Fargo Finale: A Gray and Bloodied Altar

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In my first Fargo post, I predicted that a lot more characters would “wake-up” to see the darkness that had seeped into what they thought was a very comfortable existence. I was spot on with this prediction. Lester awakened as a dark apprentice who learned to take what he wanted when he wanted it. Gus learned the hard way that the system of laws he so heartily prescribed to couldn’t guarantee his family’s safety. Even Chief Oswalt, the most sedated personality on the show, stepped down from his position to make way for Molly after accepting the dark world he found himself entangled in. Kudos to the Fargo team for bringing us a different world than the Coen film that inspired it. It was a morbid, but enlightening romp into what happens when people stop playing by the rules.

Now, in my second Fargo post, I wondered whether the series would end at Malvo’s altar of darkness or Molly’s altar of conviction. I never expected the answer to be: both.

It was hard to go out there and call this one a win for the good guys. I mean, look at Lester…after murdering his wife and framing his brother for the murder, he put together a flashy and successful life. Sure, Molly still had her board of evidence at home, but things were looking pretty cozy for Lester. In fact, the only thing that derailed his proud new existence was his inability to let Malvo, the lone wolf, walk away when their paths crossed for a second time. It was frustrating, really…what did Lester want? I suppose that once you get a taste of what life has to offer, you run the risk of never being satisfied. It was no accident on the part of the production team to show Lester ogling a potential female conquest just before he was tempted by the reemergence of Malvo. Lester had truly become a predator – and he couldn’t walk away from his fellow predator without the possibility of attaching himself to a bigger kill with fresher meat to feast upon. Sadly for Lester, Malvo refused to travel in packs.

Just after insisting that Malvo recognize him, Lester was treated to the answer that I started begging for in my second blog post: what does Lorne Malvo want out of life? Malvo responded to Lester’s persistence by swiftly and efficiently blowing away all three members of the social group he had been working to gain access to a target within the witness protection program. Malvo mentioned what a shame it was to see all of his hard work flushed down the toilet, but said it was worth it just to see the look in the eyes of the “friend” he had just killed.

That was the answer. What does Lorne Malvo want? He wants people to see the world as one big, winner-take-all battlefield. He wants people to see the weakness inherent in trust, loyalty, and compassion. Watching those facades dissolve in the eyes of his target gave Malvo the ultimate buzz…the fuel he would then use to play a sick game of cat-and-mouse with Lester Nygaard.

…and boy did Malvo get a lot of fuel. He creeped out a former state cop, gave nightmares to some small children, and offed FBI agents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (more on this in a future post, perhaps). Then, things got interesting. Malvo found himself as the prey for the first time as his protege, Lester, lured him into a trap. A bear trap to be exact. Lester scared the big bad wolf away and gave himself a metaphorical pat on the back.

As a viewer I was…happy? Maybe? I wanted them both dead and I wanted them both alive…it was hard to know what to feel…about the only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to watch the friendly neighborhood mailman empty a few rounds into a crudely-splinted hitman. Of course…that is what I got.

It was a rough ending for me. I didn’t feel proud of Gus. I wasn’t happy for him when he put an end to the Lorne Malvo Horror Show. I saw him learn his lesson from the master of darkness very well. He finally understood the way a predator sees the world (both scientifically and philosophically) and he pulled the trigger – repeatedly…desperately…violently.

Malvo…the lord of darkness…summoner of white-out blizzards, storms of dead fish, and the plagues of Egypt… would. not. die. Gus had to give it another go…and even then…life faded slowly from Malvo’s eyes as if the malevolence he was named for was desperate to sustain him. He had made a predator out of a poodle – and I imagine he couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate death.

So, why haven’t I chalked this story up as a victory for Malvo’s altar of darkness? Where was Molly’s altar of compassion during all of this? Easy. It was at home with her family (and arguably on the thin ice that ultimately served up Lester as a human Popsicle). Sure, Gus’s “bravery” didn’t make me cheer – but it felt necessary. Gus did the dark deed to spare Molly pain of doing it herself. He knew that she was brave and honorable, and he had learned that brave and honorable people get killed. He wouldn’t let her face that – not again – not after the close call in the blizzard. Ultimately, Gus sacrificed his world view to protect Molly’s. THAT was his act of heroism…not the sneaking and the taunting and the blazing gun. No, Gus was a hero because he let Molly continue to be Molly.

The world needs more Mollys.

Molly was a special character on this show, in that, she was aware of the darkness that swirled around her, but refused to see it as a reason she shouldn’t build a life based around HER morals. That was Molly’s victory. She didn’t have to pull a trigger or triumphantly throw a blood-soaked Lester behind bars…She took on the role of Hester Prynne. Her board of evidence was her scarlet letter. She decided to grin and bear the ridicule of her peers and boss, and keep quietly investigating, until they finally saw her for what she was – a brave policewoman and a skilled detective. As Molly said in the closing line of the show: “I get to be Chief.”

