Yes, this blog is dedicated to “an ongoing exploration of the dark and gritty reboot.” But, as written about in the previous post on this blog, The World Needs Bad Men, it’s time to admit that the dark-n-gritty reboot has run its course. The anti-heroes have ascended to the White House. It’s time for a new superhero narrative.
The last week has given us two new incarnations of the superhero show: Legion, a television show on FX, and The Lego Batman Movie, a family-friendly animated feature.
The Lego Batman Movie is as meta as any superhero film has been, and that includes 2016’s Deadpool and 2015’s Ant-Man. The jokes are more family-friendly than those of Deadpool, but TLBM is arguably the more mature of the two films. TLBM, coming on the heels of The Lego Movie and followed soon by The Ninjago Movie, is the sign of much more to come.
Legion, meanwhile, is a serious and frightening television series about a man in a mental hospital who is either mentally ill, a mutant with superpowers, or both. It’s from Noah Hawley, the creator of the Fargo television series, and unravels in a non-linear manner.
But I’ve come here not to review these two works. Enough people are already reviewing these two works. The reviews are both positive and, in my opinion, accurate. What I’m here to say is that these works are two complementing examples of what we should start demanding from our screen adaptations of superhero tales.
Toward the finale of the 2016 election, Mike Huckabee took to Fox News to give a defense of Donald Trump that I’ve been mulling over in my head ever since.
I see Trump as Capt Quint (Robert Shaw) on the boat, Orca, in the movie “Jaws.” He’s salty, drunk and says incorrect things. He spits in your face. BUT… He’s gonna save your rear. You may not like what he says but, in the end, you and your family survive.
“Vote for the fishing boat captain,” Huckabee said. “Not the shark.”
While ineloquent and muddled, Huckabee’s defense gave a great insight into why people were lining up behind Donald Trump. They saw him as a vulgar presence, but he was their vulgar presence against the greater dangers.
If Huckabee were more versed in film, literature, or television, he would have realized that there are a thousand better metaphors for who Donald Trump is: he is, in the eyes of his followers, the anti-hero of the True America.
A different defense of Trump comes to mind, one that his followers would surely cite, had they seen the first season of True Detective:
Marty: Do you wonder ever if you’re a bad man?
Rust: No, I don’t wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
The world needs bad men. It seems like a missed opportunity that Trump’s campaign didn’t snap that up as their slogan. One can imagine Rust and Marty’s conversation rolling over footage of Donald Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski, or Rust’s defense of bad men and musings on man’s inability to love intercut with I moved on her like a bitch and you can do anything.
At this point, I have to point out that there is nothing unique in saying that Trump is an anti-hero and our obsession with anti-heroes in our media and film is what got Trump elected. As evidenced by the articles I just listed, this has been exhaustively explored.
What I do have is another layer to add to this: the rise of the anti-hero in our media came from the America that emerged during the presidency of George W. Bush.
During the Bush era, America found itself in the role of the anti-hero. This is what propelled the flawed and gritty protagonist into our film and television. This is what prompted the wave of dark and gritty reboots that are still grinding today.
Art imitates life imitates art. Politics causes pop culture causes politics. Bush was our cowboy hero who became tainted, tattered, and gritty as our wars became unwinnable and our morals murky. Obama was our shining hero, our knight in shining armor, our warrior who could not be everything he wanted to be.
And now there is Trump: the gritty anti-hero, the protagonist who rapes, the populist king. He is the danger.
This is the fourth piece of an ongoing conversation about Fargo (the television show and the film) and its homages, inspirations, characters, and the world it builds. There is no prerequisite to read the previous parts of the conversation in order to read this. You can either jump in right here or start at the beginning.
D. F. Lovett
I’d like to circle back to something we talked about previously. Earlier in our conversation, you said:
“Waiting for Dutch” [the premier of Fargo‘s second season] is the night that everything really changes for the Blumquists, and the collection of ways those characters seem inspired by the main characters of Waiting for Godot is easily my favorite piece of Fargo I’ve known of so far.
I’m not sure if I see how the Blumquists connect to Godot. I certainly see the connection between Blumquist and O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” characters (as a sidenote, I re-read that story on Christmas and was moved by how beautiful it is.) As I noted earlier in our conversation, I also see the Blumquists as being the Macbeths, which I look forward to discussing further.
Is it that Peggy is waiting for something, somehow, to rescue her, from what she does not know? Up until Peggy Blumquist [Kirsten Dunst’s character in Fargo’s second season] , the characters in Fargo have some very basic motivations: money, justice, power, or survival. Each of the three Fargo narratives has a law enforcer dedicated to a higher cause (Gunderson in the film and Solversons in the two seasons). Each Fargo installment has desperate characters determined to find wealth or power, often by doing terrible things. And as the narratives escalate, everyone is ultimately either trying to survive, trying to kill, or trying to end the violence.
