((I’m excited to have a guest post from K. David about the TV series Fargo. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. ))
TV’s Fargo As A Reflection Upon the Role of Justice in Daily Life
OFFICER GRIMLEY: License and registration please.
LORNE MALVO: We can do it that way, you [can] ask me for my papers… see where things go from there, we could do that. Or you could go get in your car and drive away.
OFFICER GRIMLEY: Now why would I do that?
LORNE MALVO: Because some roads you shouldn’t go down. Because maps used to say, “There be dragons here,” now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.
Sigmund Freud once famously said the world can be divided into two groups – believers and non-believers – and that he is a non-believer. C.S. Lewis similarly opined that the world can be divided into two groups, believers and non-believers, and that he is a believer. (This is the groundwork for a fascinating book by Armand Nicholl, but I digress….)
Lately I have been wondering if the world couldn’t also be divided in the following way: between people who believe that a more just world is possible, and those that do not. Unlike the Freud/Lewis dichotomy, where people on other sides of the fence may co-mingle only when they have to, I have noticed that those with a belief or disbelief in justice still work and play together, but their belief in justice does seem to inform their opinions about art and politics. Whereas some might get mad as Hell at the latest divisive column from a partisan hack political pundit, others are content to shrug their shoulders and quickly move on, sometimes even looking at the morally outraged with hints of condescension and/or pity. Are you going to post change.org petitions to your Facebook feed, or ambivalent photographs of slightly-bored people and their hip accoutrement? The Fargo TV mini-series has two protagonists, one who struggles with questions of justice, while the other has already accepted her role in an unjust world.
Noah Hawley’s exapnsion of Fargo as a 10-part TV series is a triumph in every sense of the word, running on a parallel course alongside the beloved movie. Expanding on the Coen Brothers’ universe, you even get to find out what happened to that suitcase full of money Steve Buscemi buried in the snow. “Minnesota Nice,” a nonplussed pregnant police officer, an enigmatic hit man, and a squirrely, unlikeable sap sucked into a world of violence all reappear.
In this parallel world, Mr. Hawley is going to make sure that the viewer will not miss an opportunity to ponder the themes of his work. Big Questions are asked about what happens when ordinary, ill-equipped people confront Evil Personified (in this case, the predator Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton) and have to decide to pursue or not-pursue a path of just and selfless sacrifice. The series makes use of a handful of digressions that recall magic realism and are designed to amplify the themes of the central action. Parable is also used in a way that is, at times, literally Biblical.
The series sets a high-water mark of both artistic quality and dramatic intrigue in its first episode, when an out-of-his-league police officer, Gus Grimley (played by Colin Hanks), pulls over Thornton’s Lorne Malvo in a routine traffic stop, only to have Malvo talk about dragons and then vaguely threaten Officer Grimley’s family. Malvo wins. Officer Grimley betrays his uniform by acting cowardly and lets Malvo go, but not until Malvo tells him that in doing so, Officer Grimley has chosen to “walk into the light.”
Later, Officer Grimley can only watch helplessly as Malvo escapes police custody by convincing the higher-ups in Grimley’s police department that he is not actually Malvo, but an innocent pastor named Frank Peterson from a neighboring town. As Malvo leaves the police station, Grimley is completely beside himself with disbelief. It is almost as if Grimley is more upset by the fact that Malvo openly and willfully lied (shudder!) than the fact that he has killed people. What would be trivial to others is of utmost importance to Colin Hanks’ character. Grimley watches Malvo’s facial expression transform from the happy Pastor Peterson back to a brooding madman. After asking Malvo how he can just lie like that, the ruthless killer only answers with a question, “Why do humans see more shades of green than any other color?” and calmly walks out of the police department before Grimley can answer.
