Seeing “Fargo”

Albert Camus may not be a character in the second season of “Fargo,” but Noreen Vanderslice (Emily Haine) is repeatedly shown reading her way through one of his most famous texts:

The fundamental subject of the The Myth of Sisyphus is this: it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. (Albert Camus,The Myth of Sisyphus, Penguin, 2000, p. 7.)

Death and life, right and wrong, health and sickness, purpose and chance, power and impotence – such are the polar tensions “Fargo” explores. The fundamental question of philosophy for Camus was suicide – is life worth living? His ultimate answer is in fact a resounding yes. However, it also entails a recognition of humanity’s constrained freedom and a happiness nestled in a symbol of ceaseless struggle.

At various points in the second season of “Fargo” Noreen puts Camus’ basic claim to other characters explicitly, including Betsy Solverson (Christin Milioti) and Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons). Both Betsy and Ed reply with what are essentially homegrown folksy truisms. Rightly, “Fargo” refrains from any implication of condescension. But in responding to Camus’ assertion about the absurdity of life, Betsy baulks. Sick with cancer, retaining a restrained, dignified confidence, she tells Noreen that each of us is put on earth to do a job and is given the right amount of time to do that job; when we stand in front of God, in order to give an account of ourselves, it simply won’t do to quote some Frenchman who says otherwise. If Betsy gets the last word in her conversation with Noreen, one can return to Camus’ great essay and find that he was perfectly capable of imagining her riposte.

Earlier in this season, in the fifth episode, Noreen also puts Camus’ basic claim to Ed. At this point in the show Ed is trying to gather the funds to buy the butcher shop where he works. But his wife Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) has spent too much of their savings on a motivational course she’s set on attending. Noreen asks Ed why he’s going to all the effort to buy the shop? “Camus says, knowing we’re all gonna die makes life a joke.” Ed listens, looks over at Noreen, and is stunned. “So you just give up?” (An understandable reaction, but perhaps it’s worth underling that this is not the conclusion Camus himself draws.) His alternative is the midwestern version of the American dream: you go to school, you get a job, you buy a house, and you start a family. It’s also the vision captured by the bucolic painting that hangs above Ed’s fireplace.

To some extent this image sets the events of the entire drama in motion. For Peggy, Ed’s wife, spends much of her time trying to find various ways to cope, forestall, or escape the patriarchally-enforced ideals of midwestern, rural, family life. She doesn’t want children (she continues to take birth control without Ed’s knowledge), she doesn’t want to live in Ed’s childhood home (she finds it stifling and says as much to Hank Larsson, sheriff of Rock Country, played by Ted Danson), and she doesn’t want to stay in Luverne, Minnesota (she collects travel magazines and repeatedly expresses her dream of moving to California). Peggy’s desire to escape the conformity with which she’s shackled is at least partly responsible for her decision to drive home after she hits Rye Gerhardt with her car. The entanglement might have kept her stuck in a man’s world. As she later puts it to Hank, you can’t understand these kinds of decisions in a vacuum; they make sense against the backdrop of one’s life. Indeed, the only time Peggy feels as if she’s living out her dream to be “actualized,” as she puts it, mimicking the inspirational language of LifeSpring, is when her and Ed are on the run from the Gerhardt family and forced to leave all of Ed’s dreams behind.

In episode six, after he’s been arrested, Ed tells Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), a Minnesotan state trooper, that he can’t get the myth of Sisyphus out of his head. Translating the story into his own words, Ed thinks the rock is a metaphor for his family: no matter what comes, he’ll protect his family in any way he canin the face of the Gerhardts or the Kansas City mafia or whatever else the world throws at him. At the time Lou doesn’t seem to get the point. But later, in the last episode, when Peggy has finally been arrested and is riding with Lou in his police car, he tells Peggy he knew exactly what Ed was saying. Lou starts telling a story of his own, one based on something he saw after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. In it a Vietnamese pilot, animated by a desperate resolve, saves himself and his family by jumping from his helicopter in death-defying fashion. “It’s the rock we all push” Lou says, referring to the efforts of men in defense of their family. “We call it our burden, but it’s really our privilege.”

