Does Fargo Exist In The World Of Fargo?

Questions abound as Gloria explores her late stepfather's mysterious La-La Land past and Fargo becomes a lutefisk-out-of-Water story.

Fargo's tendency to push boundaries -- and not just the boundaries of its time slot -- is part of its brand. It likes to challenge the viewer, possibly in part because it's difficult to quickly forget an hour of TV that takes a while to puzzle out. That said, this week's episode of Fargo is structurally flummoxing even by Fargo standards. Between the Los Angeles setting, a lengthy flashback whose first segment eats up almost a quarter of the episode before the opening titles even roll, the absence of 75% of the regular cast, and not one but two stories-within-a-story (one of which is animated), this episode raises as many questions as it answers.

But since Fargo rarely does anything unintentionally, it falls to us to work out what it all meeeans, man. And if you want answers, you have to ask questions.

Is this a true story?

Of course not. But the "This is a true story" disclaimer (or is it a claimer?) that opens the movie and every episode of the series has become so familiar that the show is starting to riff on it. This season, the word "true" fades from the screen first, followed by the sentence's first three words, leaving us staring at the word "story." It's not only tweaking us about the line between fact and fiction; it's also a weekly reminder of this season's mysterious opening scene, in which an implacable East German officer insisted that the clear falsehood he was pursuing was the truth, while dismissing the obvious truth told by his prisoner as a mere story. It's been said that all stories are true. I always understood this to mean that all good stories must have some truth in them, but perhaps Fargo is seeking to take this topsy-turvy assertion to its logical extreme somehow. I'm still working on this one.

Why Los Angeles?

Is there any place in America where the truth diverges more sharply from the myth than in Hollywood? It's supposedly the Dream Factory, whence our culture's best-known stories emanate. But it's also the Dream Killbox, where stories go to die (or into turnaround, which amounts to the same thing). For every success story, there are hundreds if not thousands of cautionary tales, of which that of Thaddeus Mobley -- a writer who pays a producer while he works on a screenplay that will never be filmed -- was merely one unremarkable example.

And Los Angeles is not only the opposite of what many expect in some ways; it's also the opposite of what Gloria is used to. Here, it's 72 degrees in December, cars on the road don't move, and Santa Claus steals your shit. It's the anti-Minnesota.

Gloria even experiences a time-wasting digression at the hands of someone who wants to get into her pants, like the movie's Marge Gunderson during her visit to the Twin Cities. And like Marge, Gloria's unaware of what's going on until the guy who's after her clumsily tips his hand. In both cases, it's a reminder that mysteries are already hard enough to solve on your own snow-covered turf without venturing off the tundra.

Is Gloria making her peace with technology?

Gloria's clearly still a Luddite, but it's hard not to see her point in a scene in which all the other patrons at the bar are staring at their phones. And then the L.A. cop faffs on at her about how Facebook is so vital for connecting with people, like some kind of poster boy for unintentional irony. It's not surprising that Gloria eschews Facebook, nor is it surprising that she gets shit for it. The non-Facebook-user I know in real life certainly does.

But Gloria gets along just fine with technology that has one button and does one thing. When she encounters an old-fashioned desk bell at the WGA building (played here by some old brick pile that looks like Gloria brought it with her in her carry-on from Stearns County), she's able to produce a loud, clear tone with more sustain than a David Gilmour guitar note. And she's so enamored with an abandoned box --whose only purpose when switched on is to immediately switch itself back off -- that she adopts it and takes it back home to Minnesota with her.

(Apropos of perhaps nothing, the box also brings to mind the well-known concept of Schrödinger's cat, in which a feline in a box is both dead and alive until somebody finds out which one it is. As does the story Ray Wise tells Gloria in the bar, about how wives of soldiers are, much like Gloria, both married and divorced depending on what happens to their husbands. Maybe the box speaks to her own sense of limbo somehow. I'm still working on this too.)

