The Long View: ‘Fargo’, Postmodernity, and the American Wilderness

Noah Hawley’s TV series Fargo (2014-) is about big crimes happening in small towns, set in and around the snow covered American Midwest. One of the key features of both seasons (and the 1996 Coen brothers’ film on which they are based) involves everyday people confronting evils which defy control and understanding. In each season, viewers are shown characters who are overwhelmed by the events that unfold. Caught up in the gang wars of out of town mobs, faced with intimidating strangers who don’t seem quite human, Fargo‘s more sympathetic characters struggle to make sense of their lives in the face of excessive violence.

Each episode reminds us that ‘this is a true story.’ This appears to be misdirection: while Fargo is set in real locations, the stories told are fictional. However, there is a sense in which the stories told by Fargo are true. Film theorist Richard Gilmore claims that ‘Philosophy is full of stories that may not be literally true but are meant to be understood as pointing to deeper truths,’ and that this is precisely what is so powerful in the movies of the Coen Brothers generally. These ‘are in their own way true stories, stories that reveal true things about the way the world is.’

One of the most compelling aspects of Fargo is its villains. They are not just well written, unsettling characters. They provide a springboard for revealing truths about the problems of modern communication and identity. The key to Fargo’s presentation of its antagonists is how their motivations and behaviours appear to lie beyond comprehension. The most obvious example of this ‘incomprehensible villain’ is found in Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) of season one. Malvo creates chaos wherever he goes. He carries tape recordings of men who have, because of Malvo’s influence, killed or otherwise injured their families. As well as being a ruthless murderer, Malvo toys with people. In several exchanges we see him unnerving, threatening and intimidating others with his peculiar mannerisms.

Malvo is constantly associated with wild animals and the hunt. In fact, Malvo prefigures his own death in two stories. One, where he talks about a bear whose leg is mauled by a bear trap and dies, and another about a dog who had to be shot in the head in order to stop it raping a woman. In the end, Malvo is incapacitated by a bear trap, and dies soon after from two shots to the head. What the audience is meant to gather from this is that Malvo is a kind of wild animal, but one that stands above, rather than below, ordinary people on the food chain. His motivations are as impenetrable to us as our motivations are to the animals we hunt and kill. We can conceive of Malvo as a monster in the traditional Latin sense: ‘a warning or omen,’ a ‘force of nature in human guise.’

If Malvo is an omen, then what does he represent? There is a strong case for Malvo as a reaction to the destruction of the American wilderness, understood through the values of the American ‘Wild West’ as a cultural ideal. These values are centred around the optimism and potential of an America whose national identity has not taken solid form.

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The ‘American wilderness’ is most overtly present in Fargo’s second season — which occurs eight years before the film is set, and twenty-eight years before the first season. One of the most striking portrayals of this is the difference in landscape in season two. In the film and season one, we see snowstorms, an ever-present whiteness that Jerold J Abrams links to the notion of instability, and a static whiting out of communication.

In season two we see a landscape where the snow’s march is incomplete. While it covers some areas, it creeps at the edges of other sceneries, only partially overlaying landscapes which underneath show hints of the more traditional images of the ‘great plains’ of the American Midwest. Compounding this, in the opening scenes of the second season we see the set of a black and white (fabricated) Western film: ‘The Massacre at Sioux Falls’. This references an actual battle between Native Americans and the American state, where nearly 300 Native American fighters were killed.

The central conflict of Fargo’s second season is between the Gerhardts, a large criminal family operating from a farm house, and the Kansas City mob, a highly organized crime syndicate whose structures mirror those of the modern American corporation. 

Ultimately, the Gerhardts are killed and Kansas City take over their operations. This is depicted as a  turning point: the Gerhardts, at least figuratively, are a final resistance to the pragmatic, money oriented logic of Kansas City. While the Gerhardts were interested in money, it seemed that they were just as, if not more, invested in their familial ties, and preserving their way of life as a point of dignity and principle.

