FARGO: A narrative of untruths, clusterfucks and unfathomable pinheadery
“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted took place in Minnesota. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
This is how we were introduced to Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult classic film of 1996. In 2014, the series made its television debut with the exact same opening sequence.
The film’s plot revolves around Marge Gunderson (Frances McDonald), who happens across a criminal putting his dead partner through a wood chipper while she is investigating a string of murders that resulted from Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hiring two knuckleheaded thugs to pretend-kidnap his own wife in order to extort ransom from his father-in-law.
Keeping in mind that this was 1996 and the internet was not yet where it is today, very few critics checked whether this crime had in fact taken place in Minnesota in the recent past. This lack of investigative journalism into the facts behind the film was further entrenched as truth in the public mind by the film’s promotional tour, during which Joel Coen told Premiere that the brothers “…wanted to try something based on a real story”, and that “the events depicted onscreen were ‘pretty close’ to what had actually happened”.
Thus, the public kept believing the myth that Fargo’s plot actually occurred in real life. However, it afterwards came to light that this was a “spin” for publicity purposes when Ethan Coen revealed the real truth behind the “true story”. The closing sentence of the film’s published screenplay reads: “[The film] aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true. We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don't have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”
The television series adaptation has made the same “true story” claim at the beginning of each episode, but series creator Noah Hawley has confirmed that “it’s all just made up”. Even though the truth is out and viewers logically know that both the film and television series are only “pretending to be true”, some people still seem to struggle with which aspects of it are true and which are not.
This brings us to the story of Takako Konishi. In 2001, it was believed that the Japanese woman had died while trying to find the suitcase full of cash that Steve Buscemi’s character had buried in the snow in the film. Konishi’s body was found in a field of snow in Minnesota, and due to a misunderstanding prior to her death with local police, to whom she had reportedly shown a crudely drawn map that was supposed to show the location where the money was hidden in the movie, they assumed that she had taken the “true story” claim literally. To take this meta-clusterfuck up a notch, this story was then misreported by the media, perpetuating a new “truth” leading to the widespread belief that she had come to America to find the money in the film and had died while searching for it. Two filmmakers even made a movie about this in 2014 called Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
However, a documentary by filmmaker Paul Berczeller gave a different account of her story. He went to North Dakota to retrace her steps, investigate her death and – in a further meta-twist – find locals to “play themselves” in his documentary opposite the actress he was casting as Konishi. In his documentary, titled This Is a True Story, the “reality” that he found was that Konishi had become depressed after being fired from her job in Tokyo and had returned to the Midwest, a place she had visited with her American lover (a married businessman). Her death was ultimately ruled a suicide when police found a suicide note at the inn she was staying at, but part of her “truth” will forever be tied to that infernal suitcase buried in the snow.
The confusion between fiction and reality which is central to Konishi’s story and the films about her life begs the question if anything can ever be truly “true”. In the end, it seems like the entire story of her coming to America to find the money was nothing more than a typical Fargo-style clusterfuck of unfortunate misunderstandings. Even more Fargo-esque – could she perhaps have died while actually, just maybe, really searching for the suitcase in the snow?
The strands of truth and untruth are so finely interwoven in both the story of Takako Konishi and Fargo that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the two. In the television series, even the episode titles further blur the line between reality and fiction. Each season has a theme for its episode titles ranging from works of literature and art to cultural phenomena and philosophy, such as the parable The Crocodile’s Dilemma and the short story The Gift of the Magi. Because of its factual episode titles, every episode of Fargo references an actual, real-world foil or mirror.
Fargo specialises in doing just that – mirroring and borrowing from “reality”, but also borrowing from itself in an inceptional way that exponentially increases Fargo’s ability to clusterfuck with the viewer’s mind with each passing season. In this sense, Season 3 contains many aspects that mirror the first two seasons and the film: A female police officer who seems to be the only one capable of putting two and two together; a deadly family feud where people are killed off faster than you can say “Ah jeez”; and imbecilic thugs who make things infinitely worse with each bungled crime.
Leading the third season is Ewan McGregor, who epically co-stars with himself. He is both Ray Stussy (an out-of-luck parole officer who still holds a grudge over a birthright he insists his brother owes him) and Emmit Stussy (the uber-successful “parking lot king of Minnesota” who built his empire on the inheritance his brother claims was rightfully his). Ray rocks his mullet and ‘stache like a 70s porn star, while Emmit looks a tad too smug and polished in his shiny suits and buoyant quiff. The result of the casting is not to demonstrate the brothers’ likeness, but how their circumstances have changed them to be identical, yet completely different. It’s remarkable that throughout the season, the brothers essentially become a mirror of one another, with Emmit becoming increasingly villainous to outwit his embittered brother.
In true Fargo fashion, Ray misuses his job as parole officer to blackmail a local thug, Maurice, to rob his brother’s house for his “rightful inheritance” in order to buy an engagement ring for his parolee-turned-fiancée, Nikki Swango. It goes horribly wrong, of course, as Maurice is off his mind on drugs, loses the address, and ends up robbing and murdering the wrong E. Stussy, who just happens to be the local police chief’s father-in-law. At the same time, Emmit is dealing with his own set of problems, having borrowed money from greasy real estate developer/loan shark V.M. Varga to keep his business afloat during the recession in 2010. The loan ends up not being a loan but a partnership agreement, according to Mr Varga, who shows up with a couple of Russian heavies to enforce the terms. That’s right: Just in case you thought Fargo was firmly in fiction territory now, this season includes a shifty real estate mogul with dodgy Russian associates. How’s that for “alternative facts”?
The feeling that Fargo is “true” is further underscored by the series’ gleeful joy in how the characters tell the story – often with deeper insight than a character should have. Nikki Swango describes a burglary gone wrong as “unfathomable pinheadery”, Gloria Burgle tells a fellow cop “I got this theory… that I don't actually exist” in a drunken stupor, and V.M. Varga erases his very presence from the narrative by instructing his heavies to “wipe everything – we were never here”.
What puts Fargo in a class of its own is this near-omniscient insight of its characters, the ever-present mirroring of reality and the film/series itself, and its complete lack of distinction between fact and fiction – resulting in a brilliant narrative of unavoidable but darkly hilarious clusterfucks. Or, to sum it up best in V.M. Varga’s own words: “We see what we believe, not the other way around.”
Glossary of terms:
clusterfuck (noun) – A chaotic situation where everything seems to go wrong. It is often caused by incompetence, communication failure or a complex environment.
meta (adjective) – (of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.
1. Fargo (1996)
2. Fargo seasons 1 - 3