Too Big to Fail: How Fargo Traces the History of America’s Great Business Scam

FX Fargo never had the luxury of being the kind of show that finds its way into its second year. As such, it spends its first season doggedly proving itself in the larger tonal and narrative traits of its source material, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 black comedy about a gambler who arranges the kidnapping of his own wife to extort a ransom from her wealthy father- in law. But with this foundation firmly established, FargoThe Season 2 premiere of “Waiting for Dutch” launches into a dizzying, almost zooming sprint, with editing that combines a flashy new set of editing tricks (which would become instant stylistic identifiers for the show) and a Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac soundtrack as a 1979 Jimmy Carter speech warning of a coming recession. With an entirely new cast and a story set 27 years before the premiere, these early moments of Season 2 are a colorful and confident new beginning, allowing creator and showrunner Noah Hawley to clarify aloud his unique goals for the project. an outside voice. It also lets slip one of the show’s weirdest apparent concerns: the history of the American economy.


Set in the final year of the Carter administration, the season contrasts cold premonitions of a new American venture with the contemporary atmosphere of strained hopes for Ronald (“Dutch”) Reagan in the face of recession. Reagan is great fodder for the show, in part because the conceit of his “trickle down” economic policy was at its core. Fargo: the stupid idea that someone with a million dollars will ever let you see a dime of it. In practice, this would decimate small businesses while subduing and deregulating only the larger few, a consequence the show mimics in its overarching conflict of the lost turf battle between the local criminal operation run by the Gerhardt family and the Kansas City structured crime. union which hopes to absorb their case. The Gerhardts are destroyed in an expansion plan devised by a research department and offered via a slide projector, and in the end, brutal Kansas City enforcer Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) gets a promotion to a job as office in a skyscraper.

The subsequent revelation in season 4 that Mike comes from his own family criminal enterprise makes his dark arc, the new take on economic mobility, even lonelier. For his violent success in destroying the very system from which he sprang, he is rewarded with a desk job isolated from the rank and file work he excelled and relished in as a foot soldier. The American Dream, from now on, would no longer be one of achievement but instead of climbing a monolithic power structure further and further away from the work at hand. “Every generation has its time,” Reagan thinks to Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) upon learning that he is a Vietnam veteran. “I remember in 1942, America had just entered the war, I was working on…” He pauses to remember. “Operation: Eagle’s Nest for Paramount. A few months later, Americans would elect him their leader in a landslide, and he would address their economic concerns by handing over their meager economic power to corporations equally distant from them.

This new dream is also at the heart of the first season, set in 2006, which follows sweet insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) dodging the consequences of murdering his wife after too much comparison with his younger brother in success. The idealization of Chazz Nygaard (Joshua Close), a newly promoted vice president of sales living with an idyllic family in a modestly oversized house, echoes Bush-era economic attitudes. At the time, the banks’ reckless increase in lending emphasized an American dream via oversized property as a means of projecting economic strength after 9/11. Where the original film used the image of a modest family home as a symbol of the goodness and justice that still exists in the world, Lester’s becomes a symbol of the static acceptance of mediocrity that makes him an outcast. in an economy buoyed by continued pursuit.

2006 saw the first signs that this lawsuit failed to catch up on its spending, with average household debt reaching an all-time high of 130%, and a sharp rise in mortgage defaults and foreclosures culminating in a historic stock market crash in 2008. Americans were left to pick up the pieces while government bailouts would protect companies and institutions deemed “too big to fail,” a Reagan-era concept arguing the need for safety nets for companies that now held the fate of the economy in their hands. Prior to this, the country turned a blind eye to these risky practices in an attempt to cling to the illusion of strength and stability, until everything turned into complete economic collapse.

Hawley seems to find a quiet middle ground between a culture of denial and the film’s portrayal of a small town reluctant to acknowledge a horrific crime spiraling out of control within it. Here, Lester briefly gets away with murder because the chief of police, his former classmate, cannot accept any explanation for the crime that threatens his notion of stability and normalcy in their community. Left unchecked, Lester’s misdeeds pose an even greater threat to this notion, as they spread wildly alongside his rise to power. Unlike his film counterpart’s actual money offering, Lester’s crime is incidentally Is leading him to riches when his manipulative and ruthless side proves to be a major asset in convincing people to buy insurance. Scamming the rich has always been a losing proposition in Fargo, but Lester’s path to insurance salesman of the year describes a new system where the fastest way to the top is to rip off the economically anxious. Turns out, you can get away with a lot if you do it in the name of financial security.

This system is personified by Season 3’s Big Bad VM Varga (David Thewlis), who offers a sleazy loan to help parking lot mogul Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) weather the 2008 recession when banks can’t help, returning two years later to recontextualize as a partnership deal where he can eviscerate the company. Emmit, a self-made family man who prides himself on running an honest business, is the last breath of the old American dream. Failed by the systems repeatedly tasked with backing up his accomplishments, he has no choice but to invite this nightmarish new chimera of banking and business into his own home. Once there, Varga allows Fargo to subvert its basic “family stealing family” premise when Emmit’s brother Ray (who admittedly steals it) ends up dying as a result of the mess, and his girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) surrenders realize they’re up against something bigger than Emmit.

Set against a tense pre-‘Occupy Wall Street’ backdrop, the season surprisingly swings into an all-out war against Varga that puts ambitious ex-con Nikki a few steps ahead of good cop Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) on Varga’s trail (and who in any other season might have been Gloria’s target). These four episodes are Fargo at its best, capturing the series’ tensions to get the characters to stare straight into the eyes of their true enemy instead of fighting each other. “You tell people you work for a company…because people look beyond middle management,” Nikki later condescends to Varga. “But I know a boss when I see one.” A belated fourth season offers a compelling afterthought on organized crime as a means for disenfranchised groups to create their own economies, but its conflicts seem to pale in comparison.

Still, the scale of the series, especially in its first three seasons, is a remarkable exercise in structure and anthology adaptation. Fargo is a rare Oscar winner from the Coen Brothers in a sprawling canon of dormant hits, and the show that bears his name wisely revamps its pieces under the harsh light of real-world history to get to the heart of what makes it made it so immediately resonant, evoking larger questions about not only why we cheat ourselves, but also why we are doomed. Quietly, it also uses its structural tropes – an attempted scam that has far-reaching consequences – to show that the biggest scam is being quietly pulled at its would-be crooks by the very system they tried to play. Seen in concert, Fargo hangs on a 60-year history of Americans repeatedly convinced, in the name of economic stability, to cede their power to organizations increasingly removed from the concerns and experiences of America’s heartland. In the process, he infuses a story about con artists and schemers into a story about our resilient ability to be tricked.

Tommy Ordway is a Brooklyn, NY based writer with bylines in Pastry and fuss. He disdains sweet potatoes and hates the dreaded parsnip. You can find him on Twitter @tommyttommy.

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