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One For the History Books: A Look at the Fargo Universe

The cast of the FX series Fargo (Image  ©  FX). 

The cast of the FX series Fargo (Image © FX). 

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (1996) is a masterpiece and misnomer as noted with the title card:

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. 

However, the events in this film did not take place in 1987, moreover the events in this film never took place. This complicated relationship with truth recalls the 1959’s novel In Cold Blood, which author Truman Capote described as a “nonfiction novel”, an odd pairing of words. These pieces of media use reality/true crime premises as a creative foothold. Like Capote’s nonfiction novel (and it’s complication of the truth), the Coen brothers’ “truth” offers a new kind of authority, though the film offers no challenges to its realism: frames packed with viscous snow flurries, a scourge of film noir stylistics, even the telltale mid-american lilt that carries through the film. But these stylistic notes prove complicated, because as menacing as Fargo can be, and as middle-American as Fargo can look, the film is nothing if not hilarious.

The film finds its center in the inquisitive, genuine, and unimpeachably midwestern performance of Ethan Coen’s wife Frances McDormand as Police Chief Marge Gunderson. Appearing almost a third into the film, Gunderson is this dark crime story’s hero and another delicious misnomer. The pregnant Chief waddles through the film with a keen mind. It’s Chief Gunderson who is able to untangle the Coen Brother’s pastiche of crime and confusion with her disarming, folksy charm. It’s this charm that delivers most of the film’s humorous nods, like when she let’s her deputy know that she’s not “a hundred percent”confident of his police work. And she means it, even if we find it funny. That’s why the humor works. McDormand, William H. Macy, and The Coen brothers take these tragic, funny, often wide eyed and genuine characters seriously. Jerry Lundegaard’s money troubles and ridiculous scheming seems plausible because his pettiness and isolation is realistic, is identifiable. It’s the same with McDormand’s character, when at the end of the film she attempts to understand this rash of violence, wondering aloud to Peter Stormare’s character: 

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

And that’s the wonderful oddity of Fargo, the same universe that created Steve Buscemi's skeevy character also produced the heroic Marge. Fargo succeeds because it succeeds as a locale. The film constructs a town with people we care about, people we pity. And over ten years later, Fargo opens a new chapter in the FX series, Fargo.

It’s unfair to describe the FX’s original series Fargo as a “spin-off”; the Coen Brothers had no role in its creation. The series was penned by Noah Hawley, previously of the television series Bones, and made its way to the desk of Joel and Ethan Coen, where the brothers had an “an eerie feeling” while reading it. This feeling was the next chapter in the history of Fargo.

The first season is carried by Billy Bob Thornton who plays the scariest motherfucker north of the Mason Dixon line. Thornton's character serves as a subtle homage to Buscemi and Stormare’s roles in the 1996 film. Similarly, the season crowds around a plucky, earnest police officer in the tradition of the pregnant Chief Gunderson. Yet Molly Solverson, the season’s Chief Gunderson played by newcomer Allison Tolman, strikes her own path. Tolman begins the season as the favorite deputy of the town’s police chief, but after a rash of violence (including the Chief’s murder), she alone must use her keen investigative mind to peel apart Fargo’s wonky, complicated happenings. This season, aside from a brief side plot, bears no strong narrative resemblance to the original 1996 film. Instead, the relationship between the series and the film comes from the visuals, the casting, the soundtrack, landmarks, and that lovely midwestern lilt. 

After a rousingly successful first season, Fargo was approved for a second season. This new chapter documents Fargo in 1979 with a particular visual flare. Present, as always, are the snowy vistas, blindingly good cops, and poorly guided crimes, but here they wear a new face. The visual feel is saturated with visible decline and the economic / social funk of late 70’s, and finds its anchor in stellar performances by the women of Fargo: Jean Smart (as the matriarch of the Gerhart Clan) and Kirsten Dunst (as Peggy Blomquist, a hairdresser turned murderer). Otto, played by Michael Hogan, is the head of the Gerhart Crime Syndicate who is incapacitated minutes into the second season. His wife, played by Smart assumes control of the Syndicate and defends it from a shadowy crime group only referred to as “Kansas City”. The youngest of Smart’s three children, Rye, is the victim of a hit and run perpetrated by Dunst. Following and subverting a tradition of strong female forces in the wintery north, Dunst and Smart shape much of the season’s narrative action. But in stark contrast to figures like Chief Gunderson and Molly Solverson, the women of this season are decidedly morally ambivalent. Smart, as matriarch, brings a feminine energy to the “boss” role which she plays icy cool, violent, and unabashedly loving in unexpected rotation. After Dunst kills Rye Gerhart with her car, she begins a season long descent into violence and lies and oh is it glorious to watch. A modern homage to Lady Macbeth, Dunst drives her feckless husband to violence and the obfuscation of violence, wide-eyed with anxiety the whole time. And of course what Lady macbeth would be complete without a bit of blood. Out, damn'd spot! In further departure, the protagonistic / heroic role usually filled by Chief Gunderson or Solverson is filled by Patrick Wilson, playing Lou Solverson, the father of season one’s Molly Solverson.

Like the Kansas of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, or the Beacon Hills of MTV’s Teen Wolf, Fargo has established a community so realistic it is able to stage several narratives. Between 1987’s Fargo, 2006’s Fargo, and 1979’s Fargo the Coen brothers birthed a society and like any society Fargo changes over time. The Coen Brothers didn’t make a film, nor did Noah Hawley write a television show, but I would argue that between the film Fargo and the two seasons of the show Fargo, the viewer is presented with visual history book: the documentation of a people, which after all, does seem like the goal of art, don’t cha know. 

Kamden Hilliard is a poet, writer, and educator running through Hawaii with his woes, including fellowships from The Davidson Institute and Callaloo. Kamden prefers Kam, is a poetry editor at JELLYFISH MAGAZINE, and recipient of the 2015 Stanley and Evelyn Lipkin Poetry Prize. His first chapbook, DISTRESS TOLERANCE, is forthcoming from Magic Helicopter Press. Kam’s work has appeared in (or will drift into) Juked, The Destroyer, Word Riot, The Atlas Review, Entropy Magazine, and other lovely places. Find him twittering @KamdenHilliard