Fargo Review: The Myth of Sisyphus

Fargo’s third episode this season was entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” referring to the Greek tale of the trickster king condemned in the underworld to eternally roll a boulder up a mountain knowing that it would then roll back to the bottom. It was a story of the pointlessness and despair in fruitless labor. But, “The Myth of Sisyphus” was also a theory posited by French philosopher Albert Camus, and it’s here where the episode seems to make more sense. How sad is it to battle or struggle when there’s no chance of winning? Here’s a quote, taken from Camus and paraphrased by Mark Conard in his book, The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers:

Since life provides no meaning, why live it? Since we know our future — death — why not embrace the future now and get it over with? Camus, of course, does not recommend suicide but an acceptance of our condition — that we are alive and desire to remain so, though we cannot.

We’ve got family crime syndicates and Midwest mafia and squirrelly typewriter salesmen and people being buried alive and seemingly innocent people covering up murder and great ’70’s music and plenty of uncomfortable silence. It’s all right there in Noah Hawley’s adapted world of Fargo, a show I seemingly enjoy more by the week, even when it seems impossible. I continue to love most of what I’m privy to within the crime drama, which strikes the right cord on a stunningly consistent basis.

In terms of plot movement, we see Ed Blumquist notice the wanted poster and recognize that at the very least, even if he’s not fully aware of who Rye Gerhardt is, the guy was a criminal. He also knows he brutally ended Rye’s life after his wife, Peggy, hit the man with her car in the snowy Minnesota darkness. What Ed may not realize as of yet is just how sought after this dead antagonist actually is and the level of individual that is after him. Heroes like Lou and Hank, scum like Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers from Kansas City, and of course the rest of the Gerhardt family. We know it’s going to go terribly wrong for Ed and Peggy, but by the week, the crescendo towards a reveal and a discovery adds a major source of tension and suspense to the show.

Fargo really shines in its sequences of confrontation, whether one on one, or one on group, or two on two, or whatever it might be. In this way, it’s very reminiscent to me of both Deadwood and even more so Breaking Bad, because the interactions are usually tinged with the potential for violence or escalated tension through intelligent, pinpoint wordcraft. Also, these are shows that reveled in the tumbleweed-without-tumbleweed concept of intensity, where someone could get shot at any time, but also might not for another 15 minutes.

Last week, we saw Mike Milligan in two separate scenes, one with the now late Skip in the typewriter shop, and the other with Larsson. Both were able to pull both humor and terror from all involved, which again points to both the writing and also to how effective Bokeem Woodbine continues to be in the role.

Think of Walter White and Hank Schrader or Walt and Gus Fring or virtually any of those kinds of moments and add the Coen feel to it and that’s what you’ve got in Fargo. There are just certain defining characteristics that exist within Hawley’s fiction that feel so true to what Joel and Ethan would have given us in the same spot. Another example is in Zahn McClarnon’s portrayal of Hanzee Dent. We saw him work throughout this week’s episode alongside Dodd’s daughter, but he spoke very little. He would ask very direct, very basic questions and the effect was achieved through a cold face and whatever activity he was engaged in.

Whether it was working on a dead animal, killing a rabbit, or observing a potential threat, Dent’s character is a nearly silent, but deadly and extremely menacing entity. The Kitchen brothers have even less to say, similar to Adam Goldberg’s partner in season one. Recall No Country for Old Men and the horrifyingly perfect portrayal of Anton Chigurh that won Javier Bardem an Academy Award. While that was Cormac McCarthy, it was also a Coen interpretation.

These guys for decades, in a fashion now reminiscent of what Gilligan was later willing to do in his Albuquerque crime story, bask in the quiet and flourish in the silence. They’re unafraid of an uncomfortable pause and know how to use it to add gravitas. They’re the radio hosts who breathe inaudibly rather than stammer through sentences with repeated “ummms” or awkward laughter. They’re the villains who rarely ever raise their voice but scare us all to death with a low, monotone seriousness. It’s one of their defining characteristics, and Hawley seems to have the same glorious sickness.

The search for Rye Gerhardt is the motivation of almost all the side storylines of the show and the reason for his disappearance is the catalyst for everything else. Sure, there’s a power struggle between criminals and a belligerent, fearless pair of state troopers, but it’s all about Rye and what his death means for all involved. What’s sure to come next are the false theories and misconstruction of various evidence, though the future for Ed and Peggy Blumquist is rather dire.  

The highlight of the episode, outside of Mike Milligan, who again was just freaking outstanding, was Lou Solverson as he encountered the Gerhardt clan on their property. The back and forth between Lou and both Floyd and Dodd was just outstanding stuff. It also shows why Lou faces physical harm in the future, how he’s fighting a losing war, and it also seems to foretell the traits of relentlessness and inquisition that make his daughter, Molly, the investigator she is later in her life.

