“This is a true story”.
Every episode of Fargo, and the film before it, begins with what is, quite simply, a blatant lie. There is very little truth in Fargo, at least in terms of historical precedent. Yet this opening lie sets a tone and hopefully puts the viewer into a specific, receptive mindset: to believe the unbelievable. Fargo is not true but it is about truth, and it certainly is a story. While the show’s first season trod carefully around the legacy of the Coen Brothers’ film, Noah Hawley and his fellow writers began to take risks moving into the second, none more so than the shocking appearance of UFOs at critical junctures in the narrative. Surely such a ludicrous element breaks the “true story” remit of the show? In fact, it does the opposite and explodes the opening lie wide open to explore what it truly means, as well as further develop the other key themes of the series.
Early in the season, State Trooper Lou Solverson stops for gas and bumps into a UFO watcher, long before he himself will encounter a flying saucer. The kooky obsessive describes aliens as “caretakers to the zoo”, which ties into Fargo’s ideas in a couple of different ways. Firstly, animal imagery is a key aspect of the show, with the villains often being represented as wild beasts, such as Lorne Malvo’s animalistic nature, the donning of animal masks in Season 3 by Varga’s henchmen – he himself a wolf with rotten teeth – and the wonderful ‘Peter and the Wolf’ sequence which represents each character as an animal.
Secondly, Fargo is about the plucky, pure good vs the overwhelming, unknowable evil. The second season charts the rise of a new evil, suggested to be born from the Vietnam war. Those returning from the conflict are now changed men. Seemingly, when the evil becomes too overwhelming, a greater power steps in to restore the balance. In this case the UFOs act as this element of cosmic justice, and in the third season we get God, or the Wandering Jew, in the bowling alley acting as another outlet. In the world of Fargo, God and the aliens (if they are indeed the pilots of the flying saucer) are the same thing: animal control.
If the UFOs in Season 2 and Ray Wise’s religious figure in Season 3 represent the same idea then why do they take on such different forms? Clearly, the UFO imagery was included to tie into the late 1970’s aesthetic. After the releases of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the idea of alien visitors was much more prominent. UFOs are everywhere in the show, from magazine covers to children’s drawings. This is also the post-Vietnam war and Watergate era where political paranoia and conspiracy theories were rife. Plus, while the Fargo film is obviously the primary inspiration for the series, other Coen Brothers’ movies are often referenced and the appearance of the flying saucers is likely a connection to their overlooked film The Man Who Wasn’t There.
There’s the question throughout the season of whether the UFO is simply observing or participating. Rye sees lights in the sky, walks into the road, and is run over. A UFO floats over the massacre at the motel, saving Lou’s life with a moment of interstellar distraction. While I think it’s likely that the UFO has intention, it’s also possible that its just observing these events. It’s interactions with humanity could be an ‘observer effect’ – the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation. The object could be drawn to violence, with a great swath of bloodshed covering the region. The UFO may be there to document such a transition, whether it be human evolution or destruction.
Participant or not, one thing is certain about the UFO: it’s always watching. And so is the viewer. In fact, I feel that the otherworldly observers represent the audience in Fargo. It becomes clear as the season progresses that we are literally watching the show from their perspective. The second episode ends with a shot rising from street level up into the sky, the refection in the windows showing the telltale blue lens flare of the UFO. Other times we see from a bird’s eye (or God’s eye) view straight down onto the characters, often in a time of suffering, like Joe Bulo during the hunting massacre or Simone being led to her death. We see from their point of view. They see from ours. We, the audience, are the detached observers, gazing at this “true story” for our entertainment.
Fargo depicts rational characters in a world of chaos. Actions that lead to an ever-expanding chain of consequences, to the point where it becomes almost absurd. The inclusion of UFOs is the highest degree of that idea. The ultimate subversion to “This is a true story”. The show is calling out its own lie, but also playing into it in a strange way. The flying saucer adds some untidiness to the tight narrative, which is how it would be in a true story. Reality is often poorly plotted. It’s a truth is stranger than fiction element. A trick to make people believe the unbelievable. Yet also the spontaneity and randomness of the absurdist and existentialist fiction the season is influenced by, and which gives the episodes their titles.
What are your thoughts and interpretations regarding the UFOs in Fargo Season 2? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.