Ethan clarifying, “we heard about it through a friend who lived near to where the drama took place in Minnesota.” The hoax would soon be debunked,3 but Hawley chose to take this unusual format—a “true-crime story that isn’t true,” as he puts it in the series bible—as permission to dream up narrative cul-de-sacs and irreconcilable plot threads. “These true-story cases don’t unfold the way that scripted narratives take place,” Hawley told Get in Media, “so things happen that don’t fit neatly into the big picture.” And while he’s certainly correct that audiences gravitate to true-crime stories for shocking reveals, and that much of the film’s initial appeal came from this sense of taboo intrigue, he seems to miss something essential about how that effect is created.

There is no wasted choice in the Coens’ script, and this includes the film’s most confounding element: on a trip to Minneapolis, after visiting the dealership for an interview in which Jerry approaches apoplexy trying to maintain plausible ignorance, Marge goes for a drink with an old acquaintance, the affable Mike Yanagita. After coming on too strong with Marge, Mike tells her that he married a mutual friend of theirs only for her to die of cancer. The agonizing scene ends with Mike breaking down in sobs, but the next day, Marge learns that everything Mike told her was a lie—he did pursue an unrequited obsession with their friend, but they were never involved, and she is very much alive.

The digression is never again commented upon, and so remains famously enigmatic, but the encounter does serve as an unspoken turning point, galvanizing Marge to return to Jerry’s office in pursuit of the truth. Mike’s lies are a galling reminder that a desperate man will say anything to prove his trustworthiness, and Marge seems newly intent on ensuring she’s not made a fool of. Though the precise parameters of this mechanism remain subject to interpretation, few disagree that the scene is pivotal.

Steve Park as Mike Yanagita in Fargo

Noah Hawley’s interpretation of the scene is diametrically opposed to this conventional wisdom. In a 2014 AV Club interview, Hawley posits that Mike is involved solely to serve the true-crime hoax. “It’s one of those details,” Hawley claims, “where you’re like, ‘Well, they wouldn’t put it in the movie unless it really happened. It has nothing to do with anything.’”4 Hawley seems to take this interpretation for granted, devoting an entire page in the series bible to the question, “Who or what is our Mike Yanagita?” Believing that any faithful adaptation of Fargo should be littered with non-sequiturs, Hawley concluded that “we must spread ‘real life’ characters and moments throughout the story,” citing the anonymous naked man held captive in Malvo’s car, and the neighbor who allows Gus to watch her undress through a window. Neither element, though, comes across as a stranger-than-fiction delight so much as a storytelling indulgence attesting to the difficulty of replicating—or even fully grasping—the Coens’ effects.

Contrary to what Noah Hawley may believe, both the original film and the best true-crime stories are gripping for their sense of shocking inevitability. Rather than randomness, these stories draw their appeal from an intuitive sense of cause-and-effect; Jerry could not have predicted Mike’s participation in his plot, but Mike enters the story as a direct result of Jerry’s actions—he contacts Marge after seeing her in a news story on the investigation—and Jerry’s capture is a direct result of Mike’s presence. A story feels true when every turn seems so natural that it could have happened no other way; to truly recreate the effect of the notorious Mike Yanagita scene, the best method would be constructing a story with absolutely no insignificant digressions.

Joey King, Allison Tolman, and Colin Hanks as Greta Grimly, Molly Solverson, and Gus Grimly in Fargo season one

Had Hawley imitated Fargo either too precisely or too loosely, audiences would have been dissatisfied, and with every viewer experiencing his effects differently, the target he was forced to aim at was not just small but possibly illusory. The first season of Fargo is frequently satisfying; Hawley achieves his desired grandeur while providing a closing catharsis that hits the same soothing reflex as the original. Had this remained a one-off miniseries (the category in which it competed at the Emmys, an effort yielding eight nominations and two wins including Outstanding Limited Series), it would likely have been remembered as a successful curio that couldn’t help existing in the shadow of a prior work. 

