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On Fargo’s second season premiere, everyone hears the stories they want to hear

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In the July 1979 speech that accompanies Fargo’s season-opening montage, Jimmy Carter decried a “crisis of confidence” among the American people. “It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” Carter said. “We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and the loss of a unity of purpose.” Carter’s invocation of “meaning” implied an overarching narrative that had broken down, and the word “purpose” spoke to the will we employ to direct that narrative. The embattled president was suggesting, in his philosophical manner, that Americans had stalled because they no longer had a story to tell themselves about themselves.


Carter attempted to fill that void by drawing an honest narrative arc, arguing in his speech that the country’s economic and energy-related woes were rooted in a pattern of reckless overconsumption. It was this part of the address that created the most ferocious backlash and may have finally doomed Carter’s prospects for re-election. The American people wanted the dizzying events of the ’70s to be reframed in a compelling story; Carter was right about that much. But they didn’t want a story in which they played the villains.


Ultimately, they wanted to hear a tale like the one put forth by Ronald Reagan—the other president who haunts the Fargo season premiere. The real-life Reagan cast the disarray of the Carter administration as mere prelude to a great resurgence. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” his 1980 campaign would ask, and it was one of the great rhetorical questions in modern political history. The arc was implied yet unmistakable: Reagan was the hero who would enter, stage right, to deliver the nation from the liberal malaise of Carter.

Americans in 1979 were something like the crew of Massacre At Sioux Falls, who similarly anticipate the arrival of Ronald Reagan. (He’s delayed while fake wounds are applied to his body.) We never see Reagan shoot his scene, but from context and experience we know how it will go. He’ll be riddled with arrows, so we know he understands our pain. He will survey the battlefield, so he can curse the madness that led to our current plight. And then he will allow the camera to catch him in a flattering profile as he pledges, despite the chaos, to lead the way forward. Carter’s error was to explain what had already happened—to seek the truth in the past. Reagan instead opted to manufacture a new truth from the future. America was waiting for a story they wanted to hear, and Reagan knew how to tell it.

Much of Fargo’s drama relies on the tension between the stories characters are told about themselves and the tales they’d prefer to hear. It’s a show about the perils of overestimating your ability to chart your own narrative. Take Rye Gerhardt, the third-born low man in the Gerhardt crime family’s order of succession. When Rye whines about his inferior status, his heir-apparent brother Dodd brushes aside the complaints: “You’re a Gerhardt,” he snarls, and royalty doesn’t protest its place in the world. “That’s like Jupiter telling Pluto, ‘Hey, you’re a planet, too,’” Rye counters, a line that plays up his dispensability (at least for a 2015 audience—Dodd doesn’t get the joke).

But it’s another remark that truly upsets Rye: “You’re the comic in a piece of bubble gum,” Dodd says. By his older brother’s reckoning, Rye’s life is a punchline to be cast aside on the way to the real prize. In an instant, Rye perceives the smallness of his story, and it infuriates him, crystallizing the urge to exert his will on the course of events.


Rye is stuck, and as we soon learn, so is his family business. The solution is flow. Just as late-’70s America yearned to escape the economic stalemate of stagflation, Rye will do anything to end his stasis and feel the pulse of activity and growth. By way of prelude to Rye’s fateful murdering spree, Fargo shows us images of blocked flow. A close-up of family elder Otto Gerhardt as a blood vessel in his brain seizes up. A roadway bound in a sheet of ice. Then: “Soon as you talk to the judge and she unfreezes the accounts, well, then, we can turn on the money spigot!” promises the down-on-his-luck typewriter salesman. Rye fails to grasp the metaphor, and his friendly local Selectric supplier clarifies that a spigot is where you hook up a hose. “Like a firehose?” Rye volunteers. He doesn’t just want his life to flow. He wants it to gush.


Such outsize results demand bold action, and maybe this is the calculus Rye has in mind when he enters the Luverne Waffle Hut with a loaded gun. The judge resists Rye’s clumsy intimidation by telling him the story of Job and pointing out that the devil couldn’t change Job’s mind, so how is he going to change hers? Once again, Rye struggles to discern his interlocutor’s meaning. He doesn’t get the moral of the story because he doesn’t relate to Satan in the judge’s Bible story. He relates to the put-upon Job, but in his defense, so does everyone else. Identifying with the tormented acolyte is the most satisfying way to read that particular Bible story—the judge casts herself in that role, too, after all.

