not in our stars, but in ourselves
NOTE: I think I’ll forgo the allegedly clever titles for each review, as I employed in my Hannibal reviews. They were probably just annoying for most of you, and I’d rather just get down to brass tacks. Sound good? Oh, yah, real good!
During the opening credits of Fargo‘s season premiere, we see and hear President Jimmy Carter giving his “Crisis of Confidence” speech in 1979. The entire speech is worth reading, but here’s an excerpt that seems to speak to what’s going to happen in this second season of Fargo:
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.
And then we meet our cast of characters, and we see that this season will go down the path of fragmentation and self-interest. There’s the Gerhardt crime family, which has operated a trucking racket for decades – and which is falling on hard times, financial and familial. Patriarch Otto (Michael Hogan) suffers a stroke; matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart) has to try to care for him while controlling the family business; and sons Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), Bear (Angus Sampson), and Rye (Kieran Culkin). Rye is the runt of the litter, but he’s determined to ascend to the top. To that end, he’s forged a shady deal with a deeply indebted typewriter salesman (Mike Bradecich); all they need is for a judge to unfreeze the salesman’s accounts, and they can get going. Rye follows that judge to the Waffle Hut in Lucerne, Minnesota, and – when she responds to his attempts to intimidate her with sass, a speech about Job, and a squirt of bug spray to his eyes – shoots her, the waitress, and the cook. As he leaves the scene, he sees a UFO – at which point he’s run over by Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst). She drives all the way home with him on the hood of her car, cleans herself up, and gets dinner ready for her sweet husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons). When Ed hears Rye bumping around in the garage, goes to investigate, and finds himself under attack by a bloodied and disoriented (and coked out) runt of the Gerhardt clan, he impulsively stabs him in the side with a gardening tool. Peggy urges him to help her get rid of the body so they can have everything “they” want: a nice house, a few kids, a butcher shop owned by Ed, the American dream. Meanwhile, Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) has begun to investigate the carnage at the Waffle Hut. He thinks he’s figured out the broad sketch of what happened, but there are some strange details that stick out: a shoe in a tree, a car abandoned in the parking lot despite skid marks leading away from the Waffle Hut. He discusses the case with some of his buddies at the bingo hall, and his conspiracy-nut friend, Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman), warns him that these things always start small – but just you wait. We get a glimpse at the tail end of the episode of a rival crime organization, one that intends to “acquire” the Gerhardts – an intention that the shadowy boss of the outfit approves. Roll credits.
That’s a taut little story right there, and one that I’d be happy to tune into even if it were just something I’d happened to stumble upon randomly. The Carter speech and the parable of Job set some of the key themes, to be explored as different variations throughout the show. Considering what an old lady I am in spirit, it may surprise you to know that I wasn’t yet alive when Carter was president. I was born in the midst of Ronald Reagan’s tenure. I therefore do not have any particular memory or insight into the timeframe, but here’s what I’ve gathered: after the Saturnalia that was the 1970s, the U.S. was in tatters. Baby boomers – the most selfish generation ever to sully these shores – had bought and consumed and driven and fucked and destabilized everything, and they were, surprise surprise, as unhappy as they were impoverished. Carter offered them hard truths, and a solid plan for how to reestablish American prosperity for all. No one wanted to hear that, however, and so when Reagan and his easygoing promises came along, there was no contest. This isn’t just one of the most frustratingly shortsighted moves in American history. John Teti writes in his excellent recap for The A.V. Club: “Much of Fargo’s drama relies on the tension between the stories characters are told about themselves and the tales they’d prefer to hear. It’s a show about the perils of overestimating your ability to chart your own narrative.” That’s the key: Americans always want to believe themselves to be heroic, to be masters of their own destinies, to blaze their own paths, to be rewarded with wealth for their superior ideals and values. Fargo is, in some way, about that quintessentially American dream extended to its logical conclusion.
This is where Job comes in: as the judge tells Rye, the Devil made a sort of wager with God. He bet that he could turn the righteous believer Job into someone who would curse God’s name. God told the Devil to have at it, and the Devil besieged Job with all manner of troubles: dead crops, skin ailments, evaporated wealth, dead animals, dead children. Through it all, Job remained devout, and tried to understand God’s will. By the end of the trial, God rewarded Job with all kinds of riches and health and new kids, and Job eventually lived happily ever after. Every put-upon Coen Brothers antihero (and even outright villain) wants to see himself as Job, as Teti notes in the previously cited A.V. Club review, and as Kevin P. Sullivan notes in his EW review. But there’s more in that story than a character trait. America in 1979 was besieged by evils – and rather than embrace the path that Carter urged them towards, it made a deal with the Devil. Greed is good, and all that rot. We haven’t recovered since.
I realize that all of this sounds awfully heavy, and maybe not very fun, but rest assured: it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Fargo is a tremendously entertaining hour of television, whether you’re on the edge of your seat during the exquisitely shot and paced Waffle Hut massacre or grinning (to keep from grimacing, since he really doesn’t sound that crazy) during Karl’s conspiracy rants. I’m so eager for the next episode that I just might stay up WAY past my bedtime to watch it next Monday. Seeing how the theme and variations play out; seeing how these already fascinating characters – each of whom feels real, believable, teeming with life and consciousness – develop; seeing how the intricacies of the plot thread themselves together; seeing what the hell the UFO was about; it will all be a real pleasure. You betcha.