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    a man peering around the corner of a house

    Frozen Force for Mischief

    Thin Places in Fargo

    Adam Fleming Petty

    September 23, 2020
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    • Marc de Celle, author, How Fargo of You

      The most fun I've had reading a review of any kind in years. The last review I enjoyed this much was in the 1990s, a review of Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain written by someone whose name, sadly, I've long since forgotten. Thanks, Adam.

    At a motel in South Dakota, bodies are strewn on the parking lot. A turf war is being fought between a family trucking concern and the Kansas City mob, and after a series of skirmishes in diners and snow-covered fields, it has exploded into this below-freezing Antietam. Police, US marshals, and other arms of law enforcement are also on hand, their efforts to staunch the bloodshed largely effective. But one thing manages to halt the violence: out of the night sky, a flying saucer descends. It hovers over the parking lot, drawing the rapt attention of everyone. State Trooper Lou Solverson makes use of the general pause to dispatch the trucker strangling him, squeezing off a single close-range headshot. The standoff ended, the flying saucer swoops off.

    Not even space aliens bother to land in South Dakota. Talk about flyover country.

    The flying saucer appears to be an aberration in the world of Fargo. Created by Noah Hawley, and inspired by the Coen Brothers film of the same name, the show is a crime drama with heavy splashes of dark humor. Fargo the 1996 film is a comedic winter noir, one where it’s never clear if you’re meant to be laughing or wincing. The funny accents have made their mark on the culture, but it’s worth recalling that all the “you betcha!” catchphrases serve as a Trojan horse for the Coens’ dark vision of human nature. Even rural Minnesotans, who can seem like harmless clichés at first glance, have darkness in their hearts, following the dictates of their own greed into alleyways that offer no escape. Goodness, too: the small-town, aw-shucks manner proves to be up to the task of confronting the evils that lurk in the aisles of the local grocery store. In the howling Upper Midwest landscape, the state of nature (that extends to the human heart) is brutal, but you can create a warm hearth against the cold. Police officer Marge Gunderson saves the day in the end, and the criminal who once seemed so malevolent shrinks down in the backseat of her police cruiser. The scales tip, ever so slightly, in the favor of goodness, or at least competence. In Fargo the show, that is less certain.

    Each season follows a different, self-contained story taking place during a different time period, with certain overlaps between seasons. The second season, the one with the flying saucer, takes place in 1979; Solverson, we know from the first season set in 2006, will eventually run a diner and raise a daughter who becomes the deputy of a small-town police station. (The fourth season, set to air on FX this fall, takes place in 1950.) It’s an ambitious show, seeking to tell a broad, overarching story about community from the postwar era to the present. But still, it rarely veers into the genres of science fiction or horror, where a flying saucer would seem to be more at home. Perhaps it’s a meta joke about the limitations of narrative, the ultimate deus ex machina that ties together plot strands that would otherwise fray. Maybe it’s a nod to the show’s source material. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), one of the strangest entries in the Coens’ oeuvre, features Billy Bob Thornton watching a flying saucer hover over a prison yard for a moment before taking off again. But there’s another approach that sees the saucer as more than a joke or a reference, and I think it also fits in with the larger themes of the show. The Upper Midwest is more than a land of ice hockey and funny accents. It is a land of thin places.

    Eric Weiner writes of thin places, “They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent, or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.” Weiner takes an expansive view of a concept most often associated with the landscape of Ireland, where wily faeries have been known to cross the veil between worlds and wreak havoc on the lives of unassuming shepherds. Places the world over are found to be thin, from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to Hong Kong International Airport to the aisles of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. It’s an egalitarian concept. One does not need to have an exclusive membership or own property to perceive this thinness, only patience and attention. Rural Minnesota, where the winters are long and the temperatures freezing, cultivates just these traits in its residents.

    Places the world over are found to be thin, from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to Hong Kong International Airport to the aisles of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

    One of the most striking thin places in the show comes in the third season, set in 2010, in the wake of the financial crash. Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), on the run from a cabal of vampiric financiers, is stumbling through the woods. Snow is on the ground, and she is close to freezing to death. Over a hill, she sees the glow of neon lights. It is a bowling alley, and she takes shelter within. Like the flying saucer, you can see it as a nod to the Coens’ filmography. The Big Lebowski (1998), their classic stoner noir, features a bowling alley as a kind of town square, where locals gather to share jokes and nurse grudges. But this one is more than a place for Swango to catch her breath. Sitting at the bar, she speaks to a man who seems to know much about her, and the nature of the world at large. He even shows her a kitten that, he claims, contains the transmigrated soul of her murdered boyfriend. Like a good Midwesterner, she takes this all in stride. That this stranger with the kitten is played by Ray Wise, perhaps best known for portraying Leland Palmer on David Lynch’s series Twin Peaks, heightens the sense that the bowling alley is a space on the threshold between two worlds, not unlike the Black Lodge with its red curtains and backward-talking dwarves.

