Fargo And The Power Of Storytelling

Fargo season 2

If you enjoyed the Coen brothers’ Fargo, it’s likely you already know that the TV adaptation is a fine heir to the film. Each of the three seasons released so far follows the same rough formula as the original movie – somebody gets into some dirt, whether off their own back or otherwise, and bloody-mindedly refuses to admit defeat and talk to the police even as the shit stacks up past their ears and the bodies start to fall. It’s punctuated throughout by moments of exquisite tension that will seem intimately familiar to, for instance, fans of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul – really, the adaptation has taken a working concept and brought it into that more modern world of hour-long television drama.

The only fly in the ointment is that, like the original film, it begins with a series of title cards that declare ‘THIS IS A TRUE STORY’. This is in fact a lie. No entry in the Fargo franchise thus far has been anything more than loosely based on true events. In the case of the film and the first season, you might perhaps give it a pass, as nothing too wacky happens – but then, come the second season, a UFO shows up at two crucial points, and it starts to feel like they’re taking the piss a little. This struck me as particularly insensitive, since in 2001, an office worker from Tokyo named Takako Konishi travelled to Minnesota in search of the money supposedly hidden by Steve Buscemi’s character, and died of exposure.

…at least, that was the story I heard. And like the film and the first season, it has the strength that it’s all perfectly plausible, that it could have happened. As it turned out, this was an urban legend stemming from Konishi miscommunicating with a local police officer shortly before killing herself (and which was, itself, adapted into the 2014 film Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter). Which is unfortunate, certainly for my purposes, since I’d been all ready to put Fargo into the canon of works alleged to have taken lives, alongside Rezső Seress’s song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’.

Seress’s song, between his original version and Billie Holliday’s cover, was linked to no less than nineteen suicides in the 1930s. As for Goethe’s novel, it attained such popularity, and had so many suicides attributed to it (supposedly in imitation of the main character) that the phenomenon of copycat suicide is informally known as ‘the Werther effect’. While it’s hard to judge exactly how big a contributing factor these works were to people literally killing themselves – and in Seress’s case, the victims being Eastern Europeans in the 1930s may also have had something to do with it – it’s a compelling story in much the same way as the urban legend about poor old Konishi.

Curiously, the censorious types who want to tell the media what they can and can’t say tend not to point to hard and fast consequences like this, instead focusing on the less falsifiable idea of media contributing to vaguer ideas of general bad behaviour – think the religious right’s claims that the Pokemon and Harry Potter franchises were forged by Lucifer himself, or the social justice left arguing that it is lazy writers who reach for stereotypes who are the main cause of racism and sexism (rather than a symptom of it). Neither group have much time for the kind of direct cause-and-effect evidenced by Abbie Hoffmann’s counter-culture classic Steal This Book, which was indeed extensively shoplifted.

There is at least a degree of logic to the censorious types’ ideas about how works of fiction can impact the real world – that, if someone’s only impressions of black people are gleaned from, say, the villain of the week on Miami Vice, yeah, they’ll probably end up with some very, very racist (albeit superfly) ideas about what black people are like. And, to give the religious right all due credit, the popularity of Harry Potter did indeed lead to a generation of children wanting to become magicians (only to be incredibly disappointed to discover magic doesn’t exist). However, examples like this point more to the sheer dominance of the mass media than anything else – the only reason the ideas people pick up from it are so entrenched is that there simply is no alternative that can boast the same reach and volume.

Season 3 of Fargo comments on this phenomenon – and appropriately enough, has the ‘TRUE’ of ‘THIS IS A TRUE STORY’ fade out before the rest – taking aim at our supposedly ‘post-truth’ age, primarily through its villain, VM Varga (played with glorious, malicious relish by David Thewlis). Near the end of the season, with the heat on, Varga successfully concocts an alternate explanation to the many, many crimes he is culpable for, which is immediately accepted by the local police chief, largely because it’s simpler.

That cheeky little face.

The season is book-ended by two scenes in interrogation rooms, in both of which we are presented with two stories – one which the state and the relevant power structures will likely corroborate, and the other, which is true. The first takes place in the 1984-style funhouse of East Germany, where some poor unfortunate is being accused of a murder committed by the guy who used to live at his address. He’s very clearly a different age to the suspect, but finds himself running up against the iron curtain of daring to say the state is wrong, so off to the gulag he goes. The second is Varga himself, bang to rights for massive tax fraud, but still blithely confident he has enough suction with the powers that be that he’s untouchable – the season ends ambiguously, leaving us clawing at the screen wanting to know if this awful man got his desperately deserved comeuppance.

Now, discounting how people’s frenzied, furious reactions to ambiguous endings (think The Sopranos and Inception) is a prime example of works of fiction impacting the outside world – how many criminal cases do you suppose have gone down in much the same way? An innocent person unable to fight against the bureaucratic might of the state’s version of events, or alternatively, a powerful person who knows what number to call to make cut-and-dried charges disappear?

Admittedly it’s a bit weak to use a work of fiction as evidence for such things actually happening. The traditional rebuttal would be ‘it’s just a story’ – but then, as recent history has proved, it’s never just a story. Look at all the insane lies we’ve had to hear about weapons of mass destruction, about the President of the United States being a Kenyan Muslim, about fake news, about, in a word, Russia. South Park’s ‘Imaginationland’ trilogy presented the argument that Luke Skywalker and Superman had influenced more people than most real people ever could. And whether you’re a believer or not, there’s a reason the Bible, the Torah, and the Qu’ran are narratives rather than dispassionate lists of sins and virtues.

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