How "Fargo" Is Using Sci-Fi to Reinvent Itself
Is season three becoming a full-blown science fiction show, or are all the nods and winks just a tonal red herring?
Published on May 24, 2017

Lead image via FX

A female cop hamstrung by chauvinist co-workers, incompetent criminals, midwestern accents, snow: these are the essential pieces that make up FX’s Fargo. Apart from a big structural departure in Season 2, which told the story of a Midwestern crime family in decline, these have been the basic building blocks of both the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film and the Noah Hawley series for the silver screen. For a couple episodes, Season 3 looked like it might be headed in the same direction. Some critics even found the show stale: once again, we had a no nonsense female cop (Gloria, played by Carrie Coon) destined to cross paths with a blundering everyman (Ewan McGregor) who lets sin (jealousy, greed) lure him into chaos. But then, in episode 3, Gloria went to Los Angeles.

The third episode of Season 3 finds Gloria shacking up at a down and out Hollywood Blvd. motel straight out of The Big Lebowski. She’s investigating the death of her stepfather, Thaddeus Mobly (Thomas Mann), who now goes by Ennis Stussy, a pulp sci-fi writer before the incidents in LA led him to flee to a small town in Minnesota and change his name. There is an animated rendition of one of her stepfather’s book, The Planet Wyh, intercut with scenes of starlet auditions, coke binges, and a mall Santa Claus convention.

Though the animated short film spliced through the episode is the biggest science fiction moment of the season, it is one of many sprinkled throughout the show so far. These sci-fi references aren't merely quirky flavor: they provide a roadmap for how to view this season of the show. And even if it doesn’t end with an alien abduction or trip to another dimension, these sci-fi tropes have help illuminate the lives of the characters and set a different tone for Fargo. The subtle but persistent theme also suggests that this season is either morphing into a science fiction show, or it really wants us to think it is a science fiction show, and Noah Hawley is using plot, dialogue, camera work, and even stunt casting to reinforce the supernatural vibe. Hell, one of the promo posters (pictured above) has an eerie tech vibe. Below, let’s explore what makes the new Fargo almost out of this world.

One small, interesting recurring sci-fi beat is that Gloria Burgle can’t set off automatic doors.

Automatic sinks don't work for her either.

When Gloria meets the new police chief (Shea Whigham), she explains that she has never used the computers sent to the precinct. She prefers sending messages via an old Telex machine that no one bothers responding to, since Telexes are now obsolete. The chief tells her, “You know what year it is, right? The future.” (The show is set in 2010.)

We know incredibly little about Gloria’s family. Her parents are never explicitly mentioned, and she lives with her stepfather, who she only got close to later in life. She is divorced from her ex-husband. Apart from her son, her background is a mystery.

In the first episode, after a robbery gone wrong, Gloria pulls a stack of her step-dads sci-fi books out of the floorboards.

Not only do plot points and dialogue hint toward sci-fi, the visual style of the season has taken on a more surreal look, as well. In episode one, when an air conditioner is used as a murder weapon, the camera is placed inside the cooling unit. The visual result is the feeling of a satellite or meteor falling to Earth. As the air conditioner falls on Maurice LeFey’s (Scoot McNairy) head, we get visions of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Episode three begins with a sci-fi writing awards banquet: the rocket shaped trophy and guests cosplaying as aliens are featured prominently in the frame.

Throughout the episode, science fiction detritus appears on screen and some characters are even overlaid by footage of themselves on film.

There is even some stunt casting that is meant to guide the audience toward the realm of the supernatural. Ray Wise, maybe best known for his surreal work as Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks, makes a cameo appearance in episode three. In the short time that he’s onscreen, he comes off as otherworldly, claiming he’s on his “sixth flight this week” by Tuesday and delivering a monologue about divorced soldiers coming home from war.

The Past and The Future

What does all of this mean? It could simply be Noah Hawley influencing himself. His other FX drama, Legion, relishes in sci-fi tropes. That series repeatedly uses supernatural moments to illustrate the inner lives of its characters. One of the characters, who has been isolated from his loved ones, lives in an ice cell. A troubled, angry young man who has difficulty connecting with others can levitate household items resulting in a swirling mess of a domestic dispute. Hawley might simply be underlining the detachment of Gloria, a lonely divorced woman who seems to be of another era, with these supernatural flourishes.

But there might be more at play here. The Planet Wyh is about a robot who was sent to Earth to help people, but is only treated poorly and alienated while trying to be of use. Over millions of years on Earth, the robot is forgotten and abused despite its good intentions: that is, until the robot is invited to triumphantly return to its home planet. In other words, it’s hard not to see parallels in this story to Gloria, the frustrated cop. Whether this is a metaphor or a literal preview of what will happen next remains to be seen.

If Hawley decides to make his metaphorical work literal, it wouldn’t be the first time he’s done it on Fargo. Last season, a literal UFO figured prominently in the climactic showdown. Could this be the first breadcrumb that leads to Fargo making the switch to a full-blown science fiction show, or is this just a tonal red herring? Whatever Hawley’s ultimate aim with these science-fiction elements is, they have done a lot to reinvent one of the best shows on television.

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Brenden Gallagher
Brenden Gallagher works in television and writing in Los Angeles. He worked on Revenge, Heartbeat, and Famous in Love. His writing has appeared at Complex, VH1, and MERRY JANE. Follow him on Twitter @muddycreekU
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