Also effective was Keir O’Donnell as Ben Schmidt, who was the timid officer pushed around and afraid to even attempt to stand up to the bad side of the law. He knows who Otto Gerhardt is as a man and what he’s willing to do and he’s basically just paralyzed into inaction and is perfectly willing to look the other way and run for his life.

Floyd Gerhardt isn’t willing to admit her husband’s stroke was serious to the extent he likely won’t ever recover from it. Dodd Gerhardt, who is callous to the highest level, says it, and also threatens Solverson and of course orders the death of Skip as the episode comes to a close. Whether Skip knew Rye’s whereabouts or not, he was dead as a doornail the minute he knocked on that apartment door. It was a particularly awful way to die, being buried alive, but another thing Hawley isn’t afraid of is a simplistic, vicious barbarism in his storytelling.

Under the hood, the episode, directed by Michael Uppendahl, was another beautiful piece of art. It didn’t have that one visual that stood out, but it flowed very well. We saw the split-screen idea used more often, which hasn’t been distracting or felt gimmicky and seems to really work for this show.

Here’s another snippet from The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers:

If, however, our efforts are doomed to failure, and if we can refer to no fixed human nature in creating ourselves, how do we choose how to act and, thereby, what to become? Numerous characters within the Coen brothers’ canon dramatize precisely this dilemma. As we shall see, the individual’s attempt to construct a viable identity within a hostile environment emerges as a major theme, as does confusion concerning the identity of others.

We’re basically watching the embodiment of what Agent Smith believed would happen with Neo, Morpheus, and the rest of the human race in The Matrix. “That is the sound of inevitability.” We recognize that Ed and Peggy are on a path to a “way too soon” kind of end. Also, Betsy continuing a guaranteed loss against that most gigantic of boulder named cancer. We realize that a lot of folks are positioning themselves on some kind of twisted Risk board to be in the perfect spot to catch a bullet, or be chopped up in a butcher shop, or buried under a ton of gravel. In the original Fargo story, meaning Marge Gunderson’s story, she says, even after seeing the grisly reality in front of her, “I just don’t understand it.”

Flash back to the quote I selected for the first episode review two weeks ago, which I found funny, and the same phrasing was used in “The Myth of Sisyphus” on Monday. Larsson says “Well, this is a deal.” Yes Hank, it is, three people have been shot to death in a breakfast-all-day restaurant in the middle of 1979 Minnesota. It’s almost cognitive dissonance or the kind of “please let me unsee this” delusion that allows us to erase things from our lives that fall outside of our own perceived normalcy.

One of the reasons the Coen stories have always worked, and one of the reasons Hawley’s show is so good, is because it reflects how many of us would react or how we think our parents would react to the incomprehensible. These efforts are able to use the absurd, meaning the more theoretical or historic definition of certain fiction, and match it with something we can actually grasp. The accents are funny and how polite everyone is creates a special charm, but the subject matter is almost unthinkable. Look to Lebowski or No Country for Old Men or O Brother and you’ll see it all over the place.

It’s a world that’s really weird and really terrible things seem to be all over the place, but it’s also a world of nonsense and things that seem skewed to an obtuse angle. Just when Lebowski seems a little too real, here comes the cutaway to the famous Just Dropped In scene, which is as bizarre as they come. That break from real to bat-bleep crazy is what makes everything palatable. It’s all done with a tightrope walk of balance. The music is ultra-important as well, as the Coens and Tarantino always seem interchangeable in many ways with their soundtrack selections. Here again, Hawley has channeled them effectively.

We haven’t seen this (whatever it might be in the story that raises our eyebrows and leaves us vulnerable) before and it’s so frightening that believing it’s fiction or seeing it like a jigsaw puzzle with no solution or the world’s most difficult Sudoku is comforting. If we don’t understand it, maybe it’s not there. Maybe it’s the calculus book we avoided like the plague until we decided, hey I’ll be a writer and work in the media. Okay, maybe that’s just me.

The Coen Brothers aren’t writing the show we’re watching today, but one of the biggest compliments I can provide to Noah Hawley and his team is the following: It looks like they are, and not only that, but it looks like they’ve never been better. Sure, the show could come apart at the seams over the next seven weeks and leave us all unsatisfied, but I’ve grown in a short time to trust this guy. He just seems to have whatever that “it” is with a certain show where so many decisions are the right ones, done at the right times, and executed correctly.

It isn’t that Hawley is out to imitate Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s just that he was clearly the right individual to adapt this property, because he thinks in a very out of the box fashion. He sees his tale in a way that seems wholly appropriate. We saw it again on display last night in the episode, which was well written by Bob DeLaurentis. Last week’s episode as a whole might have been a bit better from start to finish, but “The Myth of Sisyphus” was a strong hour.

I’m @GuyNamedJason on Twitter. (air quotes gesture) I am not a crook. (end air quotes gesture)

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.