Entertainment

Catch-12: ‘Fargo’ Gives Life to the Great Plains

At first glance, the AMC television series “Fargo” sets off few bells and whistles. Since 2014, the crime drama follows the denizens of some sleepy Midwest town through organized crime, murder, mayhem, and good old-fashioned debauchery. What makes the tales so engaging, has less to do with the crimes than the places they occur and the people who commit them. In the American imagination, remember, real crime only happens in urban spaces and among marginalized groups — Black and immigrant (usually Italian, Mexican, Irish, or Jamaican). But reality bites and “Fargo,” now in its fourth season, sinks its teeth in by introducing whiteness into the frame as equally sinister, criminal, and violent. “Fargo” episodes gain traction from their opening scenes with a disclaimer: This is a true story. The show’s content falls from the pages of local and federal case files — and only the names of the innocent have been changed for protection and privacy.

America has a particular fascination with the Midwest that it rarely acknowledges. Journalism students, for instance, must familiarize themselves with the enunciation patterns found in the Midwest as they represent the standard for news broadcasts. Our collegiate power — academically and in football — finds nuance with Big 12 universities, made up of largely midwestern institutions. Yet, until “Fargo,” American Gothic found few representations in television and film. Instead, places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and even the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., are fashioned in pop culture as characters, rather than places. They are larger than life and perfect vehicles for escapism, whodunit dramas, and gritty romances. Think for instance of productions like “Taxi Driver,” “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” “I Like It Like That,” “Trading Places” and the more recent television series “Luke Cage.” Consider the ways in which the subway system, brownstones and bodegas bring the storylines to life.

Bokeem Woodbine (center) Brad and Todd Mann from Season 2 of "Fargo" (Courtesy photo)
Bokeem Woodbine (center) Brad and Todd Mann from Season 2 of “Fargo” (Courtesy photo)

Until only recently Hollywood breezed past storylines in places like Wisconsin, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota without much thought. But using the 1996 film “Fargo” as bracketing, AMC quickly found a niche audience interested in seeing behind the shutters of “salt of the earth” households engaged in high-stakes crime. Having lived in Nebraska for several years and traveled the Midwest while there, many of the everyday depictions of life on the Plains in “Fargo” ring true. Few people set the alarms on their cars or homes, most people drove five miles under the speed limit to keep from accidentally breaking the law, and being polite [even if bigoted] was the hallmark to good citizenship. Therein, perhaps lies the appeal: watching the good guys do bad things.

“Fargo” follows the mechanics of pulp fiction with various interrelated storylines running simultaneously and seemingly independent of each other.

“It’s a big challenge, every one of these — to come up with both a crime to hang it on and a large cast of characters on a collision course — each has to be new and interesting and have a different point of view. But we are exploring certain archetypes that are inescapable on a moral spectrum,” Noah Hawley, “Fargo” executive director, said in a New York Times interview. “There always has to be a Marge and a Jerry and a [Steve] Buscemi and a Peter Stormare, those kinds of pure good and pure evil and moral challenges in the middle. At a certain point, you don’t want to repeat yourself, so the question becomes: ‘What’s left to say? What’s interesting to say?'”

Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton in "Fargo" (Courtesy photo)
Martin Freeman (left) and Billy Bob Thornton in “Fargo” (Courtesy photo)

Season 4: The current season of “Fargo” takes on a 1950s tale of two rivaling crime syndicates in Kansas City. As a source of protection and to ensure peace, two crime families — one African-American and the other Italian-American — agree to exchange their youngest sons. Comedian Chris Rock (Loy Cannon) heads the Black family, while Jason Schwartzman (Josto Fadda) leads the Italians. Not sold on Rock as a crime boss and would have pitched James Vincent Meredith (Opal Rackley) who portrays Cannon’s bodyguard, the ball to lead this cast. In addition to the crime tale, the scripting does a delightful job of framing Black life in 1950s Missouri with characters like Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (played by E’myri Crutchfield) the mixed-race daughter of the local mortician, and the bank-robbing lesbian couple, Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capp (Kelsey Asbille). Glynn Turman as Doctor Senator, Cannon’s adviser and Jessie Buckley as Oraetta Mayflower, the serial killer nurse, give riveting performances. These episodes can be screened each Sunday on AMC.

Season 3: Set primarily between 2010 and 2011, in three Minnesota towns: St. Cloud, Eden Valley, and Eden Prairie, couple, Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) and Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), are the focus. After unsuccessfully trying to rob Ray’s brother Emmit, the duo become involved in a double murder case. Available for streaming on Hulu.

Season 2: Set in 1979 between Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Luverne, Minnesota, this season is perhaps the best of the show’s offerings. The Gerhardt crime family, a major mob syndicate, and a small-town beautician, Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) collide when the youngest son of the Gerhardt family goes missing. The standouts in this season are easily actors Bokeem Woodbine and twin brothers Brad and Todd Mann (who portray Mike Milligan, and Gale and Cole Kitchen). They are syndicate muscle from Kansas City and add an intriguing layer to the tale – (no spoilers). An intense performance also comes from Zahn McClarnon, as Native American henchman Hanzee Dent who works for the Gerhardt clan. Available for streaming on Hulu.

Season 1: Based on a 2006 case, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) drives down a Minnesota road, hits a deer and crashes. Upon impact, the trunk latch pops open freeing a man dressed only in his underwear. The man runs across a snowbank and hides, then freezes to death. The investigation into the frozen man’s death puts well-meaning law enforcement one step behind Malvo, who incites or facilitates the murders of several local residents while hiding out. Thornton is perfectly menacing and the cast brilliant — including an appearance by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as FBI agents. Available for streaming on Hulu.

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