As it happened, Noah Hawley seemed to agree. And so when the time came to prepare a follow-up to the story of Lester, Malvo, Molly, and Gus, he chose to walk away from nearly every familiar hallmark of his improbable party trick. Instead, the second season looks back to 1979 and the case Lou frequently alludes to as the only one equal to the hell unleashed by Lester’s crimes: the war between rural crime dynasty the Gerhardt syndicate and the faceless bureaucracy of the Kansas City mob, and its culmination in the legendary bloodbath known as the Sioux Falls Massacre.

The gruesome yarn is set in motion by a typically Fargoian needless multiple homicide. The culprit is prodigal Gerhardt son Rye, who kills a federal judge and two bystanders at a remote diner before stumbling into the road to be struck by beautician Peggy Blumquist, who chooses to drive the still-breathing (not to mention still half-embedded in her windshield) Rye home only for him to be killed in self-defense by Peggy’s husband, butcher’s apprentice Ed. With the season’s first half comprising the race between the dueling crime rings and the sheriff’s department in hopes of gaining the upper hand by discovering Rye’s whereabouts, and the second detailing Ed and Peggy’s scramble to evade capture once their crime is exposed, the chain reaction unfolds with intuitive ease that hearkens back to Jerry’s perfectly imperfect crime.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as Ed and Peggy Blumquist in Fargo season two

Though there may be little uniting the Coens’ crime films, their tonally disparate period pieces are linked by a sense, as Joel described it in a 2001 Playboy interview, that “the past has a kind of exoticism,” and this idea pervades the season, creating the feel of a modern Grimm’s folk tale. Hawley leaves aside the aesthetic hallmarks of Fargo in favor of the Coens’ historical works—the fireside conferences and woodland executions of Miller’s Crossing are contrasted with the hyper-fanciful bureaucracy of The Hudsucker Proxy, all of it undergirded by a frontiersman’s sense that life in a harsh land breeds harsh spirits, a foreboding equally present in the classical Oater True Grit and the grim neo-Western No Country for Old Men. Towards the close of that latter film, set roughly contemporaneously to Fargo’s second season, one character surveys the untamed underbelly of American plains and surmises that the land’s “got the Devil in it.” There could be few lines more representative of Noah Hawley’s Fargoian worldview.

As we learn in the season’s penultimate episode, this story has been (apocryphally) adapted from a dusty volume titled The History of True Crime in the Midwest.5 This traditionalist flourish perfectly contextualizes the series’ antiquated affectations; from the beginning, Hawley’s Fargo has eschewed the conventional summarial “Previously on…” in favor of “Erstwhile on…” and while the archaic construction has little resonance with the suburban stories of Jerry and Lester, it feels appropriately musty alongside the operatically tragic story of the Sioux Falls Massacre.

This forcing of cozy traditionalism onto the basically contemporary first season does point towards a certain romanticism with which Noah Hawley renders the franchise’s midwestern milieu. In the series bible, he writes with confidence that “there is a simplicity to life when you grow up in a small town,” and he often brings up the “exaggerated politeness” of Midwesterners who “don’t even want to make a declarative sentence for fear of offending someone by having an opinion.” This latter exoticized sentiment highlights the show’s benign inauthenticity; while the Minnesotan Coens based their portrait on longstanding observations of the Minneapolis suburbs, born-and-bred Manhattanite Hawley can only extrapolate from his observations of their observations. His is a traditional—even conservative—conception of flyover country as some mythic real America, and when that translates into a repeated use of “simple,” the effect can reek of covert elitism.

Yet where this caricature of simplicity may have chafed in a story set in 2006,6 by anchoring the second season in the grips of what Jimmy Carter termed—in his famed “Malaise Speech,” here intercut with the premiere’s opening—a national “crisis of confidence,” Hawley is able to draw upon 40 years of collective mythmaking on the post-Vietnam terror that lurked in the heart of America, unleashing his characters on a landscape already granted consensus status as a battleground for the country’s soul. By sliding into this established context, the heartland heroes of the Sioux Falls Massacre can far more naturally be framed as paragons of traditional virtue. Noah Hawley had finally turned Fargo into myth, and those require mythic figures.

