And Shun the Frumious Bandersnatch: a Continued Conversation about Fargo and the Homage

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.

alice

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?

Zach Ellin

Before I say what I think about “The Jabberwocky”, I have to start by noting that a lot of people would find it ridiculous already that we’re trying to draw such meaning out of a poem that has been labeled, literally and accurately, “nonsense.” But I think everything you’ve said is a reasonable and fair observation. And that goes regardless of what Noah Hawley thought when using it, of course.

That’s what a lot of the interpretation of this season, or at least my interpretation, feels like. If you said that the show deliberately put together a ton of things that don’t make sense, and a couple of other crazy people and I made some theories about them, it would be hard to argue with you. And yet I think it’s sort of naive and insulting to Hawley (and the other excellent writers who worked on last year) to imagine it all adds up to nothing. You don’t just title an episode “The Myth of Sisyphus” without a good reason. And you may notice that this sort of looks like a debate one might have over absurdism, and whether we can find meaning in our universe. Some people in Fargo, at least I think, did.

There are a couple of words I was curious to see how long I could go without saying, and I think I just burned the first with “Sisyphus.” But I’m afraid my own take on The Jabberwocky is one of the, self-admittedly, craziest pieces of my interpretation, so I think a few more are coming. Unfortunately I can’t connect it much to Carroll’s writing as my research for the season has been the episode title references, The Trial and The Stranger which I also think are alluded to, and Molly’s two bedtime stories.

I’ll just point to this for now. Milligan’s Jabberwocky recitation isn’t the only monologue in the season. We have Reagan campaigning the episode before, while in episodes one and ten Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman) and Lou get their chances to make a sort of extended statement of their philosophy. Could this be Milligan’s?

D. F. Lovett

That makes sense that it’s Milligan’s monologue, although what does that say of him then? In many ways, he’s the character most hard to place from this narrative into another one. We can see Karl Weathers as a classic wise fool, Lou as the every man hero, Ted Danson as the father figure, the Blumquists as tragic heroes, and then a whole host of villains. But what exactly is Mike Milligan?

fargo-mike-milligan
“I am not a crook.”

And I can’t help but think of something else… maybe it’s cliche, but there may be some Macbeth themes contained in the idea of Milligan reciting a poem of nonsense.  It’s not that Milligan is an idiot, but I think the Blumquists have some of the Macbeths in them, and Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” monologue may have some relevance to Mike’s recitation of “The Jabberwocky”:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Whenever someone reads in-depth, borderline obsessive criticism and interpretation of a work of fiction, it can be tempting to say things like “you’re reading too far into it” or “this fan has way too much time on their hands.” But I think it’s appropriate, in this case.

Zach Ellin

If a reader to my blog accurately notes that I have too much time on my hands, I’ll take that as a compliment given what my goal was for this project. There is an absolute TON left unsaid about Fargo, not by me or anyone in the public conversation. The number one thing I hope a reader thinks after seeing my blog is, “I need to rewatch this now”—and those who take that step understand that there’s much more evidence to these ideas than could fit in a single blog post. I hope to see someone make a Room 237-style video breakdown of some of these “conspiracy theories” some day.

Certain parts of Fargo, I felt, just weren’t being discussed at all. The episode titles are a good example. The episode titles post on my blog really contains just a fraction of the ways they matter and connect, although I hope it showed one thing clearly—that the titles, by and large, are ironically connected to their episodes rather than the way such allusions normally are made. I think that this is the key to understanding the season, most specifically regarding—and here’s another word I was saving—the aliens. The opening scene, in black and white, also has a really good demonstration of this “backwards”-ness, and if you dig into Camus’ argument in The Myth of Sisyphus it seems to point at making fiction with this method, in some ways.

And so it’s through this that I have to answer your question about the episode title, and then about Milligan, which I’ll come back to. The short story “The Gift of the Magi”, most people may have heard in one version or another, is the one where each half of a young married couple trades their most cherished belonging for something to give to their spouse that will increase the joy of the other’s most cherished belonging, not knowing that they are therefore both giving up their favorite thing for something useless. But the narrator of the story and the characters consider this a very happy ending, because they proved to each other what’s really important.

It’s easy to see in this episode how the Blumquists have a similar situation. Peggy sells her car so Ed can afford the shop, but the shop burns down. The difference, to start with, is Ed had no say in the latter occurrence. It LOOKS kind of similar, but given the ending and what the moral of the original is, it’s all wrong. And that’s to some extent true of all ten episode titles.

gift-of-the-magi
The couple whose story is a tragic reversal of The Gift of the Magi.