But then there’s Peggy. She’s seeking something beyond these things. She wants to escape her life, but not in the flailing, violent ways of Lester Nygaard or Jerry Lundergaard. She also isn’t necessarily unhappy. She loves her husband and works to both build a life with him but undermine it at the same time. Taking birth control while promising him children, spending their money on self-help classes while making other plans for the money with her husband, killing a man in a hit-and-run then driving home to make supper.
And every time she takes a step in one way to escape this quiet Minnesotan life, she does something new to maintain the status quo. She cannot decide whether to leave or to wait.
Is this your train of thought on how Fargo’s second season was inspired by Beckett’s masterpiece?
You’re right on the money regarding Peggy and her hopes to “self-actualize” through the Lifespring seminar as a similarity to Waiting for Godot. The way she talks about it and fixates on it is pretty much identical to how Vladimir, the more talkative of the main pair from Waiting for Godot, sees the arrival of Godot. There’s no clear reason she wants to go apart from her boss urging her, but she’s still convinced it will solve ALL her and Ed’s problem. So that’s one facet of it. And everything people have said about Peggy being “insane” or unstable and so on is also an accurate way of describing Vladimir.
Then there’s Ed Blumquist [Jesse Plemons], who acts more like Estragon from the play. Estragon is also “waiting for Godot,” but unlike Vladimir, he doesn’t seem to even believe in Godot, and definitely doesn’t understand what Vladimir expects to happen if he shows up. The boy in the play who tells Vladimir that Godot is coming doesn’t speak to Estragon at all. But Estragon nonetheless feels attached, or tied, to Vladimir throughout the play. So that’s pretty much Ed’s view on the Lifespring seminar as well. He’s very skeptical of it but he’s not leaving Peggy. And somehow this crazy confluence of events leads him to drive her out in the direction of Sioux Falls and her seminar anyway.
Consider the misquote. It lies in that same realm as citing fake news or reading only the headline. Misquoting is certainly nothing new, but the internet allows a fake quote to be retweeted a thousand times before the truth has even clicked send.
I’ve written about this before, of course. In the summer of 2015, I wrote a blog post called Six Things Hemingway Never Said, in which I listed a series of fake, inaccurate, misappropriated, or apocryphal Hemingway quotes and their origins.
Since then, of course, it has only gotten worse. Consider the following list of quotes, provided by Google when one searches for ernest hemingway quotes:
I won’t catalogue all of these, but let’s say that they range from context-free to paraphrased to nonsense. The seventh is a misquote of a line he said during a famous article by Dorothy Parker in The New Yorker, while the last one on the list sounds like the social media status update of a moody teen.
This is the third piece of an ongoing conversation about Fargo (the television show and the film) and its homages, inspirations, characters, and the world it builds. You can either jump in right here or start at the beginning.
D. F. Lovett
At this point, we might be ready to move past the Lewis Carroll analysis. Not that I’m bored of it – I could talk endlessly about Alice, the Jabberwocky, the Bandersnatch, and more – but there is so much yet to cover.
I’d like to return to something you said earlier in our conversation:
Only Fargo has used the built-in audience’s expectations against them, almost maliciously, to such wonderful effect. When we meet Lester and we meet Molly, we think we have a very clear idea of where things are headed. But Malvo seems to have walked in from literally another universe, and everyone proves to differ from the characters inspiring them in some surprising ways. The story is written not as an imitation of what came before, but with a deep understanding of it.
There’s another layer to this that you haven’t touched on much, and it’s that the original Coen Brothers’ Fargo film did this by setting the film in Minnesota and the Dakotas. I’m from Minnesota and live here still, although I’ve always lived in the Twin Cities area, which you don’t see much of in the two seasons so far, although there was more of Minneapolis and its suburbs in the film.
Anyway, my point is that Minnesota is known for many things, but rarely is it known for being a setting for violence, tales of organized crime, and conspiracies of murder. These installments in the Fargo narrative – if you choose to look at them that way, as installments in a larger narrative (whether the films and the series are canonical with one another or not) – each begin with one set of expectations and then subvert and explore them.
And to tie this in with our conversation about Milligan: he delivers a piece of observation on what makes Minnesotans Minnesotan, when Lou Solverson refers to Minnesotans (and his father-in-law, in particular) as friendly.
Milligan responds: “Pretty unfriendly actually. But it’s the way you’re unfriendly. You’re so polite about it. Like you’re doing me a favor.”
That’s an astute observation about the movie—and you could say many of the Coens’ films—subverting the laid-out expectations. As for my impression of Minnesota… talking with Minnesota Public Radio (who puts out good stuff about the show online) Noah Hawley said that he’s not so much trying to recreate the Minnesota or the Fargo that actually exists but the setting that was created on screen by the Coens. That’s sort of how I look at it first and foremost, before any of the rest. I’ve actually never been to Minnesota. Overall I imagine it as like the rest of the Midwest, but maybe a bit less easily excitable (see the colors on a recent map for evidence of this). Continue reading “It’s the Way You’re Unfriendly: A Conversation About Fargo and Minnesota and Fargo”→
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This is the second piece of an ongoing conversation about Fargo (the television show and the film) and its homages, inspirations, characters, and the world it builds. You can either jump in right here or start at the beginning.
