Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea: You've probably tuned into this post for an explanation or meaning of the "Fargo" finale, entitled "Palindrome," and while an attempt will be made here, a guarantee cannot be offered...
Words are too imprecise, and if I had symbols instead -- you know, like a little house drawing that looked like a house -- then we might manage to get a little closer. But we don't so away we go.
First up, "The Man Who Wasn't There," Joel and Ethan Coen's 2001 film about Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), the barber who (long story short) ended up on death row. Ed -- like Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), also a person in the hair trade -- puzzled over life's meaning, and ultimately resigned himself to the possibly of more clarity in the afterlife.
Peggy -- more fixated on meaning in this life -- wondered about the possibility of internment in California; at least she'd be closer to “realization” there.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, a spaceship/alien motif also framed "The Man,” for at conclusion, as Ed walks out into an abandoned prison yard, with the possibility of escape right there before him, a spaceship hovers overhead, and beams a bright hard light down upon him. He looks up, nods, and goes back to his cell.
Ed knew what Peggy did not: No Lifespring New Age aphorisms about “realization” are gonna make make sense of this life. Ed’s strange sad existence -- a "maze" he called it --already was senseless enough, and he was even on death row for a murder he didn't commit. A spaceship overhead, reminding him of all that he could never know or would? Yup, that made perfect sense under the circumstances.
In "Fargo" -- which was not trying to reboot "Cowboys & Aliens" by the way -- showrunner Noah Hawley was of course paying homage to the guys to whom this series is one long homage, the Coens, but also trying to take the idea a little further.
Here's the full open of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds," which pretty clearly establishes the themes of "Fargo's" second season:
But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited? . . . Are we or they Lords of the World? . . . And how are all things made for man?-- Kepler (quoted in The Anatomy of Melancholy)
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment."
Infusoria under the microscope? Our affairs of course -- or theirs -- and the function of that spaceship that hovered over Rye Gerhardt (Kiernan Culkin) just before his death, and Bear Gerhardt (Angus Sampson) just before his death.
The spaceship studied these infusoria in fact just as if they were specimens under a microscope, which they were.
But I'm telling you stuff you already know, so let's go a step further -- the meaning of "Palindrome," and why Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) was creating his own new language, as a means of clearing up all the messes of history (Recall, as he said, that wars were caused by miscommunication...)
The symbols he created with such care and with such obsession were each a palindrome, or a character which reads the same forwards as backwards, thus eliminating (in Hank's mind) the possibility of ambiguity.
I suspect his explanation to his daughter Betsy (Kristin Milioti) of his peculiar hobby was possibly a ruse, or convenient lie, masking the real truth. Who knows! Maybe Hank was in contact with the aliens himself -- working his own sidechannel with them, attempting communication. He likely knew earth was being studied from above, as perhaps did Peggy, who dismissed the mention of a spaceship as casually as if it was a toaster. ("oh that! it was a spaceship...No big deal.")
And consider that those ships did arrive at convenient moments, leading to the death of two Gerhardts. In the first instance, had it not flown over Rye, he would have merely moved on, his crime undiscovered, and Peggy would have gone home.
In the second instance, Bear would most assuredly have killed Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson).
Had that happened, the future would have been changed...profoundly...
Aliens interceding in human affairs? Yup, it happened in "The War of the Worlds," and in "Fargo" too.
In fact, it was the whole point of this season of "Fargo."
Now, let's talk history -- past, present and future. The "Massacre at Sioux Falls" -- the key historic theme of the second season -- referred to several massacres in fact: A movie (The Ronald Reagan one); a real massacre which inspired the movie (22 Sioux killed during the Indian Wars at a place that is now a bar); the massacre at the motel; the massacre at the diner; and the massacre during the hunting trip.
This season, by invoking Vietnam -- where Lou and Hanzee Dent ( Zahn McClarnon) served -- and Korea (where Nick Offerman's Carl Weathers served) the Second World War (Hank), Hawley's invoking the idea of the circularity of history, and the idea that the past isn't past, but always present and also prologue.
He's exploring the notion that evil simply recycles itself, into some new monstrosity, wherein only the details change, the results remain the same.
But he's not necessarily settling for the idea that history will determine fate -- that the past, present and future are inextricably bound, and the cycle of evil will continue unabated into an endlessly receding future...
That was the point of Betsy's dream and her pill...
Betsy, you will recall, was taking pills for her cancer. Because she was in a trial for the medication, the doctor informed her that she might be taking a placebo, or a sugar pill, in which case she would die. With the other pill -- the real medicine -- she at least stood a fighting chance. Which pill was Betsy taking?
As it turned out, the real medication. Unfortunately, as she belated learned, the cure could be worse than the illness -- it might even end up killing her too.
But Betsy's existential plight was mitigated by a dream of the future -- a bright happy one, where Lou would be a granddad, surrounded by loving children (a glimpse at season one).
Then it turned to perhaps be a nightmare: The future might actually be a horror....
Which vision would come true? The utopia or dystopia?
We know of course -- season one tells us that future. But season one also tells us that evil lives on. (Season one, as you know, takes place in present day, season two in 1979).
The past may the prologue. But good people undertaking heroic moral decisions and actions -- the ones Lou Solverson undertook all season -- can change that future. Good can be stronger than evil.
Does this sound a little trite? Maybe, but so what? Fargo" needed to end on triumph, needed to end with the telling of that famous story from the USS Kirk -- a real story by the way, from the closing days of Vietnam -- when a father, Ba Van Nguyen, pilots a chinook with his family aboard to the deck of the aircraft carrier. The bird falls into the seas, but the pilot was alive.
The catastrophe of Vietnam had at least one bright moment: A man saving his family.
Maybe there was a spaceship hovering above the clouds, looking down, wondering about this fusoria at that very moment.
(By the way, Lou’s final line? That was Walter Winchell’s famed opener to the listeners of his radio show.)