As if Officer Grimley’s worldview wasn’t already shattered, he then has an odd late-night encounter with his neighbors, who are practitioners of an orthodox Jewish Faith. First his neighbor’s wife makes a pass at him through the window. Then the sullen and world-weary neighbor visits Grimley and patiently hears Grimley’s naive rant about justice and fairness as if the neighbor were a parent listening to a child recounting some fight at recess. The neighbor then launches into a parable about the futility of selfless acts in the name of justice, as there is simply too much injustice in the world. Because the neighbor lives with a wife who would casually flirt with an unattractive man like Grimley, we are reminded of the neighbor’s own daily struggles with injustice But later that night, the same neighbor then selflessly acts to protect the innocent widowed Grimley and his motherless daughter by staring down Malvo, who is lurking outside. The two then have an unusual conversation where Malvo utters an anti-Semitic slur, but Malvo does so almost as an act of contrition, which is to say the neighbor has Malvo beat in a quiet war of words and an ethnic muttering was all Malvo had left. Like many Coen Brothers movies, the Fargo TV series is full of eerie dramatic tension where, on the surface, nothing really happens, but these moments are quite frightening for the viewer to endure.
Grimley’s love interest, and the only competent cop left after the first episode, is hilariously named Deputy Molly Solverson (think about it…) She is played by Alison Tolman, an unknown actress who is probably a shoo-in for Best Actress in a Drama Series. Never mind that this obscure woman with little acting experience was thrown into a gig with England’s Martin Freeman, a member of the Hanks family, and a member of the Carradine family (Keith Carradine plays her father), she delivers a nuanced and deep performance as a physically awkward and socially awkward deputy drawing from a small, almost invisible, well of confidence and strength. Because she does not cut an authoritative figure, she is more sheepish than her Francis McDormand doppelganger from the Fargo movie. People in Deputy Solverson’s life consistently question her decision to be a police officer, to which she responds with the “Minnesota Nice” coping strategy of changing the subject or simply pretending not to hear the question. Her performance is a performance for the ages.
Later, Gus Grimley and Molly are in a squad car together sharing that heavy silence and stilted speech of two shy people who clearly have feelings for each other but have little romantic experience and are unsure about what to do next. Earlier, Molly embarrassingly told an inappropriate story about spiders to Gus and his daughter. Now, Gus embarrasses himself by sharing his childlike opinions about justice. Although Molly is attracted to Gus, she bitterly rebukes him and responds that she is happy she doesn’t live in Gus’ world, because she knows that the world is unjust and such thoughts are foolishness. This critical assessment of Gus’s nature (as well as the fact that Gus was also responsible for Molly’s non-fatal gunshot wound) does not temper her feelings for him. Fittingly, Molly knows why humans see green more than any other color: we used to be predators living in the jungle.
In another incredible scene, a wounded Officer Molly, unarmed and dressed only in a hospital gown and slowly dragging an IV drip behind her, goes to the hospital room of a deaf hit man who also has a gunshot wound. Making sure he can read her lips, she begins asking questions like a police officer, but soon her human rage takes hold of her, and her police work is abandoned for a very human monologue: Here I am, and here you are – we both have gunshot wounds – your partner is dead – you are wounded and going to spend the rest of your life in jail – And for what! — Was your life of evil deeds really worth it? The “Deaf Fella” then physically and dramatically turns his head; he is not going to hear it and he is not going to talk to Deputy Solverson any longer. But really, that question had no answer, and perhaps Molly knew that before she asked it, but felt compelled to ask anyway. Thousands of years ago the author of Ecclesiastes said it was not wise to ask such questions, and whether one is a Gus Grimley who naively asks for want of knowing any better, or a frustrated Molly Solverson who is going to ask even after having the insight that it is pointless, both are compelled to do so anyway as sure as the wind blows across the land from north to south.
