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Arts & Life

Decency And Discipline And The Good People Of 'Fargo'

Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson in FX's <em>Fargo</em>.
Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson in FX's <em>Fargo</em>.

[Caution: This post discusses the plot of the first and second seasons of Fargo, right up until the end of the second season and the finale that aired the night of Dec. 14. Please don't be surprised that if you haven't yet watched it, it will give away what happens. Again, this is a post about the second season of Fargo and as such discusses all events from the second season of Fargo.]

[You've been warned.]

Fargo isn't much less bloody than the rest of premium television. Gut shots, head shots, stabbings, hatchets to the skull, people slowly bleeding to death — the body count of white hats and black hats both is plenty high. But what it adds to the study of evil that has dominated the antihero era is the idea that extraordinary villains in the real world aren't opposed by extraordinary heroes but by regular people of decency who follow rules.

There's a lot of fussing about what shots and music and dialogue has linked Fargo the television series to Fargo the Coen brothers film, but what it borrows that's most important is the film's interest in the preciousness of ordinary, organized, unglamorous goodness. Marge Gunderson (played in the film by Frances McDormand) was a good cop and a brave person, but what she was more than anything, for the purposes of her job, was serious. Dutiful. The same was true of Molly Solverson in the first season of the show, and the same is — quite logically — true of Molly's father, Lou, whose earlier story was told in this second season. Goodness in the Fargo stories of television and film is what exists at the intersection of morality and order.

The three families that dominated season 2 represent three very different orientations to goodness according to this calculus. The Gerhardts have chosen brutal violence as their way of life, but they also prioritize total family loyalty, the lack of which is punishable by death even in the absence of any particular threat. They have hyper-attuned discipline and ingrained order but no decency, no morality. They have no particular reluctance to slaughter innocents, let alone betrayers. (It could be said that this entire story was set in motion by Rye's impetuous, undisciplined behavior at the Waffle Hut. That was the deviation that ultimately destroyed the family, by that figuring, along with Dodd's lying to everyone about The Butcher Of Luverne.)

The Solversons represent morals married to order, not only because Lou is a police officer but also because they are a rule-following, custom-following, duty-bound family. Lou calls home, Lou sends Karl to check on Betsy, Betsy provides reassurance to all, Betsy looks after Noreen. They are guided by goodness but also by understanding what's expected. They create as much internal structure as they can and tolerate chaos — like Betsy's participation in the drug trial, which is either potentially life-saving or totally useless — without complaint.

The Blumquists, well ... the Blumquists are fundamentally decent, even moral. Peggy and Ed would not only never have wanted to hurt an innocent person, but would undoubtedly never have harmed anyone at all had Peggy not had the extraordinarily bad luck to hit Rye Gerhardt with her car. And she did so just after he got through killing three people — one of whom he pitilessly executed as she pitifully stumbled away from him, a specifically predatory act without which he would never have been in the road in the first place. Not only was Peggy's initial act not intentional; it was almost righteous, if accidentally so. It wasn't even an eye for an eye; it was an eye for three eyes. She engaged in violence, yes, but no brutality, no cruelty. (What cruelty looks like coming from Peggy is seen in the petulant pokes she gives Dodd when he shows bad manners: she's mostly stabbing him the way she might spank a child.)

Peggy and Ed's original sins were ones of disorder, of rule-breaking and norm-ignoring — which, as they learned, can cause as much damage as being an actually bad person. When you hit someone with your car and you're not to blame, the rules say you go to the police. You tell them what happened. When you kill in self-defense, you follow the rules and you'll be fine. You don't hide a body in your freezer. You don't further desecrate it by grinding it up into burger meat, thus dragging your employer into your treachery. The body disposal as Ed performed it was not just immoral; it was gross. There's a story reason it wasn't a burial: a burial is a socially approved ritual. This was not. This compounded what they had done and made it even harder to tell the truth. It was disorder.

What's more, the rules say you don't lie. You don't fill your house with chaos in the form of a sprawling magazine hoard, and you don't commit the pettiest of petty theft by swiping rolls of toilet paper you don't even need from your work.

The Blumquists were never after anything but relief from the consequences of messy, deviating decisions they'd already made. Even when Peggy and Ed went a little more hardcore and kidnapped and held Dodd in the cabin, what did they want? Just to be left alone. They didn't want power or money or revenge; they just wanted to return to the life they'd previously had, unlikely though that always was. As it turned out, they were holding hostage the man who, by telling his family that "The Butcher Of Luverne" had murdered Rye intentionally as part of a gang war, had set most of their misery in motion. He deserved to die for what he did to them, according to the rules of war he'd already embraced. But they had no desire to do that. They didn't even know to do it. They wanted to give him back for the simple price of their own clean exit.

But while goodness in Fargo is pretty easy to define, what goodness is good for is more elusive. It's easy to see Lou Solverson and his father-in-law Hank as the triumphant, decent lawmen in this story until you consider the fact that the Gerhardts weren't undone by Lou and Hank, or caught by Lou and Hank, or punished by Lou and Hank. The Gerhardts, in fact, massacred most of the substantial force of police that was at the Motor Motel when they got there. The battle of gangsters versus cops? It wasn't even close.

