Fargo: UFOS, Frogs & Earthquakes

There are big spoilers in this post for the second season of “Fargo,” as well as the films “Magnolia” and “Short Cuts.” I strongly recommend watching two of the three, but I don’t want to cut the readership of this post down to the slim Venn diagram for the overlapping audiences of the three.

First of all, if you aren’t watching “Fargo,” you need to be. I’m shocked that the feel of a Coen Brothers movie could be translated to the screen so well by a non-Coen (showrunner Noah Hawley). And not just the feel of “Fargo.” Their filmography is probably more varied than any other modern filmmakers, and Hawley pulls in bits of it all, from “O Brother” to “Blood Simple.”

Last year the first seasons of “True Detective and “Fargo” were neck and neck for me in terms of quality. The second season of “True Detective” showed that the first season might have been a fluke,” while the second season of “Fargo” shows you can improve on a nearly perfect season of television.

There is one “WTF” element to the second season: a UFO. This post is largely about that, but also the storytelling tradition of the type of device I believe it is. I could be wrong, as I write this there is still one unaired episode. Maybe it won’t stick the landing and “Fargo” will end up like “Magnolia” (more on that in a minute.”

In Robert Altman’s 1993 film, “Short Cuts,” we get the stories of a loosely connected group of Los Angeles residents. The film ends with an earthquake, and we get glimpses of how it affects each person’s life.

Similarly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film “Magnolia” tells the stories of a group of loosely connected Los Angeles residents. The film ends with frogs falling from the sky and… I’m sorry, I have to take a moment. “Magnolia” really pisses me off.

Why does it upset me? Well, when “Magnolia” was released it got a lot of comparisons to “Short Cuts.” I think they’re pretty fair comparisons, except “Magnolia” didn’t deliver in the end, while “Short Cuts” did.

I think the great success of “Short Cuts” comes from the fact that it’s an adaptation of a number of Raymond Carver short stories. Even though they’re all connected by various characters and one large moment (the earthquake), the individual stories are allowed to come to their own natural conclusions, with the earthquake only providing an ending for one of the narratives.

There’s a lot to like about “Magnolia.” It’s full of strong performances. The soundtrack is amazing. The mid movie sing-along? I was on board. The failure of “Magnolia” came from using the falling frogs to halt the building narratives of every story. We had building tensions and arcs that needed payoff, and the payoff was “Frogs fall on everyone.”

The film starts off with a narrator talking about incredible coincidences and strange forces playing an important role in life. Great, but “frogs” isn’t a conclusion, especially to the end of a three hour movie. Frogs can be part of the conclusion, but here it was just “Forget all of that other stuff, because here’s some craziness.” A uniting point of craziness can be the beginning of a story, but not at the end. It would be like if in the last 10 pages of “Tom Sawyer,” everyone got exposed to radiation and became superheroes.

“Fargo” was smart in that the UFO played an important part early on (the hit & run with Rye Gerhardt) and there have been subtle allusions to it throughout the season. So when it showed up at the Sioux Falls Massacre, it wasn’t an out of nowhere deus ex machina.

in fact, the UFO had very little impact on that scene, other than distracting Bear Gerhardt just long enough so that Lou Solverson didn’t die.

But it still seems odd, doesn’t it? A UFO in the middle of what seems like a true crime story? It’s kind of like how you can accept The Dude’s    First Edition dream sequence in “The Big Lebowski,” or the sirens in “O Brother,” but if they popped up in “No Country,” things would seem off.

But this is Minnesota in 1979. At the time, a small town sherif in Minnesota claimed to have an encounter with a UFO.

The UFO is there because this is “based on a true story,” even though it’s not really. Think back to the film “Fargo.” Why did Marge Gunderson have her dinner with Mike Yanagita when it didn’t have any impact on the plot? Because in a “true story” you don’t omit the facts, even when it doesn’t fit the overall narrative.

Why did the Mike scene happen? The same reason the UFO is there. Because you need to stick with the “truth,” even if it’s a little weird.

Of course, I may be wrong. And with one episode left, it might not stick the landing. But  in the 19 episodes aired show far, show runner Noah Hawley has managed to perfectly capture the tone of multiple Coen Bros. films.

The result is a masterpiece of television.

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