True Story: Because of a Restrictive Formula, FX’s Fargo has Limitless Potential
At first glance, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo seems like an odd choice for adaptation into episodic format; it’s a one-and-done noir story of greed, murder, and underestimation set against a snowy, unforgiving Minnesota background, where gruesome brutality and Midwestern politeness mix as comfortably as noodles and hamburger in your favorite hot dish. By the time the credits roll, the good gal wins, the bad guys are caught, and there was never much of a mystery in the first place – certainly not enough to sustain an entire season of television. Yet here we are, with the third chapter of Noah Hawley’s acclaimed Fargo TV series in full swing, and instead of the small-town settings and chipper accents growing stale or repetitive, or the narrative feeling rehashed by telling yet another version of folksy police officers outwitting weirdo psychopathic crooks amid a blizzard of violence, the restrictive structure of the show actually allows for greater possibility, letting its creators to keep things fresh and focus on what’s important, what’s bigger than the mere events depicted. After all, there’s more to quality storytelling than a little plot, you know; dontcha know that?
Crime fiction has been around for almost two centuries, so there’s nothing really new about delving into the shadowy, murderous slices of life (read enough old noir short stories and you may think twice about getting married, by the way). What Noah Hawley clearly understands is that the appeal of the Fargo film isn’t actually in the simple or sordid plights of the plucky Marge, slimy Jerry, or stoic Gaear Grimsrud, but in the people themselves, or rather the cultural world they inhabit, one where the seedy underbelly of Minnesota Nice is exposed, where beneath the non-threatening smiles, charming hospitality, and cute colloquialisms are a people boiling over with repressed impulses – some wholesome, and others, well, not so much. While sinister acts happen everywhere, it’s the juxtaposition of violence with a perceived naive innocence that makes Fargo so juicily fascinating. In other words, it’s the way characters in the show are unfriendly – how they’re so polite about it.
“You know, you can go through your whole life without a care, and one day it all changes. People die. They lose their homes. They go to prison. It’s calamity, huh? I know it, ’cause I lived it. And if this year has taught me anything– and believe me, I’ve seen it all– it’s that the worst does happen. And you need to be insured.”
Instead of relying on intricate plotting, this is where the tension and mystery originate in the Fargo TV series. Lester Nygaard and the Blumquists hardly seem like people who could go off the rails and produce anything outside of a mediocre existence, but the Midwestern social contracts depicted not only are a house of cards waiting to topple when the slightest imbalance is introduced, but also a stalwart fort hostile to any intruder, ready to defend itself –and watching that happen is enough to wear out the edge of a seat. Whether egged on by an outsider assassin or perpetrator of a freak hit-and-run accident, the resulting grisly deaths inject the spark of life into these mundane nobodies, and they’ll do what it takes to keep that going, embracing the corruption as if finally free, yet at the same time forced to eternally look over their shoulders. Meanwhile, those looking to maintain the peace and hunky-dory facade are forced to confront actions and motives beyond their comprehension, and those hoping to invade are mistaken in their overconfidence. It’s not as simple as good vs. evil; very few in Fargo are pure. It’s more like order vs. chaos, and how a supposedly stable and ethical ecosystem can descend into amorality, how fragile our societal partnerships truly are.
Ya, sure, in the background there are various machinations of mafias both local and Kansas City-based, crimes of passion followed by bungled coverups, and even the odd UFO inclusion for reasons I still can’t fathom, but these basic story elements are essentially dressing; someone killed someone else, tough survival choices must be made, things end poorly for almost everyone, etc. It’s all very tragic stuff, but probably wouldn’t be nearly as engrossing if set in New York or Los Angeles. The story doesn’t matter as much as the Midwestern atmosphere, the vibe, so the burden of indefinitely perpetuating the same characters, constantly dreaming up new and increasingly unbelievable mishaps is unnecessary, and would only take away from what’s important anyway. With a foundation upon which any numbers of sturdy structures could be built, why stop at just one?
