In the Midst of Nothingness: a Conversation about Fargo and Waiting for Godot

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.

peggy-kirsten-dunst-fargo.png
Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist in Fargo.

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?

Zach Ellin

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.

ed-blumquist-fargo.png
Jesse Plemons as Ed Blumquist.

Also in the play Estragon is always focused on his boots—fixing them, fitting them properly, and so on—while Vladimir basically ignores his pleas for help while he waits for Godot. You might think of that as like Ed’s desire to buy the butcher shop and how Peggy pays no attention to it.

The first episode, “Waiting for Dutch”—which was explicitly labeled as a Waiting for Godot reference by Noah Hawley and others from the show, as if there were any doubt—features the first conversation we see of Ed and Peggy talking about the Lifespring seminar. And, of course, it also has Peggy running over Rye Garhardt [Kieran Culkin] and Ed subsequently killing Rye. This is such a genius Waiting for Godot reference. The setting of the play is described only as “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Peggy runs over Rye on a country road in the evening—and, as Hank points out for us later, Rye’s shoe ends up in a tree. So it’s basically like, what if Vladimir ran over Godot and Estragon killed him without them even realizing it? And truly, killing Rye together gives their marriage a new strength, or at least it gives Peggy a much stronger bond to Ed.

D. F. Lovett

It also caught me off guard, solely because I expected Culkin to have a larger role. First, he’s hit by the car, which surprised me but I figured “okay, that’s a good surprise.” Then he’s alive in the garage, then he’s dead again. There is part of me that would have liked to see the image of Peggy parking her car with an ostensibly-dead man in the windshield, but I understand why they didn’t include that.

Zach Ellin

Noah Hawley has said that the wife coming home with a gangster stuck in her windshield was the first image he thought of for the entire story. We can’t say 100% certainly that he was thinking about Waiting for Godot back then, but knowing what comes later, I think people who are willing to give the play the attention it needs will come to that conclusion.

And the play unfortunately does need a lot of attention—but that’s also what makes it so remarkable. When you just watch it on stage you can hardly tell the two of them apart, and that’s very much by design.

But here’s a recommendation I have, specifically for fans who have first watched Fargo and then are interested in watching Waiting for Godot:

If you read all of Vladimir’s lines in Peggy’s voice and Estragon’s in Ed’s, it helps a lot! And that’s kind of one of the coolest things about Fargo. If you hate plays, or you like plays but hate Waiting for Godot, or if you liked the play for being so confusing, this is a very intuitive way of understanding the characters. And it’s a play that’s been referenced by Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, and a long list of other popular fiction. Whether you normally read novels or some other format, or you mainly like movies and television, Waiting for Godot is a very good thing to try reading after watching Fargo.

D. F. Lovett

I finally read it this summer. After both Mr. Robot (which I don’t really care for) and Fargo (which I love) were both referencing it, I decided I finally had to read it. That, and I’ve always loved Waiting for Guffman, another riff on it, without really understanding the references behind Waiting for Guffman.

waiting-for-guffman
Note: this poster for Waiting for Guffman includes a country road.

So when I first watched Fargo’s second season, I still hadn’t read or seen Waiting for Godot. I saw the title of the first episode and thought I probably have to finally read that thing. But until I read some of your analysis, I still hadn’t thought about it beyond just the title of the first episode.

Is that basically the entirety of your analysis?

Zach Ellin

The episode one connection to Waiting for Godot might seem too general, but my confidence is because of the absolutely brilliant eighth episode, “Loplop” written by Bob DeLaurentis. This is the Blumquist-centric episode that has them go out to the cabin with Dodd as hostage, and finally Hanzee arrives and flips things around just before Lou and Hank get there. And this episode is FULL of moments that nod towards Waiting for Godot, or this alternate/flipped version of the Vladimir and Estragon story that’s resulted after, essentially, a flying saucer dropped Godot on Vladimir’s windshield.

One of the three other characters in the play is Pozzo. The easiest way to think about Pozzo if you like Fargo is that he’s basically Dodd. That same overly boastful personality is Pozzo’s, and with a forced companion that looks basically like a servant but isn’t called that (Hanzee for Dodd, Lucky for Pozzo). And in Act II Pozzo comes along and he’s blinded. The main pair of characters have a debate about whether they should take advantage of him, basically.

So this is like how Peggy and Ed capture Dodd by accident. And all sorts of moments from the play end up in “Loplop”, but flipped around. In the play Vladimir constantly leaves to pee, while in the episode Peggy offers to help Dodd pee but Ed helps instead. When Pozzo arrives the first time in the play, Estragon thinks he’s Godot; in “Loplop,” Peggy hallucinates Dodd as a character named “Albert” who shares quotes of Albert Camus that she thinks will help her self-actualize.

