Fargo has been one of the crime dramas of the year, and every episode has danced with a perfect mixture of quirky characters, high farce and ultra-violence: the characteristic combination of Coen Brothers work (even though the hands-on influence of the Oscar-winning producer/director combo has been negligible in this series, if reports are to be believed). Throughout this quirky tale, which I have enjoyed immensely, something has been nagging at me – the realisation that there’s something bigger at play here than just murder and mayhem. Strap yourselves in – this is a long post and you’ll have to bear with me on this one!
By now most of you will know that Fargo is the tale of a man, Lester Nygaard, who meets another man, Lorne Malvo, in a hospital waiting room, completely by chance (some would argue fate). From this meeting a chain of catastrophic events took place – the murder of a wife and police officer, and countless knock-on murders of spiralling revenge.
But it’s the character of Malvo that has got me really interested. He walks through the raindrops, doing what he pleases, not giving a damn what anyone or society thinks. He disregards rules. He encourages Lester – and, as we found out in episode nine, some other poor, hapless soul – that life can not only exist outside of society’s moral boundaries but also thrive. He is the very essence of something serpentine in the Garden Of Eden – offering a bite of the apple to the weak, smiling and reassuring them into temptation. Go on, take a bite. What if you’re right and they’re all wrong? Heck-a-doodle-do, he even mentioned to Lou in the diner in episode nine that it was the best piece of pie he’d tasted since the Garden Of Eden.
Something religious or mythical is surely afoot in Fargo, and I’m determined to get to the bottom of it. The series feels like an allegory for something, but I’m not quite sure what… yet. So, with the finale upon us – where surely Noah Hawley and co will reveal all – I decided to do some digging.
The corroboration for my theory that Fargo is a supernatural drama was part-fuelled by something I read once about another Coen Brothers masterpiece – O Brother, Where Art Thou? – which was apparently (and loosely) based on Homer’s Odyssey. Their liking for reinterpreting classics piqued my interest and prompted me to dig more into Fargo, too. And when you look at the middle part of the series, especially the storyline involving Stavros Milos (played by Oliver Platt), things start to appear. We were shown his story, of how he came to Bemidji and how he first got his leg up – he found a case full of money randomly in the snow after breaking down in the middle of nowhere. He had a choice – take the buried money and start a new life, or leave it where it was and carry on being a loser. He chose the former and, for a while, it worked. There are certainly tales in the scriptures that tell of cautionary tales Jesus told about not forgetting good things that happened to you. Stavros is spiteful towards his son and bitter – all but forgetting the random act that brought him to his affluent stage. He also didn’t reckon on Lorne Malvo, who blackmailed him for stacks of cash. To make his point and mess with his mind, Malvo unleashes several stunts that will psychologically wear down Stavros to the point where he believes he is in the midst of Armageddon.
But take a look at these stunts and they are explicitly Biblical in nature. The Book Of Exodus details 10 Plagues Of Egypt that were meted out by the God Of Israel upon Egypt’s Pharaoh, so he would release the Israelites from slavery. So this famous passage in the Bible describes, upon the Pharaoh’s capitulation after the 10th catastrophe the exodus of the Hebrews took place. If we look at some of the plagues detailed in the Book Of Exodus they almost exactly match some of the stunts carried out by Malvo in order to freak out Stavros. There was the gushing blood in Stavros’s shower (water into blood); there was the storm of frogs, which indirectly caused the death of Stavros’ firstborn (two for the price of one); the infestation of flies in the supermarket; the blizzard (which could be interpreted as storms of fire and/or darkness); and the diseased livestock (or in this case the death of Stavros’s beloved pet dog). Admittedly there are only six of the 10 ‘plagues’ in there, but they are specifically and uncannily similar to those detailed in the Book Of Exodus. Does this mean Malvo is God, coming down to remind and punish Stavros of the good thing that happened to him? I don’t think so – I think it’s a perversion and a twist of the Exodus story. Where the Israelite God unleashed these plagues down upon the King Of Egypt because of injustice, Malvo was doing it for his own ends. Perhaps he was once a God.
Which brings us back to Malvo and his contempt for what we call morals and rules. To me he has the look and feel of an almost supernatural being, doing what he wants, when he wants. The Coen brothers had a similar character – Anton Chigurgh in No Country For Old Men – where rules meant nothing and who seemed to signify a relentless evil.
When the two hitmen – Numbers and Wrench – make their appearance, they have a similar modus operandi to Malvo – careering around the snow-covered wasteland killing and causing mayhem wherever they go.
If you look at John Milton’s epic 17th century poem, Paradise Lost, it details the fall from grace of Lucifer. Cast out from Heaven after a failed rebellion. Described as charismatic, arrogant and powerful and the most beautiful of all the angels, he is cast down to Hell or, the name for it given in Paradise Lost, Tartarus. Could Bemidji be Pandemonium, the capital of Tartarus, where rebel angels like Lucifer (or Malvo in this case) run amok? Or could the battle between Numbers, Wrench and Malvo signify the war in Haven as depicted in both Paradise Lost and the Book Of Revelations? Are Malvo, Numbers and Wrench supernatural beings waging their own war among the mortals?
To me, Malvo is Lucifer – confident, arrogant and uniquely concerned with offering temptation to the weak. The fact that Milton’s Paradise Lost also tells the story of Adam and Eve is also significant and I contend that Lester Nygaard, the latest cowardly, weak man in a long line of Malvo’s ‘victims’, is the Adam in Fargo’s. What did Malvo say in Lou’s diner? “I haven’t tasted pie this good since the Garden Of Evil?” Perhaps it was he, smiling, serpentine Lucifer, who gave that piece of pie to Lester/Adam?
So with all that in mind here’s my conclusion: the frozen wasteland of Bemidji is some sort of purgatory-style netherworld; perhaps the wilderness spoken of in Exodus. A barren place where people are tested with not only isolation but also challenges to find out who you really are. In this netherworld the Gods play with us – offering temptations to test our fortitude. Some, like Stavros and Lester, fail. Some, like Gus and Molly, pass.
Also in this wilderness there are immortals cast out from Heaven mingling with mortals and waging their own war with each other, using Biblical methods to get what they want.
So Fargo takes stories from the Bible and historical fiction and myth to produce a purgatory-style place where the real and the not so real live together. It is Paradise Lost. It is Pandemonium. It is hell on Earth.
For all our Fargo coverage, go here.
Thanks to Jon Curtis and Pippa Wragg Smith for theological inspiration, insight and help.