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.
The first of our conversation appears below. Over the next several weeks, we will continue to publish installments of the conversation.
D. F. Lovett
Okay, so here’s what I’ve been thinking about when I think about Fargo. Why do the homages in Fargo work so well? Is there any other television show that treated its inspiring material as deliberately, thoughtfully, and beautifully as the second season of Fargo? I’m referring to Samuel Beckett and Kafka and Lewis Carroll and all the other examples one could point to.
First off, thanks again for having me to chat.
To try to say why the homages work so well, we need to go back to Fargo in its earliest stages of production—it’s in the fabric of the characters and how their stories intersect. Yet if the finished product broadcast on screen hadn’t been such an excellent reimagining of what we thought was a singular, inimitable film, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I could list people all day whose work keeps the show from coming across as the bad fan-fiction that people expected it to be, not even mentioning the cast.
First with Season One, Noah Hawley pulled off a new type of adaptation. It’s no secret that adaptations are a huge share of the media that’s out there, both television and film. It’s increasingly harder to find something that’s NOT some kind of adaptation.
Extremely successful cases have been happy to repeat the memorable moments of their original material in a new, bigger way. Most superhero movies and shows are built from this. We all saw it in Star Wars VII even. Then there’s another type where we get familiar stories and moments, but the perspective has been skewed in an interesting way. Hannibal is another example worth praising.
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. In at least one big way Fargo (the show) seems to have significantly expanded on a crucial theme in the movie that to my knowledge fans had never discovered. That seems like it should be the norm, but several beloved stories have recently been adapted by someone who’s said they weren’t interested in the original material at all.
D. F. Lovett
I like your line about the worry that the Fargo series could have resembled bad fan fiction, as that’s the exact comparison being used for a lot of similar projects that have not been received as well as Fargo. The Harry Potter play, the new Star Wars films, the latest Star Trek. There was almost no reason to think the new Fargo would be anything other than mild, tolerable fan fiction.
But the homages do work, and on a level that they shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be able to make a second season of a television show with an entirely new cast from its first season, in which the story and the characters reference Shakespeare, the Vietnam War, Samuel Beckett, Kafka, and the Jabberwocky. But they did, and it’s my favorite show I’ve seen recently. If anyone doubts that we are living in the golden age of television—or, the first golden age of television at least—they need to look no further than Fargo.
The simplest way to look at this Season Two stuff is that it kind of did to the characters from Waiting for Godot, The Castle, and the other reference points what Season One did so tastefully and surprisingly to the movie. And by creating a new version of the Fargo setting to house all these characters, it plays as something purely original. I like to think that Noah Hawley realized this technique as a result of beating everyone’s expectations in the first season.
One of the other important pieces is of course that Fargo seems committed to reinventing itself and its setting with each new installment. We’re thrown into Luverne 1979, and this is a setting that I feel like spending time in and getting to know. I wouldn’t say the same for the continued setting of the other shows you mentioned, even if I enjoy them. The interest around most shows is almost always in what big event happened or is going to. When that’s your currency as a story, everything else feels cheaper.
D. F. Lovett
That’s one of the best summaries I’ve heard of why Fargo works. The setting. And being from Minnesota, I have a special level of affection for Fargo‘s setting. It’s definitely equally important to whatever the big event is, both in individual episodes and the season as a whole.
We could go in a lot of directions here, and I’m looking forward to exploring those paths.
One thing I’d like to ask you about: why is there suddenly a trend to have a character recite a poem in a television episode?
In Fargo, we get Mike Milligan reciting “The Jabberwocky”. In Mr. Robot, Tyrell recited William Carlos Williams. One of these works, and one of them did not. In my opinion at least. I think a big part of why it worked in Fargo is that it’s a poem that was intentionally written as gibberish, with a meaning that’s hard to discern.
Vox called the poetry in Mr. Robot a pile of pretentious bullshit. Maybe it’s not that bad—I like William Carlos Williams—but I don’t need a character to recite Williams’s most famous poem, without reason, in the rain, crying. I’d rather have Mike recite a poem from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, without explanation, as he prepares for war.
The Jabberwocky’s place in Fargo is a really interesting piece to me. It builds hype so effectively—Milligan announcing himself to the audience as perhaps the most powerful force left in the hours to come.
A lot of people would probably say that’s enough of a reason to write the scene and put it in the show. But you know I’ve considered virtually every moment in Fargo to carry added subtext when you get into these somewhat metafictional aspects of it. This one seems fully open to interpretation. I’m interested to hear if you think it connects to Milligan or the situation in a deeper way.
This is the first piece of an ongoing conversation, to be published on Mondays for the next several weeks. Come back next week to read more about Fargo, parallels between the world it depicts and the one we live in today, what it means to a Minnesotan, what it means to a Fargo blogger, and more.