Television

How the Sublime Absurdity in 'Fargo' Speaks to Our 'Post-Truth' Era

Siobhan Lyons
Carrie Coon in Fargo: S3 (IMDB)

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?


Fargo

Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman
Network: FX
Amazon

"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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.