Noah Hawley’s Fargo (2014– ) was not the first film or television work inspired by Joel and Ethan Coens’ classic film of the same name (Fargo, 1996). There exist as well an aborted attempt at a standard television crime series, with Edie Falco recast as the intrepid Marge Gunderson from the film, as well as an urban legend turned docudrama about a Japanese woman who supposedly froze to death searching for the movie’s buried treasure (the truth was both more conventional and far bleaker). Yet Hawley’s Fargo has forged a unique identity and role in the peak television landscape, encompassing four vastly different yet profoundly-interconnected seasons, with a fifth and reportedly final season promised next year. All adopt a Coen-like worldview while forging a distinct identity, aided by Jeff Russo’s award-winning score.
I examine below the sophisticated ways in which Russo’s score works in counterpoint with what Shai Biderman and Ido Lewit call the “side-by-side variation” performed by Hawley’s text, focusing on the first three seasons, with the goal of illuminating both the philosophical themes and the fictional—and non-fictional—intertexts to which both film and score allude. The series expands on these themes in the fashion of a spiral, self-consciously referencing both its allegorical nature and those uncanny juxtapositions of the mundane and fantastic that suggest how a sliver of truth—Carl Showalter’s money buried in 1987 and unearthed by a destitute Stavros Milos to fund a supermarket empire—might synecdochically stand in for a whole world.
Hawley’s variations on the film’s basic themes include a philosophical reflection on the meaning of truth, set in a sparse physical and emotional landscape, and the continuation of motives Steven Carter noted in the film: television, simulacra, animals, and appetite. The movie’s clipped and elliptical dialogue is matched at every turn by its minimal underscore. In most ot the Coens’ films, the most significant conversations occur against silence, which renders the judicious use of music cues even more significant in marking shifts in narrative and character. Hawley’s practice follows this lead, with clearly identified motives and themes that generally arise as if to add a final coda to important dialogues and conversations. Hawley also adopts a narrative practice that also spans the Coens’ oeuvre, as he punctuates each season’s storyline with parables and stories nested within stories. These stories emphasize a paradoxical combination of exotic tale and homespun wisdom that serves the constructed reality of Fargo’s world, and its general meditation on trauma, truth and the limits of desire, all—as Julie Grossman notes—set in a “densely associative geographical place.”
As befitting the noir legacy of Fargo, the opening themes of the Coens’ movie provides a template for Hawley and Russo’s approach. Carter Burwell chose a Norwegian folk song, “The Lost Sheep,“ as the foundation for a melancholy orchestral theme that communicated the ethnic character of the setting and the hushed silence of a Northern winter, while hinting at the moral conundrums and epistemic failure to come. The theme enters over a blank white screen, with a solo harp with glockenspiel accents, “fragile” instruments chosen to contrast the “smallness of [the characters’] humanity with the endless white landscape,” replaced by Hardanger fiddle and a small chamber ensemble before the melodramatic entrance of a full orchestra scored, chorale-style as a somber dirge.
Russo’s theme for the TV series remains in the same tonal universe, literally and figuratively, with a folk-like melody in D minor scored for violin and piano, with glockenspiel accompaniment before—as in the film—harp, then full orchestra, enter. But Russo’s use of solo violin, both raised and lowered ˆ6 and ˆ7 scale degrees, and portamento accents all allude to the Central European slant of the first series and its hints of Jewish mysticism, its hushed alternation of minor tonic and dominant recalling the opening of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei” for cello and orchestra.
The series’ music takes on a darker hue than that of the film; Russo employs a Czech orchestra dominated by winds and strings, and relies on solo viola and English horn for character touches throughout the season, altering his approach to reflect the more Germanic and Russian characters and philosophical conundrums of Seasons 2 and 3.
