Another Season Of Fargo Down In History
It's the final showdown between 'true' and 'story.'
I've been enjoying my introduction to Carrie Coon on this season of Fargo, but her work as Nora on The Leftovers -- which I've just started watching from the beginning -- was at a whole other level. Among other things, I thought it was lovely to see her light up on that show like she never gets to on Fargo. And then I remembered that Nora's entire family vanished. I'm not sure what it says about Fargo that Gloria Burgle doesn't get to show as much emotional range as someone who lost everything, but it probably isn't awesome.
To be fair, Fargo has certain limitations. It paints with a wintry palette, both visually and emotionally. And while its scope isn't narrow, it certainly is specific. But that doesn't always stop it from being all over the place, as it was for much of this season. We got high highs like Gloria's journey to Los Angeles, the "Peter And The Wolf" prologue, the chase through the woods, and nearly every other scene that involved Nikki. But there were also long stretches where Fargo's trademark deliberateness got in its own way. The shout-outs to Coen Brothers films and previous seasons got pretty distracting, highlighting the possibility that Fargo doesn't have stories left to tell so much as remix. And the show's tendency to zig when you think it's going to zag -- most notably Ray's early exit -- sometimes trades short-term surprise value for the perfectly valid reasons that existed for zagging in the first place.
Fargo has a clearly defined lane: supposedly good people encounter bad people and do bad things; bizarre coincidences juxtapose with the mundane; and justice is ultimately served, all in the course of a Minnesota winter or two. But Fargo also hates being constrained, and it hates being predictable, so more and more it's bashing itself around within its restraints like a velociraptor in a shipping crate. And thus things, occasionally, get broken. Things like narrative structure, or at least pieces of it. Let's put it this way: I accidentally started watching the finale before watching the penultimate episode, and it was almost twenty minutes before I realized my mistake.
But the finale brings a strong close to a largely uneven season. Despite its relatively small cast this year, Fargo had a lot of balls in the air for that last hour to bring down safely. And I feel like the episode accomplishes that. Nikki and Wrench get to be the avenging angels, forcing Varga to abandon his henchmen to their fates as they should have known he would. But then Nikki overreaches her mandate and her borrowed time runs out. And so, years later, does Emmit's. I suppose Wrench was just waiting until Emmit felt like he was in the clear and more or less content before finishing Nikki's work for her (you probably noticed that the family pictures on his fridge didn't include any of Ray). Finally, the season ends with Gloria -- now Agent Burgle from the Department of Homeland Security -- facing down Varga one-on-one, just like moviegoers recently saw another woman face down a different David Thewlis character, though in a rather different mode.
Still, that's all denouement. The climax of the season occurred in that mysterious bowling alley of the soul, where Nikki and Wrench were bestowed with divine purpose and a new lease on life. It was a riveting scene, for its audaciousness and for the way it forced the viewer to really focus on what was happening. And with nothing more than a kitten and two people sitting at a bar. Well, that and the possibility that we were getting a glimpse behind the proverbial veil. For a show that had a fish-storm in its first season and a flying saucer in its second, a supernatural near-death experience seems right on track.
Actually, this is all secondary to the season's main theme: the nature of truth and those who manipulate it. As previously noted in this space, the opening titles reminding us that "This is a true story" have been emphasizing the "story" and downplaying the "true." Early in the fourth episode, the Ukrainian Yuri gives a Meemo a succinct précis of what truth means in Russia. There are two words for it, he says: pravda, or man's truth; and istina, God's truth. "But there is also nepravda, untruth. And this is the weapon the leader uses. Because he knows what they don't: the truth is whatever he says it is." Yuri is speaking of Putin's Russia, but he might as well be speaking of this season of Fargo, under the influence of V.M. Varga. And maybe he's talking about someplace else as well. Maybe this place. Maybe everyplace.
Indeed, lately it seems like some people are willing to believe anything, no matter how outrageous, depending on where they hear it. The old saying went that everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. The new saying goes, "Says who?" The U.S. increasingly feels less like one country than two parallel universes, each inhabited by people with their own set of beliefs, assumptions, and yes, facts. Without a shared reality, productive debate becomes impossible and the day is won by whoever can sell their version of the truth most effectively, most loudly, or to the greatest number of people.
Maybe this, along with Fargo's "This is a true story" conceit, is starting to get to Noah Hawley. You'll remember that he didn't even jump right into this year's story, preferring to ease in with a tangential anecdote in 1988 East Berlin in which the truth wasn't what actually happened, but what the most powerful man in the room said it was. And then the season's main antagonist is a brazen liar who has not only invented his own reality, but insists that those around him live in it. Sound familiar?
Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that V.M. Varga is Donald Trump. Varga is smarter, more canny, worlds more articulate and coherent. He lacks Trump's vainglory and howling need for universal admiration. He is interested by, engaged in, and prepared for the task he has undertaken; he keeps his ego in check and knows that a low profile is his best protection. And they have very different insatiable appetites; Varga fills his mouth with food that he later throws up, while Trump fills his hands with the body parts of women who later, presumably, throw up.
That said, there are parallels that I'm certain are intentional. Both behave as if unconstrained by norms or morals, thinking only of what they can get away with. Both put on humiliating displays of alpha-male dominance, both thrive in self-created environments of shady dealings and financial grab-ass, and both gaslight the shit out of everyone while glorying in their victims' inability to do a damn thing about it. And, not for nothing, but both of them have something about their personal appearance that makes you look at them think, wait, what the fuck? But most of all, neither of them can get away with this forever.
Or can they?
The season's final scene takes place in the late summer of 2016 (Gloria refers to an upcoming Saturday at the Minnesota State Fair, which always runs late August through Labor Day, so we can lock down the date within a couple of weeks). At that time in our reality, a terrible novice politician was circling the drain of electoral history after a series of self-inflicted mortal wounds. The rest of us were just looking forward to it being over. Now that man is the President of the United States. And that was just the first implausible plot twist of a pile that seems to grow higher by the day.
Hawley, to his credit, lacks either the Coen Brothers' misanthropy or their aversion to getting caught making something that could be construed as a point. So we think we know how a season of Fargo is going to end: the good are rewarded, the wicked are punished (Obadiah 1:4). We know that going into the final confrontation in the holding room. There's Gloria -- experienced and competent, if a bit cold and unconvincing -- against the amoral vulgarian who knows how and when to tell people what they want to hear. She has him dead to rights. But Varga is confident that his version of events -- his nepravda -- is the one that's been officially adopted, and that someone more powerful than both of them will walk in at the last minute and hand him his undeserved victory. He doesn't say who, but might it even be...the director of the FBI himself?
The clock runs out on the episode before either of them is proven right, and one likes to imagine Varga left to swing. But what kept me up after watching the episode was his comment to Gloria that she was about to be forever reminded of her place in the world. In other words, that a smart, hard-working woman will never beat a man who can game the system. For all the violence and depravity that Fargo displays, Hawley is at bottom a compassionate and humane storyteller. The more I think about it, the more I suspect this ambiguous ending is Hawley allowing us to look away from what likely happened, a small mercy that the real world often denies us.
The real world isn't Fargo. Good guys get screwed, and bad guys get rewarded for doing bad stuff. Maybe Fargo is done, or maybe it'll return more repetitive than ever, or maybe it'll break new frozen ground without breaking itself in the process.
But at least Gloria's right about one thing: the Minnesota State Fair is pretty fantastic.