It’s the Way You’re Unfriendly: A Conversation About Fargo and Minnesota and Fargo

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.

Ted Danson as Hank Larsson in Fargo’s second season

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.”

Zach Ellin

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).

I know a lot of people get the idea from the movie that most of its characters aren’t that bright. Apart from a moment or two that’s not really what I saw. The main thing that I see is the so-called “Minnesota nice,” or at least what I think of it as, which sometimes involves pretend-ignorance to spare someone’s feelings. Marge Gunderson is the master of this. When Mike Yanagita sits a little too close to her, for instance, she takes the needed step of shutting it down but she has an explanation ready to save face, if he wants. Is that being polite about being unfriendly? Maybe, such as when Molly is still learning some of these social tricks in season 1 or Lou doesn’t have time for them in season 2. You can see why from Milligan’s perspective, as a self-perceived conqueror, the attitude is frustrating. But then again, Mike Yanagita had to move back to the other side of the table, and Marge probably made it happen in the nicest way possible.

D. F. Lovett

I hadn’t realized Hawley had said that, about recreating not the Minnesota and Fargo of reality but the one of the Coens. It makes sense, especially considering all the homages and easter eggs to the Coens contained in the two seasons so far.

Zach Ellin

Yeah. It’s a really key part of why I think he’s able to surprise people so consistently. He’s making this show based on his deep understanding of the amazing original film. We already talked about why that’s too rare in our first installment.

It’s also because his understanding of that film is different from anyone else’s, and the Coens themselves have said little about it, that no one can really be aware of all the things that he and the other creators are doing. I guarantee you no one has thought more about what it means to set a “true story” in the Fargo universe than Noah Hawley. When he’s asked about this  the answer is that it means you have to put certain things in the story because “that’s the way it happened.” That’s true and it also rejects the question he knows most people are wondering, which is why did you choose to have it happen this way and not a lot of other ways that it could’ve happened? That’s not something an artist talks about for his or her own work.

One of the questions that follows from that is why did Joel and Ethan make this film and set it in Minnesota, with much of it in Brainerd, while also titling it Fargo? And not just in the sense that the Coens were from Minnesota and the city of Fargo is also important. Why did they choose to put it in Brainerd when other cities were options?

And I think the answer to that is because it is a Minnesotan town that claims to be home of Paul Bunyan that also doesn’t have a statue of him.

D. F. Lovett

Okay, I think I know where you’re going with this, and I’m stoked. This is a theory I saw you share on reddit that is part of what lead to the conversation we’re having now.

From my perspective: I’ve actually often confused Brainerd and Bemidji, and one major reason is the movie Fargo. Bemidji has an actual Paul and Babe statue. It’s also the setting for Fargo’s first season. Brainerd, meanwhile, has a Paul statue in the Fargo universe but you will not see that same statue in the real Brainerd. However, you will find a Paul Bunyan themepark and a watertower named Paul Bunyan’s Flashlight.

Paul Bunyan’s flashlight in Brainerd

The Paul Bunyan I expected had never existed, although there is a smaller, seated Paul Bunyan statue at the Brainerd Welcome Center. So why did the Brainerd of Fargo have one?

Zach Ellin

My opinion is it was important to them that they build one for the fiction of the movie. We’ll come back to that. We already know it was semi-important to the Coens that Brainerd was a home of Paul and Babe because they keep saying it in the movie.

The critical inciting moment of the story (or Marge’s involvement of it) is when Carl Showalter (the Steve Buscemi character) gets pulled over with the hostage, Jean, in the backseat. He tries bribing the highway trooper and only succeeds in drawing closer attention to himself. His partner, Gaear Grimsrud, shoots the cop, witnesses come along, and soon there is an entire mess that Marge is called to. This all happens right after they drive by the very creepy Bunyan statue built for the film (no ox).

