"One always finds one's burden again."
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Let's start with a little mythology. This week's episode of Fargo, "The Myth of Sisyphus," borrows the title of an Albert Camus essay of the same name (glimpsed, if you really squint, in the hands of Ed's butcher shop coworker Noreen).
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is the crafty king who managed to chain Death himself, ushering in a brief age of immortality for humankind. As punishment, Zeus forced Sisyphus to free Death and cursed him with a different kind of immortality: An eternity spent rolling a boulder up a steep hill, only to see it roll back down — forcing him to start the process anew — without ever reaching the top.
Sisyphus' eternal "futile and hopeless labor" might sound like the worst kind of punishment, and for centuries, that's basically how it was treated. But Camus' 1942 essay recasts Sisyphus' efforts as a kind of absurdist heroism. As Camus sees it, Sisyphus drew meaning, and even happiness, from the mere process of the struggle. The greater pointlessness of the act was, well, beside the point. And, he argued, the struggle to push a boulder up a hill isn't really so different from how the average person struggles through life — knowing, all the while, how their story is going to end.
So what does any of that have to do with Fargo? Look at Lou Solverson, working to unravel several interrelated crimes in his own kind of Sisyphyean struggle. Even if he solves the crime, even if justice is done, that boulder will still roll back down the hill, and some other hero will have to push it back up again.
Lou is our protagonist, and the sole major character in Fargo's second season who also appeared in season one. But until "The Myth of Sisyphus," Lou mostly took a backseat to the show's more flamboyant characters. Still, Patrick Wilson has made him a quiet but commanding presence from the very beginning of the season. You can tell that his brain is constantly working on the case, and that there's a deep pool of intelligence and emotion under his stoic Midwestern demeanor. (For one of several striking examples, consider last week's beautiful split-screen of Lou driving his patrol car and his wife Betsy getting chemotherapy — the perfect visual representation of the idea that Lou and Betsy are simultaneously thinking and worrying about each other.)
Lou is much more inclined to let men like Mike Milligan deliver grandiose, Tarantino-esque speeches — a particularly refreshing trait in an era so overburdened with flashy crime-solvers that we have two separate Sherlock Holmeses on television right now. But as Lou immerses himself in the unfamiliar political terrain of Fargo, North Dakota, it quickly becomes clear that he's just as unflappable as TV's other great detectives.
Unfortunately, you can't say the same for Ben Schmidt (Keir O'Donnell), the spineless cop who serves as Lou's reluctant guide to the criminal underbelly of Fargo. When Schmidt hears that Rye Gerhardt's fingerprints were found on the Waffle Hut murder weapon, he balks. "I'm not saying your life would be easier if it was your own prints on the gun, but that's along the lines you should be thinking," he tells Lou. Nevertheless, Lou insists on going to the Gerhardt family's heavily guarded home to interrogate its residents for himself.
It's here that Lou meets the only foe Fargo has introduced so far who could prove to be his equal: Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart), the matriarch of North Dakota's biggest crime family. Like Lou, Floyd is pragmatic and intensely controlled, and like Lou, there's very little that escapes her notice. Their standoff ends in a kind of stalemate, with both showing plenty of muscle without actually throwing a punch.
But preparing for danger doesn't mean you'll be safe from it, and being the toughest and the smartest is no guarantee that you'll come out on top. One of Fargo's greatest strengths is that it doesn't underestimate the massive, far-reaching impact that any person can have. This is a world in which a total screw-up like Rye Gerhardt can spontaneously kill three people and spawn a multi-state murder investigation. It's a world in which a flighty egomaniac like Peggy Blumquist can crash into the wrong gangster and change the entire tide of a Godfather-style mob war. And it's a world where the sheer randomness of an untimely medical crisis — a cancer diagnosis for a fiercely intelligent young woman, or a stroke for a fearsome crime lord — can strike the just and the unjust alike.
Fargo season two is a standalone story, but it's also a prequel — and the downside of prequels is that the audience comes in knowing the ending before the story even begins. We already know that Lou and his daughter will survive whatever carnage he endures over the season (and we can probably assume that his wife won't).
But the upside to prequels is that they come with an inherent dramatic irony — our knowledge of the future coloring the way we see the past.
Despite Lou's moral righteousness, it's plainly absurd to think that anyone could stamp out all the evil in the world, or even in a little corner of Minnesota. And thanks to the first season, we already know that after this whole mess is over, cruel, violent figures like season one's Lester Nygaard and Lorne Malvo will pop up to cause more bloodshed and pain. And that's where "The Myth of Sisyphus" really earns its title. Lou's pursuit of justice and righteousness is, in one sense, hopeless. But it is also, as Camus said, inherently noble and heroic.
When season two began, Lou Solverson wasn't reintroduced investigating the triple homicide at Waffle Hut. He was introduced in the modesty of his own living room, reading a book to his young daughter. That's his grandest legacy in an absurd and unwinnable war against evil, and — as viewers of season one already know so well — a worthy reason to keep pushing that boulder up the hill.
Read more Fargo recaps:
- The truth is out there: The UFOs and aliens on FX's Fargo, explained
- Minnesota Nice vs. Evil: The moral universe of FX's remarkable Fargo