Of course, Rye is not Job, but nor is he the devil, exactly. He’s something more dangerous: the devil who thinks he’s Job. Rye discovers this truth, three corpses later.


When the judge’s body thuds onto the table, the camera’s point of view is splashed with red blood and a vanilla milkshake. As she lies dead, blood leaks from her and mixes with the white puddle of dairy inches away. The waitress ends up splayed outside with an explosion of blood spattered against the white snowbank. Later, the camera lingers on a medium shot of Henry Blanton, the high school football hero and Waffle Hut cook, who died with blood drenched across his white cook’s apron. This is what Rye hath wrought: a devil-red flow of viscera that taints and transgresses the pure white ideals of the north. Fargo’s evil plays out before a backdrop of humility and extreme decency, playing with an underlying duality in the show’s conception of “Minnesota Nice.” The day-to-day politesse of the northern Midwest tells us a story we like to hear—that’s the superficial truth—but it also obscures the craven side of human nature. When the sinister side of that balance leaks out, the flow is difficult to contain.

Still, Lou Solverson hopes to contain it. The father of first-season hero Molly Solverson, Lou possesses a similar passion for fact-finding that drives his police work. The poor trucker who stumbled into the crime scene can’t even get a verbal response from Lou when he shows up to investigate. Instead, Lou’s focus is consumed by the streak of red that befouls the parking lot snow. His compulsion is right there in his name. He solves. He comes at an incomplete story, ties up its loose ends of logic, and puts the story in a box. Thus order and sanity is maintained.


By the end of his visit to the Waffle Hut, Lou has a working theory of what went down. His theory is insightful in some respects and laughably misguided in others. Lou can explain the bloody bill in the middle of the road, but he can’t explain the shoe in the tree, so he ignores it. Lou’s father-in-law, county sheriff Hank Larsson, wonders aloud whether this triple murder is a local or state matter. Lou says it’s local. The mess has been contained—Lou’s favorite ending.


Local conspiracy theorist Karl Weathers subscribes to a different sort of narrative. He regales his fellow drinkers at the Luverne VFW hall with tangled, sprawling explanations of recent American history. (Weathers’ theories don’t explicitly involve Reagan, but the Gipper’s face does loom over Karl’s cynical world by way of a campaign poster that peeks out from the background.) Karl does not seek to contain stories the way Lou does. Instead he teases them out—perhaps beyond the boundary between myth and reality, certainly into the realm where it is impossible to tell the difference. Lou believes that his “diner robbery in Minnesota” is pretty well wrapped up, but Karl protests, “Just watch. This thing’s only going to get bigger.”

Those differing worldviews help explain Lou and Karl’s divergent reactions to Betsy Solverson’s illness. Lou allows himself only a moment, in the privacy of his home, to let the stress of Betsy’s situation truly wash over him. We also see Lou standing at his window, repeatedly tying a knot and untying, because straightening things out is his purpose in this life. He fixates on resolution as a way to deal with the pain of his wife’s disease and the horrors he encounters on the job. But Karl pounds the table in despair when Lou mentions Betsy’s chemo treatments. In his world, stories do not resolve; they spread. They metastasize. So even as he furiously insists that Betsy will beat this thing, you can tell he sees “this cancer bullshit” playing out a different way, and he’s tormented by that insistent vision.


Meanwhile, the Waffle Hut massacre proceeds with its own metastasis. Peggy Blumquist—after plowing her car into Rye Gerhardt as he admired a passing UFO—has now hauled the wounded killer home to her garage. That much we know for sure, but Peggy’s plan for Rye is harder to figure.


Amid his ravings, Karl retells the story of “the girl in the polka dot dress” who purportedly fled the scene of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination shouting, “We got him! We got him!” Karl suggests that there was a malevolent subtext to those words, but in truth it’s impossible to conclude what might have been going through the woman’s head. The same goes for Peggy, who flees the Waffle Hut clad in polka dots (which are accentuated by one stubborn damned spot of blood, as we see in a flashback). Peggy expresses herself in fragments of excitement that don’t add up, nor does she need them to. Unlike both Lou and Karl, her thoughts don’t assemble into logical narratives. Instead, she’s concerned with “actualizing” herself in the moment. She thrills to the story that is still being told, regardless of where it’s going. It makes sense that she’d collect magazines, vicariously reveling in the possibilities offered by their endless columns of bite-size narratives.

That places her in opposition to her contented husband, Ed, who has their futures pretty well laid out. He’ll take over the butcher shop in another year or so, they’ll produce “a litter of kids,” and everyone will live happily ever after. Peggy’s face tightens as he revisits this master plan at the dinner table. She cannot stand the dull order of his beginning, middle, and end.


