“I Don’t Even Know How To Write This Thing Up.”
A “palindrome” is a word or phrase that reads the same way backwards as it does forwards. “Race car,” “Taco cat,” “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!” and so on. These kinds of words and phrases are neat, orderly, and quite pleasant. It’s an interesting title for the finale of Fargo’s second season.
This season certainly doesn’t end the same way it began. Characters have grown and changed, not just in their actions, but their worldviews. A lot of people are dead. The Gerhardts are practically wiped off the map and people got where they were going, only to find it wasn’t what they were expecting.
It was a quiet affair, that ended on a much more hopeful note than I anticipated. I think it’s easy to have been led to believe that the episode would have ended with a tense shootout between Lou and Hanzee, or at least see the traffic stop where he got that limp in his leg in the first season. And yet, what would have been the point? When we think back to season one, Malvo getting shot and Lester falling through the ice were the least satisfying parts of the season. Did they get what they deserved? Certainly. But a clean death is too neat for the world that Noah Hawley and company have created for season two, a world that clearly mirrors our own in exaggerated terms. We would have been left with the idea that good triumphs over evil in overt ways and that would have been the end of it.
Instead, Fargo subverts typical expectations and turns inward, giving characters and the audience much needed time to reflect on the events that just unfolded. It was a realistic end that comes to a full reading of Camus. “Knowing we’re gonna die makes life absurd,” is the interpretation of The Myth of Sisyphus that the show presents and Betsy rejects. She believes we’re here to do a job, and that means taking care of the people you love. Lou simultaneously comes to this conclusion when he’s talking about protecting his family as a privilege, not a burden.
The thing is, those interpretations don’t make life any less absurd. They are just ways to become content with it, which is the conclusion Camus comes to. Think about how everything transpired this season. Peggy’s need to reject against societal norms and be the best Peggy she could be, which inadvertently lets her start a gang war when she brings poor Rye Gerhardt home. Dodd, quick to jump the gun, adds fuel to the fire when he believes the Butcher of Luverne is the mastermind behind the killings Hanzee, tired of a lifetime of being treated like a second class person, turns his back on the family that raised him and becomes an agent of complete chaos.
Every event this season had far reaching consequences for the endgame that boiled into the ending of “The Castle.” The shootout last episode was heightened by the appearance of a UFO, a manifestation of the absurdity and chaos around them. Life is absurd, and “Palindrome” had characters coming to terms with that realization in many ways.
For Peggy, her delusional nature is one of the saddest interpretations. Locked in a freezer with Ed bleeding out, she believes Hanzee is trying to smoke them out. She knows this scenario from “Operation: Eagles Nest.” She’ll open the door and fight, or be saved by a dashing figure. It would have been disingenuous for the show to grant us the same solution, and instead goes for something much more heartbreaking. There was no smoke. Hanzee was never there. Instead, her game is up, and she is caught by Lou. Watching her own imaginary world crumble in front of her is affecting. We invent fantasies of our own, aided by media and stories, as a way to cope with the absurdity of our own lives. To watch Peggy’s delusions fail her, no matter how ridiculous they were, is still a sad realization.
Mike Milligan probably gets it the worst. He always played by his own rules, quoted absurd lines from interesting works, and carved his own fate, even when Kansas City sent in his replacement. He gets a brief moment in his own world as king of the Gerhard residence. He grants amnesty to one person, and commits an act of violence against another. This is fair in his mind. He cuts through the chaos of life with his own rules and machinations.
What does he get in return? A desk job where he has to worry about quarterly projections and maximizing profits. He did everything he could to come out on top, living by the rules of the wild west that he emulated in both his mannerisms and dress. Now he’s told to get a real tie and fill out paperwork. Life’s absurdities are still too much for even the great Mike Milligan.
