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


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


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.


Review: Victoria‘s Long Take (and Title) Triumphs on Multiple Levels

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Garnering the most attention and accolades for this extraordinary German film (including the 2015 Deutscher Filmpreis for Best Feature Film) has been the technical and artistic feat of pulling off a compelling, multi-character/location narrative in a single, 138-minute-long  sequence shot, in which the shot’s real-equals-reel-time aspect is more than the stylistic tour de force Alfred Hitchcock (limited by ten-minute film reels) came close to achieving in 1947’s Rope and Alexander Sokulov (thanks to a digital camera) finally accomplished in 2002’s Russian Ark, but adds immeasurably to the film’s cumulative emotional impact, enabling the attentive viewer, prodded by the steadicam’s nonstop stalking of the titular heroine, to experience, far more intensely than in the standard 1000-2000-cut film, the young Spanish immigrant’s late-night Mephisto Waltz (strains of which she herself plays in the film*) through deserted Berlin streets Continue reading “Review: Victoria‘s Long Take (and Title) Triumphs on Multiple Levels” »

Postscript: Spectre (2015)

Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015) is where the postmodern reinvention of James Bond intersects, and arguably collides, with the traditional formula of the franchise. It is an attempt to reboot history by making Daniel Craig’s melancholic, hard-edged interpretation of the character resonate with the artistic iterations that carried the series through the twentieth century. Spectre accordingly displays an opening title card stating ‘The dead are alive,’ a varied epitaph that foreshadows both the film’s actual narrative and meta-narrative. This is a sensible strategy from a franchise perspective as it follows through with the goal to breathe new life into the Bond series by providing more character depth, story, and motivation. At the same time, it is a stylistic balancing act which ultimately results in an ambitious, yet largely inconsistent film that looks back even as it moves forward. On paper, Spectre is the logical conclusion of the Craig era. On film, it plays less assured and convincing. Continue reading “Postscript: Spectre (2015)” »

Blog 025: Spectre (2015)

After marathoning all twenty-three previous official James Bond films, I was so excited to see Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015). I’m not disappointed either; in fact, I think that having watched the earlier movies so recently actually increased my enjoyment of this one because of all the callbacks it has.

Since the three Daniel Craig-starring films featured Bond “becoming Bond,” the iconic gun-barrel sequence was placed at different points. Its appearance at the beginning of Spectre signals a return to “classic” Bond. Sure, the film kind of shares its predecessors’ concerns with themes, character development, and realism, but it also emphasizes some lighthearted aspects of the pre-reboot era that had ended with Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002). Continue reading “Blog 025: Spectre (2015)” »

Postscript: Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) continues the search for more depth in the James Bond franchise, adding yet another layer to the iconic character. ‘Back in time’ is the film’s narrative logic as it links the story about a former MI6 agent turned cyber supervillain into an intimate exploration of childhood trauma. The core of the film is Bond’s relationship with M (the inimitable Dame Judi Dench, in her last outing). Craig gives his best performance as he bravely exposes Bond’s physical and emotional vulnerability in his battle with Silva, played with maniacal farce by Javier Bardem. While Skyfall never quite reaches the high points of Casino Royale, it still ranks as one of the best Bond films in the history of the franchise.

It certainly is the best looking James Bond film due to the awe-inspiring cinematography of veteran Roger Deakins. Every single frame looks like a painting in its own right. Deeply saturated colors, combined with expressive framings and high-contrast lighting, set a tangible mood of urgency and tension that drives the narrative forward. The editing all the while is crisp and seamless, creating an immersive experience for the audience that is cemented by impressive performances and set pieces. Continue reading “Postscript: Skyfall (2012)” »

Blog 024: Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) is tied with Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) as my favorite James Bond film.

Released during the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, Skyfall celebrates what makes the series so great. Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002), which debuted during the fortieth anniversary, likewise served as a form of celebration. But where Die Another Day stuffed callbacks to past films at every conceivable moment in a tired, formulaic story, Skyfall’s references are more subtle and are situated within a story that draws more from The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) than the 007 franchise formula. Continue reading “Blog 024: Skyfall (2012)” »