What started with dragons from the world of make-believe ends with a very real wolf. Gus Grimley, now working as a postman one year later, first sees the wolf in a mystical scene that employs magic realism, and this leads him to know the location of Malvo’s hideout. After watching Malvo leave, Grimley hides in his house. The Fargo TV series began when Grimley betrayed the values of his police uniform. It ends with him betraying his values concerning justice and humanity – in order to catch the predator; he must become a predator and lay in wait for Malvo to return. He is not challenging Malvo on a level playing field, he is going to sneak up on Malvo and shoot him when he is defenseless. An injured Malvo returns and sees the same wolf outside his window, who meets Malvo’s gaze with a kind of somber warning. Out of the shadows, Grimley appears and says, “I know the answer to your riddle [about why humans can see more shades of green].” He timidly fires his pistol. As if Noah Hawley hasn’t already driven home the point clearly enough already, in death the blood stain around Malvo’s partly-open mouth makes him appear wolf-like.
It is perhaps appropriate that this 10 hour morality play on the difficult questions of people compelled or not-compelled to act justly in a hopelessly unjust world is being told in the United States in the summer of 2014, as Congressional approval is under 10% and Iraq, the country that we collectively broke, descends into chaos. America’s citizenry is becoming progressively alienated from the vague, amorphous entities which were designed to act in the public interest but no longer do so (Congress, the Banks, Left Media acting outside the values of ordinary Democrats, Right Media acting outside the values of regular Republicans, for-profit prisons, a violent and irresponsible Foreign Policy, unconstitutional surveillance of citizens, FISA Courts acting without any checks or balances, rampant banking and media deregulation, no-bid military contracts, etc., etc.). It occurs to me that from both sides of the coin, the question of Justice has yielded no clear paths to find our way out of the maze: a person that believes in Justice is easily manipulated by their emotions, while a person that does not believe in a just world is easily ignored and apathetically ineffectual. Among mainstream conservatives or liberals there is no moral high ground. But to think about these things is to drive one’s self crazy. There are no parades for soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. There are no embedded reporters on the 6:30 national news. It is illegal for the Press to show flag-draped coffins. There is very little fictional or fourth-genre media tackling contemporary war themes, and there is even less radical music being bought by the youth of today. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan may still be alive, but even Bob Dylan uses Botox and advertises for corporate interests on the Super Bowl National Holiday. But like the “Deaf Fella” hit man lying in a hospital bed that is confronted by Deputy Solverson, we turn away and contort ourselves to neither see, hear, nor speak.
So what of Deputy Molly Solverson? Why does she want to be a police officer in the first place? Like Gus Grimley’s neighbor with the unfaithful wife and the mysterious parable, she is compelled to act justly even when she has no hope of creating a just world. I was left believing that Deputy Solverson is a police officer not because of a fight for any kind of higher calling, but simply because she knows she would be good at it and this makes her happy. Given the use of religious parable from a practitioner of a strict Judaism, it is perhaps not a leap to think that the general idea of the Fargo TV series is the curious, distant, and dispassionate lesson of Deuteronomy 32:25, where vengeance belongs to the Lord, not the person, and justice is not a human concern. Grimley kills Malvo not as an act of vengeance, but as a practical act to save his family. The series begins with Malvo telling Grimley that it is by only acting unjustly (and letting Malvo leave the traffic stop unreported) that Grimley will walk into the light, and naturally it is only when Grimley lowers himself from a just, fair human to a cold, heartless predator does he then finally walk into the light by slaughtering Malvo. That this might be ordained by way of a larger plan is also implied by writer Noah Hawley, as it is the chance encounter with a wolf that leads Grimley to Malvo’s hideout — a wolf that, in the end, ties the fate of both Grimley and Malvo.
I don’t know that the Fargo TV Series really answers many of the questions that it raises. Where does the obligation to act justly come from in a world that will never, ever be anything but unjust? If the answer is simply duty and obligation, how can we be expected to proceed meaningfully without foundation? At what point does the bystander act even if it leads the bystander into harm’s way? In light of the fact that the show has prompted me to write this prolix essay, I guess I have to admit that in this sense, Hawley’s TV adaptation of Fargo was a success.