absurdism, Coen brothers, Fargo, post-irony, postmodern cinematography
Alexandra A. Knysheva
alex.knysheva [a] gmail.com
Institute of Philosophy, Saint Petersburg State University
Inspired by the iconic postmodern Coen brothers’ film, Fargo series cinematically represents the versatility of the very notion of the absurd. An absurdist show by its form, it raises philosophical problems of the absurd within its content. Each of the three seasons concentrates on one absurd-related philosophical conundrum accordingly: the problem of logical paradoxes, existential philosophy of the absurd and the problem of simulacra in the post-truth world. While paradigmal and socio-cultural shifts have determined the traits of philosophical interpretations of the absurd, absurdism as an aesthetic category has developed in its own tradition, converging with the philosophical definition only in certain aspects. Evolution of the absurd as a genre can be traced on the example of Fargo anthologies: from a postmodernist ironic feature film to the post-ironic TV series, Fargo reflects the development of the genre canon in the late XX – early XXI century. The following analysis of the three seasons of Fargo elaborates the nature of the absurd in both form and content of the series.
The duality of the notion of absurd as philosophical category and as aesthetical genre in this work is explored on the example of Fargo series – a black comedy–crime drama in three seasons (as of March, 2018), based on the Academy Award-winning film of the same name, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen in 1996. The first season was released in 2014 on FX TV channel. By 2018 Fargo series has won 32 of its 133 award nominations, including 3 Golden Globes.
Though each of the three seasons feature different eras and different main characters, they all represent a holistic work both stylistically and narratively, referring to each other and the original 1990-s film.
The absurd as an aesthetic form shaping Fargo series
The notion of absurdism in arts and literature normally implies contravening logic, challenging the common sense and provoking the feeling of discomposure and perplexity for a rational mindset. Absurdist features were present in different epochs throughout the arts history: Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Russian OBERIU poets are all inextricably associated with absurdist literature; the absurd is a distinct running theme in Flemish renaissance, dadaism and surrealism. However, there’s no universal definition of the genre neither in literary theory, nor in fine arts or cinematography. In 1942 Camus has conceptualized absurdism as a sense-generation instrument within the framework of existential philosophy. In The myth of Sisyphus he describes the act of creation of an absurdist work as a refusal of mind to explain the concrete, when a clear thought causes a work of art, but thereby denies its own eligibility, realizing itself as illegal. Thus, Camus defines absurdism as a way of “smuggling” unreachable, transcendental ideas to the surface of language. The absurd in this sense endows a statement with multiple meanings, sometimes even contradictory to each other, allowing artists to speak about the questions that are merely conceivable for theorists: Artaud’s poetry unfolds schizophrenic logic brighter than any psychiatry textbook, Escher visualizes the “unrepresentable” geometry in his artworks and Lewis Carroll actualizes language paradoxes in his fictional reality.
The peak of absurdism in European arts and literature is customarily associated with the first half of the XX century – the era, characterized by intensive paradigmal shifts. Scientific revolutions, from controversial discoveries in physics and mathematics to the rise of new discourses in humanities, echoed in artistic works. The short era of absurdism reign in culture ended with the rise of postmodernity, which has declared the abolition of metanarratives. When the truth became a relative category, the position of the absurd consequently changed. As an aesthetic category, the absurd could no longer remain as straightforward and obvious, as it was during the modernist times. Moreover, it acquired a chameleon quality – a statement, seen as absurd for one audience, could now appear clearly logical for another. Postmodernist artists, film directors and writers have readily appropriated this newly discovered quality of the absurd in their works. The absurd was now used in a purely deleuzian way (genesis of the absurd statement not through the lack of sense, but through its excess), thereby connecting incompatible senses, bringing together contradictory points of view and intercrossing parallel plots. The 1990s feature film by Coen brothers is a classical product of postmodern absurdism: appearing as a detective drama at the superficial reading, at a closer look Fargo (1996) opens up as a hoax, a tragic grotesque of daily routine, life and death of an average inhabitant of wealthy province. The persistence of the film characters in their actions regardless of all the absurd and bewildering events around them, alludes to the persistence of Joseph K. throughout the Kafkaesque trial or to the fortitude of Sisyphus in Camus’ philosophical metaphor, but in a less straightforward and transparent manner.
