Western myths, morality mark latest season of ‘Fargo’

“Fargo” Season 5 kicks off with unintended consequences from Dot (Juno Temple) trying to protect her daughter from a chaotic world. (PHOTO: FX)

Today I’m writing about the TV show, “Fargo.” I do so knowing that this is a prestige cable series that most people don’t watch, based on a movie that tends to infuriate Minnesotans as much as entertain them. (Mostly on account of the funny accents that trigger our defensiveness, don’t ya know). 

The original 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen film told the story of a bumbling kidnap scheme gone sideways, wrought by a desperate man whose sniveling greed ended up hurting everyone around him. Noah Hawley adapted the film for a television series in 2014. Since then, each of five subsequent seasons told a fatalistic morality tale washed with violence. 

You can’t ignore the violence at the heart of the American story. I mean, we don’t lead with that part. It’s not in the brochure. But it’s there, in the colonization, settlement, independence and expansion of the nation. 

Violence dominates our news and rhetoric today, our values and the way we talk about just about any problem as an existential war for survival. Contrary to being our strength, I argue this has been our country’s defining weakness since its founding. Our best years came during brief eras when we deliberately sought a less violent society that was more peaceful and productive. Even our best wars saved more lives than they ended. 

But we live under the spell of nostalgia, always casting fresh incantations about the glory days. So we repeat history like an unreformed drunk dimly aware of what we are doing but unable to change.

The ethos of “Fargo” accepts all of this as known information. 

Season 5 of “Fargo” returns to Minnesota. After wandering from the Gopher State in seasons 3 and 4, this one centers itself in Scandia with a lot of side action in western North Dakota.

Not everyone liked the fourth season of “Fargo,” though I did. It was a multi-generational tale of striving immigrants and minority groups grasping for the American Dream through crime. This season returns to the more traditional “Fargo” story built around a specific series of crimes.

Dot Lyon (Juno Temple) seems like a mild-mannered Minnesota housewife for the first few moments of the premiere, until circumstances reveal her to be a wily survivor capable of defending herself. In fact, we gradually learn how she endured horrific domestic abuse before she met her pleasant Kia salesman husband, Wayne, and had her high-spirited daughter, Scotty. So when Dot’s ex-husband Roy (Jon Hamm), a tyrannical county sheriff in North Dakota, learns where she is, she’s won’t let him take her back without a fight.

In the other corner of this complex morality tale we find Dot’s mother-in-law, Lorraine Lyon (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lorraine is the “queen of debt,” a billionaire entrepreneur who profits from debt collection and financial services. She gets what she wants by using the desperation of debtors to escape their condition. Lorraine is no fan of Dot’s, who she feels is unworthy of her only son and heir. But eventually she realizes Dot’s worth and the fact that not all debts deserve to be paid. Certainly not the one Roy expects of Dot.

The question of debt lies at the heart of this year’s story. How long do we owe our debts? Do they transfer through the generations? If they do, then what on earth do we all owe for long centuries of avarice for which there is no recompense.

We will soon learn the conclusion to the story in the final chapter of the “Fargo” saga. Every “Fargo” story claims to be “based on true events.” This is a lie, of course. “Fargo” is fiction in every way but one. It tells the true story of our human failings and the folly of greed and violence. It’s the myth of the old West, transferred into stark reality.

The series finale of “Fargo” airs Tuesday, Jan. 16 on FX and streams the next day on Hulu. I’ve been reviewing individual episodes at MinnesotaBrown.com/fargo.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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