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Midwestern Marital Values

Marriage is the fundamental unit of American society. It is the most common legal agreement between two people, and tracking the progress of who is allowed to marry whom across history is a quick and easy way to judge how progressive American society is at any given point. Marriage was a key theme in the first season of Noah Hawley’s Fargo: Lester’s initial uxoricide and remarriage and then uxoricide-by-proxy, the widow Hess’s attempts to cash in on her late husband’s murder, Stravros finding the money because of an argument with his wife, Gus and Molly’s romance and eventual (off-screen) wedding, the dissolution of Chazz and Kitty’s marriage; even the diabolical Malvo is engaged to be married at one point. Not only do these pairings drive the plot, but they also reflect the state of the characters’ lives at any given point, acting as something of a synecdoche for their larger ambitions, triumphs, and failures of the individuals involved.

The show’s second season seems intent on continuing and expanding upon this theme. This week’s episode (titled “Before the Law,” a possible Kafka reference) uses one of its many split screens to focus on Peggy and Ed Blomquist as they prepare for the day after their hit-and-run turned homicide. Ed is outside in the cold, calmly studying the late Rye Gerhardt’s driver’s license, while Peggy sits on her cluttered stairs combing her hair with shaking hands. They have flashbacks to their parts of the murder, Peggy striking Rye with her car and Ed discovering the man in his garage, and then the two of them putting his body in the cooler together. The scene ends with Peggy coming outside and the couple having a reasoned discussion about how to clean up after the murder. The Blomquists were introduced as people that had trouble communicating, unable to talk about their sex life without clothing the subject in euphemisms, but now they have been brought closer together by being made into accomplices. Their decision to “keep up appearances” functions as couples therapy, and their episode-ending phone conversation contains genuine, if trauma-heightened, affection.

Contrast this relationship with the Solversons’ marriage. Lou and Betsy are also being put through a life-altering trauma, but Betsy’s cancer is much more one-sided than the Blomquist’s complicit murder. There is no body for Lou to grind up, no clothes for him to burn; he is helpless in the face of his wife’s disease, powerless to do anything but drive her to chemotherapy appointments and put on a brave face. There’s a growing distance in the Solverson house, highlighted by the diegetic split screen introduction of the characters in the premiere. Lou is not focused on his marriage, and even interrupts his family outing to stop by the Waffle House murder scene to gather clues. While death brings the Blomquists closer together, the threat of death drives a slow wedge between the Solversons.

Meanwhile, Floyd Gerhardt attempts to fill the power vacuum left by her husband’s stroke. Together they ruled the Gerhardt syndicate, but with Otto out of the picture her sons have begun vying for the role of patriarch, ignoring entirely the idea that the matriarch might be the best choice for leader. Dodd Gerhardt pointedly takes his father’s seat at the head of the table opposite his mother during their conversation, and afterwards immediately begins to orchestrate a coup. Otto’s stroke put an effective end to his marriage, and without the couple at the head of the family, the organization begins to crumble from within.

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“Before the Law” features a pair of the tense confrontations between criminals and police that are another recurring theme in both the show and the film. First, Sheriff Larsson pulls over the menacing Mike Milligan at Lou’s request and checks Mike’s and his mute bodyguards’ drivers licenses. This simple scene is fraught with tension, due both to the audience’s knowledge of how this exact transaction has gone in previous iterations as well as Mike’s treatment of the typewriter salesman. However, a pair of middle fingers aside, the interaction goes smoothly and civilly, and when Larsson asks Mike if he understands him, Mike comments in his heightened vernacular before getting in his car and driving away: “I do [understand]. And isn’t that a minor miracle?” We the audience certainly feels that it is.

The second tension-ratcheting scene involves Lou buying some bacon from Ed, who is burning the candle “at both ends” in order to dispose of Rye’s corpse. There’s a near-miss where Lou almost discovers one of the youngest Gerhardt’s errant fingers when searching for a quarter that sets the record for the most nerve wracking five seconds of television this side of Hannibal. The scene also serves a larger thematic purpose: both men are there, in that butcher’s shop late at night, doing something for their wives. Ed is disposing of Rye’s body for Peggy while Lou picks up some bacon for Betsy’s breakfast. Though they are working towards diametrically opposed goals both legally and morally, there’s a thread of companionship woven through the tension. Both men would rather be somewhere else, but there they are, grinding a corpse and buying some bacon, and it’s those little tasks that keep their marriages alive.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the final shot of the episode, which features a voiceover from “The War of the Worlds” paired with an aerial zoom out that is clearly meant to be from the point of view of a UFO. Rye’s fatal encounter with a flying saucer in the premiere was somewhat explained in this episode by Molly’s discovery of a foil balloon near the murder weapon: Rye, high on cocaine and full of adrenaline, could easily have mistaken the reflections off such a balloon for an alien craft. The final shot of this week’s entry is just as mysterious, though I predict that extraterrestrial involvement will remain metaphorical and not literal as the season progresses. However, the inclusion of two such instances in as many episodes does suggest a thematic resonance that deserves to be parsed. Season one dealt largely with the ways in which humans are still, ultimately, animals, and season two seems to be continuing this theme, positioning humanity as a lower form of life when compared to a race of spacefaring aliens. Whether and how this theme will tie into the character of Ronald Reagan, whose movie-star mug watches the action from campaign posters in the backgrounds of many shots, has yet to be seen.

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