Betsy has the clearest reasons to be upset with Camus’ interpretation of life. She is dying of cancer, and that is entirely unfair. Period. It’s the ultimate absurd joke. Why do good people die of horrible diseases? There is no reason. Yet, she knows doing good for others is the only way to live, to cope with the nonsense. Death doesn’t change that. I was very happy to see she hadn’t died like many of us suspected after last week’s episode. Sure, we know she passes away eventually, but there is no need to see it here. The goal was to have characters come to terms with their own rocks that they push up the hill every day, and Betsy’s contentedness highlights this.
We also discover Hank’s reasons for all the bizarre hieroglyphics. Betsy asks him, point blank, and he responds with honesty. It’s an endearing answer, not because we expect his universal language to work, but because there is logic to his thinking and he’s trying to correct it. Language is at the heart of all the world’s problems. Misinterpretations and lack of human empathy based on these misunderstandings is where all the conflict of this season stemmed from. Had Peggy given the speech she gave to Lou in the back of his cop car at the beginning of the season, perhaps everything would have been avoided. If Dodd would have communicated instead of resorting to violence, maybe the Gerhardts would still be alive. The list goes on.
Which brings us to Lou. Despite undoubtedly dealing with the worst of the worst this season, he remains almost exactly the same man he was at the beginning. This is a character who can’t make sense of the absurdity of the world, but understands that protecting his family is the most important thing he can do while he’s here. From World War II, to Vietnam, to Hanzee’s rampage, Lou struggles to grasp the violence and chaos of this world. Not even Ronald Reagan can give him an answer, but that doesn’t stop him from doing what’s right. He tells Peggy the story of the pilot in Vietnam who saved his family and himself, and this underlines the core of his character. It’s one of the best moments of the season that helps make a larger point that the show was going for.
If anything, Lou is the palindrome this episode is referring to. He’s the same man at the end as he was at the beginning, forward and backwards. The entire Solverson family is a solid foundation in the world of chaos, people who can handle the worst that life throws at them and not lose their senses. Does that mean they have all the answers? Of course not. They still struggle with the complexity and senselessness of it all. Yet, they still manage to continue their lives, being the best people they can be. We know this continues long into the future, highlighted by Betsy’s dream of her future family, of Molly and Gus taking on the same roles moving forward. They would face down the devil himself in 2006 and come out being much the same people.
At its most basic, Fargo has told us a story of good vs. evil, yet it never seems like that. Its committal to realism and cause and effect storytelling gives us a messier interpretation of this ancient theme. Good wins by purely being good. There doesn’t need to be a shootout or an act of vengeance to make a point. We are given a core group of characters who win by simply facing life’s absurdities and learning to be the best people that they can, doing their jobs and protecting their families despite the chaos. That’s the ultimate truth behind this season, and it’s an interpretation of “good” that we can see reflected in each of us. We may not have the answers ourselves, but how we cope with the violent world around us is the ultimate battleground of good and evil.
So yeah, Lou and the entire Solverson family is the palindrome the episode refers to. They’ll always be the agents of good in a very fucked up world, from 1979 to 2006 and hopefully beyond. To highlight this, the final episode ended the same way the first one did. Tucked safely in bed, Lou and Betsy are drawn close.
“Good night, Mrs. Solverson,” he says, “and all the ships at sea.”
Odds and Ends:
- The concludes my reviews of Fargo’s second season! Thanks for reading. I hope you had as much fun as I did watching this season play out. Keep an eye out for a full season two review in the near future.
- Fuck True Detective
- There were some neat unexpected ties to season one. Hanzee becomes the head honcho of the crime syndicate in season one. You know, Moses Tripoli. This guy:
- We also see a young Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers!
- What an incredible opening. “War Pigs” was a great choice, and the transition from Betsy’s dream to the massacre aftermath was stellar.
- This is some of the best television I’ve ever seen, period. It’s a shame we’ll have to wait until 2017 before season three, but I wish Noah Hawley and the entire cast and crew much success in the meanwhile. Seriously, there wasn’t a single dud in the entire cast.
Steve is on Twitter for you to follow.