Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New theory: 'Fargo' season 2 is basically 'The Ladykillers' in slow motion

The Blomquists should not be alive. And yet they are. How?

As anyone who watches it knows, FX's television adaptation of Fargo is no mere regurgitation of the 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen. It frequently references that movie, yes, but it also draws upon the Coens' entire 30-year career for source material, in addition to its scads of newly invented, wholly original characters and situations. This season alone has seen major homages to Miller's Crossing, The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? But it's taken me until today to realize that the Coen film most heavily referenced in the TV show, outside of the original Fargo itself, might just be The Ladykillers, the brothers' little-loved, much-criticized 2004 remake of the classic 1955 Ealing comedy with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.


Now, I've tried to argue in the past that The Ladykillers is a grossly underappreciated, widely misunderstood film that holds up very nicely in a side-by-side, point-by-point comparison with its predecessor. I still feel that way, but I've come to accept the fact that critics and movie nerds have their minds made up about the movie and will not budge. Their loss. Obviously, Noah Hawley, creator of the Fargo TV series, has some affection for The Ladykillers. Early on in the show's second season, a pivotal scene takes place at a restaurant called the Waffle Hut, which is also the name of a crucial location from The Ladykillers and the source of that film's best-known line: "You brought your bitch to the Waffle Hut!" I figured the Waffle Hut locale was going to be Fargo's token nod to The Ladykillers. But I miscalculated. If you'll recall, The Ladykillers centers around a group of thieves, led by Tom Hanks, who decide they have to kill an old lady, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), who has found out about their casino heist. In their slapstick efforts to kill the elderly woman, the would-be ladykillers fail every time. One by one, they die, and the woman remains alive and unharmed.

Flash forward eleven years. The second season of Fargo has largely focused on the travails of a North Dakota hairdresser, Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), and her likable if rather oafish butcher husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons). The seemingly naive and vulnerable Blomquists find themselves smack dab in the middle of a mafia turf war when Peggy accidentally runs over Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin), a member of a regionally powerful crime family. The Gerhardts have dispatched numerous would-be assassins to erase Ed and Peggy from existence. The result? A lot of dead Gerhardts and no lasting harm visited upon the Blomquists. Ed and Peggy have demonstrated a lot of unexpected toughness and resourcefulness this year, but they've also benefited from tremendous luck and good timing. Just like a certain Marva Munson. Meanwhile, the Gerhardts are a lot like the inept thieves from The Ladykillers, always squabbling among themselves when they should be acting as a team.

But the similarities don't end there. In The Ladykillers, Ms. Munson is a somewhat delusional, deeply religious woman who lives in her own isolated little world. She spends a great deal of time talking to an oil painting of her deceased husband, Othar, and imagines that the painting talks back to her. On Fargo, Peggy is also delusional and believes in a "religion" of sorts based around self-help seminars and women's magazines. Peggy's devotion to her chosen faith rivals that of Marva Munson. While Ms. Munson talks about getting into Heaven as her ultimate goal, Peggy prattles on about becoming "actualized" as her highest ambition.

And, like Marva Munson, Peggy Blomquist is more than capable of carrying on both halves of an imaginary conversation. Last night's episode, for instance, had her seeking advice from a spectral self-help guru, perhaps a psychologist, who had magically materialized in her basement. In reality, she was addressing Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan), a dangerous criminal she had taken hostage and tied up. Peggy's insistence that Dodd mind his manners while in her presence is very Munson-esque. In The Ladykillers, Marva repeatedly slaps poor Gawain McSam (Marlon Wayans) when he uses profanity around her. Peggy, for her part, has no trouble stabbing  Dodd in both shoulders when he fails to say "please" and "thank you" while bound to a chair in a remote cabin. Interestingly, Gawain McSam's timid, utterly botched attempt to shoot Marva Munson in The Ladykillers is mirrored by a sequence in Fargo in which young Charlie Gerhardt (Allan Dobrescu) totally louses up what should be an easy execution of Ed Blomquist. In these moments, both McSam and Charlie are boys sent to do a man's job. Not that the men do any better, mind you.

So there you have it, folks. Fargo's second season is one big extrapolation of The Ladykillers.