All stories are, inherently, at least somewhat about stories and storytelling. It’s true, too, that storytellers are maybe more drawn to telling stories about storytelling, since the act of storytelling is already on their mind (by virtue of the fact that they are currently telling a story, and probably for vainglorious reasons as well).
Recently, I rewatched the Second Season of Fargo. It’s one of my absolute favorite seasons of television, ever, and I’ve always wanted to write about it but have never been able to find what I wanted to express about it. As with anything I love but can’t quite find the message of I’ve always decided it best to leave it alone – afraid, of course, that if I picked at the threads it would unravel and turn out to be about nothing, and my affection for it would go out the window. But, this time through, I finally realized it is at least in part about narrative, about story, about storytelling.
It shouldn’t have taken me that long to discover that – it boldly states it’s theme at the very opening of literally every episode. Like the Coen Brother movie that precedes it, every episode of Fargo opens by telling the audience “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.” It’s a lie, as it was for the movie. It’s presence invites us to investigate the claim: many things are purportedly a “true story” but the components of the phrase are antithetical. Truth we associate with objective fact. Story is, while not an outright lie is an act of creation and curation, which necessitates some exclusion. We need stories to interpret the world around us, but we don’t believe stories correspond directly to the world. It’s sort of “mapped on/above” the truth. Stories are honest, yes, but not necessarily “truthful”.
In the first episode’s opening we’re treated to a sweeping scene of massacre (the Massacre of Sioux Falls). Dead soldiers and Native Americans litter a field. A single surviving native stares stoically forward before confusingly asking someone offscreen what they’re waiting on. A director jogs out and apologizes – they’re putting some arrows into Reagan. One of the dead bodies sits up and complains about being cold. The point is being made that story is a medium of construction. Again, to treat story as deceitful because of this is disingenuous, but to ignore it betrays a lack of skepticism. Story is interpretation.
To ricochet off of Reagan, he shows up in-person mid-season (Bruce Campbell), now running for President. He delivers a sliver of his stump speech, rifting off some famous Reagan quotes. Reagan’s whole approach to America boils down to “it’s easy, we’ll do it, we’re American.” It’s a prime example of two narratives built off the same circumstances. Whereas Carter sees a crisis of confidence (audio of which opens the season) Reagan sees a shining city on a hill. Reagan’s story is nicer to hear, and therefore easier to accept, but it’s not a useful narrative to interpret the times. Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) confronts Reagan immediately after the speech in a bathroom.
Lou: Governor, I don’t mean to, uh, what we did over there, the war, um, and now… my wife’s got lymphoma, stage three, and lately the state of things, uh, well sometimes I… late at night, I wonder if maybe the sickness of this world if it isn’t inside my wife somehow.. With the cancer… I don’t know, I don’t know what I’m saying, except, do you really think we’ll get out of this mess we’re in?
Reagan: Son, there’s not a challenge on God’s Earth, that can’t be overcome by an American, and I truly believe that.
Lou: Yeah… but how?
Regan clicks his tongue, thinks a second, pats Lou on the arm and leaves.
It’s wonderful writing (and performance… this season asks a lot of people to reach deep and they all deliver). Reagan sees a narrative for the country – he telling says “and I truly believe that” and while it’s sort of played for laughs he’s definitely sincere in his belief. He fails, unfortunately, to draw Lou into his narrative, because Lou has seen a different set of truths, and has built a different narrative out of them.
In the final episode of the season Hank Larrson (Ted Danson at his all time best, and yes, I’ve seen both Cheers and The Good Place) reveals his desire to create a universal language, because he believes that most violence is a result of miscommunication.
I started thinking, which I know is dangerous, but you know, the things I’ve seen. The war (WW2), and at home, on the job. So much senselessness and violence, and I got to thinking about miscommunication, like how, isn’t that the root of it? Conflict? War? Doesn’t it all come down to language. The words we say and the words we hear, which aren’t always the same thing. So I thought, you know, what if there was one language. A universal language of symbols? Cause, pictures, to my mind, are clearer than words.
It’s a noble intention, in theory, if an impossible one. But it’s not impossible only because it’s too herculean of a task for one man to take on. Even if we have a universal language, even if we have universal truths, the narratives we build are still going to be different. The base can be the same, but the towers will always be different. It’s a fact represented in the constant use of split screen throughout the season. A different perspective causes people to see the same things differently (duh).
It’s represented as well in Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons). In what might be the most clever piece of writing on the whole show, Lou and Ed have a conversation in a police station. Ed claims he has a book stuck in his head, The Myth of Sisyphus, and explains the plot:
It’s about this guy, who, every day, he pushes this rock up this hill, like a boulder, and every night it just rolls back down. But he doesn’t stop, you know, he just, he keeps going, and he wakes up every day, and he starts pushin’. Which I guess I’m saying, it doesn’t matter what they throw at me I’m going to take care of what’s mine.
It’s clear that Ed is deeply impressed with Sisyphus. Here he sees a hero, someone who works hard doing a thankless and mundane (I almost wrote sisyphean) task everyday, with nothing to show for it. Ed sees himself, and since he views himself as the hero of his story, he assumes Sisyphus is a hero as well.
One of story’s prime objectives is to create a sense of self. Objectively (factually/truthfully) we’re just a series of actions and moments, interconnected only in that the same(ish) body performed them. Acknowledging or living that truth is impossible and debilitating. Our mind literally rejects it. Instead we frame a “self” based on a narrative we pick and choose.
Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) is a victim of a personal narrative that doesn’t adhere to reality. It’d be easy to simply dismiss her as delusional, and there are hints of that as well, but Peggy’s problem is more that she thinks her personal narrative should be headed in one direction and it’s simply not. There’s this sense I think a lot of people feel that there’s some better, fully formed person buried within you, a “final form” as it were, or a “perfect form.” It’s a fantasy, but it feels so real, because that’s how narrative works – there is a “conclusion”. Truth, fact, however, doesn’t have conclusion. The final form you take is, I suppose, whoever you happen to be the moment before you die.
Anyway, the issue with Peggy is she isn’t sure who she is and is also unsure who she wants to be, and because of that her narrative, her “self”, becomes murky. It’s the reason she so frequently imagines herself living the narratives she sees on TV – she needs some sense of order and direction, but can’t draw it together herself. She doesn’t see a direction.
Peggy made me want to write this article in the first place. In the first episode she hits Rye with her car, stops for a moment, and then keeps driving with him on the hood and through the windshield. In a later episode we see the event again. She hits him, gets out of the car, looks at him, and then gets back into the car and drives home. Was her getting out of the car elided the first time? Or has she changed the story? Changed the truth?
I don’t know, and that’s why it’s taken me such a long time to actually get around to writing this. Fargo Season Two is definitively about stories, but I’m still unsure exactly what it’s trying to say. Peggy is cast as both a hero, a villain, and a victim. At the end of the show, as Lou drives her back home, Peggy rambles about how society has crushed her personal narrative, how she hasn’t ever been allowed to flourish because she’s a woman. “I wanted to be someone. I wanted to choose. Be my own me.” Lou, the moral authority on the show, responds bluntly “People are dead, Peggy.” Narrative v. truth. It’s two forces, both necessary but mutually exclusive, butting up against each other. Maybe the show doesn’t have an answer because there isn’t one.