Almost two decades after the original film, the first season of the TV series Fargo (2014) was released. Absurdism as a genre canon of the anthologies has now been put in the new environment: while the prospect of what will replace (or is already replacing) postmodernity is still obscure today, the fact that irony as an aesthetic tool, inherent in postmodernism, is replaced by post-irony leaves no doubt. Post-irony, on the one hand, is called the “new sincerity”, replacing the outworn postmodernist skepticism. On the other hand, it doesn’t add any unambiguity to a statement. In the postmodernist paradigm access to the author’s culture code was sufficient enough to indicate irony, implied by that author. Today it is practically impossible to determine whether a given statement is sincere or ironic. And it is not due to its author’s intention to hide sarcasm in the depths of the sense, but due to the dissolvent of opposition between irony and sincerity. This can be clearly seen in the metamorphoses of Fargo anthologies from the feature film to the series: the contemporary post-ironic series is no longer explicitly mocking American society, but is contemplating its simplicity and wholeness with naive admiration. Given the desire of the show’s authors not to portray the gaps in the American idyllic myth with obvious sarcasm, the wave of accusations in chauvinism and populism of the series is not surprising. Criticism of the show confirms the audience’s desire to see the media as an ideologist with a clear and simple agenda on what to laugh at, what to admire and what to condemn. This situation can be described with both Fromm’s theory of escape from freedom and Hegelian dialectics of master and slave, where the slave is the media, initially aimed to serve as an entertainer, though eventually gaining more and more authority and power over its masters. By knocking out the audience from its comfort zone, the series creators are mocking the stereotype about Fargo being a stereotypes mocker.
The absurd as a philosophical problem, explored by Fargo series
The idea of devoting each season of Fargo series to a certain absurd-related philosophical problem reveals itself with the form of the series, i.e. the structure of the episodes names: quoting the classical logical paradoxes (“Buridan’s ass”, “Who shaves the barber?”, etc.), the episode names of the first season signify that it contemplates the formal logical notion of the absurd; Season Two focuses on the existentialist interpretation of the absurd and the names of its episodes refer to seminal works of existential philosophers (“Fear and Trembling”, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, etc.); the third season explores the gap between reality and virtual spaces, resulting in incompatibility of signifier and signified, i.e., the absurd, thereby, the names of the episodes allude to digital paradoxes (“The Law of Vacant Places”, “The Principle of a Restricted Choice”, etc.).
Not only the names refer to particular philosophical problems, but the characters themselves are trying to solve these very problems as well: a couple of FBI agents in the first season debate about the heap paradox and other logical riddles. They sometimes offer “out-of-the-box” solutions, which, even though creative, cannot be accepted in the formal logic system, which shapes the universe of Season One. Strict dichotomies of true and false, good and evil, right and wrong form the storyline and, hence, the fates of the characters. The figure of Evil, personalized in Lorne Malvo, is to be eliminated from such system: unshakable binary oppositions form the universe of formal logic, where each object has its own place and each event occurs for a reason. The storyline of the first season demonstrates the lucid idea of the Greek cosmic order, only with the contemporary scent of disillusionment and scepticism. The season’s finale, “Morton’s fork”, illustrates the principle of the dilemma, which gave the name for the episode: no matter what a path seems like, it will lead to a certain predefined result. The rules of the game are clear and strict, but the limited and solid universe does not endow the free will with any power to affect that game’s balance.
