The new season of Fargo is pretty good. Not as good as the earlier seasons but those seasons set pretty high bars for TV. It is spooned out weekly so I am five episodes in. A lot can happen to make or break a mini-series in the home stretch.
The earlier seasons were loosely connected plot wise with one another and with the Coen brothers movie. So far this one has no connection direct or indirect to the buried suitcase in the snow. But it does carry forward the quirky sensibility of the movie and the earlier seasons of the series. A little too much for my tastes: while the ghosts of the Coens are ever-present this season tilts heavily in the direction of Wes Anderson. The perfectly symmetrical camera shots. The Coen’s cleverness morphed into pose and archness. And the exaggerated visual palette: never have I seen so many shades of green.
Ethnically speaking the Coens deal with shades of white and have never been known to bow to political correctness. So how would this season of Fargo deal with the introduction of black themes for the first time? TV more or less has to be PC–would Fargo submit?
So far so good–but only in the sense that through episode five the show has thread the needle quite well: introducing all of the required doctrinal elements but handling the material in an offbeat way that to some extent defies a conventional explanation.
Recall the world that Fargo summons up. It is an America in which the earnestness of the heartland is simultaneously mocked and celebrated, with the emphasis on the latter. Nice white Minnesotans are naive all right but isn’t wonderful that we have such Americans to counter the bad effects of the country’s submerged dark side?
And in the Fargo universe the country does indeed have a dark side. There are the sociopaths, like Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the first season and the evil nurse this time out. And then there are the forces of greed and violence. In the Coen universe we do not see a conscious fight between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Rather we see people who cannot help be what they are struggling more or less blindly as they go forth in the world, colliding with one another with hard to predict results. It can be a pretty pagan place.
One odd feature of the current season is that while the show honors the current racial tropes about white racism the portrayal of blacks is quite idiosyncratic. Essentially they are shown to have a good deal of Midwestern niceness. The leader of the upstart black gang is played by Chris Rock, who is no one’s idea of a sociopath. He talks about being mean and no doubt he has had to do nasty things. But he comes across as genuine and nice in a Minnesota manner. He and other black gang members live in beautiful old houses, tastefully but not extravagently furnished–all very “homey” in the old fashioned meaning of the term.
Rock and his gang are natty dressers and speak well. He and his top lieutenant — who was a lawyer at Nuremberg –are criminals in part because the white world will not honor their genius. They try and fail to introduce credit cards to the world by bringing the idea to a large white owned bank. Their idea is rejected–partly out of racial motives but also because the white bankers in 1950 still cannot wrap their heads around the fact that their customers would ever consider financing consumption.
It is almost as though the blacks on the show are secretly white. Other than the fact that they are discriminated against as blacks–there’s the nod to the required dogma–they don’t appear to be black in any serious way. Indeed you could make a case that they are not WASP white but perhaps Jewish white in disguise. The unusual credit card scene suggests this: it is hard to accept blacks inventing the idea of a credit card with high finance charges but that makes more sense if the black gang were a stand-in for Jewish mobsters, the discussion of which is still more or less verboten decades after the wall came down over the discussion of Italian crime as an Italian thing.
But, as I say, we are only in episode five, and there have been a few hints that the show will take a turn for the conventional in its treatment of race.
That would hardly be unusual in a mini-series. Political correctness is now so out of control that it cannot be avoided as a subject of some ridicule–provided of course that the ship is sailed into the safe harbor of conventional dogma by episode 10.
Such was the case with the Amazon series Upload. In that show the white male main character dies in the first episode and has his consciousness uploaded to a fancy simulated heaven. The show flirts with all kinds of reprobate notions, like the connivance of his girlfriend and his black business partner in his death. In the last reel he is of course revealed to be more or less the bad guy, having forgotton the nasty deeds that contributed to his death, and he is given a chance as Clueless White Guy to repent.
So there is time for the current season of Fargo to repent as well. We’ll see how it goes.
BONUS: I wrote here about the film Kumiko The Treasure Hunter. That film is literally “about” the movie Fargo and features a heroine, if you can call her that, who in the Coen fashion cannot help be who she is, with tragic rather than comic results.
I haven’t seen any of the most recent season (though I did read this on its depiction of prejudice in that time period), but I don’t think Noah Hawley actually understands the movie “Fargo”. His adaptation is more in the Tarantino mold of being fixated on cool criminals (who don’t really belong in that setting), just the sort of Hollywood fiction that the Coens were trying to deliberately subvert with their could-have-been-a-true-story. Furthermore, the Coens actually lived in Minnesota, whereas all of Hawley’s knowledge of it seems to have come from seeing “Fargo”.