The reason they got pulled over was because they weren’t displaying temporary tags on the car Jerry stole from his employer to serve as partial payment for the kidnapping. If either of the two were concerned with important small details so one of them could focus on stuff like negotiating with Jerry and receiving the ransom, the movie Fargo wouldn’t exist. The “true story” would be that Jerry’s dangerous plan would pay off. Anyone who has seen the movie probably remembers the two criminals fighting with each other, they bicker in every scene they share. The “true story” shown to us focuses on this when it could’ve focused on other things.

Marge Gunderson has a much more effective partner than Carl does, or Jerry behaved as to Jean. In every single scene they share, Norm and Marge are either eating, falling asleep, or waking up. That’s not an accident. Norm makes sure Marge eats a good breakfast. That’s why the story ends with her and Norm alive and still expecting a child. And it’s probably why in the final shot, she’s wearing brown and he’s wearing blue. Also, pretty much every significant character in the movie is in a pair. The lone exceptions might be Jerry (who abandons his partner), Shep Proudfoot, and Mike Yanagita. When we first meet Jerry he’s dealing with a couple consisting of an irate man dressed in brown and a woman dressed in blue who calms him.

The angry customers in Fargo (1996)

The Bunyan-Ox thing isn’t just a metaphor. The film Fargo is a parable illustrating the importance of partnerships and even division of responsibility—how it’s not better to be the Bunyan or the Ox. The Ox is in many ways more noble and rare.

And this was a film made by a pair of directors whose working relationship is utterly inscrutable to the Hollywood industry. One’s wife starred in it and the other one edited it. We would be wise to look at it more closely than it has been yet in the nearly twenty-one years it’s been part of the new canon.

D. F. Lovett

It’s interesting to hear you call Fargo a parable, as I’ve considered it to have several lessons but I had not pondered one of them being partnership and the division of responsibility. I had considered that taking responsibility is a theme in the film and the two seasons. In all three, you have central characters who fail to take responsibility for their own crimes: Jerry Lundegaard, Lester Nygaard, and the Blumquists. This balances against the Solversons and Gundersons, who take responsibility and, as you’ve pointed out, share it.

Marge and Norm.

The other thing I’ve wondered about is whether the Paul Bunyan statue in Fargo might be an homage to Stephen King’s IT. This might initially seem like a stretch, as I don’t know of the Coens being King fans. But both the fictional Brainerd and Stephen King’s Derry have a Paul Bunyan statue greeting visitors as the entrance to their town. Both Bunyan statues are unpleasant to look at. The one of Stephen King’s Derry is described in his novel Insomnia as “the hideous plastic statue of Paul Bunyan.” In IT, it comes to life and tries to kill a child. It’s also worth noting that the Bunyan of IT is likely modeled after the Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine.

The Paul Bunyans of Stephen King and the Coen brothers have several things in common: they’re frightening, unpleasant to look at, and solitary, lacking their faithful ox. Of course, it might also just be a coincidence, as both Minnesota and Maine lay claim to Paul Bunyan in their own ways.

The Bemidji incarnation of Paul and Babe

One thing I’d be interested in: what first brought your attention to this motif?

Zach Ellin

The Stephen King thing is interesting, and I don’t think it’s a stretch from this at all. I haven’t dug into Coen and King links, but King is a stated admirer of the show. He called an episode of the show we’re talking about a lot next week “the best thing on tv in the last three years”. And I think Hawley, at the least, respects his work. I’ll also just throw out here that our first installment has serious relevance to the show Stranger Things and Stephen King aspects there.

As far as what caught my eye about this, I don’t know if even I can say! I was inspired to look at the film much much closer based off the sensational season 2 of the series as well as a pointed question from someone who watched the film with me back then for the very first time.

D. F. Lovett

Ha, I’m glad you’re open to the Stephen King theory. If the Coen Brothers end up confirming King’s IT as an inspiration on their 1996 film, you heard it here first.

Meanwhile, your color motif analysis is solid, and, unlike some of the other ideas we’ve explored, not “crazy” at all. And, once again, we still haven’t talked about the Fargo aliens.

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

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



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