Fargo, UFOs, and the Meaning(less) of Life

Fargo Season 2 and the Massacre of Sioux Falls

FX recently aired the finale for the second season of Fargo. I promise I will get into the UFO business, but before, let me do a little recap. This season explored the legendary (at least by Midwestern standards!) “Massacre of Sioux Falls,” which was briefly mentioned in season one. Season two sees the lives of Minnesota State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and husband and wife Ed (Jesse Plemons) and Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) dramatically affected by the turf war between the Gerhardt family, a local Mafia gang, and a Kansas City based syndicate that is trying to take over their illegal business in the area.

 

As I discussed in a previous post, one of the more appealing aspects of Fargo, as presented in the original movie as well as in the TV show, is its exploration of Evil in its many manifestations. The Coen brothers, as well as TV show creator Noah Hawley, avoid simplistic dichotomies of Good Vs. Evil or archetypical characters that are heroes or villains. Nonetheless, the world of Fargo is a world of contrasts. There are good characters, such as Lou Solverson, the Minnesota State Trooper who served in Vietnam and cannot comprehend the evil he saw over there, as well as the evil he is witnessing in his own hometown. There are bad guys, like Dodd Gerhardt, the ruthless oldest son and heir to the Gerhardt family business, who will use violence even when it is not necessary, and enjoys doing so. There are also characters who cannot distinguish between good and evil, like Peggy Blumquist, the local beautician who sees her path into new age self-actualization (or some may say into self-delusion) derailed by her hit and run of Rye Gerhardt, the youngest son of the Gerhardt family. She will convince her husband that murder is the easiest fix to the problem they got themselves into, a “small” price to pay to avoid the consequences of her act (interestingly enough, and as the season evolves, it seems that the life of crime becomes empowering to Peggy, not the path to self-realization she was looking for, but an empowering path nonetheless, as the clip below shows).

UFOs… really?

One of the most talked about moments this season was the appearance of UFOs in two critical moments of the story. The first instance occurs in the very first episode. Rye Gerhardt goes to a local waffle house in an attempt to extort a local judge, asking her to close a case that affects one of his partners. When she refuses, he impulsively kills her, and everyone else at the waffle house. While leaving the scene of the crime, a UFO appears in the sky, distracting Rye, who is standing in the middle of the road. Peggy Blumquist has the misfortune of driving on that road at this time and runs over Rye. This apparently random incident will actually set the show into motion, since it will bring the lives of the Blumquists, Lou Solverson, the Gerhardts, and the Kansas City mafia into a dramatic collision.

 

The second appearance of a UFO is during the climactic “Massacre of Sioux Falls” that takes place in episode 9. During this incident, the Gerhardt family ambushes local police forces at an area motel in an attempt to free a member of the Gerhardt family (the plot is more complicated, but this is not the point I am trying to make here). Towards the end of the massacre, a UFO hovers in the sky directly over the motel, distracting one of the Gerhardt family members and saving Lou Solverson’s life.

 

 

UFOs and “pulling away from the maze”

The appearance of UFOs may seem random at first, since they do not have any direct connection to the plot of the show. Was Noah Hawley, the creator, “jumping the shark,” being too smart for his own good by bringing aliens into the new season? The UFOs appear at crucial moments of the story (at its beginning, and towards the conclusion of the season), so their role in the show must mean something. Why do UFOs appear at these two key points of the story? What is their role? What do they mean? Are they random empty signifiers, or do they carry some sort of meaning that reveals something about the story that the show is trying to tell?

Various sites have explored the multiple possible meanings of the UFO presence, with Jefferson Grubbs, from Bustle, offering five possible explanationsJoanna Robinson, from Vanity Fair, seems inclined to see the UFOs as a form of deus ex machina or divine intervention that is trying to restore some kind of moral balance in the universe (although she is also open to the possibility that they are not). Even MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), did a whole story looking into “the real-life UFO story behind this season of FargoNoah Wiley, the show’s creator and main writer, has acknowledged in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly that there are a couple of justifications for the inclusion of UFOs in this season’s plot:

There’s a couple things that felt right about it. One is that it plays very well into the conspiracy-minded 1979 era where it’s post-Watergate, you had Close Encounters and Star Wars. There was a Minnesota UFO encounter [in 1979] involving a state trooper. It was certainly in the air at the time.

Alternately in the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There they had a [running UFO thread]; certainly it was more ’50s inspired, but it was part of the cinematic language of their movie. So it felt like it worked for the time period and worked for the filmmakers, and is a way of saying “accept the mystery” — which is a staple of the Coen Bros. philosophy in their films. And I thought it was funny. But obviously it affects the story in a very real way. It’s not just a background element.

