The tropes that the Fargo TV show shares with the film—the Minnesota accent, the quirky humor, and the “true story” title card—can make the franchise seem as blanketed in sameness as the vast stretches of snow that serve as the movie’s opening shot. But the appearance of uniformity is deceiving: beneath the snow, the terrain varies. Old dirt forms the shoulder for the newly paved road. Cracks and fissures split the hard frozen ground.
As a franchise, Fargo is divided between the 1996 Coen Brothers film and the 2014-2017 television series helmed by showrunner Noah Hawley. The two projects—separated by a span of almost twenty years—differ significantly in style and moral outlook. While Hawley and his writers are indebted to the Coens’ characters, settings, aesthetic, and themes, they have also managed to craft a unique world of their own.
The complexity of these works can make it hard to appreciate—and analyze—how Fargo’s meaning has changed over time. Since fans already squabble viciously over the micro significance of individual scenes, the macro challenge of contrasting the Coens’ vision with Hawley’s seems almost impossibly large in scope. Fortunately, the immensely self-referential Fargo franchise responds well to what is called typological interpretation, an approach normally confined to Christian theology.
Everything Old is New Again
Typology is the process of matching character types from the Old Testament with their logical counterparts in the New Testament. For example, Bible scholars often look at Moses as an incomplete forerunner of Christ, referring to the second party in the comparison as the “fulfillment” of the first. The goal of this practice is to bridge the gap between the two testaments, texts by multiple authors and from conflicting moral perspectives. Typology yields unity through the comparison of types and the tracking of changes. With that in mind, if we treat the Fargo movie as the Old Testament to the TV series’ New Testament, the interplay between the franchise’s references and the mutations in its meanings becomes clearer.
In a few instances, the film and the show share relatively unchanged constructs and characters. The basic frame of the plot remains the same from the movie through all the seasons of the show: a homicide impacts a small Midwestern town as tangential narratives unfold, leading to more deaths and consequences. The quaint Brainerd, Minnesota setting of the film is virtually interchangeable with the rustic locations of the TV series. The show cribs from the film’s iconic scenes, including the squad car lecture Marge Gunderson delivers to her arrested suspect, an echo of which surfaces in the season two finale. And, of course, many characters cleave closely to models established by the movie, such as Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard from season one—a character who, from mannerisms right down to name, finds his source in Jerry Lundegaard as portrayed by William H. Macy in the original.
Yet, more often than not, Hawley and his creative team don’t just replicate the tropes of the movie, as was the case for the unaired, apocryphal, excised-from-the-holy-canon 2003 pilot for a prospective Fargo show about the further adventures of Marge. Rather, they alter the source material in reiteration, weaving something new and innovative from the old cloth, even if the shared texture remains visible. Things from the movie find their way into the show, but they often arrive changed, and the purpose or effect is seldom immediately evident.
Sometimes, the allusion seems to stem from mere cleverness—the creators winking at the fans. That seems to be the case in season two when a Tweedy cover of José Feliciano’s “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight”—a song that plays briefly during a humorous scene in the film—can be heard tinnily over a radio.
Other times, the show invokes a trope from the movie and imbues it with almost mystical significance. For instance, the Stussy brothers of season three fight over the disputed inheritance of a rare postage stamp in what seems an allusion to Norm Gunderson’s prize stamp art in the movie. Here, the layers of meaning run deeper than a joking reference, because the show contextualizes the eventually murderous conflict between the brothers as biblical in nature, drawing them into obvious comparisons with Cain and Abel as well as Jacob and Esau.
Emmit tricks his brother Ray into giving up his inherited (and valuable) stamp for a beat-up sportscar. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob dupes his brother Esau into trading his birthright for a mess of pottage. The single-letter slippage between “pottage” and “postage”; the deft weaving of two biblical parallels; and the reference to a source image from the Fargo film all suggest that the show’s writers play with allusion at a high level of complexity.
As if untangling the significance of minor references in the show isn’t difficult enough, character parallels in the franchise present an even greater challenge. Typology helps here, because old character types from the film find their fulfillment in new characters from the show.
Marge Gunderson, the movie’s heroic investigator, is the foremost of these, since the police protagonists from seasons one through three can trace their origins to her. Marge, plain and pregnant, pursues her targets with a brisk competency and a firm belief in human decency. Even after catching her suspect feeding his co-conspirator to a wood chipper, she maintains the salt-of-the-earth goodness to admonish him, “There’s more to life than a little money.”
Molly Solverson, Lou Solverson, and Gloria Burgle (of seasons one, two, and three, respectively) are the TV series fulfillments of Marge’s noble investigator type. Wholly pure of heart themselves, they venture into realms of moral darkness while investigating murders in pastoral locales. Like Marge, they come face-to-face with depths of depravity they can hardly comprehend—and, like her, they war against it out of a fundamental obligation to restore order.