It is more complicated with the second season: from the spoilers, provided by the history of philosophy, we know that existentialism implies certain settings, such as crisis of faith, down of Rationalism and perturbation in the moral landscape. Throughout the season a teenage girl Noreen reads Camus, sharing her own interpretation of the philosophy of the absurd with other characters and the audience. Noreen, being a secondary character, in this perspective turns out to be the central figure – the holistic worldview is shaken in adolescence, the inquisitive mind of a teenager faces existential questions. Through the storyline the creators of the second season demonstrate the struggle of two opposing forces for the girl’s soul: on the one hand, a depressive and vague author, who does not offer any answers, but only questions the meaning of life, on the other – a prosperous and benevolent society of the American subtopia that has a sharp answer to any question. The wife of Lou Solverson, protagonist of the season, policeman and veteran of the Vietnam War, in a conversation about Camus gives a pompous speech on how simple the road to happiness and moral satisfaction is, wrapping up her monologue with the words: “and when this life is over and you stand in front of the Lord… Well, you try tellin’ him it was all some Frenchman’s joke”. This speech illustrates the completeness and harmony of life within the mytho-practical paradigm of an average philistine (F. Girenok, a Russian researcher of the absurd, notes that to get settled in the folds of reality means to avoid encountering with the absurd, thereby claiming that the absurd is inextricably linked with discomfort and questioning).
At the same time, any deviation from this complete and enclosed myth is condemned. While the positive characters view their Sisyphean stone in the “fulfillment of their destiny”, for antagonists it appears in the form of vain and tragically ridiculous attempts to break out of the system. The character of Peggy is, at the first sight, a pure mockery of the provincial woman stereotype. At a closer look she reveals as a tragic heroine entangled in judgmental public attitudes and absurd social restrictions, remaining unheard and eventually losing her mind. Mike Milligan, the main antagonist of the season, after the bandit massacre gets a promotion that doesn’t meet his aspirations, but restores the subtopian serenity: ridiculously prosaic finale of a criminal villain at the office desk demonstrates the neutralization of the deviant element by appropriating it into the system. The last episode of the second season is called “Palindrome”: the world, where the absurd is exterminated as a phenomenon, is enclosed in a circle. As in Deleuze’s theory of difference and repetition, only a problematic, incongruous and inconsistent with its range can lead to progress, the rest leads to an endless repetition of the same actions, movement along a circular path.
Since the existentialist paradigm defines hell as other people, there’s no distinct character of pure Evil in the second season. Season Three brings the character back, but in this case the Evil differs from that represented by Lorne Malvo in Season One. Now it appears as a metaphor of the whole social order, embodied in V.M. Varga character – an obnoxious man frantically devouring food and vomiting it out right after consuming it. The society of late capitalism faces the problems of consumerism, simulacra and hyperreality, along with the loss of subject identity. Deleuze and Guattari discuss the power of the desiring-machine and supremacy of the system over an individual, Adorno and Horkheimer raise the problems of culture industry and authoritarian power of consumerism, Baudrillard draws attention to images’ ability to anticipate and influence reality, Benjamin and Berardi reflect on the sense of derealization. This philosophical trend, emerging in the mid XX century and developing currently, gave a boost to research in the philosophy of media, particularly the ontology in the post-apocalyptic digital era (according to Baudrillard, the apocalypse has already come). The problem of the absurd in digital society appears in the relations between virtuality and physical reality. Deleuze defines the absurd as a signifier, deprived of the very possibility of signification. This condition is best illustrated through the phenomenon of post-truth – one of the most discussed (directly and through the events within the storyline) topics of the third season. “Post-truth” was named the word of the year by Oxford dictionaries in 2016. The world, where factual justification of things and events merely affects their influence over public opinions, puzzles rational mindsets of contemporary intellectuals. Variations of the phrase “we want truth, not stories” are reiterated by different characters of the third season of Fargo (e.g., the phrase opens up the season, uttered during a questioning in Stasi police in 1980s East Germany). Thus, the third season suggests some new interpretations to the hallmark of the whole Fargo anthologies – the opening titles “this is a true story” acquire new meanings in the context of the post-truth.