It's a little tougher to parse Gloria's relationship to the cybernetic protagonist of Thaddeus Mobley's story. But since all it does is wander around and chirp the repeated untruth "I can help!" until someone tells it to shut itself off, she couldn't have felt that hostile toward it.

Now if she can just get door sensors to acknowledge her existence, maybe she'll be halfway equipped for life in the 2010s.

Does Moe have a point?

Gloria's new boss keeps sending her increasingly irate messages instructing her to leave off this quest to the west and get back to her post in the frozen north. This even though Gloria is ostensibly investigating a homicide that took place in her jurisdiction. But at the same time, how official is this field trip, officially? Gloria does tell people that she's a cop investigating a murder, but that reads as something she's using to gain cooperation rather than something she really feels. She never wears her uniform throughout her visit, and unless it's made of flannel, she didn't even pack it in the suitcase that got stolen. She seems so prepared to make the trip on her own dime that she's annoyed at Moe's suggestion that she might have expected the sheriff's department to pay for it. And from the narrative standpoint, it's not like she learns anything that's especially pertinent to solving her stepfather's death. The one break in the case comes from good, old-fashioned fingerprints at the crime scene in the last minute of the episode. She could have stayed home for that.

No, I suspect that Gloria went to L.A. not just to better understand the murder of her stepfather, but her stepfather himself. Her mood brightens when she hears about the fingerprints, but knowing more about the man she called Ennis Stussy had to help her mood too. Even if her sad, initial reaction to the truth about his past leaves her sadly saying, "It's just a story." At least that part is on theme.

Could the world have used a film adaptation of The Planet Wyh?

It's obvious in hindsight -- and even in foresight, to everyone but young Thaddeus -- that Harold Zimmerman never intended to adapt his award-winning SF novel for the screen. The idea that he could land Robert Redford or Warren Beatty for the robotic lead role in such a production was far more unlikely than anything in the eons-long odyssey of the android MNSKY. But if it had happened, would the movie have been any good?

All we really have to go on is the cartoon version of the tale woven throughout the episode, with CliffsNotes-style narration by Gloria. One certainly can't argue that the story was sweeping in scope, and its relatively bleak ending was certainly in keeping with much of 1970s cinema. On the other hand, the title doesn't seem to fit the story that supposedly goes with it as well as it does its thematic purpose within the Fargo-verse. And furthermore, one can't help thinking of the film adaptation of Isaac Asimov's short story "The Bicentennial Man," which didn't turn out well for anyone.

How old was Thaddeus/Ennis, anyway?

Young Thaddeus couldn't have been out of his late twenties when we first met him in 1975, or very far into his thirties when he fled to the Midwest a few years later. And yet by 2010, just a few decades on, Ennis looked like he was at least eighty. Beer, bitterness, and Minnesota winters must not have agreed with him; I haven't seen anyone age that rapidly in exile since Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also, Thaddeus Mobley's novels looked a lot more like '50s pulp than what I remember seeing on the sci-fi shelves at B. Dalton in the 70s, so there's that.

How far can the stuntcasting go, anyway?

Never mind that Fred Melamed also appeared in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man and Hail, Caesar!; the real casting coup is the two-fer of Frances Fisher as the 2010 version of a character played by her daughter Francesca Eastwood in the flashbacks to the 1970s. At this rate (speaking of Obi-Wan Kenobi), it won't be long before we see flash-forwards in which the Stussy brothers are played by the late Alec Guinness.

Does Fargo exist in the world of Fargo?

Sometimes I just tune out the Minnesota accents on this show, voluntarily or involuntarily, probably because I grew up here and they don't sound so unfamiliar to me. Gloria's is a particularly easy one for me to gloss over, in part due to Carrie Coon's gift for subtlety. But when she meets the L.A. cop, he's almost immediately mocking the way she talks: "Minnesoooota?" I entirely expected him to start quoting lines from the Fargo movie at her, because I've met people who did that to me. Obviously this should be impossible given that both stories exist in the same fictional universe. But then so do UFOs, so let's not rule anything out.

Readers liked this episode
What did you think?