While the vast majority of hour-long TV dramas cling to an initial premise for their entire run, an open-ended framework (usually pre-developed for only the first season) built around central recurring characters who coincidentally are supplied with an endless amount situations they get themselves into, be it quirky murders to solve, cases to prosecute, or puzzling supernatural mysteries to never find definitive proof for, Fargo eschews this for self-contained, season-long storylines told essentially as a ten-hour movie. Once a season is over, it’s on to a new cast of new characters experiencing new trials and tribulations, possibly in a new decade. Maybe whatever happened the previous year will be vaguely referenced once or twice, and maybe it won’t – who cares? You betcha the same darkly comedic tone and grisly tragedy will be involved, but mercifully (and more believably) not to the same people.
“And isn’t that a minor miracle? The state of the world today and the level of conflict and misunderstanding, that two men could stand on a lonely road in winter and talk calmly and rationally while all around them, people are losing their mind. You have a nice day.”
Though this strategy could be seen as a risk due to the lack of audience attachment (sorry, but there isn’t enough time to form a real good friendship with an imaginary character here), from a storytelling sense it’s far more solid and satisfying than the repetitive norm. When a theme rules, then having the audience be able to connect to the characters is vital – though not in the usual way. Instead of attaching to a specific person because we like their personality or talent, it’s the archetype that must elicit an emotional response. A woman repressed by a man’s world, a hen-pecked husband, a blue collar traditionalist, an idealistic believer in justice, a philosophical anarchist; in these people we see our own frustrations, inferiority complexes, compassion, selfishness, honor, cowardice, and the many traits that could us all lead to making the same poor decisions those onscreen suffer. These have been the failing of humans for millennia, perhaps why we never tire of watching them. Just set up the story dominoes and watch them fall.
That’s not to say that no effort need be put into plot; just the right kind. There’s a mythical aspect to Fargo, an otherworldiness that is both close and far away at the same time; it could go on endlessly, like a wintry horizon in which one can’t tell where the ground starts and the sky begins, but lasting forever isn’t just about staying alive. The ancient Greeks, those purveyors of wonderfully melodramatic misfortune, understood that a three-act structure was the optimal way to tell a tale, whether comedy or tragedy or both, and little has changed since then. Beginnings, middles, and (especially) ends are still highly regarded amongst most writers, but those operating in the medium of television, where story supply depends on demand, don’t usually plan that far. Setups reign over a fully-fleshed out narrative, and over time writers start having trouble finding ways to keep the same people doing the same things over and over again while still making it interesting. Instead of acknowledging with dignity that a scenario has played out, however, more often than not they forgo logical conclusions for squeezing blood from a turnip, and so a structure originally designed to hold only so much narrative weight is expanded upon, often in every direction out of hope that something sticks (it usually doesn’t), until the once-strong foundation can no longer sustain the mushrooming burden.
“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.”
Fargo – and the few shows like it – is unique in that it doesn’t have the limitations imposed by that kind of continuity. It doesn’t fear the end, seeing instead the new beginning that follows. Hawley is able to fully tell a tale, exploring his themes until their logical conclusion, then is allowed to start over and try it from a different angle, with as many or few common threads as he’d like. This is storytelling freedom, and by structuring the Fargo stories in this way, no subject matter is off limits. The worst thing about narrative shows like [insert favorite drama here] is all the filler one has to eventually wade through before anything satisfying happens, especially the longer it runs. Writers are often so concerned with how to keep the story plates spinning in case of renewal that they forget what was at the heart in the first place. Imagine, however, how much ground something like The Walking Dead could cover if each season focused on a different set of survivors, in a completely different part of the country, or even the world. A show about humanity could actually depict some again, exploring the many poignant facets of our species’ existence instead of putting all its energy into figuring out what ridiculously horrid situation these people can get themselves into next, which fan-favorite to kill next, or how to keep tricking viewers with tedious cliffhangers. They could be free of that nonsense, left only to tell stories.
Like Fargo, dontcha know?