The structural audacity of Fargo
TV shows tend to follow a familiar structure. Characters are introduced, and the amount of time we spend with them generally dictates how important they'll be to the overarching story. Pressure builds, storylines are woven together, and following a climax, on both an episode-by-episode and season-by-season basis, the story moves on. You can see it in everything from The Big Bang Theory to Empire to The Walking Dead. Even Game of Thrones, for all its unpredictability, has developed a fairly consistent structure. In each 10-episode season, you can bet that something truly crazy will happen in episode nine.
FX's Fargo, on the other hand, has consistently taken a more eccentric and unpredictable approach. And that's a big part of what makes it so terrific.
Following Floyd Gerhardt's declaration of war at the end of last week's "Fear and Trembling," this week's "The Gift of the Magi" wastes no time getting right to the bloodbath. In an opening montage cut with a variation of Ronald Reagan's famed "City on a Hill" speech, gun-toting members of the Gerhardt family launch an ambush on the Kansas City syndicate, killing ringleader Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett) and one of the two Kitchen brothers (among many, many other fatalities).
This is the kind of game-changer you'd expect as the climax to a season — or, at the very least, the climax of an episode. Instead, Fargo drops all the action at the very beginning of a midseason episode, and spends the rest of the hour exploring the more interesting side of violence: its dramatic and far-reaching consequences.
The roots of this fundamentally unpredictable approach can be traced back to Fargo's first season, which defied expectations with a late-season time jump that completely changed the context of the narrative. In the middle of the "The Heap" — the eighth episode of the 10-episode first season — Fargo suddenly and unexpectedly leaped a full year ahead. In the time that had passed, we learned, Molly Solverson and Gus Grimly had gotten married; Gus had retired from the police department and become a mail carrier; Lester Nygaard had successfully evaded imprisonment, remarried, and netted himself a cushy perch as Insurance Salesman of the Year; and the psychotic Lorne Malvo had remade himself as the charming "Dr. Michaelson" as part of an elaborate hit contract.
Fargo's second season hasn't jumped ahead in time — not yet, at least — but it has shifted our point of view often enough to create suspense about who and what matters. Lou Solverson, our protagonist (and the only guaranteed survivor among the main cast), would be the obvious person to investigate the pile of corpses left in the war between the Gerhardts and Kansas City — but he's stuck on a detail escorting presidential candidate Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell) through Minnesota.
Lou's peripheral role in the episode's narrative allows Fargo to engage in its customary existential searching without distancing itself from the intensity of the central conflict. When Lou winds up standing shoulder to shoulder with the charismatic presidential candidate at a urinal, he drops his customary stoicism and looks for some perspective. "Sometimes I… late at night… I wonder if maybe the sickness of this world… if it isn't inside my wife somehow," he muses. "The cancer. I don't know what I'm saying, except… Do you really think we'll get out of this mess we're in?" Reagan doesn't have any real answers for Lou — both because he's ill-equipped to answer the question, and because the question is unanswerable.
Lou's speech is the key to understanding both what we've seen so far and what we'll see in the episodes to come. Lou may be talking about his own situation, but the question of escaping this mess unscathed could come from nearly any of Fargo's protagonists. In a matter of weeks, Floyd has been forced to contend with the stroke of her husband, the death of her son, and the pressures of forces both external and internal. Ed Blumquist has seen all his dreams go up in smoke — first metaphorical, then literally. Each of these characters is at a crossroads, forced to make choices that will influence everything that happens next — and Fargo's unconventional narrative structure, with its peaks, valleys, and detours, makes it totally unclear when and how their paths will cross again.
Of course, Fargo's boldest structural gambit of all didn't even happen this year. It came in season one, when the older Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine) laid the groundwork for the story that's unfolding in season two:
"Had a case once. Back in '79. And I'd tell you the details, but it'd sound like I made 'em up. Madness, really. One after another. Probably, if you stacked [the bodies] high, could have climbed to the second floor. I saw something that year I ain't ever seen, before or since. I'd call it animal, except animals only kill for food. This was… Sioux Falls."
We're at the midway point of Fargo's second season, and there are countless directions in which the story might twist and turn. The Kansas City syndicate will surely seek retaliation against the Gerhardts. Dodd Gerhardt is all but openly preparing to mount a coup against his own mother. Ed's dream of owning the butcher shop is officially dead, and Peggy's much-vaunted Life Spring seminar — the possible location of another "Sioux Falls Massacre" — still looms on the horizon.
We know the broadest strokes of this story's ending, but we don't know how we'll get there — and the overarching narrative structure makes it all but impossible to guess.
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