But when Ed discovers the madness out in the garage, her face comes alive as she considers potential twists in their story. “I panicked, okay?” she says, recounting the aftermath of her accident. The footage, however, shows her acting calm from the outset, as if she welcomed this disruption of routine. Where most people would react with shock, Peggy delights in the uncertainty. “We could run!” she says, suggesting they head to California—land of Reagan, land of dreams unfettered by the past.

Ed doesn’t want to run. He thinks of the butcher shop, and we see a rapid-fire cut of him and his colleagues parroting “Okay, then!” as he prepares to head home. For Ed, this phrase is a simple but necessary reassurance. It tells a straightforward story: We have made it to the end of another day, and we’re okay. The second word, “then,” is a folksy codicil—the important thing is “okay.”


But seconds after this flashback, Peggy uses the same phrase in a very different manner. “Okay, then…” she begins, with emphasis on the second word—her focus is on the excitement of the future and not present-day stability. And she likewise twists the rest of Ed’s story against him. She points out that if the authorities discover Peggy’s misdeeds—and now Ed’s, after he fends off Rye’s attack—none of Ed’s dreams will come to pass. Peggy doesn’t care about Ed’s vision of a nuclear family, of course, but now that she has diverted her life into this insane tangent, she intends to watch it spiral off as far as she can take. And she recognizes that she needs Ed on board for that to happen, so she uses his own story against him. That’s shrewd. It’s reminiscent of a similarly frenzied improvisational genius that came to characterize Lester Nygaard in Fargo’s debut season.


As if this tempest of conflicting narratives weren’t enough, “Waiting For Dutch” pulls the lens back further by concluding at a meeting of a Kansas City organized crime outfit, where frontman Joe Bulo outlines a “Northern Expansion Strategy.” His thorough and professional slide presentation challenges the provincial view of Lou “Local Matter” Solverson and confirms the “bigger” prophecy of Karl Weathers. Bulo tells his own story, one in which the rational actors of the Kansas City syndicate capitalize on the confusion up north to expand their own empire.

Unlike Lou or Karl, Bulo doesn’t fill in the gaps of his tale with conjecture, and unlike Peggy, he is not enthralled by the possibilities. More than any other character in this episode, Bulo’s story is grounded in facts. His information is fearsomely reliable, and the upshot is that the scene feels ominous by virtue of how sober and grounded it is compared to the rest of the episode. Bulo’s plan is set in motion with one stoic word: “Approved.” The speaker, Kansas City’s master of fate, is hidden in the shadows. He’s the devil Lou Solverson doesn’t know.


Stray observations

  • For more on the new season of Fargo, be sure to read Joshua Alston’s pre-air review.
  • Some people, when they get a cancer diagnosis, resolve to travel the world. Betsy Solverson, thanks to a recipe kit she ordered off the TV, is instead cooking her way around the world.
  • At the end of the Massacre At Sioux Falls outtake, with the arrival of Reagan imminent, you can faintly hear an off-camera crew member cry out, “Nobody move! Everybody is still dead”—a dryly comic way to undercut the Reagan magic.
  • The episode draws a subtle contrast between Ed Blumquist and Dodd Gerhardt. When he finds his place taken at the kitchen table, Dodd bullies his younger brother out of the chair. When Ed notices that his chair is filled with Peggy’s magazines, he dutifully grabs another chair. It’s important to Dodd that he sit at the head of the table—a tendency that “provides a tactical opportunity” in the words of the Fargo syndicate planner. But the specifics of Ed’s position aren’t as important to him. He’s just happy to have a place.
  • The book Lou Solverson reads to Molly is The Five Little Peppers And How They Grew by Margaret Sidney. We catch him at the end of chapter four.
  • When Lou asks Betsy how she’s feeling after her first round of chemotherapy, she makes a reference to Love Canal, a community built around a toxic waste site that rose to prominence in 1978 as health officials discovered an appalling trend of birth defects and other health problems in the community.
  • As they bed down for the evening, Lou says, “Good night, Mrs. Solverson, and all the ships at sea.” He’s referencing Walter Winchell, who used to begin his radio news bulletins with some variation on the words, “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” It figures that Lou would be drawn to Winchell, whose confident, staccato style mediated the chaos of war into an orderly and efficient rhythm. Lou’s Winchell fandom complements his remark at the VFW: “We’ve been to war. Nothing complex about it.”