The final dialogue between two opposed forces, Gloria Burgle, a stubborn detective that believes in primate of an individual over the crowd, and Varga, a monstrous representation of the soulless system, closes on the problem of the post-truth: Varga magically disappears right from the questioning room in the middle of conversation. Motivations of the post-truth society are illusory, based on nothing but simulacra, and the crowd doesn’t need any tangible rationales for their justification. The apocalypse, as described by Baudrillard, has come insensibly and irrevocably: the sci-fi book, written by Gloria’s grandfather dozens of years ago, tells a story of a useless robot in the post-apocalyptic setting. The robot knows all the secrets of the humankind history, but can do nothing but repeat the words “I can help”. On the one hand, its words worth nothing without the factual ability to help others. On the other hand, the robot becomes a priceless artifact as an information storage device. Thus, this frame story questions the premises, on which we base the current technological and consumption race.
The void behind digital information reflects in the void behind the human self. The crisis of subject identity, along with depersonalization-derealization syndrome, has been one of the top philosophical issues in late XX – early XXI centuries. One of the leitmotifs of the third season is its protagonist’s introspection: Gloria Burgle suffers from the sense of derealization and irrational fear of non-existence. She is a rare type of a person of the past. Unlike Varga, the symbol of the new order, Gloria doesn’t use computers at all and has very complicated relations with the new technologies: one of the reasons for her existential doubts is the fact that motion sensors, whether installed in automated doors, in public WC rooms, or anywhere else, do not “see” her. The only gesture bringing her back to live from derealization horror is a hug of a friend in the real life. While the end of the season is left vague and open for various interpretations, one fact remains univocal: Gloria’s confrontation with Varga made her change. No matter how she feels about the current order, she must survive in it and to do so, she needs to adjust to the digital era setting.
The creators of Fargo series deploy the absurd in its two roles: A) as a genre canon, which has evolved from the classical modernist technique and a later postmodernist ironic gesture into a post-ironic statement, naive and mordant at the same time; and B) as a philosophical problem, scrutinized under different angles. As an aesthetic instrument, it wraps up the structure of the show, making it a bright example of absurdism in contemporary culture, which, on the one hand, combines some features, acquired by the genre through its development in modernity and postmodernity, and, on the other hand, introduces the post-ironic component to the genre canon. As a running theme of the storyline, the philosophical notion of the absurd opens up in its versatility, from the strict definition in the formal logic to existential impasses and to post-apocalyptic perspectives of technological progress.
Fargo (TV series). Directed by: Michael Uppendahl et al., written by: Noah Hawley et al., starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tollman. MGM Television et al. 2014–
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. 2007. Dialectic Of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra And Simulation. University of Michigan Press.
Berardi, Franco. 2015. And: Phenomenology Of The End. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents.
Camus, Albert. 1991. The Myth Of Sisyphus, And Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 2009. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism And Schizophrenia. London: Penguin Classics.
Deleuze, Gilles. 2015. The Logic Of Sense. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
Girenok, F. I. 2012. Absurd I Rech: Antropologiya Voobrazhaemogo. Moscow: Academichesky Proekt.
 The avant-garde group of poets, writers and artists in the late 1920s – early 1930s Soviet Russia.
 Fans on various internet forums blame the series creators for idealizing the contemporary consumerist society, over-simplifying the interpretation of Camus’ philosophy and, most of all, breaking the genre canon with the random and inexplicable appearances of UFOs and mysticism in the storyline.
 The name of the East German KGB analogue Staatssicherheitsdienst, more commonly known as Stasi, alludes to the main characters surnames in Season Three. Interestingly, both killers and victims carry the name Stussy, which confirms the dissolvement of the distinctions between good and evil in the third season’s paradigm.
 The problem of the individual versus the crowd is metaphorized in the story of Stussy namesakes in the series.