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FARGO, TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, RECTIFY and the Construction of the American Small Town (Part I)

FARGO, TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, RECTIFY and the Construction of the American Small Town (Part I)

PART
ONE

At some point in the second half of the twentieth
century, the way in which we think about the American small town, its
particular brand of community and stability, began to shift. "What
happened," according to Frederic Jameson, as he wrote in an essay in his seminal 1991
collection The Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism
, “is that the autonomy of
the small town (in the provincial period a source of claustrophobia and
anxiety; in the fifties the ground for a certain comfort and even a certain
reassurance) has vanished.”  Thus, for
Jameson, “[w]hat was once a separate point on the map has become an
imperceptible thickening in a continuum of identical products and standardized
spaces from coast to coast.” This "thickening
continuum," a byproduct of our appetite for cable television, franchising
and box stores, and other modern amenities, posed a radical threat to small
town identity. As Jameson describes it, the American small town was once (but
no longer) "contented
with itself, secure in the sense of its radical difference from other
populations and cultures, insulated from their vicissitudes and from the flaws
in human nature so palpably acted out in their violent and alien histories." Of course, Jameson’s proper subject is actually the popular conception of small-town self-identity and, to the extent his commentary attempts to
speak for small towns, themselves, he’s guilty of a bit of simplification. In
other words, what Jameson describes is not necessarily your experience of small-town America. And it certainly wasn’t mine. 

I grew up, and spent my childhood,
living in the same neighborhood, in a small town in the northeast corner of
Maryland, tucked up against the Pennsylvania and Delaware borders. Elkton, named for its position at the
headwaters of the Elk River, which itself curled off of the tip of the
Chesapeake Bay, had a population of just over 9,000 residents when I left for
college in 1990. Elkton is the largest town in Cecil County. Like so many (but certainly
not all) rural American counties, ours was predominately white and conservative—in 1990, in fact, it was 95% white with 90% of its population living in
neighborhoods that were, themselves, more than 90% white. People
today are most likely to be familiar with Elkton from a few road signs that
clip by as they bisect the county heading north or south on U.S. I-95. In a
different era, it was known as an American Gretna Green, the marriage capital
of the United States—the result of liberal marriage laws so well known that,
when Ben Walton ran off to marry seventeen-year-old Cindy Brunson on Season
Seven of The Waltons, the couple
headed for Elkton. Those days are mostly gone, though wedding chapels still
dot Main Street.

Not all public awareness of us has
been so benign. The Elkton Walmart has,
in recent years, been the site of no small amount of cruel cultural absurdity, including
xBox-related near-riots, customers
superglued to toilet seats, and dead
bodies in Chrysler Sebrings.
Digging deeper, there’s also the county’s occasional flirtation with the Ku
Klux Klan, from rallies on local farms in the 1960s and -70s to
Klan-run anti-Obama meetings held in Elkton municipal buildings as recently as
last year. It
doesn’t matter that these rallies generally packed more bluster than bite, with
gawkers and protestors outnumbering participants. For many residents of neighboring
counties the area remains "Ceciltucky": defiantly redneck,
anachronistic. That view isn’t wholly misguided.
To some extent, it’s even a source of pride: my fifth grade gun safety class at
Gilpin Manor Elementary culminated (to my enormous delight) in a teacher-chaperoned
field trip to a local state park where we were given bolt-action rifles to fire
on paper targets.

