“Building an Empire State”
The second season of Fargo (FX, 2015) is devoted to the fall of empire. In the season finale, “Palindrome” (12/14/2015), Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) catches one of the Gerhardt’s lackeys pilfering from the family homestead now that almost everyone in the clan is dead. The irreverent gangster gloats at his new status as king of all he surveys. When the surly lackey, knowing he is about to die, challenges Mike, declaring that we don’t have kings in the United States, Milligan corrects him: we just call them something different.
Perhaps Mike is referring to the presidency, as the story set in 1979 includes the rise of Ronald Reagan to national politics. In an earlier episode, Reagan’s tour bus travels through the north-central states, engaged in various campaign stops for the 1980 election. We meet the future president ignominiously, as he is urinating at a highway rest stop. Star of cult films such as The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1983), Bruce Campbell’s intriguing impersonation of Reagan tinges the “morning in America” optimism of his candidacy with a more horrifying future, in which Reagan’s vice president George Bush would become the patriarch of a clan of governors, at least one of whom would go on to become incompetent presidents, sinking the United States into unending war and financial crisis. Are the Bushes the renamed kings to whom Milligan points?
The second season of Fargo revels in such speculation about the future. In a very moving segment in the finale, terminal cancer patient, Betsy Solverson (Cristin Milioti) tells her daughter’s babysitter of a dream she had. In a flashforward sequence, we see what we know from season one to be her husband Lou as an old man (Keith Carradine), her grown daughter, Molly (Allison Tolman), and Molly’s husband Gus (Colin Hanks) having a delightful meal together. However, Betsy equivocates that she also saw a much darker future. Which will come true? Are we to assume that a completely different season of a television show, which is itself unreliably based on a movie, is any more trustworthy than Betsy’s darker dreams?
The show hesitates between the bleak stories we witness and their more optimistic media analogues. Most tragically, the mentally unhinged Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) and her hapless husband Ed (Jesse Plemons), after surviving innumerable attacks by the Gerhardt clan, finally end trapped in a meat locker, hiding from the rogue killer, Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon). As smoke pours through the vent, Peggy observes that this is the exact plot of the Ronald Reagan movie she saw in an earlier episode.
In that film, Allied agents were saved from an evil Nazi attempting to smoke them out of a cellar where they are hiding. Just as they are forced to open the door and ascend the steps, Reagan’s character shoots the villain before he can harm our heroes. Peggy re-enacts the scene by opening the meat locker door, but unlike in the film, her paramour is already dead, and outside is not the killer, but the police, arrived to arrest her for having covered up vehicular manslaughter, which she committed in the premiere.
Fargo’s equivocations extend beyond the normal limits of genre. In a way that only the Coen Brothers and their acolytes could possibly hazard—Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) sees a UFO at the end of The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)—at the conclusion of the “Sioux Falls Massacre” episode, “The Castle” (12/7/2015), after we’ve witnessed dozens of violent gun deaths, an alien spaceship hovers over the dead bodies. Do the aliens come to assist our hero? State trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) is able to kill Bear Gerhardt (Angus Sampson) just as it appears the gangster will strangle him to death, only because the lights from the UFO distract him.
The intervention of kindly aliens would bode will for the future, since it would imply a sophisticated civilization coming to the aid of justice in the nick of time. On the other hand, the negative possibilities are rife: perhaps the aliens come to evaluate our military strength, as a prelude to invasion. Worse, maybe they just don’t care at all, and merely enjoy watching us kill ourselves, something that might be equally said of the viewers of Fargo.
The show’s bleak portrait of the universe doesn’t help us trust Betsy’s optimistic timeline, forcing us to question any vision of a stable future. The first season was controlled by a trickster devil, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), while the second witnessed the decimation of an entire family. The history of this doomed family is narrated to us by the voice-over of Martin Freeman, the actor who played that devil’s ambitious protégé in season one.
The babysitter, who has been reading The Myth of Sisyphus while Betsy and her daughter slept, provides a bit of release. Her take-away from reading of Albert Camus is that life is absurd. Angrily, Betsy observes that only someone without a child could say something so stupid. However, Betsy and Camus are more in sync than her snap judgment will allow. The French philosopher describes the moment of human triumph as precisely when others despair: when Sisyphus faces pushing the rock up the mountain yet again, his decision to do so represents our greatest triumph. Betsy and Lou’s brave perseverance faced with a world of suffering and horror offer us Fargo’s versions of Camus’ existential hero.