D. F. Lovett
Okay, so you’ve asked me why I think Milligan specifically recites “The Jabberwocky”, and it if connects to Milligan or the story in a deeper way.
One thing about it: I knew what poem he was reciting immediately. Not only am I rather fond of Lewis Carroll, but I actually worked at a coffeeshop for four years named The Bandersnatch (at Denison University), named for his poem. The moment I heard twas brillig out of Milligan’s mouth, I became simultaneously hyped to be hearing a poem I love and confused about why Milligan would be reciting such a bizarre poem, unprompted.
I’m still not sure why “The Jabberwocky” is the poem Milligan recites, but I think it does connect with the idea of transforming perspectives. It’s from Lewis Carrol’s stories of Alice, after all, in which we see Alice first fall down a rabbit hole and then step through a looking glass. Her adventures leave her changed and with a new perspective, but unlike The Wizard of Oz or The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe or any of the other similar narratives, we aren’t handed a final moral or even a clear explanation of what exactly has happened here. Dorothy and the Narnia children each have lessons learned. Their tales are allegories; Dorothy’s trip through Oz is about America, politics, and money, while the Pevensies are witnesses to a heavy-handed extended Christian metaphor. Alice’s adventure is nonsense.
How does this connect to Fargo and Mike Milligan? Because I think Fargo refuses to give us ever exactly what we expect or anticipate from such a narrative, in so many ways. Like the Solversons or the Blumquists, Alice enters a universe of senselessness and confusion and comes out the other end changed, but it’s not clear why. (Of course, there is one consistent moral in all three Fargo narratives so far, but we can get to that later).
Okay, so that’s mostly why I think they chose “The Jabberwocky.” What’s your thought on it?
I’ve only lived for thirty years, but am confident this wasn’t even the worst year I’ve seen of my lifetime. 2001 was awful. 2004 wasn’t great either. 2008 had the financial crisis, the rise of Sarah Palin, the death of Heath Ledger, and apparently Elon Musk’s personal rock bottom. Armed with the right confirmation bias and armory of evidence, one could make an argument that really any year is the worst.
But there is one theme I see everywhere I look, from the Nobel Prize to the election of Donald Trump to the author of Harry Potter. One piece of wisdom, one particular theme, one pervasive lesson: the classic advice that you should “never meet your hero.”
To recap exactly how this theme presented itself throughout the last year, I’ve catalogued a list of disappointing heroes and their disappointed fans from the last twelve months.
Why shouldn’t we meet our heroes?
Before we jump in, it’s worth reminding ourselves of why exactly we should never meet our heroes. Ultimately, it always comes down to disappointment. They aren’t who you thought they would be. They’re not doing what you wanted them to do. The things they said that made you admire them? Either your hero never meant those things or they don’t mean them anymore or they never meant what you thought they did.
Say what you want about the impending year 2017, but there is one thing we know it will bring us: a new season of Fargo, the quasi-anthology television masterpiece from Noah Hawley and FX.
A few months ago, I reached out to blogger and Fargo (the show, not the place) super fan Zach Ellin to see if he would be interested in conversing about what exactly makes Fargo so good, including literary references, fan theories, politics, and more.
Zach writes a blog called Blue Ox Talks, where he explores the world of Fargo, investigating motifs, comparing the television show and the films of the Coens, and interviewing the cast of Fargo, including an enlightening conversation with Zahn McClarnon of Season Two.
It’s early December, which means two things: time to start recapping 2016 and predicting 2017.
While not as exhaustive as The Economist’s The World in 2017 or as doomsday-esque as some other lists that I won’t link to, this is my list of the headlines and stories I expect in the coming year.
Netflix Starts Original News Programming
I don’t watch Netflix original programming much. I think it is the most lowbrow of available television services, churning out binge-friendly quantity over quality that peddles in nostalgia as Buzzfeed peddles in cuteness. There are exceptions, of course, but the majority of their content is just good enough to keep you watching and just bad enough to end every episode with a cliffhanger.
That said, there is something I do like about Netflix: it’s a great equalizer. Republicans watch Fox News and Democrats watch MSNBC; young people watch Vice and old people watch 60 Minutes; everyone watches Netflix. You don’t need cable, money, or a confirmation bias. You just need a couple dollars a month and a desire for something to watch.
Which is why it’s time for them to start serving as a news source, and I think 2017 is the year we will see it. It’s not like it would be considered an untrustworthy news source: people are currently getting their news from spam websites shared by strangers on social media. If anything, Netflix becoming a news network could actually bring some reality back to the post-truth America.