Zahn McClarnon as Hanzee Dent in Fargo season two

With repeated suggestions that some hole has been ripped in the fabric of America, it seems natural that chaotic violence should be loosed upon the world, but this season’s analogues to the Malvo/Varga archetype are grounded and human in a way wholly divergent from their deliberately mysterious counterparts. Hanzee Dent, the Gerhardts’ half-Dakota ward raised as the family’s brutal enforcer, projects an unflappable resolve that makes him a clear match for Anton Chigurh. But where Chigurh’s past is left vague, Hanzee’s behavior is explicitly linked to his service in Vietnam, where his ethnicity left him subject to dehumanization even more extreme than that of his white counterparts; meanwhile, Kansas City’s own enforcer, Mike Milligan, is characterized by a Cheshire Cat smile and sartorial whimsy that obscure his homicidal ruthlessness, but this fanciful stylization is presented as radical self-invention, mitigating the outsider status lent by his Blackness among the homogenous Kansas City mob. Both characters are magnetic—often in diametrically opposed ways—but rather than representing some otherworldly force, they illustrate alternative responses to perpetual othering by close-knit organizations. By the time Mike is using a sleeve gun on a pack of Kansas City operatives and Hanzee is dispassionately assassinating his own adoptive brother, their outsized retaliations feel like a natural outgrowth of their circumstances.

 In another canny use of the period setting, the nation’s existential crisis allows for a natural integration of Hawley’s characteristic existential musings. Across the season, characters debate the meaning and significance of The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus’ foundational work on the philosophical conception of absurdity, and its supposition that “in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels alien”—or, to borrow a paraphrase from Noreen, the teenage cashier prone to name-dropping Camus, “knowin’ we’re all gonna die makes life a joke.” 

Leaving aside how emblematic this may be of Hawley’s tendency to turn subtext into unmissable text, the Camusian debate proves a revealing device across the season; Ed and Lou debate the Sisyphean significance of a traditionally paternal lifestyle, and Lou later ruminates on the Sisyphean determination he witnessed as a swift-boat operator along the Mekong Delta, the absurd measures he saw civilians take in order to survive a firestorm. Only Lou’s wife Betsy is willing to tell Noreen that when she meets God she has no intention of telling him her life had been “some Frenchman’s joke,” but as this protestation comes from a terminally ill woman, it’s likely meant to convince herself as much as anyone else. In ways large and small, every character caught in the undertow of the Sioux Falls Massacre has reason to question whether life has meaning, and ample cause to believe the answer might be no.

The comedy of the Coens’ Fargo manifests as absurdity as well, but the film’s conception of the term skews closer to another major philosophical work: Thomas Nagel’s 1979 book Mortal Questions, in which Nagel argues that life’s absurdity arises from our awareness of our limited perspectives, and the impossibility of achieving a comprehensive understanding of reality. To Nagel’s mind, this quandary leaves room for amusement,7 and Jerry’s tailspin serves as an ideal illustration of Nagelian absurdity. The downfall Lester invites on himself in the first season, meanwhile, rooted in his compulsion to seek validation from implacable forces, is more reminiscent of Camus’ arguments on the universe’s agonizing indifference.8 It can be hard to reconcile a Camusian conception of absurdity with a Nagelian one—Nagel, putting it kindly, refers to Camus’ perspective as “slightly self-pitying”—and it may be this incompatibility that’s most responsible for the dissonance between Hawley’s Fargo and the Coens’. Nagel’s bemusement is resonant with the humanism endemic to even the bleakest Coen films; Camus’ despair, on the other hand, is so complete it approaches nihilism, a quality that hammers on the door of the first two seasons before burning down the house in the third.

