“We’re A Very Friendly People.”
Ken Burns released a documentary on PBS back in 2007 about World War II, simply titled The War. In it, there are no historians, politicians, celebrities or professors who sat on the side lines, drawing conclusions based on complex socio-political factors. The only people that are interviewed, who tell their story, are those who were directly involved in the war and their families. They struggle to understand the horrific events they endured, having been asked to comment on what we have to learn from their experiences. Many times they can’t say anything at all, reflecting on their time in the war with a detached vagueness, asking questions more than they answer them. In an effort to relate to the average family living in the United States, The War interviews veterans and their families chosen from four specific every day, unassuming American towns. Among them?
What is it about the American midwest that seems so…typical? The War chose this small Minnesota town because they felt it accurately represented the majority of American towns and cities. It’s an average middling place that doesn’t have anything particularly special about it. In Luverne, Minnesota, we expect to find nothing more than ourselves.
“We’re a very friendly people,” Lou Solverson tells Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers during episode three. Indeed, they are supposed to be. With the friendly, plain midwest as a backdrop, the second season of Fargo plays up a slightly exaggerated version of our own lives in order to make a point about the absurdity of life, and it succeeds in every single way.
This core is what drives the characters and the plot through the excellent ten episode run. It’s the late 1970’s. The Vietnam war is still hanging over America and a new distrust of the establishment is personified by Karl Weathers, played by the excellent Nick Offerman. Characters don’t know how to handle the world around them, a far cry from the world where Lou’s father-in-law Hank came from. World War II seems clear cut in the story books. Good came together and triumphed over evil. That same narrative doesn’t work anymore. Things are messy, nonsensical, and change depend on how you look at them. This is highlighted by the pervasive use of split-screen this season, that often divided the frame not only between different characters, but would cut up a single image, like we were seeing double.
This committal to the absurdity of life is what makes this season so great. Noreen, Ed Blomquists’ help, reads The Myth of Sisyphus throughout the entire season, and this tells us all we need to know in order to make sense of these bizarre events. The conceit that Camus gives us is that the only way to be truly content in life is to accept life’s absurdities. What we want out of life is reason, order, and some form of fulfillment. This is reflected in Peggy’s desire to “self-actualize” and become the best Peggy she can be. Ed, likewise, just wants to own his own butcher shop. Lou wants to believe that Betsy received the real pills and not the placebo in order to rid her of cancer. Hank attempts to create a new language to avoid misinterpretation and violence.
Instead, what we discover is a formless chaos. We can’t make sense of it. Even though the events in Fargo are logical and follow cause and effect storytelling, the world seems completely out of control. Even the Vietnam war had a logical set of factors that led to its outbreak, but that doesn’t make the existence of such a horrific event any easier to fathom. Lou is worried that the war has come home, a gateway to absurdity. This is manifested by Hanzee, whose rampage fuels the second half of the season. Fargo compresses time and slightly exaggerates reality to give us a taste of what a Native American like Hanzee lives with everyday, but that doesn’t make his rampage any more sensical to the characters around him, who can only react to the slaughter at the height of episode nine.
This absurdity is physically manifested by the UFO, which appears at the end of the Sioux Falls massacre. This is where all the proceeding events came to a head. Peggy hitting Rye Gerhardt with her car, Dodd tormenting Kansas City men in a bakery, and Hanzee going rogue are all catalysts that propel a chain of events that lead to an absolute massacre. The UFO is a recognition of this. Of course there are aliens. Why wouldn’t there be? Noah Hawley makes it work thanks to the carefully constructed time period where it felt like nothing could be trusted, not even the skies.
If we’re to buy into Camus’ reading of absurdity, that life appears devoid of meaning thanks to the inevitability of death, how are we supposed to respond? In the Myth of Sisyphus, the answer is somewhat surprising: revolt. Become content with the absurd nature of the world and carve out your own reason to live. Camus believes that every time Sisyphus begins to roll the rock up the hill, he has a faint glimmer of hope that he might succeed. Therein lies the point of life. Revolt, make your own fate, and scorn the makers of your torment.
The fascinating part of Fargo’s second season comes from watching how these characters reject their own fate to varying degrees of success. Mike Milligan is a great example. He is a man who lives by his own rules, draws inspiration from absurd pieces of literature, and doesn’t take no for an answer. When at last he appears defeated, relegated to the Undertaker, he turns the tables, puts a bullet in his replacement’s head, and continues on with his job. He scorned Kansas City, even if they didn’t know it, and found a new reason to live. How he’ll handle his hard earned desk job is another mountain he’ll have to climb.
Peggy attempts to revolt in her own way, which ultimately leads to her downfall. Her conversation with Lou in the back of his car during the last episode is a great moment of truth for the show. She didn’t want to be trapped in the role of a timid housewife, but went about scorning that fate in the worst way. The thing is, despite her delusional nature getting in the way, she was entirely happy after she believed she “self-actualized.” Camus doesn’t promise us an eternity of happiness, but rather an ebb and flow, moments of highs and lows. Peggy most likely doesn’t regret any of her decisions, and probably would have doubled down on them if given the chance.
The ultimate revolt comes from the Solverson family themselves. Lou wants to see the goodness in the world and to make sense of it, almost in a naive way, but even when confronted with the absurd reality of life, he never loses sense of himself. His way of scorning the world is to protect his family. He tells us that it should be a burden, his own rock he has to continuously push for the rest of his life, but it’s not. It’s a privilege. Lou escapes the absurdity of life by fighting for the good in it, no matter how futile it seems.
Of similar thinking is Betsy herself, who unknowingly completes the reading of Camus. She believes we were put on this Earth to do a job, no matter how long or short we’re here for. We’ll only be judged by how well we do it. So far, the Solversons have been doing their jobs to the best of their ability, fighting off evil and absurdity any way they can.
Fargo’s season two had an uphill battle. Hawley had to prove not only that he was capable of creating a show that was on par with the source material again, but then had to surpass the extremely high bar set by season one. By using a strong theme, a relatable setting, and featuring a stunning ensemble class, season two of Fargo is easily some of the best television I’ve ever seen. If ever the anthology format of the show was in doubt, it should be put to rest. Not only was it successful in telling a contained story, it also managed to expand its world with surprising connections to season one.
Season two is a deep, complex, and layered story that deserves way more analysis than this review. Taking on the absurdity of life is a tough conceit to get across, but Noah Hawley and the rest of the creative team, right down to the sound design, absolutely pulled it off. It’s going to be a long wait until the third season in 2017, but if the extra time means we get a season on par or better than what came before, the wait will be more than worth it.
Steve wants more Fargo. Follow him on Twitter.