No, the Gerhardts were were undone because a member of their own clan began following a different set of rules and they failed to anticipate it. Hanzee developed his own idea of what order was and what duty was. Whether it was personal resentment or something more rooted in the broader social injustices that seemed to be haunting him more aggressively as the story progressed, Hanzee beat the Gerhardts because he upset the order of the Gerhardt empire. In Fargo world, in the absence of morality, order can turn quickly on those trying to impose it. Otto and Floyd brought up Hanzee to commit to a code and live by it without mercy; when the code changed, they were no more spared than anyone else.

One of the most interesting aspects of the finale is that after running all season, hiding all season, getting out of scrapes all season, Peggy and Ed were not killed in an enormous climactic firefight like the one they escaped at the motel, or executed gruesomely at close range, or tricked into lowering their guard. Ed was just plain shot as they ran from Hanzee, and he died where he and his wife went to hide. Without him gone, Peggy tried to fight a threat that wasn't there anymore, just as she'd once taken advice from a guru who wasn't there, only to be rounded up by Lou, the man who had tried in vain to get her and Ed to see the writing on the wall a little sooner. Hours sooner would have been enough. They were just dumb. They didn't listen to what turned out to be good advice. It's as bad, sometimes, as venality.

Hank and Lou were decent and did what they were supposed to do, and thus they earned their way home to Betsy, whom they both love, who is still dying. They earned their way home to Molly, whom Lou will raise, we know, into the inheritor of his brand of goodness. But a lot of police didn't get out of this, and neither did poor Ed, who just wanted to buy the butcher shop and who at least saved Noreen. But Charlie didn't really get out with much of his life, and neither did Constance Heck or the clerk at the little grocery store, or Otto's nurse. Simone never had a chance. Any victories here are small, personal ones. They are rarely fully satisfying. Lou didn't get Mike, or Dodd, or Floyd, or Joe, or the Kitchen Brothers. Lou just got poor, foolish Peggy and poor, foolish Charlie. (Remember that Lou's daughter Molly won't, in her time, get to capture the real bad guy, either.)

Victories aren't much more satisfying for the bad guys who lived. Just ask Mike Milligan, who did his job for Kansas City and went back for a little praise, only to find himself joining what would become the corporate culture of the 1980s — boring money manipulation instead of knocking heads. It's a tribute to the way Bokeem Woodbine played Mike that his emptiness at the end is so affecting. He's a company man — he wants respect. He demonstrates, perhaps more than anyone else on the show, what completely amoral discipline looks like. And this is his life now, as his boss explains. He has an office. A desk. Soon, he'll have a computer.

Perhaps what looks like the cleanest getaway is reserved for Hanzee, who has a new name and will get a new look. He'll start his own empire, maybe, but until then, he'll take care of what are literally playground bullies.

There's no clean line where the good do well and the bad are punished. Cops are slaughtered along with criminals. Still, the show seems to have something to say about what goodness actually is and about the fact that it exists not because it enables perfect victories, but for its own sake. And even the good have their blind spots: Lou is perhaps the most uncontroversially good man the show has to offer, but it's no accident he describes the duties of men to protect their families at all costs using the complicated words "our privilege." Indeed. Because as Peggy tries to explain and Lou cannot hear, while she's been stupid and reckless, he doesn't understand what it's like to be in her shoes in the slightest, despite his devotion to his own wife and his admiration of men who put their families first.

But what about the spaceship?

It's very hard to talk about this season of Fargo without reckoning with the flying saucer that came hovering over the parking lot of the Motor Motel right in the middle of the final battle between Bear Gerhardt and Lou, right as Bear had the upper hand. It's true that it provided a distraction and a change of momentum that helped Lou turn the tables. But it's an easier sort of deus ex machina to forgive than the kind that gets the writers out of an impossible situation. There were a million ways to choreograph that fight so that Lou came out on top; they didn't go with the flying saucer because they didn't have other choices anyone would believe. They chose the flying saucer, not to solve a plot problem, but to say something.

It's critical in such situations to remember that sometimes, writers are just being weird. The fascination with UFOs was dropped in all season in dribs and drabs, starting with Rye spying one out by the Waffle Hut in the very first episode. Maybe they were just being weird, maybe they were just indulging style quirks, maybe they overthought it. But here, there's an argument that the senselessness of the UFO makes some sense, as it were.

Battles between good and evil, between order and disorder, aren't honestly drawn if they don't acknowledge that there's always an X factor — something almost impossible to plan for. It won't necessarily decide the outcome of those battles (the Gerhardts and cops had their fates sealed, for the most part, before that saucer ever appeared), but it puts a thumb on the scale. The UFO, perhaps, is just there to represent what can't be anticipated — to represent chaos.

And while Lou believes in duty and order, he's probably grateful for that little bit of chaos.

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