While Fargo at least allows for the happiness of an individual loving family, it holds out no such hope for larger political organizations. The show deftly frames the markers of 1979 as the end of one sort of power and the rise of a very different kind, equally doomed. When Mike stands triumphant at the Gerhardt homestead, he revels in the death not only of his foes, but what they represent. The Gerhardt family crest figures prominently as Milligan looks at the lackey. The wall decoration is full of resonance not only with Germany but more specifically with Nazism. A “G” is embroidered in the midst of the black eagle from the German flag, amidst its color scheme: black, red, and yellow. The Gerhardts share the values of Nazism, centralized power, adoration of the mother, and aggressive tactics based on bullying.
The fall of the Gerhardts represents the demise of a certain kind of white protestant immigrant ethos in the Midwest. In Mike’s way of thinking, these German immigrants will be replaced by his upwardly mobile entrepreneurialism, where his effectiveness trumps race. While his status as African-American might seem to point to the demise of white privilege, his disconnectedness from any other evidence of an African-American community in actuality seals his failure. Even Karl Weathers—the black actor, Carl Weathers having played Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies—has been whitewashed, now just a drunken white lawyer played with great comic intensity by Nick Offerman.
Fresh off of his great triumph, Mike arrives in Kansas City, where he imagines the powerful syndicate will lavish him with the kingdom of the newly expanded Midwest territory. His boss, Hamish Broker (Adam Arkin)—by no coincidence, the final episodes’ director as well—welcomes him to his new, comically small office. Mike’s success is not that of king, but of middle management. Hamish explains that the new head of the California territory got where he is by saving the corporation millions of dollars in postage stamps. Hamish seals Milligan’s defeat by telling the self-fashioned Blaxploitation hero to “get a haircut… the ‘70s are over.” Milligan discovers that the new empire which has replaced the old is far worse, a world of indifferent bureaucracy. His version of Sisyphus will push invoices up a mountain of paperwork; Mike doesn’t even get the dignity of actually moving a rock up a real hill.
Season two’s central figure is another ethnic minority, Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon), a Native American street kid who was taken in by the family patriarch, Otto Gerhardt. In the season opener, we are privy to the making of a film about the Sioux Falls “massacre,” which given the film’s setting, in the northern tundra of the American Great Plains, is a term we would more associate with Wounded Knee, a real massacre of Sioux men, women and children by the U.S. 7th Cavalry, which took place in South Dakota in 1890. The central act of violence in season two of Fargo is a substitution cipher: made-up 20th century gang infighting replaces the 19th century Indian wars in the north-central states.
Fargo ends where it began—indeed, a true palindrome—with Hanzee’s meditations on the nature of power. A fixer comes to give the fugitive his new identity, Moses Tripoli, not knowing that Hanzee himself was responsible for the massacre. Episodes earlier, Hanzee decided, with another of Dodd Gerhardt’s insults to his Indian heritage, to shoot his boss in the head and dismantle the entire family. Hanzee says that now that the Gerhardt empire has come to an end, he will have to start his own. We know from season one that this is exactly what he will do, running a new crime organization. However, we also know that Malvo will end that enterprise as well.
“Palindrome” ends this kingpin’s rise at a strange moment. As Hanzee assesses the state of the world from the bleachers at a local park, he sees two sets of boys on the baseball diamond fighting with each other. He pulls out his knife and runs toward them. At first, it seems he will continue his killing spree, having embraced the stereotype of the “bloodthirsty Indian” throughout the season, especially in response to racism against him. In an earlier episode, he shoots up a small town when a bartender spits in a glass of water he’s innocently requested.
We know that Hanzee will not end in a blaze of self-destructive violence, despite having told Peggy in an earlier episode that he is tired of “this life.” The two boys speaking in sign language will clearly grow up to be the mob muscle from season one, Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) and Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg). Presumably, Hanzee sees the boys being beaten up because they are different from the other kids, and thus begins his new empire by killing more bullies and hiring the sign language tandem as the first of the knights in his new kingdom.
But the equivocal nature of the media references in Fargo cast a pall over any such positive feelings about violence committed for the right reasons. After the lackey is shot dead, Mike stands in front of the Gerhardt’s mantle, looking at family photographs. Visibly disturbed, he flips down a portrait of a cute baby. Why would he do this? I think it is because for whatever performance he has mastered of the ironic indifferent killer, there is a witty human being contained behind that mask.
For every murder, there is the story of a real human being devastated in the wake of such violence. Hanzee is the show’s central contradiction, a killing machine forged in Vietnam, yet one angry enough to rush to the aid of boys bullied just because they are different. As with the film from which the series is extracted, the kindly police return from the mayhem seeking solace in their families, confused as to why so few would choose the light over the darkness. But, as much as we flip down the photographs of our children, the violent world we bequeath to them will be our final legacy. Of that future, we can be sure.