God in the details: The dark drama looks heavenward
Oliver Platt in Fargo (FX)
Oliver Platt in Fargo (FX)

God in the details: The dark drama looks heavenward

God as cause; God as absence; God as storyteller

Early in the fourth episode of FX’s magnificent miniseries version of Fargo, the young Stavros Milos, a Greek-American man heading into the Minnesotan wilds to make his fortune, has car trouble. While wandering into the snowy wastes, he happens upon a red ice scraper sticking up out of the frozen drifts. Astute viewers of the film that inspired the miniseries will recognize it as the ice scraper that marks the place where the movie’s two-bit criminals leave the cash they’ve received in ransom after kidnapping a man’s wife. (Things don’t go well for them.) But for viewers of the TV series and Stavros, the ice scraper means something else entirely: God is real. Or, at the very least, the writer is.

In and of itself, this is a sly commentary on the show’s construction and rough genre. With every episode of the miniseries written by one man (Noah Hawley) and with the show’s construction so evident at every turn—it feels like the second coming of Breaking Bad’s “clockwork universe” in places—this is a chance for Fargo to tip its cap toward the idea that in a fictional universe, the writer really is God. When Stavros, a godly man, prays, he thinks he’s praying to God—but he’s really praying to Noah Hawley, who serves only the story, not Stavros’ happiness. But Fargo ends up being part of a larger trend, perhaps surprisingly, one where some of the best dramas of the moment are all turning their eyes heavenward and seeing if anybody’s looking back. On The Americans, Hannibal, and Fargo, God is either a cause, an absentee landlord, or a writer, but he’s very much in the details. His presence—or the lack thereof—is something all three series wrestle with and in ways that are more complex than TV’s usual “skeptic/believer” dynamic.

It’s not as if God’s arrival in the dark drama is a new occurrence. Issues of faith—and those who believe—have haunted (sometimes literally) shows like this since the dawn of the modern TV drama era with Hill Street Blues (whose protagonist was a troubled but usually practicing Catholic). St. Elsewhere’s setting (a perpetually cash-strapped hospital) allowed for numerous considerations of life after death—including an actual jaunt through the afterlife—while The X-Files flipped its normal dynamic on its ear when it came to matters of faith. (Skeptic Scully was a Catholic; Mulder was an atheist.)

Since The Sopranos came on the scene and touched off the antihero drama, issues of faith have taken on a role of even greater importance. Tony’s Catholic heritage hung heavily over that series, and the longer it ran, the more it seemed as if the show featured very literal understandings of concepts like sin and purgatory. Deadwood featured a preacher who quoted liberally from St. Paul’s writings on how the church (or, in this case, the town) was one body, working toward the greater purpose of God—something he learned firsthand when God seemingly chose an unlikely vessel to end the preacher’s suffering from cancer. Breaking Bad seemed to explicitly take place in a universe where the good were rewarded and the wicked punished (eventually), one where Skyler White could flip a coin to decide whether to stay or leave and end up being told every time by some force animating the universe that she needed to go. And that’s to say nothing of all of the shows where religion or faith were spices added to the recipe on a case-by-case basis—as with Mad Men’s lapsed Catholic Peggy Olson.

What makes the emergence of faith and religion as a thematic device in The Americans, Hannibal, and Fargo so interesting, however, is that these themes were far more than incidental coloring around the edges of the story. They were deeply important to the show’s recent seasons, though all in ways that spoke to the shows’ respective strengths. What’s more, all three series are likely to be heavy contenders in whatever year-end “best of TV” lists critics ponder once 2014 winds to a close, and the emergence of God as an unseen but often powerful character on all three provides just another sense of how all seemed to be having a weird conversation with each other, to the exclusion of all other shows.

If God is a character on all three shows, he was the least so on The Americans, where the series’ leads, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (brilliantly played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), found themselves on the losing side of an argument with their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor). Paige’s suspicion of her parents—who are KGB spies and can never let her know that—led her to seek an alternative home where not everyone seemed to be keeping dozens of secrets from her, something that led her to a seemingly innocuous suburban church. (Perhaps surprisingly for modern viewers, Paige’s church was more devoted to traditionally left-leaning political causes—including nuclear disarmament—than it did anything more socially conservative.) At first, The Americans seemed to be playing this out as a mildly humorous commentary on the season’s more serious themes on parenting: Look at the KGB spies having to go to an American church or deal angrily with their daughter reading the Bible! But as the season wore on, the true nature of the show’s use of religion became clear: This was God treated as a cause.

If The Americans was boiled down to a single theme, it would likely be loyalty. The whole show is a petri dish designed to test characters’ loyalties to each other and to their respective causes and ideologies. The more that Philip and especially Elizabeth pushed back against their daughter’s newfound faith, the more they realized that it was a flip side of the longing they had felt in their own youths for something to bring order to their lives. But where the two, as teens in the Soviet Union, devoted themselves headlong to the cause of Communism, Paige tossed herself just as fervently into religion. The Americans was less bothered about the actual existence of God than it was about the idea that all ideologies and causes are slippery steps away from each other, a fact underlined in triplicate in the season’s finale, when Paige’s religious tendencies suggested she might make an ideal KGB spy herself. God is just another thing to devote yourself to in the world of The Americans, another thing that you can subsume your individual identity toward, only to realize too late all that you have done in the name of something greater than yourself. The show wasn’t critical of religion or Communism, really. Instead, it was cynical about causes, about the idea that human beings need order so much that this drive can easily be preyed upon by those who might provide it.

