Fargo: Exploring Evil in the Midwest

Fargo Revisited… Again


Fargo, the anthology series created by Noah Hawley, based on the 1996 movie by the Coen brothers of the same title, recently returned to FX for its second season. The new story is set in 1979, in the midst of the oil crisis that marked the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the beginning of the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan (who is even a secondary character in this season).

The new season, with a completely new cast, has some continuity with the previous storyline by including the character of Lou Solverson, the retired State Trooper played in season 1 by Keith Carradine, now 30 years younger and played by Patrick Wilson. As it always happens in the world of Fargo, life in a small Midwestern town, in this case Luverne, Minnesota, is dramatically affected by the brutal and senseless assassination of three people at a local Waffle House by Rye Gerhardt, the youngest and not-so-smart son of a local crime family from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. While trying to escape the scene of the crime (note: a UFO is involved in this strange scene), he is run over by the beautician Peggy Blumquist (played by Kirsten Dunst). The season follows several interconnected story lines: the unraveling of the life of Peggy and her husband, a local butcher played by Jesse Plemons, who are trying to cover up her hit and run; the takeover attempt of the Gerhardt criminal enterprise by another crime syndicate from Kansas; and the investigation of the crime at the Waffle house by the local police, represented by Lou Solverson and his father-in-law (played by a magnificent Ted Danson).

Fargo and the Exploration of Evil

One of the more interesting aspects of Fargo, as presented in the original movie as well as the TV show, is its exploration of Evil in its many manifestations. The Coen brothers, as well as TV show creator Noah Hawley, avoid simplistic dichotomies of Good vs. Evil or archetypical characters that are either heroes or villains. Nonetheless, the world of Fargo is a world of contrasts. The Midwest is selected for a reason. This is where good, God-fearing, hardworking people live. The Midwest operates as an ideal version of America, an America where people know and care about each other, or as Garrison Keillor would say,  a place “that time forgot and the decades cannot improve … where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Fargo, in a way, is the exploration of the dark side of Lake Wobegon…

“Evil” comes into town

In the world of Fargo, Evil with capital E  usually comes from out of town. In the first season this was clearly represented by an almost Nietzschean character played by Billy Bob Thornton. He played the drifter Lorne Malvo, a person without morals or, to continue with the Nietzschean analogy, a character who is “Beyond Good and Evil.” As he says to another character in the show, “Your problem is you have spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t.”


Malvo is an individual who is not immoral; he is simply amoral. Morality is imposed by society, by culture, by religion, and the secret to Malvo’s character, his quiet but menacing presence, is that he has figured that out. What makes Lorne Malvo scary is not that he has some sort of master plan. He is not trying to take over the small world of Fargo, or the world at large (I am looking at you, superheroes movies…), there is no “origin story” to his evilness, there is no reason, no pathology, no ultimate motive to his evil. He simply doesn’t play by the rules that society at large has imposed upon us. As Nietzsche argued, “there is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” Now, I am sure that when Nietzsche thought of his Übermensch he was not thinking of Lorne Malvo, but that is an issue for another post…

The Banality of “evil”

The other type of evil, evil with a lower case e, found in Fargo is the one that can be found at the heart of all individuals. It is hiding there, suppressed, repressed, unconscious, and it can be unleashed by the smallest, more mundane situations. This is the evil represented by William H. Macy’s character in the original movie, an emasculated husband who wants his wife kidnapped so his wealthy father-in-law can pay for the ransom and cover his debts. This is the evil represented by Martin Freeman’s character in the first season of the TV show, also an emasculated husband, who kills his wife out of repressed anger and frustration after years of marital unhappiness and humiliation. In this season of Fargo, that evil is represented by the couple portrayed by Kirsten Dunst and her husband, whose lives spiral down after her accidental hit and run of the son of the Gerhardt crime family. The scene in episode 2, “Before the Law,” in which Jesse Plemons, who plays the nice and kind butcher husband of Kirsten Dunst, is chopping and grinding the body that his wife accidentally ran over is disturbing and gruesome, but it also shows what we are capable of when confronted with the possible consequences of our actions.

I called this “evil with lower case e,” because this type of evil emerges out of the stupidity of the human beings portrayed in the show. It is not the product of a master plan, but the consequences of not well-thought-out, even ridiculous, attempts at solving particular problems. William H. Macy in the original movie thought that his father-in-law was simply going to pay the ransom money, and that after that life was going to continue as usual. In this season of Fargo, Kirsten Dunst drives all the way home with the body of a person she accidentally runs over, pretending that this incident did not happen (she even has dinner with her husband, ignoring the fact that there is a dead [almost dead] body in their garage). There is a certain quality to the actions of these characters that reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil.”
41f6yql210L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Arendt used the expression the “banality of Evil” in her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem to describe the attitude of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main Nazi leaders responsible for the organization and execution of the Final Solution against the Jews. In her book Arendt argues:

Eichmann was not lago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had  no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. […] He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.

This is not the type of banality I am referring here, although there are some similarities. Many of the characters in Fargo are, in fact, stupid, but many are also thoughtless in their actions, and that is what does not allow them to see the consequences of what they do. Martin Freeman was a good example of that type of banality: “evil” hiding in the most mundane form, disguised in the boring personality of a nobody. And that is why, for the longest time in season 1, no one could imagine him as responsible for the terrible crime he is accused of.


“And for What? For a Little Bit of Money”

At the end of the Coen brothers movie, the character played by Frances McDormand muses about the nature of all the unspeakable evil she has had to witness saying “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” And, at the end of each season of Fargo (and the movie), we are left with that question, for what? The goal of Fargo, though, is not to offer an answer. There is no explanation for the origin of Evil (or evil). There is no theodicy, there is no apparent reason as to why people do evil things,or even why good people do terrible things. The goal of Fargo is simply to present us (with a little bit of existential dark humor) evil in all of its manifestations.

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