CHAUCERIAN CHOICES: FARGO’S DARK PILGRIMAGE

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Tuesday’s new episode of Fargo brought us a world in which the truth was often concealed and obscured. At the start of the episode, Don Chumph wanted to know why his windows had been covered by paper. Later, Lester Nygaard took a quick breather behind the ice-covered windows of a stolen Audi. Both of these previously “average” men found themselves obscured behind the new rules that have been introduced to their lives through Lorne Malvo.

After watching the last few episodes of FX’s Fargo, I can’t stop my mind from wandering into the world of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Whether or not you realize it, you are at least somewhat familiar with the Pardoner’s tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the story, three scoundrels set out to vanquish Death, who has taken the lives of many people. The revelers depart on their mission, drunk, and encounter what appears to be an elderly man. Chaucer’s young revelers proceed to harass and insult the old man, then insist that he point them in the direction of Death. He tells the scoundrels that they will find Death beneath a tree in the distance. Upon reaching the tree, the young men discover a fortune in treasure, and immediately cancel their holy quest. Instead, they begin plotting how to keep the treasure all to themselves.

One man goes to buy provisions, so that the group members can sustain themselves while they count the fortune and wait for the cover of nightfall to quietly sneak the money back home. On his quest for provisions, the lone man is struck with a fiendish thought:

O Lord!” he said, “if were that I might

Have all this treasure to myself alone,

There is no man that lives under the throne

Of God, that would be as merry as I.”

In response to this thought, the man decides to procure some poison to kill his buddies; in the end he will walk away with all of the treasure.

Meanwhile (I imagine you saw this coming?), his buddies decide that the treasure looks much better when split two ways instead of three ways. Upon the return of their companion, they get the drop on him and kill him. They drink the poison. They die; nobody gets the treasure – but (not surprisingly) Death emerges victorious.

Back when the Coens made their Fargo film in the 90’s, their film read a bit like a morality tale. Ultimately the forces of justice and good will emerged victorious. Everybody who went greedily chasing after money wound up dead or in custody. The world was a little bit safer at the end of the film, even though it was was now a bit more dark and shadowy in the eyes of the heroine.

Fast forward to FX’s Fargo, and quite a few people are still chasing after treasure. Most notably, the series has introduced the infamous case of money that was buried by Steve Buscmi’s character at the end of the iconic film. We now know that the driving force behind the Coen movie is the same cash that bankrolled supermarket tycoon Stavros Milos, and now the same money that Lorne Malvo at least seems to be intent on acquiring.

A lot of the same pieces have been put into place…but this televised romp into the world of Fargo is taking us in a different direction. I hinted at this in my previous Fargo blog, when I suggested that the television series takes place in a world that has been lulled to sleep by mass media and mass consumption.

We are no longer sitting down for a morality tale. Instead, we are taking a trip into the mind of a puppet-master who has learned how to abandon morality and turn a world obsessed with comfort and material possessions against itself. If the Coen Brothers film captured the spirit of the Pardoner’s tale, FX’s Fargo captures the spirit of the Pardoner himself; a man who didn’t simply tell a tale of morality to his fellow pilgrims; he also told them that he used that story to manipulate others into giving him what he wants:

Thus I spit out my venom, under hue

Of holyness, to seem holy and true.

The Pardoner is cold, cold to the core. He is Malvo-cold. After warning his companions of his strategy to manipulate others, he then proceeds to sell the fake pardons and relics he had just flat-out confessed to selling. That takes guts.

Hasn’t Lorne Malvo shown the same sort of guts? He makes little effort to mask his actions from the temporary accomplices and enemies he encounters. He challenges them to call him out on his evil. Lester can’t decline the offer to have his personal bully killed. Grimly abandons his sense of duty after being openly threatened by Malvo. Don Chumph compliantly allows Malvo to lock him inside of his own pantry. Heck, Malvo even brazenly dragged a man out of his office during business hours in full view of his coworkers and a (low quality) security camera.

Malvo’s connection to the Pardoner runs so deep that we even see him take on the false identity of a minister for apparently no other reason than to taunt the well-meaning, but simple-minded Gus Grimly. Even Malvo’s long-con of Stavros Milos plays upon the supermarket tycoon’s previously dormant sense of holy justice. Malvo is a manipulator.

Malvo does deviate from the Pardoner in one fundamental way: it’s really unclear why he causes all of this pain and suffering. In Chaucer, the Pardoner tells us that he lies to simple people in order to take their money and live comfortably off of his earnings. Malvo has different motivations. While the mystery hasn’t been fully unveiled yet, I sense that he is after something very different than the million dollars from Milos. So far, he has seemed much more focused on his desire to break a powerful man.

Malvo is fond of comparing human beings to predators and suggesting that we have all been raised by wolves. Sometimes the manipulation is small. In the first episode of the series, for instance, he randomly pushed a disgruntled youth into an act of juvenile vandalism (urinating into the gas tank of of his mean boss’s car). Most of the time, however, Malvo seems to be worshiping at a very sinister altar: that grin on the face of Lester Nygaard at the end of Tuesday’s episode made you feel like Malvo had successfully christened Lester into the world’s darkest church.