There are parallels between the Gerhardt’s fixation on honour and dignity and the classical Western gunfighter, a man who ‘defends… the purity of his own image… his honour.‘ This contrasts with the Kansas City operation — the logic of which is summed up by one of its ‘middle managers’. ‘The sooner you realise there’s only one business left in the world, the money business, just ones and zeros, the better off you’re gonna be.’

Theorist Edward Recchia notes that ‘underlying the Western is an indefatigable sense of optimism’; there is a feeling of potential in the image of the ‘frontier [which] is still to be conquered.’ Expanding on this, we might say the untamed frontiers of the American wilderness represented — at least to colonial settlers — a blank slate on which new meanings and identities could be forged. As the American state had not fully spread the rule of law throughout these territories, it was possible for settlers to create meanings and ways of living which lay far outside dominant cultural ideas and norms.

This is why the opening scene, which links the events of Fargo’s second season to the Great Sioux War of 1876, is important. It seems to be saying that, if at first the ‘Wild West’ suffered a literal death at the hands of the strengthening American state, it now suffers a spiritual death, a death of values, at the hands of the American corporation. The values destroyed include a sense of national optimism, as well as the ability of groups to forge their own meanings.

While the Gerhardts and Kansas City both are crime organizations, the latter is distinct in that it is almost indistinguishable from any other large business. The focus is on ‘[optimizing] revenue. Shorter shipping routes…  profit, and loss. Infrastructure.’ Here we see that even criminal activity is being reduced to a simple money game. There is no room for criminality as a source of meaningful  identity. This points to something else that is lost in the spiritual death of the Western — the reduction of activities that once had complex, varied meanings to a simplistic economic language of ‘zeros and ones’.

The loss of optimism, potential and meaningful communication presented in season two as the spiritual death of the American wilderness can be linked to what the philosopher Lyotard calls ‘the postmodern condition.’ In short, Lyotard identifies this condition with the death of master narratives, which are the ‘stories about stories that shape people’s sense of themselves in the world.’ In a postmodern world, we are left without an underlying, shared sense of meaning — be it religious, political, or cultural — that allows us to understand the more specific stories we tell each other in relation to our own lives. This makes it difficult to speak meaningfully about things such as  personal philosophies or the nature of life because we cannot be sure we are reading from the same script, or master narrative.

We can see the effects of the postmodern condition in both seasons of Fargo, where several characters tell extended stories and fables to each other in order to get their point across. But usually, rather than clarifying the issue at hand, these stories end with the person listening to them expressing confusion. Or, if they appear to understand, they reject the ideas which the story attempts to convey.

What makes Fargo a pertinent piece of art for discussing the postmodern condition is the way that it portrays this splintering of meaning alongside the advent of a world (represented by the Kansas City mob) where everything is submitted to the economic logic of ‘zeros and ones’. If we stretch this idea a little, we might say that the language of monetary exchange is the only remaining master narrative available to the characters. And that this narrative, being only concerned with exchange, is inadequate for expressing the stories which we find valuable in explaining our world. No longer do we live in a frontier world of optimism, ripe with potentials for new meaning. The wilderness has been tamed and absorbed into a world of money and miscommunication and pessimism.

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Let’s return to the figure of Malvo. He is associated with the hunt, the wild animal, and communicates as much through violence as he does through language. He clearly represents a kind of wilderness. But we can expand on this and say he represents more specifically the remains of the  wilderness — the aspects of the wild that have survived in this world of fragmented meaning and communicational breakdown. Malvo is the wilderness robbed of any positivity or potential for new meaning. He is the parts of the wild which express meaningless and unintelligible violence, the violence of animal conflict.

To Malvo, we have always been animals, and the ‘civilised’ rules we have created to move beyond the animal are simply a pretend-game. Malvo is linked, both thematically and self-consciously as a character, to a violence which has always bubbled beneath human interactions, stretching back to our animal ancestry.