D. F. Lovett

I didn’t realized that imagined character was named Albert. I took him to be a Lifespring coach, or what she imagined a Lifespring coach would be.

A lot of “Loplop” also takes place on a country road, doesn’t it? A cabin and a convenience store on a country road? Is that relevant?

Zach Ellin

It does, as do the events that take place in the cabin. In Godot, Estragon always wants to hang himself to death, while Ed survives a forced hanging. Each of the Blumquist scenes in this episode have at least one aspect that can be interpreted as coming out of Godot in this way. Dodd is tied up with a giant rope, in the play Pozzo walks Lucky around by a giant rope.

fargo-rope
Peggy and Dodd in “Loplop.”

Finally there’s Hanzee arriving. And to be clear, Hanzee’s whole story is identical to that of Lucky from Waiting for Godot, and neither is Dodd’s identical to Pozzo’s. It’s not that literal. They’re just filling these roles in the Blumquist story for now.

But Hanzee is basically what Lucky looks like in the play—both visually (though race is undefined) and his relationship to Dodd/Pozzo. This time he kills Dodd instead, and also asks Peggy for a haircut. In Act I Vladimir switches his own hat for Lucky’s, which, I kid you not, is one of the very most exciting things to happen in the play. This also happens around Lucky’s one monologue, which makes absolutely no sense, while Hanzee possibly shows his true self to the Blumquists and audience in that one brief moment.

D. F. Lovett

Not to harp on “The Jabberwocky,” but it’s interesting that, in Waiting for Godot, we have another example of a major character delivering a monologue in gibberish. Also, Lucky’s monologue could be inspired by the same Macbeth monologue I referenced earlier in our conversation, which is the same monologue that inspired Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and showed up in the latest season of Mr. Robot. Is Lucky’s monologue not “a short tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

You’ve focused your attention and analysis on Beckett and Kafka, mostly drawing on how the episodes and their titles parallel and pay homage to their inspiring works. For me, every time I look at the Blumquists, as I’ve said before, all I see is a bumbling version of the Macbeths. Just as tragic, but in a different way than Shakespeare’s characters. The Blumquists are the Macbeths, and the aliens are to the Blumquists as the witches are to the Macbeths.

Zach Ellin

We are finally talking about the aliens.

D. F. Lovett

There is no turning back. But I’m not sure if we’re finished talking about Beckett.

Zach Ellin

There is one more piece to mention, at least. Waiting for Godot has been a controversial play for decades, as Beckett’s estate seeks to entirely bar women from acting in any of the roles in it.

waitingforgodot

Considering this element of Waiting for Godot’s legacy, it adds another layer to the significance of Peggy in the role of a parallel to Godot’s protagonist. In addition to everything else, this adds a feminist significance to Dunst’s performance.

D. F. Lovett

I did not know that. That’s definitely an added level of importance, and a bizarre aspect to Beckett’s work that I did not know about. It also seems odd to me, as I thought Beckett was open to his work being interpreted. It seems that he was only open to it being interpreted as long as interpreted the way he wanted. Very interesting.

Zach Ellin

It definitely has been a source of frustration over the years. One of the otherwise great things about Waiting for Godot has been the freedom to bring new meanings to each production with casting. For example, casting the characters of different races or nationalities can highlight the play’s relevance to a new conflict in history.

I believe Beckett’s own reaction to the query of why women couldn’t play Vladimir and Estragon was “because women don’t have prostates.” The play itself, vague as it is, features a lot of urinating (in the customarily male way) and the characters referencing their own reproductive capabilities—the pillar and the stones, as Daenerys Targaryen so eloquently put it.

I don’t mean to purely apologize for Beckett. Because I have absolutely no problem with women going on stage and talking about whatever reproductive organs they so please. But it’s definitely another layer to this that Beckett had his reasoning for guarding the play in this way. He wrote some other wonderful plays specifically for actress roles—Happy Days and Rockaby are two that come to mind. It’s not his fault everyone just focuses on one thing he wrote.

My personal philosophy is, Fargo did a truly impressive thing in re-contextualizing the Vladimir role this way (and the boy in the play through Constance Heck, Peggy’s boss). I doubt Beckett would object to it. And Fargo’s message, both in this particular story and the ones that came before, is strongly feminist.

D. F. Lovett

Huh. Thanks for explaining that.

Now what? Do we keep talking Beckett, or should we explore these Shakespeare themes?

This is an ongoing conversation, published on Mondays. 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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