Season two of “Fargo” opens by connecting the drama of the Blumquists, the Gerhardts, and the Kansas City mafia together. It does so by situating them against the broader backdrop of social and political change in America after the Vietnam war. Clips of President Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech, made in 1979 during the “energy crisis” that followed the Iranian Revolution, are aired during the series’ opening sequence. To make this point rather explicit, the show’s main characters are introduced by interspersing them with Carter and with the image of the serial murderer John Wayne Gracey—a potent and somewhat obvious symbol of moral turpitude. Carter’s speech comes immediately after the very first scene in episode one, in which actors are waiting to shoot a fictional Ronald Reagan movie entitled “Massacre at Sioux Falls.” Reagan’s role in “Fargo” is basically that of a would-be salve for a moribund society, offering the possibly illusive hope instilled by a firm belief in American exceptionalism.

But Reagan is depicted as a heroically hollow man. He offers up a nostalgic rhetorical flourish only to walk away from the reality of the challenge America faces, thereby exacerbating the problems he ostensibly wished to address. Both Lou and his father-in-law Hank make repeated references to their experience of fighting in American wars: Lou in Vietnam, Hank in World War One. Both acknowledge what Hank calls “convergences,” linking the deaths they’ve seen in war to the deaths they see in their civilian lives as police officers. And both connect the dubious morality of Vietnam with a loss of moral balance in America. On two separate occasions Lou and Hank say that the Americans who fought in Vietnam brought a sickness back with them. Reaching back to Aeschylus and Plato and up to Shakespeare and Thomas Mann, connecting contagion to social and political change is a symbolic move as old and as venerated as drama itself.

In episode five, Reagan goes to Luverne and gives a speech as part of his run for the presidency in 1981. It is a heartfelt, impassioned delivery, eliciting tears and smiles from the audience. True to life on many different occasions, Reagan receives raucous applause and a standing ovation. He aims at the failures of the Carter administration, blaming it for the energy crisis and caricaturing the government as inhibiting individual freedom through bloated bureaucracy. Appealing to the heritage of the puritan colonists, Reagan intones:

“A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny. That we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and above all, responsible liberty for every individual. That we would become that shining city on a hill. My friends I believe that you and I together can keep this rendezvous with destiny.”

Being tasked with the job of police escort to the presidential candidate, Lou runs into Reagan in a men’s washroom. Standing next to one another at the urinals, Reagan notices that Lou is a veteran and asks him where he served. Lou answers, only for Reagan to speak of one of his roles in a wartime film as if he too had actually fought in war. In “Operation Eagle’s Nest,” a fictional movie, Reagan suggests that what saved him from the Nazis was a dose of American ingenuity. But he quickly second-guesses himself, unsure if he’s got the right film, losing the plot in more ways than one. “Either way,” he says, “it was a fine picture.” Lou lets this go. Jumbling his words, he tells Reagan that he sometimes wonders if “maybe the sickness of the world, if it isn’t inside my wife somehow—the cancer.” What he means to be asking, he quickly clarifies, is whether or not Reagan really thinks American society will get out of the mess it’s in. Reagan repeats his American ingenuity yarn. “Son there’s not a challenge on this earth that can’t be overcome by an American. I truly believe that.” But Lou isn’t satisfied and he asks for details. Reagan just smiles, grabs Lou by the arm in a gesture of faux-assurance, and leaves without giving him an answer. In other words, while Reagan presents a “fine picture” in his speeches about American greatness, when it comes to answering the question of how this will be achieved in reality, he’ll either recognize his nostalgic nonsense for what it is, flushing it down the toilette, or he’ll turn and walk away.

One of the animating conflicts driving the second season of “Fargo” is of course the rivalry between the Kansas City mafia and the Gerhardt family. The battle is about more than territory. It’s between the empire-building growth model of professionalized corporate business, and the stasis model of the local family shop. At one point Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), the representative sent by Kansas City to negotiate with the Gerhardts, puts the conflict in exactly these terms. He does so because Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan), the eldest son and heir apparent to the family business, attacked some of the Kansas City personnel in an unprovoked show of force. When Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart), Dodd’s mother and acting head of the family operation since Otto (Michael Hogan) was incapacitated by a stroke, tells Joe that it won’t happen again, Joe makes it clear what the alternatives are. By contrast with the Gerhardts, he says, a professional business has no family loyalties and anyone who acts independently, to the detriment of the business, is punished without a moment’s hesitation. Rye Gerhardt, Dodd’s daughter Simone (Rachel Keller), Dodd himself, and especially Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon), do indeed undermine the Gerhardt operation in important ways.