For one so concerned with the agony of life in a metaphysical void, though, the story of the Sioux Falls Massacre does have a clear guiding hand: Noah Hawley’s. As the foregoing analysis attests, the showrunner’s authorial voice is glaringly obvious in his repurposing of the Coens’ work, and though he seemed eager to sublimate this factor in the first season, by the second he seems to have accepted the inescapability of his unspoken presence. Among a list of titles referencing notable works of existential agony,9 Hawley titled the eighth installment “Loplop,” the name given by mid-century artist Max Ernst to the fantastical avian creature he invented as his avatar. Inserted into Ernst’s works, Loplop allowed the artist to project his own consciousness onto his tributes to other artists—thus “Loplop Introduces Members of the Surrealist Group,” a black & white photo collage featuring likenesses of such surrealists as Paul Éluard and Tristan Tzara, is presented under the observing eye of the artist’s representative, the work’s deliberate createdness embraced as feature rather than bug.

Hawley’s Fargo, whether advertently or not, was always destined to be a sort of “Loplop Introduces the Coen Brothers,” and in accepting this fact, his pan-Coen collage finally coheres into a gleeful raid on the duo’s aesthetic library. In shaping this grand historic tragedy, Hawley calls attention to his own ecstatic vandalism, and as he moves these mythic heroes and villains towards the traditional Fargo closing catharsis, the story evinces a brazen willingness to make its author’s presence clear, an impulse extending to one of the more outsized examples of deus ex machina imaginable: the flying saucer.

Angus Sampson as Bear Gerhardt in Fargo season two

Suggestions of UFO activity recur throughout the season, from minor anecdotes to brief glimpses of hovering lights, but the crafts remain largely obscured until the penultimate episode. In the midst of the Sioux Falls Massacre—finally revealed to be a trap laid by Hanzee, who lures the battle-ready Gerhardts to a motel while failing to mention that nearly every room is occupied by police—Lou is pinned and throttled by sole surviving Gerhardt scion Bear, an all-is-lost moment shattered by the abrupt appearance of a kitsch-perfect flying saucer. The ship descends from the heavens, hovers above the battlefield long enough to distract Bear and allow Lou to shoot him in the head, then vanishes into the sky once more. 

If Noah Hawley is Loplop, then he must also be these unseen aliens, a dispassionate otherworldly force that nudges the characters into position for their predestined harmonious ending. That harmony had by this time come to seem like a prerequisite for an effective Fargo story—which, for any kinks that needed working out, each entry in the canon thus far had been. But with these narrative guidelines—villains should be punished in ironic proportion to their crimes while heroes live on to fight another day—so defined that sometimes an extraterrestrial assist was required to meet them, Hawley seemed to reach some pivot in what Fargo meant. 

The third season, which premiered in early 2017, draws from the Coens’ works of overt existentialism, borrowing the casual mental chaos of A Serious Man, the dead-end hopelessness (and sickeningly desaturated palette) of Inside Llewyn Davis, and the uncanny inferno of Barton Fink, all of it coalescing into a story that finishes in deliberate disharmony: the season abruptly ends immediately before revealing whether the villainous Varga will be vanquished or absolved. Hawley’s unstable chemistry this time turned toxic, with the bruised optimism of the Fargo worldview suppressed so thoroughly it seemed extinguished; if earlier Fargo stories had depicted the eternal battle between good and evil, the third takes place in a world where evil has already won.

David Thewlis as V.M. Varga in Fargo season three

Ambiguity is a disastrous note on which to end a Fargo story. The psychic anguish of A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis are balanced by a relative lack of external antagonism; denying a story as outwardly horrific as Fargo its catharsis alters the shape to the point that the ultimate effects can’t help unravelling. We may know from the first season that Molly’s mother Betsy will one day succumb to the Stage-3 Lymphoma that plagues her throughout the second, but it’s essential that she survive the story of the Sioux Falls Massacre so that the finale can achieve its closed-loop happy ending—Lou and Betsy climb into bed, saying goodnight to one another “and all the ships at sea.”

For all its bloodshed and sorrow, Fargo is ultimately a fairy tale; as the words “This is a true story” have by now unfurled onscreen over 30 times, they’ve achieved the same incantatory quality as “Once upon a time.” And the more mythic and outrageous the stories become, the more that disclaimer feels weighted with its own paradoxical promises of fact and legend. This is a true story: once upon a time…

 

Across three seasons of Fargo thus far (a fourth is promised for 2020, ending a hiatus that will by then exceed three years) Noah Hawley has become increasingly fixated on the nature of truth—“in a metaphysical way,” he clarified to The New York Times in 2017, aware of how loaded the word had grown in the months since the term “alternative facts” entered the American lexicon.