 

The first influence, the reported sightings of UFOs in the area during this period, seems to help the show reflect the social atmosphere of the period. In order to capture that 1970’s era, it is important to not only get the clothes, the haircuts, the interior decoration of the homes, the cars, and the music right, but it is also essential to capture the mood of the country. We therefore have the crucial, although apparently random, appearances of Ronald Reagan (played by Bruce Campbell) and the UFOs, which help evoke the political and sociological landscape of America during the period in which the second season of Fargo takes place.

But it is the second use of the UFOs, as a reference to the Coen brothers’ movie, The Man Who Wasn’t There, that I find more interesting and more meaningful: the UFOs as a clue to the Coen brothers’ (and now Noah Hawley’s) understanding of the human condition. In the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thornton plays a death-row inmate who is waiting for execution. In what it appears to be a dream, he sees a UFO over the prison yard, which prompts him to muse about its presence, allowing him to see his life and the world from a certain distance. In a voiceover, Billy Bob Thorton’s character says about the presence of the UFO:

“It’s like pulling away from the maze. While you’re in the maze, you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, and banging into the dead ends. One thing after another. But you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns — why, they’re the shape of your life. It’s hard to explain, but seeing it whole gives you some peace.”

 

The Coen Brothers and The Meaning(less) of Life

I think the same can be said about the use of UFOs as a narrative device in Fargo. The appearance of an alien spaceship at two particular violent and gruesome times this season allows the viewer to see the story from a different point of view (an alien point of view!) in which the meaning of the actions taking place on the screen are seen beyond a superficial (even though dramatic) chain of human actions and their consequences. As in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the UFO takes us as viewers momentarily away from “the maze” we are trapped in, which in Fargo seems to be a powerful but ultimately meaningless cycle of greed and violence.

The UFO interrupts the story (for a second it seems like we are watching a different show) and forces as to see the absurdity of the scene (the violence and the blood). Ultimately, it also forces as to ask what I believe is the central question of the Fargo universe: For What? Or as Frances McDormand puts it at the end of the original Fargo:

“And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”

 

 

That “For what,” is, to a great extent, what the show is exploring. While the narrative plot of the season explains why violence is happening (turf war between Mafia groups, personal vendettas, etc.), the ultimate question remains… “For What?” This season captured the essence of that existential question in a magnificent scene in which Mike Milligan, the contract killer sent by the Kansas city syndicate, goes back home to report to his boss after having successfully eradicated the Gerhardt family. He is expecting a reward in the form of a promotion and territorial control over the Fargo area, but what he gets instead is a boring office job:

Kansas City Boss: The real oversight of the new northern territories, well, that happens right here in this building.

Mike Mulligan: Which is where you want me.

Kansas City Boss: Assuming you don’t want to be a grunt your entire life.

Mike Mulligan: No. Of course not.

Kansas City Boss: Good. Then pay attention. It’s, uh, 9:00 to 5:00, mostly, but Management rewards initiative, so, uh, nights, weekends, whatever gets the job done. You’ll be working closely with the Accounting department, looking for ways to optimize revenue– shorter shipping routes, less palms to grease, that kind of thing.

Mike Mulligan: – The Accounting department? – Yeah.

Kansas City Boss: And this whole, uh, Western thing– that’s got to go. Get something gray or pinstripe with a white shirt– a-a-a-a real tie. A-a-and cut your hair, okay? The ’70s are over, for Christ’s sake.

Mike Mulligan: See, I thought– well, in the old days, when a guy conquered a place—

Kansas City Boss: You want the old days? Go work in a coal mine. This is the future. Look, you and I got off on the wrong foot, but you seem like a good kid, so let me give you a tip. The sooner you realize there’s only one business left in the world– the money business, just ones and zeros– the better off you’re gonna be.

Script from http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=fargo-2014&episode=s02e10

Evil in the Fargo universe is not some form of dark power lurking in the shadows (there is no wizard behind the curtain). Evil in the Fargo universe is mundane, and ultimately … boring. All the blood and the violence was directed by a bunch of suits from a corporate office building in Kansas city and considered a business proposition (“the money business, just ones and zeros.”). It seems like the only way to see the meaningless of a life driven by the simple pursuit of money and power is to step back (way back) and see our behavior as human beings with a certain distance, a distance that is symbollically provided in the show by the UFOs. Brilliant.

 

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