One of the most famous lines in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning Fargo comes close to the end of the movie, when Marge Gunderson finally catches the killer responsible for five deaths (and likely more):
So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.
But one of the thoughlines of Fargo is about more than a little bit of money. It’s about control, and power, and entitlement.
Why, exactly, does Jerry want his wife kidnapped? Well, it is for a little bit of money, but it’s also about a lot more than that. It’s about Jerry’s pride, and his desire to provide for his family. It’s about his overbearing father-in-law, and who really is there to provide for his wife and son. But of course, it’s about more than Jerry.
Jerry knows that Wade will avoid going to the police after Jean is kidnapped because of Wade’s arrogance and sense of ownership. In Wade’s mind, real men solve their own problems. His daughter and grandson are his responsibility, and he’s annoyed when Jean lets Scotty blow off dinner to hang out with his friends at McDonald’s. It’s what leads him to go to the parking garage, to fight with the man holding his daughter, and it’s ultimately what gets him killed.
Not that Carl is any better. He’s a bristling porcupine of entitlement, snapping at every insult — real or perceived — and picking arguments with anyone who challenges his authority or expertise. That’s what gets him killed too.
And Gaear Grimsrud just doesn’t like to be challenged at all. He’s not worried about consequences; he’s a man, and he has a gun. Challenges — even annoyances — are met with terminal violence. It works pretty well for him, for a while.
That’s the thing about privilege; it works. Throughout Fargo, the tools of privilege get wielded. Expectations of politeness keep Marge at the table, even when Mike Yamagita is clearly making her uncomfortable — she manages to keep him on his own side of the booth, at least. Marge uses her status as a police officer more than once. Knowing how to use the levers of power isn’t inherently good or bad. The good and bad starts with how those levers came about, and how the people with power choose to wield them. The evil is when you start thinking the levers all belong to you, and when you get angry — even murderously so — when the levers don’t work.
Even Jerry, a conciliatory weasel for most of the movie’s run, gets violently angry when deprived of his ownership. He’s offended when challenged on the fraud he committed. When Wade and his business partner decide to take his idea — for a reasonable finder’s fee, of course — a man who has been committing thousands of dollars of fraud is horrified. He deserves full credit and a proportionate share. He’s earned it. (And, of course, Wade and his business partner find it just as unthinkable that Jerry would be owed anything but that finder’s fee.)
Mike, who first appears to be merely an old friend wanting to catch up, pushes boundaries in the brief scene he shares with Marge, using his outsized enthusiasm — and outsized grief — to play on Marge’s empathy. He’s an unsettling enough presence that when Marge finds out the truth — that the woman Mike claimed to marry is alive, well, and had to take out a restraining order —is not entirely shocking.
A few of the men of Fargo manage to escape the trap of entitlement. Scotty loves his mom and wants to hang out with his friends at McDonald’s. Lou isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but he respects Marge. And Norm is kind and thoughtful. He’s disappointed when his painting is only on one of “the little stamps,” but he doesn’t react with anger or resentment. He gets up and makes Marge breakfast when her job gets her out of bed in the wee hours of the morning. He even jumps her Prowler. Norm doesn’t seem to think the world owes him much. Instead, he gives of himself and sees Marge as his partner (even the cinematography reflects this, with Norm and Marge often seen in two-shots, in marked contrast with most of the cast in the majority of scenes). He ends the movie in bed with his wife, bundled up from the cold, dreaming of the future to come.
There’s an oft-quoted passage from Terry Prachett’s Carpe Jugulum, when powerful witch Granny Weatherwax is talking to a religious missionary about sin.
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”
I often think of this one in stories like Fargo that put morality front and center. Jerry, Wade, Carl and Gaear treat much of the world around them as things, and they, at least, pay the price for it.
Special thanks to this excellent video essay by Lewis Bond which underlined the framing of Norm and Marge.
I had originally meant to write this essay about the roles of parenting — and impending parenthood in Fargo. I even had a remarkably good title — Warmth in a Cold Winter: Parenthood and Fargo.
Then a bunch of very angry people, slightly more men that women, far more white people than not, stormed the Capitol building and did their very best to murder elected officials. This essay was the result of that.