Season two of Fargo has been building to the arrival of Ronald Reagan from its first moment. The premiere episode, titled “Waiting for Dutch,” began with a scene from the set of the movie Massacre at Sioux Falls*, where everyone, including actors lying on the cold ground, are waiting for Reagan (Dutch was a nickname) to show up so they can continue filming.
Not only was that a nod to the bloodshed to come this season (as we knew from season one when Lou talked about the savagery of the Sioux Falls case in ’79), it also turned out it was a hint at what this season would be about thematically, one that it is as much about Ronald Reagan as it is about aliens.
The country the citizens of the show live in is in crisis, very much a reflection of its time period, 1979. While it can be tricky to incorporate politics into any show (you run the risk of alienating half your audience), I don’t think that’s the case here. The America of Jimmy Carter isn’t exactly a joyous place full of optimism. Instead it is one of long gas lines, lowered expectations, and, for the people of this show, countless deaths.
Reagan’s message of hope and a belief in the ability of Americans to overcome adversity is a powerful message (and seeing Ron Swanson cry at a Reagan speech was a bonus moment for Parks and Rec fans), but unfortunately it is one that seems to have no foundation. When Lou says he believes his wife’s cancer is somehow caused by the ills of the world, and he wants to believe Reagan can fix it, the future President (played sincerely and wonderfully by Bruce Campbell) has literally nothing to offer him.
So much of this season has been about characters fighting battles they can’t win, and here they are offered someone who says they can and will win, that things will get better. But when pressed for the specifics he is unable to produce anything.
The unknown future represented by aliens, the one where men don’t know they are fighting a losing battle against a force they can’t see, is coming. Everyone is waiting for Dutch to come and fix it for them, but he has nothing to offer. In an episode loaded with bloodshed and escalation, as well as an actual, tangible example of a dream going up in flames, what is getting better? Where is the hope? Who can fix any of this? It increasingly looks like the answer is no one. Outside forces continue to push on everyone, with each battle looking more and more hopeless.
The mom and pop stores, they’ll be gone soon, replaced by big businesses that will make some people lots of money. It might be weird to think of the Gerhardts as a family business, but it is, and it is under attack by the much larger Kansas City crime conglomerate. Betsy can take her pills, but they might just be sugar, sweet but empty, just like words of hope with no substance behind them. Ed and Peggy can have dreams and a will to fight, but they can’t fight when they don’t know how.
It seems like this season is an existential nightmare about the bleakness of life, where the only hope is a lie. In the midst of all this death we get our first hints that this might not be the case.
Episode five is titled “The Gift of the Magi,” a title taken from a famous short story about a young married couple that think they can only express their love by buying each other expensive gifts—gifts they can only afford after sacrificing their own prized possessions. The twist of the story is that the sacrifices they both made rendered the gifts they received useless. It is an ironic ending, but one that sees the two of them realize their real gift is love expressed through selfless sacrifice. In this very episode we saw Peggy attempt to do something similar for Ed (who obviously made a great sacrifice for her and his hope of a future family). It might not seem like they had any hope at episode’s end, but they are together, and two fighting side-by-side is better than one alone.
The message of this season has been dark: one of seamlessly losing battles that can only end in death, but maybe this is where we first find a path to salvation. You can’t wait for Dutch to show up and fix it; you can only do that yourself through your actions—even if they come at great sacrifice. Maybe if they only come through great sacrifice. The world may be dark—one where we can’t control the forces both seen and unseen that push on us—and no one will come to our rescue, but we can control something and that’s how we respond to them. It just might be that the response needed comes at a great cost, that the fight we can win is for those we love, not ourselves.
A sacrifice can only be a sacrifice if it isn’t easy. Those willing to pay that price might be the only ones with any real hope. The rest will all be waiting for Dutch to save them, but it’ll be the aliens that get them.
What did you think of this episode? Let’s discuss it in the comments.
*This is not a real movie, but there is a 1965 film listed, titled The Great Sioux Massacre, about what happened to Custer at Little Big Horn. Because I know you’re interested, Reagan’s last acting credit on IMDB comes from 1966.