Given a focus on both Post-Soviet states and the threat of cybercrime, journalists were quick to suggest that the third season—which, along with the first season and the original film, is set nearly a decade prior to release—functioned as Hawley’s comment on the 2016 presidential election. But, as Hawley was equally quick to point out, nearly half of the season was written prior to the election, and so any resemblance between this story and emergent facts concerning foreign interference in American politics (not to mention the complicity of government officials in that criminality) is purely coincidental. 

This sort of incidental interaction is appropriate to the third of Hawley’s Fargo stories, which trades prior concerns with the Biblical and the existential for a more clinical unifying metaphor concerning particle physics. Throughout the season, in both text and subtext, this rumbling undercurrent coheres to position each of us as a particle tumbling through a void, significant only inasmuch as we briefly and randomly connect with other particles before tumbling away again.

Goran Bogdan, Andy Yu, and DJ Qualls as Yuri Gurka, Meemo, and Golem in Fargo season three

It’s a chilling foundation for a story that also finds time for a lengthy and whimsical riff on “Peter and the Wolf,” but the childlike and the traumatic are constant bedfellows in Fargo; in his earliest pitch to FX, republished in the new (as of this writing) companion book Fargo: This is a True Story, Hawley laid out his governing thesis with brutal bluntness: “innocence can’t survive in a world of demons.”

The phrase is meant to justify the series’ structure as interconnected but self-contained narratives rather than typical open-ended procedural storytelling—the sorts of crimes that Fargo details, Hawley reasons, “become toxic over time,” and an emotionally honest story could not be told in which Marge or any of her analogs remained fundamentally optimistic throughout repeated encounters with Fargoian depravity. But this initial germ of the series’ ethos is also resonant with the noir continuum along which Fargo has always fallen. 

For a century, noir stories have tangled with that struggle between innocents and demons, and true noir stories tend to close with the suggestion (either explicit or tacit) that the demons have the upper hand. By that token, Fargo is an outlier in the world of neo-noir. Where the classics of this postmodern subgenre—particularly those earliest examples that emerged amongst the dual fallouts of Vietnam and Watergate—channeled the disillusionment of their era into violently pessimistic stories, Fargo protects its heroes by ending their stories, defiantly leaving their purity intact as though to prove that happy endings are possible.

It’s this genesis moment for neo-noir that Fargo’s second season examines, a time that Hawley describes in the companion volume as “the morning after, when the drugs wore off and we realized that we weren’t in Nirvana after all. We were in a loony bin.” And in retrospect, it seems appropriate that this most popular10 season aired alongside Donald Trump’s emergence as a viable candidate. Fargo, like the true-crime stories it imitates and the neo-noir stories it echoes, speaks to our collective urge to plumb the dark depths of humanity’s soul, to overturn the rock and expose the lurking horrors. But as we began sliding into a morass that would prove as agonizing as the one that inspired the earliest neo-noir, seeing a depraved crime story end with the narrative and moral harmony of a 19th-century well-made play was cathartic. As the path forward began to darken, many of us at home craved a reminder that decency could survive even the darkest nights of the American soul.

Patrick Wilson and Cristin Millioti as Lou and Betsy Solverson in Fargo season two

The third season, meanwhile, is most often considered the series’ nadir,11 perhaps even evidence that it’s time for the book to close on Fargo permanently. But for all this essay’s concern over the season’s architectural flaws, it’s worth considering that the unpleasantness may say more about the world the story emerged into than the story itself. While remaining firmly in the genre of (as Hawley classifies it in that 2017 New York Times interview) “pulp crime,” the story picks painfully at modern anxieties that continue to resonate. Set in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the season ponders the inherent ephemerality of life in the century’s second decade, when our money largely exists as digital transfers of credit and our social interactions often take place largely, if not entirely, on digital networks. How secure can any of us can truly feel, this story asks, when a simple grid outage could leave us so instantly vulnerable and isolated?