My memory is both more complicated
and more sentimental than these data points might suggest. Yes, there’s the
recollection of perfectly-seasoned blue crabs piled high on newspaper-covered
picnic tables (with buttered and salted silver queen corn nearby).
The .99 movie theater in downtown Elkton where I saw Rick Springfield in Hard to Hold in 1984, the first movie I
ever attended without parental supervision. And, although there was ample bluegrass
music and square dancing, there was also the all-black-but-me Parks & Rec
basketball team on which I played (a cherry-picking) point guard and the
mostly-Catholic-but me CYO basketball team on which I played (a less-effectively
cherry-picking) point guard (and that once lost a game against a Wilmington,
Del. team 99-27). There’s also no question that I spent a large portion of my
teenage years dreaming of escape—into what, I had no idea. When I go back, however,
(and I do, when I can) it’s these memories that I’m revisiting. But it’s also
true that (contra Prof. Jameson) many of us welcomed the intrusion of
outlet malls, the internet, cable television, that whole thickening continuum
thing. Because, in an essential paradox, the extrinsic, pan-American
homogeneity that Jameson maligns resulted in diversity within our small towns, an increase in both the variety and quality
of services and products.  Improvements in
the quality of our day-to-day lives that helped narrow the sprawling distances
between how we saw ourselves and how we imagined everyone else in the free world
lived.  In other words, the isolation and
radical difference that Jameson places at the crux of small-town self-identify
may be nothing more than a symptom of perspective. In the end, I suppose, my struggle
to define my own experience keeps frustrating and coloring the way I watch a
variety of well-received television shows, including Fargo, True Detective, Justified, and Rectify, that have aired over the last few years. Each of these
shows has significant strengths—strong, charismatic performances, sharp
direction. But it’s no accident that the complexity of the moral universe at
issue in each show is dictated by location and perspective—by just how much
the writers confuse traditional representations of small towns or rural life
for the real thing. 

*          *          *          *

Noah Hawley’s miniseries Fargo is, ostensibly, the story of four
characters, the insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), the deputy
Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), the Duluth policeman Gus Grimly (Colin
Hanks), and a killer, Lorne Malvo (Billy 
Bob Thornton), whose paths cross in and around the (very real) small
town of Bemidji, Minnesota (pop. 13,000). Although faithful in certain ways to
the Coen brothers’ film from which it derives its name and, at least loosely, setting,
Hawley’s Fargo is different, darker. In
large part this is due to the importance given to the character of Lorne Malvo—a contract killer and confidence man who is not from Bemidji. Or anywhere, really, which is probably the
first sign that he’s up to no good. Hawley,
who drafted each script himself but collaborated on the overall story with a
group of writers, has expressed a fascinated, forgiving relationship with Malvo,
describing him as “really interesting" and “a very fun character.”
Indeed, although Malvo slaughters dozens, Hawley has stated his belief that “the
violence [Malvo] does to the social contract is almost as bad as the real
violence that he does.” To Hawley, the philosophical purity of the Malvo
character sets him apart, and free: “When you see a shark swimming in the ocean,
you’re not judging the shark. We don’t judge Malvo because he’s not pretending
to be anything else.”
But Hawley can’t be serious—Malvo pretends to be “something else” at each
turn. It’s how he gains access to his marks and how he avoids capture. He veils
his threats against women and children in small-talk and friendly advice. In
other words, if we can’t judge Malvo, who can
we judge?  The answer, it appears, is
pretty much everyone else.

Malvo, shape-shifter,
has a Mephistophelean swagger, and it’s the Mephistophelean that places Malvo, and Fargo, squarely within a tradition of
Faustian American literature—what Hawley
has called the “stranger comes to town story”—a lineage  that includes (but isn’t
limited to) Mark Twain’s Mysterious
Stranger
and Ray Bradbury’s Something
Wicked This Way Comes
. Both novels use a (yes) mysterious stranger who visits
a small town to examine, to different conclusions, the way our desires lead us to betray ourselves,
our communities, and our values. [1]  Not surprisingly, perhaps, the books arrive
at different conclusions. Twain forwards a near-Nietzschean nihilism, leaving
no doubt that he views “civilization” as a leash burning at our necks, if not a
wholesale fiction. Bradbury’s Mr. Dark, on the other hand, is eventually
defeated by joy, familial love, and friendship. Provided with a choice between
the path of Twain and the path of Bradbury, Hawley goes dark, choosing Twain’s
model. Although the show ostensibly reinforces Fargo (the movie) in its appreciation of small-town common sense
(“decency trumps all,” is how one critic characterized the series’ conclusion),
given the show’s body count, it’s hard to view the triumph of small town values
as anything but pyrrhic. Where it counts, in its characterizations, the
day-to-day life of its citizens, Fargo
shares the cynicism and nihilism of Twain’s unrepentingly dark novel. But to
what end? Twain’s nihilism seeks to liberate man by stripping away the very
things the fundamentally conservative Fargo
ends up celebrating.