That said, there is a key difference between these typological fulfillments and the original of Marge, and it speaks to a significant rift between the world of the film and that of the show. Marge conducts her investigation unimpeded, aided at every turn by fellow officers of the law and the good citizens of her Midwest. Her world is an ideal one, and the liars, cheats, and murderers who pop up in the plot seem to be outliers. In that respect, the Fargo film is an anti-noir that, instead of finding corruption and fault to be the norm, reaffirms the values of kindness and decency by the end.
Conversely, the cops from the television series meet trouble at every turn. In seasons one and three, Molly and Gloria face constant pressure from the law enforcement chain of command to cease their investigations—this on top of the scheming by the various killers they pursue. In season two, Lou learns to his dismay that the Fargo police department has a cozy relationship with the Gerhardt crime syndicate, and he briefly gets pulled off his own case to work guard detail for a Ronald Reagan campaign speech.
As new fulfillments of Marge’s type, the show’s police heroes share her optimism, her work ethic, and her decency, but they suffer through a fallen world in which these qualities do not always get results, as they do in the film. The cliffhanger ending of season three, which suggests that Gloria’s arrest of the monstrous V.M. Varga may fall apart due to carefully placed bribes and institutional corruption, upends the simple faith in the truth that Marge so frequently evinces.
Paul Marrane, a character from season three who emerges as a harbinger of the Judeo-Christian god, describes the broken world of the TV series in simple terms: “Life is suffering.” That statement certainly applies to the morally ambiguous environment that Hawley and his writers have crafted, but it has less cache in the movie, where Marge’s behavior seems to outline a shining, simple path to goodness.
Analyzing recurring types of villains proves more difficult still. Fargo the film posits Jerry Lundegaard, Carl Showalter, and Gaear Grimsrud as different but related forms of earthly evil. Lundegaard finds his obvious fulfillment in the show in nice-folks-gone-bad like Lester Nygaard, Peggy Blumquist, and Emmit Stussy. Yet the TV series elevates the blatant badness of Showalter and Grimsrud to supernatural heights with the almost-demonic villains Lorne Malvo, the Golem, Yuri Gurka, and V.M. Varga. The down-to-earth movie offers no precedent for supernatural flourishes in this vein. Moreover, morally gray anti-heroes like Mr. Wrench, Ray Stussy, and Nikki Swango have no real sources in the film.
Nevertheless, both fulfillments and failures of type give us insight into the world that Hawley and his creators have summoned into existence: it’s a bad place where greed and cruelty are the default setting, and the people who try to restore decency to it face an uphill battle. That’s a stark contrast from Marge Gunderson’s comparatively utopian Garden of Brainerd, a good place where the snakes get chased out pretty soon after they sneak in.
The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated
Fargo the film has generally stuck me as a celebration of normalcy, decency, and community in the face of perversity, cruelty, and selfishness. It opens with the sinister Lundegaard plot and only introduces Marge as the protagonist about a quarter of the way through. The humble light she casts expels the darkness and likely proves compelling to the viewer. In his Christian science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis describes something very similar to this as the act of learning to love “the Normal”:
“As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else—something he vaguely called the “Normal”—apparently existed. He had never thought about it before. But there it was—solid, massive, with a shape of its own, almost like something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with.”
Just so, Fargo takes the bland, normal character of Marge Gunderson, contrasts her with the repellant villainy of the movie’s sinners, and elevates her to sainthood, a paragon of morality. It argues that the world is filled with a fundamental goodness that can look dull but is worth appreciating.
The key differences between the film and the television series suggest that the show is more about the bad than the good. It uses the fallen world of its own Fargo to suss out the causes and effects of evil in our contemporary socio-political context. This is why Reagan appears as a character in season two and why Vladimir Putin merits explicit and implicit references in season three: they tie the quirkiness of Fargo’s plot dilemmas to the scary realities we presently face and the figures whose past actions led to them. It’s why seemingly supernatural characters like Malvo and Varga haunt the show: as corruptors who lead characters astray, they stand in for the dark temptations that plague the human heart. Finally, it’s why the series demonstrates a greater penchant for anti-heroes than does its source material: they reflect the desires of prestige TV viewers to have critically flawed characters who correlate with their own understanding of the world as a morally complex place.
In the transition from Old Testament Fargo to New, the franchise has only grown more supernatural, symbolic, and severe. Part of this is due to Hawley and his writers expanding their content-mining to other works by the Coen Brothers, drawing in season three from such sources as The Big Lebowski (with the bowling alley sequence) and A Serious Man (with frequent references to Jewish mysticism and epistemological uncertainty). Beyond that, however, the series seems to seek a balance between its old-time moralism and its stylistic experimentation. (In an interview about season three, the show’s most eclectic outing yet, Hawley suggested that one of its prominent themes was the gulf between God’s law and man’s.)
The resultant shadowy, meaningful world of signs and symbols is a good fit for our information-saturated culture, in which every shared tweet and photographed gesture might possess secret political significance. But, just as the New Testament of the Bible relies on its older half to fully articulate its meaning, so too is the case with Fargo, rife with allusion, imbuing past content with present meaning, somehow a truer story than ever.