Between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, I made my way through Fargo – not the Coens’ 1996 opus, but the television series it later spawned. Though Joel and Ethan themselves have no creative involvement in the series, and the idea of spinning a beloved film off into a TV show sounds like a dreadful, creatively bankrupt cash grab, across four seasons, Fargo has consistently done a remarkable job capturing the spirit and ethos of the Coens’ films without resorting to mere rehashing of their plots. Creator Noah Hawley is less a con man attempting to make a quick buck by piggybacking off of the Coen brand and more a good student devoted to imitating his venerable teachers. Watching Fargo during Advent was not a particularly purposeful, considered choice on my part, but – in keeping, perhaps, with the sort of uncanny accidents that pervade the Coen cosmos – it proved a fitting complement to the season.
In many respects, Fargo is good Advent viewing the way Ecclesiastes is good Advent reading: the hapless, hopeless striving of its bumbling crooks exposes the vanity and emptiness of a world without the Incarnation, stoking our longing for Christ, the “desire of nations.” Fargo inherits a profound moralism from the Coens, unmasking the spurious grandeur of evil for what it really is. Augustine teaches us that evil is a privation, a cancer, a nothing; Boethius teaches us that vice is not a positive power but a lack of power. All men desire happiness, but happiness is only found in goodness, and so wicked men condemn themselves to futility through their very wickedness. Although it may appear otherwise for a time, the cleverness of evil men never ultimately gives them an advantage over the world. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) escapes the authorities by running out onto a frozen lake, ignoring their cries that “it’s not safe,” and falls through the ice; in the end, all his manipulations and evasions only corrode the ground beneath his feet. Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) reduces people to their animal instincts – “There are no saints in the animal kingdom,” he philosophizes, “Only breakfast and dinner” – and finally dies like a beast, his leg mangled by a bear trap, put down by an animal control cop. Even when evil characters seem to win, their victory proves no happier than defeat. Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) schemes and cheats his way up the corporate ladder, gets exactly what he wants, and discovers it’s not what he wanted at all: his new office is as small and bare as a prison cell.
Over and against all this, Fargo makes ordinary goodness the most attractive thing in the world, exalting humble, quiet, undramatic virtues like steadfastness and decency over dramatic acts of heroism (or extravagant plans to save the world or country). In The 25th, Joshua Gibbs contends that Christmas, more than any other holiday, is a family holiday: the proper icon of Christmas is the crèche, which depicts the holy family gathered around the Christ child. Here, then, is another respect in which Fargo makes good Advent viewing, for Fargo, too, centers around the family. This is felt most deeply in the series’ second season, which offsets the increasingly senseless savagery of a sprawling gang war with scenes of remarkable domestic tenderness. Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), the state trooper at the center of the mess, would not be out of place in a classic western – his stalwart stoicism earns him a (mocking) comparison to Gary Cooper – yet unlike so many cowboys, he is not a paragon of individualistic independence. Instead, we sense that his heroism thrives precisely because it is rooted in the family unit, nourished by the love and support of his wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti) and father-in-law Hank (Ted Danson). Domesticity and normalcy are the antidotes to the absurdity and chaos set in motion by those who pursue their self-centered ambitions to the ruin of their families, like Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan) and Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst). Peggy’s disorientation is more pitiable than despicable, but her attempts at radical self-definition – “to be my own me” – fray the fabric of society that keeps evil at bay. While the Blumquist and Gerhardt families fall victim to miscommunication and infighting, the Solverson family is united by the knowledge that goodness consists in quiet, humble, ordinary faithfulness to one’s vocation – a vocation that is given by God, not arbitrarily constructed by man. In response to the idea (put forth by Camus) that death makes life absurd, Betsy simply scoffs. “We’re put on this earth to do a job,” she says, “And each of us gets the time we get to do it. And when this life is over, and you stand in front of the Lord… well, you try telling Him it was all some Frenchman’s joke.”
Although the family is one of the most common and substantial icons of real happiness there is, it is still only an earthly, transient image of something heavenly and eternal. When the family unit is broken, as in Fargo’s third season, and as in so many of our homes this Christmas season, we are left with no recourse but to look heavenward. While the first two seasons revolve steadily around multiple generations of the Solverson family, season 3 finds Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) soon to be divorced because her husband left her for another man. Her own parents are nowhere to be seen, and her stepfather is the victim of a brutal murder, all the more upsetting for the fact that it is (or seems) entirely random, an unfortunate convergence of stupidity and happenstance. Gloria is so lost and isolated in this upside-down, postmodern world that she even wonders if she actually exists.
Season 3 is Fargo at its bleakest. For much of its runtime, the fact that it is set at Christmastime seems like little more than a touch of dark irony. The heroine’s name is Gloria, but there is not much peace or goodwill towards men on earth. Charity and generosity, the preeminent virtues of Christmas, have long since given way to increasingly grotesque excesses of greed.
Can it really be the case that, as one character puts it, “Jesus wins in the end”?
Fargo assures us that it can. On Christmas Eve, all seems dark, but on Christmas Day, heaven draws near to earth – in a bowling alley, of all places. Loved ones return, if briefly, from beyond the grave. Miscarriages of earthly justice are corrected; evildoers are finally brought to account for past sins. God does not forget. When it seems there is no justice in the world, we anticipate God’s righteous judgment at the end of time. We hope that evil will be punished, good rewarded, clemency granted. Fargo leaves us with nothing more or less than this hope.