Able Was I Ere I Saw “Fargo”: A Palindromic Reading of Season Two of the FX Series

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In a new-millennial era awash in boldly original TV, few shows have been as adventuresome, in style and content, as Noah Hawley’s anthology dramedy Fargo, which just concluded its second semi-autonomous season. “Semi” is key here, for although nominally a 1979-set prequel to Season One’s 2006 progenitor, with the latter’s retired sheriff still battling ultra-violent crime in the same forbidding Minne-kota terrain, Season Two plays by substantially different rules, to astonishingly inventive ends.

Upping the ante on the 1996 Coen brothers film’s “true story” conceit (Joel and Ethan executive produce the TV version), Season Two opens on a movie set of a mock Ronald Reagan cavalry-and-Indian western, with a lone brave standing amid the carnage of a recent battle. The anachronistic reference to the soon-to-be 40th President, while nodding to Ronnie’s Hollywood-to-Washington career leap, also establishes a political backdrop and generic analogue to the show’s kill or be killed, survival of the fittest scenario.

Season Two’s cat-and-mouse game with the audience is reinforced throughout. When the seemingly nondescript sedan that literally sets the story in motion has a hood in front and motor in back, it takes a web search for the non-car buff to determine its make as the once promising, now defunct Tucker. And when a bungling police detective (Keir O’Donnell) disses the good-guy sheriff (Patrick Wilson)—“You started out as Gary Cooper and now you’re Betty LaPlage”—only a web search can disclose that LaPlage was Reagan’s faux co-star in the season-opening mock western. Not even Google can divine the motivation behind Native American Hanzee’s (Zahn McClarnon) seemingly indiscriminate killing spree, which, as a one-off narrator (Martin Freeman) informs us with satirical glee, has befuddled “historians” ever since. What comes to the cinematically informed viewer’s rescue is Hanzee’s kinship with the even more maniacal Indian murderer Anton Chigurth (Javier Bardem) in the Coen brothers’ 2007 neo-western No Country for Old Men, where Chigurth’s only plausible inducement to mass murder, as Season Two’s narrator says is a possible one for Hanzee, is retribution for his people’s genocide.

Esoteric allusions are far from the series’ only allure. Grounded in a late-70s “malaise” that eerily forebodes post-9/11 High Anxiety, Season Two uncannily captures an America coming apart at the seams thematically, and supports the societal implosion stylistically via a wildly innovative split-screen technique and radically eclectic music track that would make la nouvelle vague proud. The splintered aesthetic matches the fractured narrative, which gyrates among a football roster of main characters and a plethora of plot-lines, all emanating from a hit-and-run accident and cross-regional mob warfare and culminating in killing fields redolent of those left behind in Southeast Asia and staged for the Reagan western.

The series ends, as did Season One, on a superficially soft note, with the good sheriff and his family safe and sound (as we knew at least he and his daughter would have to be, per their Season One reincarnation). If the devastation they barely survived weren’t damper enough, however, the sheriff’s wife’s (Cristin Miloti) terminal cancer and one of the warring mobs remaining intact leaves a gaping hole in the happy ending. As does the finale’s title: “Palindrome.”

Referring to words or phrases spelled the same forward and backward, palindromic lore has its own canon, with perhaps the most revered example being: “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Beyond alluding to Emperor Bonaparte’s island exile, from which he escaped only to be conclusively defeated at Waterloo and terminally exiled at the island of Saint Helena, the Napoleonic palindrome clearly has metaphorical applications, including to a pair of prominent characters in Season Two of Fargo. Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), who has relished his role in the field as chief enforcer for the Kansas City mob and lived to tell the tale, is “rewarded” for his exploits with an accountant’s job at the gang’s KC headquarters. Although organized crime’s paradigm shift from body counts to numbers-crunching also deliciously doubles as a paean to Reagan era neo-liberalism, for the flamboyant, free-wheeling Milligan, who in a previous scene had deemed himself “King” before offing his latest victim, being stuck behind a desk in a high-rise cubby-hole is indeed tantamount to an emperor’s exile.

Small-time beautician Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), who bumbled her way into the mob wars literally by accident (it was her Tucker that abetted the hit-and-run), faces actual court-ordered exile for her crimes at series end. But the kicker is the ditzy wish she blurts on her way into custody: to be sent to Alcatraz Island in her dreamland California, “Where I can look out onto the ocean and maybe see a pelican.”

Whether either Milligan or Blumquist escapes to see the light of day, a la their palindromic ancestor, must await what Fargo fans hope will be several more morbidly beautiful seasons to come.*

* “It’s morbid but beautiful” is a throwaway line in a Season Two episode

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Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, Cal-State LA, and Loyola Marymount. His latest book is Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles, with a second Silver Lake book and an anthology on Jews and Hollywood forthcoming.

 

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