A comparison of the buried money scenes—the most blatant connection between film and series—illustrates the ways in which Stavros discovery of Carl Showalter’s briefcase full of money performs an almost palindromic reflection on the original buried money scene. First of all, by the visual cues: Showalter looks down both sides of the bleak winter plains in silence before his decision to mark the buried kidnapping money with a red ice scraper. Shortly after that in chronological time (but in the fourth episode of the series), Stavros Milos—spotting the red scraper and unearthing the money—glances around at the same landscape in awe at his great fortune. The underscore emphasizes their mirrored perspective. A pizzicato bass scores Showalter’s glance at the highway, while Milos unearths the briefcase to a solo English horn and mournful string backing in D.
Season 2, set in 1979, doubles down on the series’ allegorical conceits. The first episode “Waiting for Dutch” recreates a scene from a faux Reagan Western of the late 1940s, with the series theme rescored as a contemporary B-movie soundtrack. As the orchestra gives way to a solo trumpet ala The Godfather, the camera pulls back to reveal both the constructed and utterly mundane circumstances of our tale.
Ronald Reagan later appears in a different film reduced to the size of a television screen in episode 8, “Loplop.” In this episode Peggy Blumquist—the hairdresser who merely craved self-actualization–holes up in a remote South Dakota cabin with her husband Ed and captured criminal Dodd Gerhardt. By this time Peggy has become a wanted criminal in her own right, but sits riveted by Reagan’s fictional wartime escapades. In this scene sirens and the musical accompaniment move from the diegetic TV score to the non-diegetic world of Peggy’s fantasy, to mirror the world of her psyche.
As with the opening sleigh bells and elevator dings, the diegetic sounds of bells and typewriters play a material and semiotic role in each season, in concert with the score. I’ve chosen a brief clip from Season 2 which pairs these audio effects with the visual accompanimnet of a 1970s-style split screen. As Peggy’s husband Ed vainly tries to reach the Gerhardts, we see a snapshot of a northern Midwestern cultural niche. In the space of mere seconds, shots of the Gerhardt’s sepia-tinted home, set to their own theme, summarize the crime family’s history and customs, set against the blue-green tints of Ed’s South Dakotan exile.
The penultimate episode of Season 2 opens with the revelation that—as Martin Freeman narrates—we are watching a depiction of but one chapter in The History of True Crime in the Mid West. This serves as an Easter Egg for those who, like myself, grew up knowing well the classic Wisconsin Death Trip, but Freeman’s narration also expresses a more general reference, to a universe of fictive non-fiction, a world where fable and allegory rub shoulders with both the prosaic and grotesque, as indicated by the sweetly-scored turn to the book’s preface, which combines the ominous bass pizzicati with, glockenspiel, harp and solo clarinet.
The most inexplicable event of Season 1 was a rain of fish from the sky, with disastrous consequences for Stavros. Season 2 raises the bar for magical realism when—in keeping with the cultural framework of the late 1970s—a UFO appears to both initiate and closes the chapter’s bloody chain of events. As if to announce a truth stranger than fiction, a rare half-step, from G-Ab enters the score, but only after Lou Solverson prevails at the “real” Massacre at Sioux Falls. The appearance of a UFO at the Massacre we are told is the strangest of many events that Freeman’s narrator could not account for, in “perhaps the bloodiest chapter in the long and violent history of the Midwest region.”
Season 3 opens with an even more perplexing scene than that of Reagan’s old Western. A Ural chorus accompanies a man eating a sandwich (appetite, a theme Steven Carter noted in the film, becomes an even more pointed motif in Season 3 than in 1 and 2). That man is a Stasi officer in 1988 about to convict the wrong man for murdering one Helga Albrecht. As one of the more devastating, chaotic miscarriages of justice, this sentence is passed in silence, after which the series musical theme enters as a beatific chorale.
