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What is Fargo?

Is it a crime drama? A character study? A philosophical musing on the absurdity of existence? Or just the audience laughing at a bunch of funny-sounding white people wandering around in the snow?

Maybe all of these things. But after carefully considering categorizations, I'm absolutely sure what Fargo isn't: noir.

Noir operates in the shadows, a realm of corruption and amorality apart from the light of ordinary society. A noir protagonist (not usually a "hero") might have a personal moral code, but he's often fatally compromised by this environment and has to struggle even to survive. "Winning" is probably not on the table; "virtue triumphant" is something for fairy tales.

But that's not Fargo. Yes, there's all kinds of evil and brutality and killing going on, dontcha know, but Fargo has real heroes, men and women who are honor-bound to stop the madness, protect the innocent and safeguard the community: Marge Gunderson in the movie; Molly Solverson in S1; Lou Solverson and Hank Larsson in S2. (Haven't started S3 yet. Gimme a week, I'll catch up.)

Now, whether these heroes are effective at stopping the madness is another story.

Even though the world of Fargo does have clear moral and ethical boundaries, our heroes are often caught in a maelstrom of tragic events triggered by human greed, sadism or weakness, misunderstandings, and just plain freak random occurrences that swirl together into a shitstorm of death and destruction. Try as they might to stop the carnage of the war between the Gerhardts and the Kansas City mob--and they tried their damnedest--Lou and Hank, for the most part, could only watch as the bodies of mobsters and innocents alike piled up around the Midwest.

(Lou and Hank thought they left the chaos behind in the jungles of the Pacific and Southeast Asia--but eventually, it followed them home to stain the pristine beauty of their community. The iconic image of blood on virgin snow is disturbing and powerful, another way the setting works to the series' benefit.)

One of the most engrossing parts of Fargo S2 was watching Hank and Lou struggle against the chaos, knowing they were helpless, but pushing forward out of a sense of duty and common decency--pushing that rock up the hill no matter how futile it might seem. (After awhile, you forgot about "stopping the bad guys"--you just wanted them to get out alive and get home to Betsy.)

The myth of Sisyphus and Albert Camus were name checked often in S2, and Camus' existentialism is at the heart of the philosophical dilemmas in Fargo. If there is no God (or if his designs are unknowable), no higher order, if everything you know can be snatched away in an instant, then what is the point of life?

You can look at the Solverson/Larsson clan together and smile and say, "Well, there it is right there." But "family" and "love" and a "sense of purpose" don't always work either:

The Gerhardts were about as tight-knit a family as you can get, but they were a toxic stew of pride, greed and sadism, and they were rotting from the inside. (Simone said it best before she died: "This family belongs in the ground.")

Ed Blomquist did everything for Peggy, even after his personal dreams went up in smoke--but in the end, he knew that his marriage was just another dream that never really came true.

Mike Milligan was probably the one man in the series who enjoyed his work and did it with style--and he was rewarded with a cubicle designed to kill his spirit.

There are no easy answers. We are insignificant beings in a vast universe (watch the skies!), struggling to understand our lives with our limited words and ideas. Peggy, drowning herself and everyone around her in psychobabble, trying to describe needs and desires that she cannot adequately define or express; Hank, Minnesota's answer to Ludwig Wittgenstein(!), assembling a representational language that bypasses the verbal centers entirely; and Betsy, staring at the pill on her table...

Is it the real pill? Or just a representation of the pill? We never really know, do we?

****************

This was an outstanding season of television. Great acting all around, especially from Kirsten Dunst, who somehow made Peggy both exasperating and sympathetic at the same time.

(Favorite moment of the season: Peggy rambling on to Hank about self actualization, and Ted Danson starts to lean over, his mouth opening wider and wider in amazement, until Hank finally blurts out: "You're a little touched, aren't ya?")

I could have watched an entire miniseries centered around Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart).

That said, not everything worked. I don't think we needed that much Ronald Reagan (even though I'm always glad to see Bruce Campbell). Yes, Reagan won the White House a year later, but his connection to the season's themes was tangential at best. I couldn't quite buy that the Blomquists made it to the last episode intact, especially after Dodd escaped, and I thought the Peggy/Dodd comedy routine diluted Dodd's psycho-ness.

I found Hanzee (as a character) to be... problematic.

But those were minor complaints. With this and Legion, Noah Hawley is on a major winning streak.

On to season 3!
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