So far, the only person in the series who seems prepared to stand up to Malvo’s world view is Molly Solverson. In response to the parable that was presented to Grimly last week about a man who killed himself in order to donate all of his body parts to others, Molly simply asked Gus why the fella didn’t just go to work for a charity. Why? Because Molly refuses to be defined by a worldview that defines giving and taking through material possessions alone. She is guided by a strong enough moral code to risk the job she loves by going against her boss’s orders. Why? Because she believes that it’s the right thing to do. It’s the same reason that she ran off into the dangerous and unknown whiteout of an oncoming storm only to be shot down by Gus (or Malvo, or the deaf hit-man…we don’t really know).

About the only pleasant thing in the world of Fargo right now is seeing how dreamy-eyed Gus is over Molly’s scruples. Let’s assume that her body in the snow at the end of the episode on Tuesday was just an obnoxious tease, because right now, the cast of Fargo is on a pilgrimage. I, for one, can’t wait to see if the voyage ends at Malvo’s altar of darkness or Molly’s altar of conviction.  

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MURDERERS AND MILKSHAKES: “FARGO” FRAMES THE PUBLIC PSYCHE

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After two episodes, I have officially signed on as a fan of FX’s Fargo mini-series. The worst things I can say about it are as follows:

  • Nods to the 1996 film are so constant that at times they feel distracting.
  • Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo is essentially Anton Chigurh from “No Country For Old Men”…with a sense of humor.
  • Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard is essentially Jerry Lundegaard from 1996’s “Fargo” …with a heavier chip on his shoulder.

Fortunately…all of those complaints are also part of the fun. I loved the film Fargo. Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman have been delightful to watch.

But….the mission of my blog is not to be a fan…it is to find philosophical value within the entertainment I use to escape the real world….my anesthesia, you might say…

 

In the second episode of the 10-part Fargo mini-series, Lou Solverson laments that his little girl (Deputy Molly Solverson) is still living in, “a hard world of drills and needles,” as he reminisces about the first time she had to be put under general anesthesia for dental work. What’s debatable is whether Lou more deeply regrets the actual existence of the drills and needles, or the fact that, at 31 years old, his daughter is no longer anesthetized.

Essentially, this show is all about the power of anesthesia. Fargo’s essential premise seems to be that there is a big dark world out there: you can either bend it to your will or breathe in the sweet, “Tooty Frootie” scent of ignorant bliss.

I contend that despite the series’ endless metafictional nods to its 1996 counterpart, it is introducing viewers to distinctly unique, albeit familiar, territory.

In 1996, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo told the story of a family-oriented community that was dragged into a twisted jungle of savagery when one of its members sacrificed the morality of his world in an attempt to bypass a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. The film’s strong female lead, despite embracing the family-oriented morality of her community, showed a welcome, but unexpected willingness to investigate and accept the influx of savagery. In the end the film drew a lot of its dramatic power from the sadness inherent in the fact that selfish and power-hungry forces were seeping into the fabric of even the most innocent people and places in the world.

Early on in the 1996 film, the elderly Wade Gustafson scorned the idea that his grandson would walk out on a family dinner to hang out with friends at “the MACdonalds.” As audiences step into television’s contemporary (though set in 2006) version of Fargo…we see that Wade’s fears have come to fruition: everyone is hanging out at McDonalds (it’s called a “Happy Meal,” so, I must be happy….right?).

Everyone is existing under general anesthesia. Nobody wants to see how far from the old-timey, family-friendly middle-class-America image this world has fallen…so they distract themselves in various ways. We see characters worshiping more expensive clothing and home comforts. We see characters amassing weapons. We see characters reverting to the social order of their former high-school hierarchy….and we see characters eat A LOT of junk food.

The Fargo mini-series reinforces this sense of mass-anesthesia most brilliantly by using food as a metaphor. Instead of homey meals made by mom and enjoyed by the family, TV’s Fargo is a world in which homemade food is best represented by frozen tater-tots. Officer Gus Grimly brings home burgers and chicken nuggets for his little girl (who is used to this type of dinner, as evidenced by her inquiry regarding the “dipping sauces”), and when the wife of the fallen police chief tells the tale of a former cop who was killed by a softball-size hailstone, Deputy Solverson is most interested in the flavor of the milkshake the victim was drinking at the time.

Heck, this rendition of Fargo doesn’t even need food metaphors to show us the decline of family life in small-town Minnesota. Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard started the series under open and brutal emotional assault from his wife. We learned that Gus Grimly is a single dad (and we had a widowed single mother by the end of the first episode). Audiences even had to endure the most extreme and disturbing passing-on of the bullying gene ever captured on camera (the bully was also a criminal and an adulterer, for good measure).

If 1996’s Fargo was an elegy for fading small-town family values, then the 2014 edition is a plea. This show is begging the world to wake up from the anesthesia, open their eyes, and see their neighbors for who they are. Put down that tater-tot, Fargo begs us, and remember that no matter how ugly things get, we have to be responsible for our communities. Isolation and self-preservation have no place in this world. In this world, the “bad-guys” feed off of your blissful ignorance and turn it to their advantage.

I for one, hope to see a lot more characters “wake up” by the end of the mini-series.

 

Be on the lookout for a follow-up some time in the next few weeks…I have barely scratched the surface of what this show has to offer an existential audience.