    The congruence with Twin Peaks suggests the other way Fargo pursues this approach. Thin places, as Celtic folklore demonstrates, aren’t all transcendence and oneness with the eternal. They are places where forces of mischief, disorder, and even evil enter our world. Bob steps through those red curtains to terrorize the Pacific Northwest, possessing Leland Palmer and eventually Agent Dale Cooper himself. Fargo is much more sparing with supernatural elements, but there is still the pervasive sense that this quiet, out-of-the-way community is besieged by external forces of tremendous power. This can be seen in the deliberate way the show interprets its source material.

    The first season of the show is, more or less, a reimagining of the movie. The film finds Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) concocting a scheme to have his wife kidnapped so he can collect the ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law, while pregnant chief of police Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) cleans up after the mess he makes. In the show, the analogues to these two characters are Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a mild-mannered insurance agent, and deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). Here, Lester’s wife is dead by his own hand. But he manages to cover it up, assuaging the suspicions of everyone in town, save Molly, who continues to investigate Lester. But there is another character, wholly new to the show, with no precedent in the film: Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a professional hitman passing through town. Through a Strangers on a Train-esque encounter, Malvo helps Lester dispose of his wife’s body, framing the crime scene as a home invasion gone wrong. Whereas Fargo the film depicts characters destroying their lives through simple greed and incompetence, Fargo the show introduces a character of almost supernatural malevolence and turns him loose on the unsuspecting townsfolk.

    If the divine enters this world as a flying saucer, then evil seems to take the form of a traveling salesman.

    Malvo strongly recalls Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, the Coens’ 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. Like Chigurh, Malvo is a psychopath for hire, and a weirdly proselytizing one. “Your problem is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules,” he tells Lester, sounding like a podcaster about to plug his own energy drink. “There aren’t. We used to be gorillas. All we had was what we could take and defend.” He is a gleeful nihilist, and he won’t be satisfied until he makes the goodhearted people of Minnesota see the world his way. Nor is he the only one. Each season of the show features a similarly ruthless character, making it clear that Hawley and the producers are up to something more than merely cutting and pasting the Coens’ greatest hits. They are telling a story about the way evil and chaos enter out-of-the-way places like Fargo. If the divine enters this world as a flying saucer, then evil seems to take the form of a traveling salesman.

    a man peering around the corner of a house

    Michael Stuhlbarg in Fargo (imdb.com)

    Malvo and his ilk act as enforcers of the corporate capitalism transforming the Upper Midwest. Season 2, the one set in 1979, sees Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), an operative for the Kansas City mob, attempt to take over the Gerhardt trucking business. The Gerhardts are Midwestern mafiosi, running their small empire as a family operation. The mob wants to buy out the Gerhardts and run their trucks with the efficiency of an Amazon warehouse. Unbound by ties to place or family, Milligan doesn’t hesitate to murder, extort, and terrorize, all in the effort to squeeze every last drop out of the Gerhardts’ business.

    “The past can no more become the future than the future can become the past,” Milligan says, like the world’s most menacing motivational speaker. He does the bidding of the future, and he won’t take no for an answer. That Milligan is black, and the Gerhardts the descendants of German immigrants, adds a racial irony to this class conflict. By siding with the forces of faceless, nation-spanning capitalism, Milligan is able to raise himself above the class of white small-business owners who, in nearly any other situation, would demand his subordination. But he still ends up being subordinated. Expecting to take the throne of the vanquished Gerhardt empire, Milligan ends up back in Kansas City, in a cramped office, consigned to middle management. There are no kings anymore, only bosses.

    By the twenty-first century, the fusion between money and mayhem is complete. Season 3 sees V. M. Varga (David Thewlis), a shadowy hedge-fund operative, overtake a local business. Rather than guns and violence, the weapons at his disposal are junk bonds and shell companies. Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) is the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, owning and operating lots around Saint Cloud. But after the 2008 crash, his business finds itself short of funds. To keep the cash flowing, he accepts a loan from a company run by Varga, expecting to pay it back once his business gets back on its feet. But Varga doesn’t want the money; he wants Stussy’s company, floor to ceiling. He plans to use the company to purchase dozens of different businesses, inflating its worth and overextending its assets. When the company inevitably goes bankrupt, Varga will make off with the profits, cutting Stussy a meager check for his troubles.

