Okay, Fargo fans: Let's talk about aliens.
Fargo's second season — a dense, twisty, but otherwise earthbound story of crime in the Midwest — is haunted by the specter of extraterrestrial life. In last week's premiere, Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) stumbles out of a Waffle Hut, in which he's just committed a triple homicide, to see a trio of strange lights on the horizon. As he looks on in wonder, the lights rotate above him in a classic flying saucer shape, then zoom off across the horizon.
Moments later, Peggy Blomquist's car collides into Rye Gerhardt, and he dies without ever getting the chance to tell anyone what he saw.
This bizarre non-sequitur is as unexpected and memorable as anything in Fargo's run (as well as the first thing every single person who watched the Fargo premiere has asked me about). And episode two, "Before the Law," doubles down on the UFO iconography without offering any kind of direct explanation, ending on an odd, spacey voiceover track from Jeff Wayne's 1978 musical adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. All the while, the camera pulls up, implying some kind of unseen force watching from the stars.
You could even argue that the UFO's appearance in the first episode was the turning point of the show; if Rye hadn't been so mesmerized by it, he wouldn't have been standing in the middle of the road, and Peggy Blomquist would never have crashed into him. When asked about the UFO in an interview, Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley was evasive, but hinted that it might play a larger role as the season unfolds: "It’s not in there accidentally, let’s put it that way. We’ll see what it adds up to."
That said: I don't think Fargo's second season will end with Lou Solverson stepping into a flying saucer like Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Close Encounters. To paraphrase another Coen Brothers classic: This isn't American Horror Story, this is Fargo. There are rules.
So what's the deal? On the most basic level, the UFO stuff is yet another Coen Brothers reference in a show stuffed with Coen Brothers references. Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) describes someone as a "Chinaman" — which, as The Big Lebowski's Walter Sobchak could tell you, is not the preferred nomenclature. Later in the episode, Ed Blomquist (Jesse Plemons) disposes of a corpse in the butcher shop's meat grinder — a knowing variation on the original Fargo's infamous wood chipper.
Fargo's UFO motif originates in one of the Coens' smaller, lesser-seen films: the 2001 neo-noir The Man Who Wasn't There, which happens to star Fargo season 1 alum Billy Bob Thornton. There, as here, the UFO lingers on the periphery of the story: first as a strange anecdote told by a grieving widow, and later as an actual UFO, witnessed by Thornton's death-row inmate in what's apparently — though not definitively — a dream sequence.
The UFO in The Man Who Wasn't There might seem to be a non-sequitur. But a closer viewing of the film suggests a deeper meaning. That film's own car crash — which signals the transition into the bleak third act — ends with a hubcap that floats off like a flying saucer. Later, when Thornton's character finds that his cell door has mysteriously opened, he wanders the halls of the empty prison until he encounters a UFO hovering above the prison yard. "It's like pulling away from the maze," he says, in monologue, to the audience. "While you're in the maze, you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, and banging into the dead ends. One thing after another. But you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns — why, they're the shape of your life. It's hard to explain, but seeing it whole gives you some peace."
I suspect that The Man Who Wasn't There holds the key to unlocking the real point behind Fargo's UFO motif. Watch that climactic prison scene again. Dream or not, it's not really the UFO that matters. It's Thornton's reaction to the UFO — which hovers above, blasting an unflattering and accusing light at him — that drives the true purpose of the scene home. He nods thoughtfully, turns, and goes back into the prison to await his execution, which he accepts with a kind of resigned sense of justice. "I don't know what I'll find beyond the Earth and sky, but I'm not afraid to go," he says in the movie's closing lines. "Maybe the things I don't understand will be clearer there. Like when a fog blows away."
In that final scene, The Man Who Wasn't There conflates extraterrestrials and outer space with God and the afterlife. Thornton's character is a murderer, and after his close encounter, he's comfortable with the idea that there's no escaping the consequences for that.
Now, consider what's happened in the first two episodes of Fargo in the context of that full excerpt from War of the Worlds, as quoted at the end of "Before the Law":
No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us…
The Fargo universe hinges on the same kind of cosmic morality that makes up the backbone of The Man Who Wasn't There. Last week's premiere invoked the Old Testament intractability of God in the Book of Job; this week invokes the icy scrutiny of all-seeing and unknowable beings from another world. And whichever you place more stock in, the end result is the same: Someone above is watching and judging, and no one who acts out can escape the consequences.