As Season 2 brought back Freeman to narrate True Crime in the Mid West, Season 3 has Thornton narrate the introduction to Prokofiev’s iconic Peter and the Wolf. He frames Ewan McGregor’s twin brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy as the bird and duck, stuffy business partner Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlberg) as the grandfather, and our hero officer Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) as Peter. The rather on-the-nose portrayal of the wolf is perhaps the series’ most terrifying rogue, David Thewlis’ repulsive V.M. Varga, who personifies the evils of rapacious capitalism in 2010.
One of Varga’s many obfuscatory asides lays out his particular menace in a way that—true to Fargo—recapitulates the show’s running commentary on truth and power. Varga relates 3 ”true” stories. The first relates the Shakespearean but absolutely true fall of the Lehman brothers, set to a version of Malvo’s Season 1 theme, an apt underscore for those villains responsible for the financial crisis. The second provides an origin story for the first World War that mixes fiction and fact (much as did the story of the Japanese treasure hunter referenced above), set to a jaunty faux folk tune that matches the heightened reality on display. The final story repeats the preposterous conspiracy behind the “fake” moon landing, which—in contrast to the first two tales—is scored with a grand cinematic flourish, as if to loudly and ironically trumpet the malleability of truth.
A more pragmatic distillation of three truths—underscored with harp and muted horn to indicate a more deterministic view of fate—comes from Varga’s henchman Yuri, as he recounts the rise of Putin.
Meanwhile as fate would again have it, two of our antiheroes join forces, as Season 1’s deaf Mr. Wrench ends up tethered to Nikki Swango on a prison bus. Here Nikki’s delicate piano theme ends with an audio match cut to Wrench’s propulsive drum set theme from Season 1.
At an inexplicable bowling alley in the woods, Wrench and Swango receive council from Paul Marane, a mysterious figure who appeared twice earlier to Gloria in Season 3. Marane’s third appearance in Episode 8 suggests the existence of a cosmic truth that overrules that of man, Varga or Putin, when Yuri stumbles into the same establishment. As Lacan might put it, Yuri receives the truth of his original message in reverse. Yuri realizes his fate as he is introduced to the late Helga Albrecht and her ancestors, while his ghostly theme hovers in the background, barely heard.
But fate in Fargo remains fickle and chaotic, as signaled by the use of the movie’s entire theme followed by tolling bells to mark the conclusion of the last tragic shootout—if not the last death—of Season 3.
The final face off five years later between Gloria—now working for the department of homeland security—and Varga—under a new name and profession—refuses to resolve the issue of whose truth or desire will prevail in Season 3. As Varga fades to black and Gloria watches the clock, Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata enters, a call back to the scoring of similar unresolved truths in the Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There (See scenes with the “Moonlight“, “Pathetique,” and op. 109 sonatas). We are left to wonder if Gloria here personifies Sisyphus, yet another mythical throughline that connects the show’s 1979 through 2006 and 2010, or perhaps the story is meant to underscore the moral universe’s quantum undecidability, as expressed by Freddy Reidenscheider in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Fargo’s metatextual reflexivity—in which every telling invites another, alternative retelling—is reflected in the score’s many variations on the film’s theme and referential cues. Given the power of music to unite a filmic reality, Hawley’s Fargo remind us that the story the score tells us is part of what allows a fictional narrative to contain more truth than reality. But it also reminds us, in ways large and small—quietly, as well as ostentatiously—that we may always struggle to tell the difference.
Biderman, Shai and Ido Lewit, 2017. TV’s Fargo and the Philosophy of the Coen Brothers. Film and Philosophy 21, 17–30.
Carter, Burwell. N.d. Fargo notes.
Carter, Steven. 1999. “Flare to white”: Fargo and the postmodern turn. Literature/Film Quarterly, 27(4), 238-244.
Cobb, Kayla. 2017. “Meet the Man Behind ‘Fargo’s Haunting Musical Score, Jeff Russo. ” https://decider.com/2017/05/11/fx-fargo-jeff-russo-interview/
Lesy, Michael and Charles Van Schaick, 1973. Wisconsin Death Trip. NY: Random House.