If we all mimic the hard-work, honesty, and patience of Molly Solverson…this world will be a better place…we just have to remember that the change we desire doesn’t come without some struggle and some pain.

Fargo brought us on a pilgrimage. At the end of that pilgrimage was a glimmer of hope… but sadly, that hope was obscured behind a gray and bloodied altar.

 

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WESTEROS COMEDY HOUR: STARRING THE MOUNTAIN AND THE VIPER

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At the conclusion of Sunday’s new episode of Game of Thrones, I was struck by an uncontrollable laughing fit that woke my sleeping wife in the next room. If you watched “The Mountain and the Viper” then you may be disturbed by the knowledge that the waning moments of the episode left me laughing. If you still haven’t watched the episode…it’s time to stop reading. You’ve been warned.

After the laughter subsided, I immediately asked myself whether or not I was some kind of sociopath. I mean…I had just watched Ser Gregor “I lift things up and put them down” Clegane shatter the Red Viper’s skull like a New Year’s Eve popper full of gory confetti.

Luckily, it didn’t take much reflection to realize that my reaction was exactly what the show-makers were going for. This episode was not an exercise in suspense or high drama…it was a walk to the gallows rife with black humor.


 

Here are some highlights from Sunday’s exercise in dark humor:

Killing Joffrey with a Chicken Bone

Arya is the one who got the laughter started in this episode by telling the Hound that she would have killed Joffrey with a chicken bone if she had to. It was a great line, and I chuckled, but in the context of the episode this line has greater implications…like…will Arya’s quest for vengeance yield better results than Oberyn’s?

We also can’t overlook the fact that Arya suffered from a laughing fit not unlike my own. Upon hearing the news of her aunt’s death, Arya laughed at the death of yet another family member, laughed at another failed bartering attempt by The Hound, and laughed at the fact that, once again, the world proved to her that life is all about survival of the fittest – not the skills and manners they tried to teach her back in Winterfell.

Smash the Beetles! 

Jaime and Tyrion exchanged some last words about their “simple” cousin Orson. As the brothers impishly mocked and mimed the day to day drudgery of their cousin’s quest to smash all beetles…we both laughed at the silliness of the exchange and processed the sincerity with which Tyrion sought a meaningful explanation for his cousin’s behavior. Sadly, there was no explanation to be found. Later, a very big man (who slaughtered helpless prisoners for fun a couple of weeks ago as if they were as insignificant as beetles) crushed a much smaller man’s skull as if it were a household pest.

 Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, I Smell the Blood of a Dornishman

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I have not been reading the Song of Ice and Fire books, so perhaps “The Mountain” is developed more fully outside of the HBO series…but this recent recasting/rebranding of the character was nothing short of hilarious. From the perspective of someone watching the series, The Mountain has always been a brutal character…but one that was still expected to show some level of decorum. Previously…the part has been played by big and tall actors who looked a bit more aged and vulnerable than the heavyweight behemoth who strapped on Ser Gregor Clegane’s armor in season four…his change in stature and presence was so startling to me, that it seems appropriate to connect him with the infamous brutal giant from Jack and the Beanstalk. That being said, it is always fascinating to see how raw things get in Westeros when the politics go out the window.


 

I know that my laughter in reaction to the death of yet another GOT hero at the end of the episode was based in the same sense of desperation that Arya felt at the bloody gate. To see the proud, thoughtful, and well-spoken Red Viper reduced to mindless screams and inexplicable pain was SUCH a heavy-handed reminder of a lesson that Thrones fans have already learned so well (justice and fairness do not exist in Westeros) that I was already laughing at the absurdity of this reminder and wondering what extreme they will have to go to the next time that they want to remind us of this fact……when Oberyn’s head then detonated like a jack-o-lantern at the hands of a hormonal teen with an aluminum baseball bat…I knew that they had taken this brutal and obvious reminder to an even heavier-handed place. I couldn’t be surprised….I couldn’t be sad….I couldn’t even be grossed out…all that was left was laughter.

“The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.” Sigmund Freud

Like Stansa Stark, I finally realize that there is no more room for my Romantic vision of the inspiration and pleasure that storytelling should bring to me. I now realize that to survive as a GOT fan, I will have to look toward every episode in terms of what it has to offer me…because I’m never going to get the fairy-tale ending that I hoped for.

Before I go…here is a list of some other notable humor from the episode:

  • “The pillar and the stones” -Dany
  • Mole’s Town belching competition
  • Ramsay mocking the Kraken sigil of House Greyjoy
  • Sansa going all “Professor Chaos” and creating an evil alter-ego (complete with costume and new makeup)

ProfChaos

 

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.