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The Alien Nation of “Fargo”

January 27, 2016


Right before becoming hypnotized by a UFO in the middle of the road – a fatal error which puts him halfway through “self-actualizing” hairdresser Peggy Blumquist’s windshield – Rye Gerhardt, the youngest son of a North Dakota crime family, corners a judge in a waffle hut in a fledgling attempt at extortion. Before Gerhardt resorts to shooting everyone in sight, the judge sighs and explains why he’s wasting his time:

“One day, the Devil came to God and said, ‘Let’s make a bet between you and me for the soul of a man.’ And from on high they looked down on Job, a devout man, religious. And the Devil said, ‘I can change his mind and make him curse your name.’ And God said, ‘Try and you will only fail.’ So the Devil begins. He kills Job’s herds and takes his fields. He plagues him with boils and throws him on the ash heap. But Job’s mind remains unchanged. So I ask you, son, if the Devil couldn’t change Job’s mind, how the hell are you gonna change mine?”

Coen Brothers fans will recognize the extraterrestrial MacGuffin of season two of Fargo; the melancholy barber Ed Crane had a similar close encounter in The Man Who Wasn’t There. It’s the first of many nods to the Coens’ films, from O Brother Where Art Thou (when a mournful rendition of “O Death” plays) to Fargo itself (when a character bangs on top of a static TV in a remote hideout).

But the reference to Job offers a deeper thematic connection to the Coens: existentialism. From Barton Fink to No Country for Old Men, angst and death are the warp and woof of the Coens’ world, sometimes with a comic flair that few filmmakers can pull off. The episode titles (“The Myth of Sisyphus,” “Fear and Trembling”) and later dialogue (deli worker Noreen Vanderslice carries and quotes Camus) are more recognizable references; but while existentialism is often associated with a Camus or Sartre, it runs through the heart of Western thought, not dividing atheists and theists so much as the dispassionate and passionate. Long before the French systematized being and nothingness, that righteous man of the Bible was tempted to “curse God and die.”

Fargo draws existentialism to tell a bleak story of human life, where “the dizziness of freedom” releases a wildfire of violence, anguish, and horror. If the presence of aliens feels prosaic and unsurprising (“It’s just a flying saucer, Ed – we gotta go!”), it’s because Fargo’s characters are alienated themselves. Whether “good guys”, “bad guys”, or something in-between, their freedom to choose (and as the last episode hints, their freedom to speak) sets them apart from the world around them. “To be human,” Czesław Miłosz put it, “is to completely alien amid the galaxies” – and this could very well be the epigraph of season two of Fargo, which is brimming with misfits and lost souls. They wonder as they wander, asserting themselves in hollow spasms of violence to try and overcome their disconnection from the world.

That disconnection is never fully bridged. Where Job heard God assure him of his sovereignty, the characters of Fargo can only confront the eternal silence of space. Their human predicament – like the UFOs – remains an absurdity, one that just comes and goes without so much as a cursory explanation of why.

But from True Grit to A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers never succumb to nihilism, and Fargo follows suit. In the final episode, we return full circle to the faith of Job in a dialogue between Noreen and the dying wife of state trooper Lou Solverson:

Noreen Vanderslice: “Camus says knowin’ we’re gonna die makes life absurd.”

Betsy Solverson: “Well, I don’t know who that is. But I’m guessing he doesn’t have a 6-year old girl.”

Noreen Vanderslice: “He’s French.”

Betsy Solverson: “I don’t care if he’s from Mars. Nobody with any sense would say something that foolish. We’re put on this earth to do a job. And each of us gets the time we get to do it. And when this life is over and you stand in front of the Lord…Well, you try tellin’ him it was all some Frenchman’s joke.”

Like Marge Gunderson’s final monologue in the original film, Betsy Solverson’s words are a kind of self-critique of the Fargo universe. Noreen hasn’t seen everything the viewers have, so her matter-of-factness seems naïve; still, her insight cuts to the heart of the story in an unexpected way. In the riddle of our finitude and freedom – and our freedom for evil – the light of faith breaks through, and has the power to change everything. Not as a magic wand that denies the world as it is, but as a lived reality that makes the existential picture of man – as Sisyphus, as stranger, as a “saint without God” – complete.