In less than a month—September 27 to be exact, I’m going to feel like a kid on his seventh birthday.
Why is that? Because that’s the date the fourth season of Fargo starts.
As the television outgrowth of the Coen brothers’ brilliant black comedy film of 1996, the new season will live up to that description quite literally, plugging Chris Rock into the lead role. This time out, the year is 1950 and focuses on territorial battles between Loy Cannon (Rock) of Chicago and mobsters in Kansas City.
The setting’s year is always important because the last three seasons have taken place in specific years that prove every bit as influential on events as the narrative and the cast.
For anyone not part of this Midwestern cult, it’s time to catch up in preparation for the next episodic series. That includes the film as well as the past seasons.
Fargo is now the brain child of Noah Hawley, who has done an exemplary job of taking the original story and transforming it into more concept than story. In many ways, Fargo has become a “concept” of form since the Coens first gave us the film.
It cannot be called an archetype, since it is not an initiating idea. If anything, the movie was closer to Greek tragedy as a performance of a pre-determined set of conventions. However, Hawley has taken the concept beyond the tragic tradition by breaking through the restrictions of that genre’s unities, as found in Fargo’s point of origin.
If anything, the television series is ambiguous and almost allegorical, making it closer to the morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries.
The end credits of the series declare that it is “based on the film,” but “from” rather than “on” might be more apt. For one thing, the series—with its nearly ten-hour time frame—isn’t limited to only to immediacy in terms of characters, place, and time. One of the most satisfying aspects of the Fargo television series is its web of connections crossing between and joining with each other as well as its source material, the film itself.
That sort of freedom allows characters to emerge, disappear, and reappear, but not necessarily in order of the show’s presentation. For example, Hanzee Dent, the Native American Vietnam vet who acts as the muscle for Dodd Gerhardt of season 2, may not be the main character, but he captures our attention because of his guile and determination; plus he’s one hell of a tracker and, had he not chosen a life of crime, would have been a first rate detective. He also shows up in season 1, if only for one scene after his plastic surgery. When we last see Hanzee at the close of season 2, he protects a deaf boy who’s being bullied. The youth, one easily assumes, is Mr. Wrench, the Fargo mob’s deaf hit man of season 1 and the prisoner who helps Nikki, one of the main characters in season 3, to escape from prison and then exacting her measure of revenge against those responsible for the death of “her man.”
I wonder how they might accommodate those sorts of tie-ins in this upcoming season since it takes place in 1950. Because it revolves around big city crime gangs, perhaps we’ll see the forebears of Mike Milligan, another of my favorite personalities from season 2.
These interdimensional connections become, during re-watching of the earlier seasons, a fascinating personal challenge. I find myself trying to locate other, perhaps more minor characters elsewhere. For example, what happened to Noreen, the Camus-reading young store clerk of season 2 who decries the futility of life yet clings to it when faced with the possibility of a violent demise?
However, it’s not just characters that are shared between the television shows and the film. There are situations and even lines of dialogue that appear in a sort of collage. For example, there are several times when a character is kidnapped to a location where it’s “driving [someone] crazy up there by the lake,” usually because the television reception isn’t any good. Parking lots and Gophers (the minor league hockey team, not the Bill Murray variety) appear throughout the three seasons. We see instances of people trying to evade police capture, twice by exiting through a motel bathroom window.
The story of the man who loses a glove on a train station makes an encore, and then, there’s the red windshield scraper left by the film’s Carl Showalter to mark the hidden ransom; it becomes the source of Stavros Milos’s wealth in season 1, the man responsible for bringing Lorne Malvo into the driving storyline of that initial season. It doesn’t hurt that those three characters were portrayed by Steven Buschemi, Oliver Platt, and Billy Bob Thornton, respectively.
Talk about a collection of first-rate actors, which becomes another reason to tune in. The cast consists of several known faces, some—such as Colin Hanks, Tom’s son—getting started while others—Ted Danson and Jeffrey Donovan come to mind—are already established.
For those really looking to deep dive into the series, one can assemble a feminist theory of women slowly but surely taking charge of situations despite impediments. Molly of season 1 has to tamp down her insights, which she does mostly because of her respect for the chain of command. Meanwhile, Floyd, the seemingly calm, pipe-smoking Gerhardt matriarch, steps into the vacuum created by her husband’s stroke, even telling the Kansas City mobsters, “Don’t assume that my back is weak and my stomach not strong.”
In fact, the phrase “she’s a girl”—even when referring to women—pervades the second season. In the season 3, Gloria faces an equally simplistic superior who even admits that he likes things as simple as possible despite any evidence or thinking to the contrary. She later works with Winnie Lopez, a St. Cloud police officer also being quashed by her male superiors.
The musical score weaves its way into the series as well, from the 70’s period music for season 2 to the Russian-tinged music of season 3, clearly influenced by the presence of V. M. Varga—a man who hangs a picture of Stalin as most people do of a pope or Elvis and is as meticulous with his words as he is repulsive in his physical state of being. An episode of that third season even begins using Sergei Profiev’s symphonic fairy tale “Peter and the Wolf” opening bars and narration to introduce the episode’s characters. The voiceover comes from none other than Thornton, Lorne Malvo of season 1.
Related to that, there are theories that Thornton’s Malvo might have been Satan.
The supernatural pervades the series, so where there were extraterrestrials in season 2 and possibly Satan himself in season 1, season 3 offers Gloria a guardian angel in the person of Paul Marrone, a name seemingly derived from the word marranos, the Spanish label given to those Jews who clandestinely practiced their faith during the Spanish Inquisition. There is also a reasonable question about Varga, who himself tells Emmitt, “I am so rarely seen, maybe I don’t exist.” Varga is a manipulator more interested in acquiring power than wealth although he understands that with one comes the other. Later, Emmitt, in a rare moment of clarity, observes how “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
One aspect I personally enjoy from the shows is the portrayal of the incompetence or condescension by many of those with power, from season 1’s Bill, a police chief who throws up at crime scenes, “cleans his gun with bubble bath,” and sees everything through the lens of his youth, to the Sioux Falls sheriff who routinely tortures logic with mixed metaphors, telling the Blumquists that “you’re up a tree without a paddle” or asserts his authority by telling other officers that he plans to “squeeze lemons to catch the big fish.”
In season 3, viewers watch a Stasi interrogator confounding a murder suspect, a dupe really since the man is obviously innocent, by using a standard bureaucratic form of self-justification: “For you to be right, the State must be wrong.”
Finally, the cinematography of the television show is pure “Coen brothers” (a term I find myself using more frequently) with the wide-open shots of a part of the country large enough to swallow both victims and perpetrators into its horizontal and monochromatic abyss.
Another signature style of the Coens are the overhead filming of the woods surrounding whatever civilization resides off the concrete ribbons of highway. When Meemo, Varga’s Asian enforcer who can portray a lawyer as well as he kills people, slices a “convenient” victim’s throat, the viewer watches the man’s arterial blood mix in and push away the milk from his fallen glass in a fluid contrast of colors.
These shows are a joy to watch—gruesome for sure, but fascinating.
If you’ve not yet watched this series, now may be a great time to introduce yourself to it. I’d recommend priming yourself by catching the first three episodes as an orientation to what might be coming this September.
Holiday gifts are here early!