This is the horror of the post-neo-noir world, where evil is banal, the cruelty is the point, and our preconceived cultural equilibrium hasn’t been so much jolted as invalidated. And so if the third season of Fargo, with its shocking denial of catharsis, is the one most in keeping with the pervasive angst of classic neo-noir, it’s also not surprising that it’s the one audiences most struggled to connect with.

In this season, though, Noah Hawley’s storytelling finally attains a Nagelian absurd serenity. In the companion volume, Hawley argues that if the third season demonstrates anything, it’s that the worst thing anyone can do is “believe they can predict their paths.” Not only is this the way to ruin, Hawley argues at the close of this retrospective on half a decade’s stories of greed and cruelty, it’s “the tragedy that defines Fargo.”

But Noah Hawley also offers a clear moral to his ugly third visit to the frosted landscape of the upper Midwest, with all its random and alienating collisions of both people and electrons: “the difference between people and electrons [is that] people have a choice.”

Perhaps this is the closest thing to a comfort available in our current real-life noir fantasia. We can’t predict what disillusionments lie in store. But we do know we can each choose how to respond as we move forward into whatever comes next. For all the fictions it may have taken both creator and viewer to arrive there, this much, at least, is a true story. It has to be.

  1. Currently sitting at a 23% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Lucy in the Sky has failed to gross even $500,000 in its first month of release, a blood-chilling total against a budget reportedly in excess of $27 million.
  2. Representative examples include episode five, “Buridan’s Ass,” named for an early 20th century illustration of the paradoxical impossibility in choosing between equal options, and episode three, “A Muddy Road,” named for a kōan concerning the choice between whether or not to heed immoral rules.
  3. This debunking would only yield further disinformation with the common misconception that a woman whose body was later discovered in a Minnesota field had traveled from Tokyo under the belief that the story was true, and thus a suitcase of cash buried on screen was there to be found. While in fact the woman is believed to have been experiencing a depressive fugue and traveling to a place significant to a former lover as the site for her suicide, the urban legend was fictionalized in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, the 2014 film by writer/director duo the Zellner brothers that mimics the formal qualities of Fargo far more faithfully than any of Noah Hawley’s entries.
  4. This quote reemerges periodically to much online consternation, but admittedly, Hawley’s comments do echo some of the Coens’ own—during their Fargo press tour, Ethan told Positif that the Mike Yanagita episode was intended to “show the story had a relationship to life rather than to fiction” by including “a scene that had no relationship to the plot.” While this would seem to corroborate Hawley’s interpretation, it did occur in an interview maintaining the true-story hoax, meaning any comments on their storytelling must be filtered through this extended improvisational exercise.
  5. In what’s likely the sole instance of Hawley predicting the Coens rather than imitating them, this conceit is notably similar to the framing device the brothers would employ three years later in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
  6. “Whatever happened to sayin’ good morning to your neighbors and shovelin’ their walk?” the chief of police grouses in the first season, a political cartoonist’s conception of how a Midwestern cop might respond to a byzantine bloodbath.
  7. Among Nagel’s examples is the idea of announcing one’s love for what turns out to be a recorded message, a shocking reminder of one’s limited viewpoint, yet emblematic of the “benign violation theory” of comedy.

  8. Among Camus’ examples of the proper response to life’s absurdity—his only listed example, really—is suicide.
  9. Representative examples include two titles taken from Kafka (“Before the Law” and “The Castle”), one from Kierkegaard (“Fear and Trembling”), and one from famed absurdist Eugène Ionesco (“Rhinoceros”).
  10. Though the second season dipped in viewership compared to the first (the series premiere drew 2.65 million viewers and that season never dropped below 1.51 million), it’s the only one to see a rise between premiere and finale, as word of mouth pushed it from 1.59 million viewers in the first week to 1.82 million in the last.
  11. The season premiered to 1.4 million viewers, but the numbers fell disastrously from there, not exceeding 1.2 million until the finale and even falling below 1 million by the midpoint.