From the moment “Fargo” introduces the Kansas City mafia, it’s clear that their image, their language, and their practice mimics the corporate model of Wall Street. Decisions are to be made according to the potential return on investment, and risk is to be assessed according to its economic logic alone. At the end of the first episode Joe Bulo gives a slideshow presentation to Kansas City management in which he says that the mafia’s “research department” thinks that Otto Gerhardt’s injury is a “tactical opportunity.” In episode three, after Joe has given his corporate sales pitch to the Gerhardts for a peaceful and profitable takeover, he talks about what comes next with Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), the local Kansas City enforcer present to ensure the expansion. “If the market says kill ’em we kill ’em, if the market says we offer them more money, we offer them more money. Whatever the pluses and minus dictate.” You could say that neoliberal deregulation, or “rational choice theory,” is as much the future of organized crime as it is of (the Reagan) government.

The Gerhardts are not totally unaware of their predicament. They know that they’re small-timers compared with Kansas City. And Joe’s analysis turns out to be exactly right. Personal connections of various kinds undermine the Gerhardts’ attempts to push back against the hostile takeover. Bear Gerhardt (Angus Sampson), the second oldest son who supports his mother’s leadership over Dodd’s, offers the wisdom of “know thyself.” They need to be keenly aware of their quandary, he seems to say, and they should proceed accordingly. Dodd thinks Bear is spouting useless gobbledygook. But, significantly, Bear gets the adage wrong. It is not a quote from the Bible. It is from the Delphic Oracle and most famously associated with Plato’s Socrates. The Gerhardt family may be dimly cognizant of the challenge they’re facing, but, to borrow the language of classical Greece, they fundamentally lack the character—and the virtue of prudence—by which they could successfully deliberate about their choices.

Still, “Fargo” presents the Gerhardts’ fate as destined. In the same way that Reagan spoke of America’s “rendezvous with destiny,” Mike Milligan dismisses the Gerhardts to the dustbin of history. When Lou confronts Mike at the Pearl Hotel in an attempt to end the turf war between Kansas City and the Gerhardts, Mike asks Lou if he’s familiar with the phrase “manifest destiny.” Lou understands the implication. But he thinks that the need for conquest, the attempt to own places and people, is the root cause of the problem, not its solution. Mike wonders, is Lou saying that capitalism is to blame? No, Lou explains, greed is. Their conversation epitomizes the disparity between a view of the world in which good and evil are more than words in a game of power, and one where it’s kill or be killed. Obviously Lou thinks greed can and should be curbed for good. But Mike disagrees. For him greed is simply a fact about human beings that drives what they do. The question is what form it takes and whether or not one is on the winning side.

The irony, with which season two closes, is that Mike is far more in tune with the way the mafia of the past operates. In his final scene, in episode ten, we see him conversing with Hamish, Kansas City mafia management. Hamish rebukes Mike strongly for wanting to return to the “old days” and, in promoting him, offers him a tip. “The sooner you realize there’s only one business left in the world, the money business, just ones and zeroes, the better off you’re gonna be.” Hamish had subjected Mike to racist criticism earlier in the show, and now he tells Mike that he needs to adopt the corporate image by donning a gray suit, cutting his hair, and learning to play golf. Deeply disconcerted, Mike finds himself occupying a small office and a desk, tasked with the attempt to find greater internal efficiency for Kansas City’s criminal organization. “Profit and loss, infrastructure,” in Hamish’s words. Mike was clearly hoping to enjoy the benefits of being a local boss. He did not think he would end up being a faceless cog in the machine, presented with a new set of seemingly never-ending rungs to climb on the corporate ladder. He may be on the winning side, but what exactly has he won for himself?

One of the things crime dramas allow is a relatively straightforward consideration of the workings of power. Again, the question is, do the words good and bad disclose something fundamentally ineradicable about the nature of human existence, or are they masks worn in the will to power? Using Camus to get this Nietzschean ball rolling, so to speak, “Fargo” wisely defers answering this question conclusively. It presents the alternatives. At the start of episode four we find ourselves at a movie theatre. Dodd is a boy and Otto is a much younger man. A fictional movie starring Reagan, “Moonbase Freedom,” is playing on the screen. Otto has come to the theatre to meet with a local crime boss. In the meeting they discuss the question of power, with the boss indicating that he’s king and Otto an expendable drone. But when one of the boss’ men puts a gun to Otto’s head, Dodd, who sat down behind the boss, sticks at knife into the base of his skull. Why would Otto would be so foolish as to bring his son? “He’s got to learn how men are.”