    Varga, it appears, has no need for sustenance. Though he gorges himself on the heavy comfort foods the Midwest offers in abundance, he always goes to the bathroom afterwards, kneels before the toilet, and purges. It is a comically overdetermined image of global capital swallowing local communities whole, only to spit them back out.

    It’s a bleak vision, and Fargo doesn’t flinch from it. Varga’s law-enforcement foil is a pair of female cops (Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle and Olivia Sandoval as Winnie Lopez) who together fall short of what Marge Gunderson represented. Burgle begins her storyline as chief but is immediately demoted, through no fault of her own; Lopez is dearly trying to get pregnant but can’t. These symbols of hope and progress are being undone. In the final moments of the season, Varga and Burgle face off with no resolution, leaving basic decency and order in existential limbo. (Since the next season, rumored to be the last, will be a prequel, the outcome of this cliffhanger is choose-your-own-adventure.)

    But if there were a place where the community could gather, to see itself and its potential power, perhaps that could mobilize it into a more active, communal presence. A thin place, where neighbors could stand shoulder-to-shoulder and witness a revelation.

    But the suggestion remains that thin places are still be found, perhaps in the very sites capitalism tries to claim for itself. Back in Season 2, Betsy Solverson – Lou’s wife, and Molly’s mother – has a vision. She sees her daughter grow up, and the world she will take her place in. “I dreamt of a magical future,” she says in voiceover. “Where everything you could ever want would be available in one amazing place.” We see that this amazing place, whose name she doesn’t know, is . . . Costco. The fun uncle of big box stores, where you can buy pickles by the metric ton and still save enough money to grab a slice of pizza at the food court. It’s a joke, certainly, seeing the capitol of American bulk purchasing as a haven of bliss. There’s a tinge of irony, too. Big box stores operate through a vast logistical system of shipping routes and distribution centers, the very kind of operation that the Kansas City mob sought to impose on Fargo, displacing the Gerhardts’ trucking business. The future that Betsy foresees is the same one Mike Milligan prophesies.

    Where does Fargo go from here? To the past. The fourth season, which is about to premiere (having been postponed till now by the effects of a great evil that entered our world in a thin place involving bats), takes place in 1950 Kansas City. Two crime syndicates, one Italian and one black, are vying for control of the city. The connective thread between this season and the show at large is likely to be Milligan himself. Perhaps we’ll even see Milligan as a child, much like we saw the young Molly Solverson in 1979.

    The 1950s are a familiar cultural resource. The age of television and rock and roll, it gave birth to so much of what we think of our modern media culture. But in the last decade or so – since the financial crash of 2008, say – another aspect of that decade has become more prominent than the sock hops and T-Birds. The economy was, compared to the present, more accommodating to the working class. The wealthy were heavily taxed, unions were robust, and an average person (well, a white man) could support a family with a single income. Not coincidentally, this was also the height of the mob’s influence, depending as it did on labor unions and the face-to-face relationships that obtained in a more localized economy. Martin Scorsese has made a career out of depicting this aspect of the era, with his 2019 film The Irishman acting as a coda to the decade. But with its focus on the Midwest rather than the East Coast, as well as its placement of black characters at the forefront of the story, the new season of Fargo looks to tell a different story about an overly familiar era.

    Where was the thin place back then, and can we still find it? Thus far in the series, such encounters with the transcendent are rather isolated. Lou Solverson sees the flying saucer, but finds that he cannot adequately describe it to anyone else, even those who were also there. Nikki Swango brushes aside the cosmic significance of the bowling alley in the effort to simply stay alive. Perhaps a thin place found further in the past, when communal bonds were tighter, is one that can not only be experienced, but shared.

    Thus far, the two main agents on the show – the besieged community, and the invading evil – have reached something of a détente, with the community retreating into their homes while evil buys up property on Main Street. But if there were a third place where the community could gather, to see itself and its potential power, perhaps that could mobilize it into a more active, communal presence. A thin place, where neighbors could stand shoulder-to-shoulder and witness a revelation.

    Contributed By

    Adam Fleming Petty lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his family. His writing has appeared in Real Life, Vulture, The Paris Review Daily, and other venues. He is, tragically, at work on a novel.

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