Too Big to Fail: How Fargo Tracks the History of America’s Great Economic ScamPhoto Courtesy of FX TV Features Fargo
FX’s Fargo never had the luxury of being the kind of show that finds its footing in its second year. As such, it spends its first season doggedly proving itself in the broader tonal and narrative strokes of its source material, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 black comedy about a gambler who arranges the kidnapping of his own wife to extort a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. But with that footing firmly found, Fargo’s Season 2 premiere “Waiting for Dutch” breaks into a giddy sprint, almost the zoomies, with a montage that pairs a flashy new set of editing tricks (which would become instant stylistic identifiers for the show) and a soundtrack of Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac as a 1979 Jimmy Carter speech warning of a coming recession. With an entirely new cast and a story set 27 years before the first, these first moments of Season 2 are a colorful and confident fresh start, allowing creator and showrunner Noah Hawley to loudly clarify his unique goals for the project in an outside voice. It also lets slip one of the show’s strangest apparent preoccupations: the history of American economics.
Set in the Carter administration’s final year, the season contrasts cold premonitions of a new corporate America with the contemporary atmosphere of tense hopes for Ronald (“Dutch”) Reagan in the face of recession. Reagan makes great fodder for the show, partly because the conceit of his “trickle-down” economic policy was core Fargo: the foolish idea that someone with a million dollars would ever let you see a cent of it. In practice, it would decimate small businesses while overpowering and deregulating only the few largest ones, a consequence the show mimics in its overarching conflict of the losing turf battle between the local crime operation run by the Gerhardt family and the corporately-structured Kansas City crime syndicate that hopes to absorb their business. The Gerhardts are laid to waste in an expansion plan designed by a research department and proposed via slide projector, and in the end Kansas City’s brutal enforcer Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) gets a promotion to a desk job in a skyscraper.
Season 4’s later reveal that Mike comes from his own family crime business makes his bleak arc, the new vision of economic mobility, even lonelier. For his violent success in destroying the very system he came from, he’s rewarded with a desk job isolated from the groundwork he excelled at and relished as a footsoldier. The American Dream, from here on out, would no longer be one of achievement but instead of climbing a monolithic power structure further and further removed from the work being done. “Every generation has their time,” Reagan muses to Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) upon learning he’s a Vietnam veteran. “I remember back in ’42, America just joined the war, I was working on…” He pauses to remember. “Operation: Eagle’s Nest for Paramount.” A few months later, Americans would elect him their leader in a landslide and he would address their economic concerns by ceding their scant economic power to corporations equally far removed from them.
That new dream is also at the heart of the first season, set in 2006, which follows meek insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) dodging the consequences of murdering his wife after one too many belittling comparisons to his successful younger brother. The idealization of Chazz Nygaard (Joshua Close), a newly-promoted VP of Sales living with an idyllic family in a modestly oversized house, closely echoes the economic attitudes of the Bush era. At the time, banks’ recklessly expanded lending emphasized an American Dream via oversized homeownership, as a means of projecting economic strength post-9/11. Where the original movie used the image of a modest family home as a symbol of the goodness and justice still left in the world, Lester’s becomes a symbol of the static acceptance of mediocrity that makes him an outcast in an economy propped up by the pursuit of more.
2006 saw the first signs of that pursuit failing to catch up to its spending, with average household debt reaching an all time high of 130%, and a sharp uptick in mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures culminating in a historic market crash in 2008. Americans were left to pick up the pieces while government bailouts would protect corporations and institutions deemed “too big to fail,” a Reagan-era concept arguing the need for safety nets for companies that now held the fate of the economy in their hands. Before that, the country turned a blind eye to these risky practices in an attempt to cling to the illusion of strength and stability, until it all snowballed into a complete economic meltdown.
Hawley seems to find quiet common ground between a culture of denial and the movie’s depiction of a small town reluctant to acknowledge a gruesome crime spiraling out of control in its midst. Here, Lester briefly gets away with murder because the chief of police, his old classmate, can’t stomach any explanation for the crime that threatens his notion of stability and normalcy in their community. Left unchecked, Lester’s misdeeds pose an even greater threat to that notion, as they spread wildly alongside his rise in status. Unlike his film counterpart’s actual bid for money, Lester’s crime incidentally does lead him to wealth when his ruthless, manipulative side turns out to be a major asset in convincing people to buy insurance. Scamming the rich has always been a losing proposition in Fargo, but Lester’s path to Insurance Salesman of the Year outlines a new system where the quickest way to the top is by scamming the economically anxious. It turns out, you can get away with a whole lot if you do it in the name of financial security.
That system is personified by Season 3’s Big Bad V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), who offers a shady loan to help parking lot mogul Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) ride out the 2008 recession when banks can’t help, returning two years later to recontextualize it as a partnership agreement where he can gut the company. Emmit, a self-made family man who prides himself on running an honest business, is the last gasp of the old American Dream. Failed by the systems repeatedly entrusted to safeguard his achievements, he’s left with no choice but to invite this nightmarish new chimera of bank and corporation into his own home. Once there, Varga allows Fargo to subvert its basic “family robbing family” premise when Emmit’s brother Ray (who is, admittedly, robbing him) ends up dead as a result of the mess, and his girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) realizes they’re up against something bigger than Emmit.
Against a backdrop of pre-“Occupy Wall Street’’ tension, the season pivots startlingly into an all-out war on Varga that puts the ambitious ex-con Nikki a few steps ahead of requisite good-cop Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) on Varga’s trail (and who, in any other season ,might have been Gloria’s target). These four episodes are Fargo at its thrilling best, seizing on series-long tensions to get the characters to look straight in the eye of their real enemy instead of fighting amongst themselves. “You tell people you work for a company… because people look past middle management,” Nikki later condescends to Varga. “But I know a boss when I see one.” A belated fourth season offers a compelling afterthought about organized crime as a means for disenfranchised groups to create their own economies, but its conflicts feel trailed-off by comparison.
Still, the breadth of the show, particularly in its first three seasons, stands as a remarkable exercise in anthology structure and adaptation. Fargo is a rare Coen brothers Oscar-winner in a sprawling canon of sleeper hits, and the show that takes its name thoughtfully rearranges its pieces under the harsh light of real-world history to cut to the core of what made it so immediately resonant, evoking larger questions about not only why we scam each other but also why we’re bound to fail. Quietly, it also uses its structural tropes—attempted grift that spirals into far-reaching consequences—to show the bigger scam quietly being pulled on its would-be grifters by the very system they tried to game. Viewed in concert, Fargo hangs on a 70-year history of Americans repeatedly being convinced, in the name of economic stability, to cede their power to organizations that were growing increasingly removed from the concerns and experiences of America’s heartland. In the process, it imbues a story about scammers and schemers into one about our resilient capacity for being duped.
Tommy Ordway is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY with bylines in Paste and Hullabaloo. He disdains sweet potatoes and loathes the dreaded parsnip. You can find him on Twitter @tommyttommmy.
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