Hannibal, meanwhile, marked God mainly by his absence. He was, in the words of Al Pacino’s ranting in The Devil’s Advocate, an absentee landlord who left behind his creation to suffer at the hands of a very real devil. In the film, that was a scenery chewing Pacino, mostly using the devil’s usual tools of temptation. But on Hannibal, that devil is Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter, a man who uses almost every trick in God’s book, from unconditional love to unflinching forgiveness, in the service of turning people toward their most evil selves. (It occasionally feels as if the Biblical passage the show is most cognizant of is the one about Satan sometimes taking on the guise of an angel.) The second season frequently pays homage to God—most notably in the opening two-parter, when a serial killer constructs a mural made of human bodies in order to build an eye that will look back at God—but it leaves no room for doubt: With the almighty gone, Hannibal has more room to operate. And when Hannibal has more room to operate, the universe spins away from goodness and toward its worst possible self.

In many ways, the entirety of the show’s second season plays out as a lengthy spin on the Devil’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness from the New Testament, with Hannibal stepping into Satan’s shoes and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) stepping into the shoes of Jesus. Will isn’t a creature without sin—he’s killed, after all, even if it was in self-defense—but he’s the closest thing the show’s universe has to an angelic being, a man who feels things so deeply that he’s able to reconstruct moments of incredible pain and horror out of a weird blend of imagination and memory. The show’s metaphysical stakes make this implicit: If Hannibal can somehow turn Will toward the murderous self he carries within him, then wickedness will win, and the universe will spin to the tune of Satan himself. If the show increasingly left behind rigorous plot logic for the whims of dream logic as the second season went on, there was good reason for this: Every confrontation between Will and Hannibal was a miniature Armageddon just waiting to happen, and when Hannibal finally realized Will would not be swayed to his side, he reacted in a bloodbath of horrific violence that left nearly everyone in the cast at death’s door.

One of the constant refrains of Hannibal Lecter is that God does so much killing that it must make him feel good to do so. Otherwise, why would he do it? Though the God of Fargo is the only one on these three series that suggests even an ounce of benevolence, he’s also seemingly fascinated with killing, and that’s because the God of Fargo is a writer, obsessed with making the plot come out just so. Of these three series, Fargo is the one that’s most interested in a clean structure, where even the most superfluous elements reveal themselves as fillips in an overall design that becomes more and more clear the more one can step away from it. As Fargo pulls viewers back from the immediate details of its crimes gone wrong and into a God’s eye view, the show’s structure becomes ever clearer—and in that structure, the series’ moral instruction (which boils down, roughly, to a refutation of the theses of the antihero dramas that followed in The Sopranos’ wake) becomes its foremost element of quality. As with Breaking Bad, Fargo occupies a universe where the moral scales seem to be weighted so that the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished—it will just have to come eventually, after everything is put just right.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the series’ fifth and sixth episodes. In the former, the series’ protagonist, Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), enters the home of murderer Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) without a warrant. She’s here looking for the murder weapon that will finally allow her to prove Lester killed his wife, and when she enters his basement, she immediately (and unrealistically) makes a beeline for his washing machine—exactly where he’s hidden the hammer that did the deed. Yet when she digs around in it, she finds nothing. Lester, unbeknownst to her (and us), has moved the hammer. As with so much of Fargo, this is about moral instruction: Molly will get her man only when she follows her own code exactly, only when she doesn’t get waylaid from her path by good intentions.

Yet just as Fargo seemed intent on setting up this dichotomy between good and evil, order (or structure) and chaos, the sixth episode upset the apple cart by suggesting not just God but his very wrath. Stavros, trying to placate the Lord and Father after being blackmailed by Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), returned an equal amount of money to the money he found so many years ago to the spot where he found it. It was an attempt to pay back a karmic debt, to acknowledge to God that if he was real then, yes, Stavros was going to give back to some wayward traveler in some equally unlikely future. And how is Stavros rewarded? With a blizzard that turns into a rain of fish and kills both his most trusted bodyguard and his firstborn son. The 10 plagues of Egypt hang heavily over Fargo as the blackmail device Malvo chooses to make Stavros think he has last God’s favor—yet when Stavros tries to pay it forward (so to speak), some actual force unleashes actual plagues on him. And this is to say nothing of how Molly disappears into the blizzard in pursuit of Malvo and gets shot for her troubles. She gets over it, but it’s easy to think that Fargo has lost control of its carefully hewn moral universe.

All three series engage with the age-old question of why, if God exists, he allows suffering. On The Americans, this is because God is a falsity used to prop up a system that’s inherently corrupt and the direct cause of that suffering. (Left unnoticed by Philip and Elizabeth are all of the things they accept on blind faith.) On Hannibal, this is because God left the world behind and left Satan as its steward. But on Fargo, the answer is more pernicious: The reason that God lets evil people get away with horrible things and seemingly punishes good people (or people trying to do good) for no reason is because it makes for a better story, and God’s nothing if not a great storyteller. The real moral weight, then, lies with those who recognize that the system is flawed and can elevate the wicked but stand up against that wickedness anyway. Because if God is the ultimate storyteller, then he’s got to reward those who keep throwing themselves against locked doors eventually. 

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