Towards the end of the season, after Hanzee has successfully eliminated what remains of the Gerhardt family, he arranges to get a new identity. His new last name is to be Tripoli, an intended reference to the north African city successively captured by a series of powerful empires. The question, put to him by the man who gives him his new papers, is whether or not Hanzee will continue to serve in the empire of others, create his own, or walk away from it all. It’s kill or be killed, Hanzee tells him, “there’s the message.” (And yes, in the future that is “Fargo” season one, Hanzee apparently makes an appearance as Tripoli, the beneficiary of some magical plastic surgery.)

From the first episode to the last, aliens influence major developments in the second season of “Fargo.” Peggy hits Rye Gerhardt because Rye was led onto the road by the appearance of a UFO. When Lou goes to fill up his car at a gas station in episode three, the person in line in front of him starts telling him about “strange happenings,” visitors from another world, “caretakers.” When Hanzee makes his way to the Waffle Hut in search of Rye in episode four, he too seems to see traces of the UFOs. In fact this seems as plausible a place as any for Hanzee to have revoked his allegiance to the Gerhardts. For shortly thereafter, when Hanzee talks with Sonny at the auto repair shop, he reveals details about his service in Vietnam. Because of an implied racism, he was often sent on the most dangerous missions, for which he performed heroically. Even at war, then, as a native American fighting for America, it was kill or be killed for Hanzee. Finally, at another point in “Fargo,” when Molly Solverson shows her mom a picture she drew of their family, complete with a UFO hovering in the sky, she foreshadows the moment in which their appearance saves Lou from being strangled by Bear at the Motor Motel.

It’s not a long mental leap from aliens to alienation. Alien invasions can represent many different things, including a foreign invasion and domination by an outside power. The space age was quite obviously the same period in which the two remaining superpowers vied for global dominance, the USA and the USSR. At that time American fascination with aliens and with UFOs was at least partly a manifestation of deep anxieties about an imagined invasion by the Soviet Union. Of course it was also the manifestation of deep anxieties about the end of racial segregation, civil rights, and feminism, plus the inverse recognition that white colonists had invaded and settled an already occupied land. It was simultaneously a way of explaining the sense in which Americans felt manipulated by outside powers, such as the oil-producing countries of OPEC. In “Fargo” the intervention of UFOs at pivotal moments in the plot ultimately renders any attempt to find meaning in the web of personal choice, social forces, and global politics that much more difficult. In fact they render that search absurd.

In episode ten, near the season’s conclusion, Betsy, Lou, and Hank are sitting in the Solverson living room. Hank asks Lou if he’s going to mention the UFOs in his police report about the shooting at Sioux Falls. Eventually the conversation turns to something Betsy discovered in her dad’s office. In a previous episode, when she went to his house to feed his cats, she found a room covered from floor to ceiling with pieces of paper. Each piece had a symbol or ideogram as well as a word on it. Hank explains that after his wife’s death he got to thinking about all the senseless violence in war and in society. To him it seemed so much of it stemmed from miscommunication. Attempting to develop a universal human language was a potential solution. Since he thought that pictures served this purpose better than words, he had started with simple ideas and worked from there. “And the more I worked on it,” Hank continues, “the more it became all I could think about.” To Betsy this only confirms her sense that her dad is a good man. But all Hank is willing to allow is that he’s been trying to act with the right intentions

Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification (…). He weighs his chances, he counts on ‘someday’, his retirement or the labour of his sons. He still thinks that something in his life can be directed. In truth, he acts as if he were free, even if all the facts make a point of contradicting that liberty. But after the absurd, everything is upset. That idea that ‘I am’, my way of acting as if everything has a meaning (…) – all that is given the lie in vertiginous fashion by the absurdity of a possible death. Thinking of the future, establishing aims for oneself, having preferences – all this presupposes a belief in freedom, even if one occasionally ascertains that one doesn’t feel it. But at that moment I am well aware that that higher liberty, that freedom to be, which alone can serve as basis for a truth, does not exist. Death is there as the only reality.(Camus, Sisyphus, p. 56.)

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