How the Sublime Absurdity in 'Fargo' Speaks to Our 'Post-Truth' Era
We are reminded that life is meant to be unsatisfying, so why should we expect anything more than the truth about reality from our TV programs?
"This is a true story." So begins each episode of FX’s critically-acclaimed Fargo, like the 1996 film before it. In our ‘post-truth’ era of fake news and Trump’s continued circus of a presidency, the series is especially significant in its portrayal of deception and redemption. Like the highly successful seasons that came before it, the third season of Fargo has proved a relentless and bizarre ride. Filled with the same bleak horrors of the film it's loosely based on, the season has delivered on its promise of off-beat characters and uncanny scenarios.
This season revolves around the feud between Emmit Stussy, the parking lot king of Minnesota (Ewan McGregor), and his younger brother Ray (also McGregor), an unsuccessful parole officer having an illicit affair with one of his parolees, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Their feud is over a single stamp, which taps into the petty impulse of capitalistic industries and eventually culminates in a series of murders (including of a man with the same surname).
As with the previous two critically acclaimed seasons, the villains in the third season are unsettling but engaging. There's the severely repulsive and transparently evil V.M. Varga, played brilliantly by David Thewlis. Varga’s outlook shows that he’s clearly a moral relativist: “The problem is not that there is evil in the world, the problem is that there is good, because otherwise who would care?”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Chief Inspector Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), whose steadfast refusal to give up a murder case -- despite being constantly undermined by her boss -- is admirable. A stalwart Luddite, she prefers pencils to computers when it comes to doing her job. Technology seems to take its strange revenge on her, as automatic doors refuse to open for her, bathroom censors do not register her presence, and she can’t get good reception on her phone.
Indeed, Burgle is a woman of a different era, perhaps one with greater innocence. When she wonders if she even really exists or if the fight for justice is worth it, a simple embrace from her colleague Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval) transports the audience from pathos to promise.
In his review of the season’s ninth episode “Aporia”, Brian Tallerico argues: “If Gloria represents pure good and V.M. pure evil, Emmit Stussy and Nikki Swango are the ones caught in the middle.” While Emmit and Nikki are not inherently evil characters, they do act in questionable ways throughout the season. But both attempt to make amends. As Scott Tobias notes, “Ray’s death has redeemed [Nikki], at least in that her diabolical nature is now driven as much by a thirst for justice as it is by pure greed.” And as revealed in “Aporia”, Emmit tries to confess to the murder of his brother. Ray’s death therefore makes Emmit and Nikki both redeemable humans.
The characters in Fargo routinely find themselves in increasingly absurd situations and are forced to act in ways that are morally ambiguous. In keeping with the Coen Brothers’ biblical overtones seen throughout their cinematic oeuvre, Fargo acts as a vehicle of contemporary morality and the struggle between good and evil in an age of political and social uncertainty.
In “Who Rules the Land of Denial”, Nikki is sitting in a bowling alley after narrowly escaping an execution from three hit men. Sitting next to her is Paul Marrane, played by Twin Peaks-favourite Ray Wise. His character reveals a tiny, adorable kitten, before he goes on an odd but not entirely baseless diatribe against the wickedness in the world. Alexandra Ekstein-Kon describes him as “the rabbinical version of The Stranger (Sam Elliott) in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, but with a touch of cabalistic mysticism.” She also describes the bowling alley as “a sort of waiting room”, with Paul Marrane as “part of the committee that decides whether or not those who arrive go on to punishment or if they get another chance.”
Nikki’s bloodied-up façade contrasts well with the cute fragility of the helpless kitten. The scene has classic Fargo-strangeness, but ultimately it speaks of the exasperated fight between good and evil. The kitten -- sweet and vulnerable to the elements -- seems to epitomise humanity’s strive for simplicity, love and tenderness. It's in this odd characteristic that the parallels between Fargo and Twin Peaks are made even more evident, with the saccharine yet necessary theme of hope ringing throughout the series amidst the chaos.
There's also a Kafkaesque quality to Fargo; when Emitt and his business partner Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg) are first intimidated by Varga and his team, they are perplexed about their predicament. They’re unsure of what's actually happening, or if it really is happening at all. In “The House of Special Purpose”, in a particularly unnerving scene, Sy has just been forced to drink Varga’s urine. In the same episode, he witnesses Nikki being savagely beaten by Varga’s thugs. When he comes home to his wife, he sobs uncontrollably, and says: “The world is wrong. It looks like my world, but everything’s different.”
Similarly, in “Aporia”, Gloria says: “You think the world is something and then it turns out to be something else.” We may be inclined to agree with these characters, despite this season of Fargo being set in 2010. But their words ring true all the same and speak of the absurd brutality of a world beset by violence, white-collar corruption, and political incongruity. The third season of Twin Peaks, too, echoes this exasperation and altered view of the world, with the character Janey-E (Naomi Watts), saying to a couple of thugs: “We live in dark, dark times.” Clearly, both Fargo and Twin Peaks similarly operate as commentaries on our absurdist times.
Ewan McGregor in Fargo: S3 (IMDB)
For Tallerico, much of the dialogue in the show echoes the political unrest of 2016 and 2017. After Brexit and Trump’s electoral win, many simply could not believe that this was the same world anymore. As McGregor himself notes, Emmit is very much like Trump:
“Emmit is interesting, playing him during this whole Trump affair. He sort of epitomizes capitalism and the businessman, and he’s got a very thin skin, and he’s quick to blame other people for his own mistakes. There are moments I feel like are his Trump moments.”
Thewlis similarly points out that “quite a lot of this series has been written in recent months, during the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. And there are elements of today’s world being discussed within it.” The similarities between our world and the world of Fargo are therefore evident, and the show deftly plays off this absurdity in a uniquely comedic manner. Indeed, it’s the odd comedic aspect of the show that best parallels the current political climate, more so than the corruption and bloodshed that first grabs our attention. As Tobias notes, “Fargo wouldn’t be ‘Fargo’ without audacious little flourishes and detours, or the funny particulars of character and locale that defined the Coen brothers’ original conception of ‘Minnesota nice.’”
Fargo essentially reminds us that the world is an absurd landscape, and that the fight between good and evil, hope and corruption, redemption and deception, is unrelenting and merciless, yet ultimately suggests that the fight is well worth it -- but not if you expect to win. We are not offered a Hollywood-style resolution with Fargo. Instead, Nikki suffers the same fate as her lover and dies in ludicrous circumstances, while Varga’s fate is ultimately unknown (though we get the distinct and uncomfortable impression that he will escape once again).
But this kind of ending, if not wholly unsatisfying, is at least more truthful and in line with the irrational reality of our world, where sanity doesn’t always prevail. We are reminded, in the same vein as a Woody Allen film, that life is meant to be unsatisfying, so why should we expect anything more than the truth about our reality from TV programs? We have enough sci-fi and rom-coms to provide us with much-needed escapism. The truth is absurd. This is what makes Fargo such essential television.
Siobhan Lyons is a media scholar, lecturer and tutor at Macquarie University, where she is also a member of the Centre for Media History. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, and PopMatters, and she is a regular contributor to The Conversation and Philosophy Now. Her publications can be found here.