How this connects to Milligan is that he and the episode titles aren’t as strongly linked as some of these other cases. “The Castle”, episode nine, is at its heart about what happened to Lou that night and the culmination of a journey that shared much in common with the novel by Kafka—and, on the flip side, the end of the Gerhardts who filled the role of the “castle” itself in this story.

“Rhinoceros” is where Karl Weathers’ status as that wise fool you mentioned becomes critical, which is the same thing that happens in the play of that name (including the inebriation aspect). “Waiting for Dutch” 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.

The closest thing we get to a Milligan episode is episode seven, titled for an exchange Picasso had with a German police officer. More than a few people noticed Milligan’s motel lodgings had a sort of “art studio” feel. Is that why he, as you put it, is so hard to place in this narrative—he’s less of a participating character than an interpreter of the events? That’s been a popular idea for reasons apart from this. The “sneak attack” on Milligan’s people the day before this episode, that prompts him into such action, also looks a little like the Guernica bombing that inspired Picasso if you squint at it. With Germans being involved in both and all.

Something else that may strike you if you read The Myth of Sisyphus next to Fargo is that a lot seems to apply to Milligan most of all. There’s an extended section on Don Juan that we see Milligan embodying with Simone possibly. And compared to everyone else’s endings, Milligan’s is pretty much the only one that is absurd in the way Camus meant it. And since you mentioned Reagan, it’s probably worth mentioning that there’s also a long section about acting as a profession as a reaction to absurdity, and the Reagan we see in Fargo is primarily concerned with his acting.

noreen-myth-of-sisyphus

Another idea that I had is that Milligan fills a role in Lou’s narrative that also exists in The Castle novel as a sort of uncomfortable go-between for the protagonist and the castle who is indeed also working against the castle, named Barnabas. With some creativity you can link other characters associated with him to Fargo’s Kansas City characters like Joe Bulo and the Kitchen brothers. And indeed much of The Castle takes place at inns, like the motel where Kansas City scenes take place in Fargo. But that’s a couple steps beyond where we’re at right now.

If “The Jabberwocky” is a statement of Milligan’s philosophy, I see it as connected to this absurdity that Camus wrote about, and indeed Milligan quotes Camus in episode seven. Chaos is coming, and Milligan wants to be the one bringing it. But only as long as it’s not at his expense.

D. F. Lovett

That episode title analysis is fantastic. Thank you for that. I actually mistook “The Gift of the Magi” as being a reference to T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” instead of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and so it lead me down a different path of analysis that may or may not be relevant now.

One last thing about “The Jabberwocky” before we move on to some other ideas: it’s a very violent poem. And a poem where a father gives advice to his son. Notably, Milligan recites it as one Gerhardt father goes to rescue his son from jail, as Milligan and his team go to kill the Gerhardt patriarch, and as Simone believes Milligan is en route to kill her own father.

To get even more specific: “The Jabberwocky” is a tale of a father who sends his son on a violent errand. When Milligan recites it, we have seen Dodd Gerhardt send his nephew on a failed violent errand that has sparked the current situation.

The poem also tell us something about who Mike Milligan is: Mike Milligan is the ultimate outsider in Fargo‘s second season in several ways. He’s the only African-American character, the only major character not from Minnesota or the Dakotas, and he appears to be both the most intelligent and the most educated of all the characters. The poem, I think, reminds us of his outsider status and gives us another insight into the education in his background.

milligan-high-noon
“Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers”

Oh, and your point about Reagan is excellent. A lot of the second season feels prophetic, especially the scene where Reagan (brilliantly played by Bruce Campbell of The Evil Dead) tells a war story about a movie he was in to an actual Vietnam veteran in a bathroom. Fargo‘s Reagan’s attempts to pretend he knows war because he acted it out reminds me of a certain professional celebrity who used his imagined business sense and negotiating abilities as bullet points on his political resume.

Okay, but I think you said you had a crazy interpretation of the theory. Was there one more thing about it?

Zach Ellin

The crazy part of the theory is that I basically think this poem is in episode six because Reagan’s campaign speech is in episode five, and they are opposites of each other (or “opposites”), and the whole season is the opposite of a palindrome. But that’s a lot of unpacking to do!

D. F. Lovett

The opposite of a palindrome. I like that. And hey, I think analysis can get a lot crazier than that. We haven’t even talked about the Fargo aliens yet.

This is an ongoing conversation, published on Mondays for the next several weeks. Come back next week to read more about Fargo, the art of the homage, and more!

For more by Zach Ellin, check out Blue Ox Talks. For more by D. F. Lovett, check out The Moonborn.

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One thought on “And Shun the Frumious Bandersnatch: a Continued Conversation about Fargo and the Homage

  1. Pingback: Beware the Jabberwock: A Conversation About Fargo and the Art of the Homage – What Would Bale Do

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