We can see further manifestations of these violent forces in the character of Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon) from the second season. Hanzee commits acts which seem to have no clear motivation to the audience. An apparently loyal member of the Gerhardt family for most of the series, he eventually becomes the key agent of the Gerhardt’s destruction. A narrator in the ninth episode even spells out that Hanzee’s actions have ‘baffled’ (fictional) historians. I believe Hanzee can, like Malvo, be understood as more direct omen of the death of the American wilderness. This notion is especially fitting considering he is a Native American with no direct ties to his ancestral identity, having been kidnapped and inducted into the Gerhardt family from a young age. It is only when the Gerhardt family begins to break down under the pressure of fighting Kansas City that Hanzee decides to take matters into his own hands, killing several of his former bosses.   

George Cairns understands this as Hanzee ‘[rejecting] both his own Native American and contemporary American values’. Kansas City usher in a destabilising force that destroys traditional forms of meaning, understood as the familial dignity and pride that organize the Gerhardt family. Alongside this is the racist debasement of Hanzee’s ancestry — shown both in his treatment by random locals, and the striking image of a pile of vomit lying below a plaque commemorating the massacre of 200 Sioux Native Americans in the Great Sioux War. A kind of ‘break’ then occurs in Hanzee. Faced with a world of meaningless communication and unsatisfying identities, he decides to find freedom  in a return to the animal and natural violence of the American wilderness. Hanzee takes on the form and values of the wilderness that had always frightened colonial settlers — the aspects of uncharted territory that represented unknown and unknowable violence and perils. Hanzee becomes, like Malvo, an agent of chaos and destabilisation, whose motivations are opaque to those who he destabilises and kills. 

What we can draw from this is that, paradoxically, as the American wilderness suffers a spiritual death of its more positive values, this opens up a space where its more terrifying aspects can actually flourish and thrive. This is why, twenty eight years after the events of the second season we see Malvo appear as an almost omni-present, haunting force of chaos. Whereas Hanzee is a stoic, frustrated character who is out of place in the world and ‘tired of this life’, Malvo seems to revel in meaninglessness. He represents how a state of miscommunication and corrupted meaning is actually fertile ground for senseless acts of violence. Violence is able to flourish in this setting because it is a kind of ‘systematically distorted communication.’ Rather than attempt the futile exercise of creating shared and lasting meanings, the violent characters find freedom in doing away with communication entirely. They do not rationalize their actions, as ‘a violence that speaks is already a violence trying to be right: it is a violence that places itself in the orbit of reason and that already is beginning to negate itself as violence.’ 

Of course, this is only one interpretation, and what is so brilliant about Fargo is that it contains an engaging story and narrative that is also layered with multiple points of possible departure for analysis. This said, I think that Fargo, especially in the second season, is presenting a timeline where certain American values are lost, corrupted and replaced by this ‘zeros and ones’ master narrative. I doubt, for example, that setting the second season in 1979 — considered by many political theorists as a turning point in the global economy — is simply coincidence.

So while Fargo is not a literally true story, it is trying to say something true. It is an exploration of how traditional social relationships and forms of meaning are destabilised by social and economic change. This produces a world which is scarier, more unpredictable — where there is a violence and uncertainty bubbling beneath civilized society. One of the most compelling stories it tells is that of the wilderness that remains, now the optimism and potential perceived in the old American West have disintegrated against a flood of zeros and ones. This wilderness is one devoid of meaning and human understanding. It prowls the cracks and connective tissues of American society — the small towns, the empty roads — where too often the law is two steps behind. Even if it fails to evade apprehension, it lies beyond comprehension. It is an omen of how the social changes of the last few decades have dislocated some people so much that they can only speak in the systematically distorted language of violence. 

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.

Tom Maguire-Wright

Tom is studying for an MA in Political Theory at the University of Sheffield. His research interests include cultural studies, critical theory, criminal deviance, and the politics of leisure.

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