But perhaps the mixed messages are
to be expected. One takeaway from Hawley’s countless press interviews on behalf
of the show is that his Bemidji isn’t much more than a blank canvas onto which he
can project his ideas about good and evil—or, as he phrases it, about what
happens when a “civilized man meets an uncivilized man,” or
an “anarchic force enters polite society.” Our
enjoyment of the show hinges on how much stock we put in Hawley’s experiments
in human behavior, but this isn’t fatal to the show’s success. Nonetheless, it’s
hard to see Hawley’s “polite society” as much more than a petri dish in a spotless
laboratory. Although he describes his show as a battle between “the best and
worst of America
,” what
he’s really done is introduce a foreign agent into a static environment. (And
then reintroduced it, for that matter. Malvo returns to eliminate Nygaard for
unknown reasons and, absent that return, the story has no discernible momentum
or end.) It’s not the gauzy layers of snow and ice, the tense, beautiful
blizzard shootout, or the frozen lake into which Lester plummets at the series’
end that constitute the show’s blankness. It’s the lack of any perceptible
response from the town of Bemidji as the deaths mount—the series somehow manages
to squeeze thirty-four deaths into 10 episodes.
In spite of the carnage, Hawley clings to a "romantic idea
that you go off and you face evil and you come back and your reward is to lead
a simple life," that what these characters have faced is not, in the end,
a "dark journey." Of
the series’ four main characters, one has been shot and wounded, two have been
turned into killers (one already was
a killer, of course), and two are dead. The town, itself, is piled high with the
bodies of people who, if Grimly does his job in Episode One, would have been spared.
By my measure, the only people who might come out on the other side events like
these without being “haunted” are people who never really felt anything in the
first place.

The cost of Hawley’s
“romantic idea” is that it necessarily strips Bemidji of collective or
institutional knowledge. The town is never granted a life of its own, even at
the baseline, fight-or-flight level of self-preservation. [2]  As a result, we don’t
think twice when Malvo sits across a diner counter from Deputy
Solverson’s father Lou (Keith Carradine), an ex-state trooper, and Lou doesn’t
recognize him.  At this point in the
series, of course, Malvo has been caught on camera kidnapping a murder victim,
arrested, and even interrogated by Lou’s now-son-in-law.  And yet, even after Malvo creepily inquires
about Lester, the man at the center of
his daughter’s investigation
, he is permitted to drive off without anyone
in pursuit. All of this is of a piece with Hawley’s failure to allow Bemidji an
existence greater than the sum of its parts. And
those parts are inherently limited: so many of the citizens of  Bemidji are self-interested and venal,
bullies and predators. The women, in particular, fail to generate sympathy—whether it’s Gina Hess (Kate Walsh), an ex-dancer who laughs off her husband’s murder
and chases the insurance payment, Kitty Nygaard (Rachel Blanchard), Lester’s
sister-in-law, a vain ex-beauty queen, or the needling wives of Lester and
Milos (both are relentless and shrill). Although the characters are sharply, if
superficially, drawn, an air of entitlement emanates from each. Even Linda
(Susan Park), Lester’s sweet, boring, second wife, admits to Lester just before
she’s shot that she coveted Lester while he was still married and fantasized
about “getting his wife out of the picture”—she envisioned herself as a
“Cinderella,” clinging tightly to the belief that Lester “would come along and
take her away from all this.” It’s not just
the women, of course. Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady), Chaz Nygaard (Joshua Close), and
Milos Stavros (Oliver Platt) are each the asshole father of daft, cruel, and/or
damaged children.  In the end, it’s hard
not to feel that the grisly or abject ends greeting so many of these characters
constitute karmic punishment. 

For all of Hawley’s talk about the
“stoicism” of Midwesterners, the motives of Fargo’s
characters are never far from this surface. 
Maybe this is meant to suggest a regionally-specific anti-mystery or maybe
it’s just a convenience. In either case, it’s a far cry from the Coens’ vision
of small-town Midwestern life, where the conventions of “Minnesota nice” create
inscrutability. Hawley has stated that his “job was not to portray
Minnesota as it is in real life. It was to portray the Minnesota that Joel and
Ethan portrayed in the movie.” In keeping with this, perhaps, he doesn’t pay
much attention to Bemidji as it
actually is (it’s a hub of Native American culture, though there’s not a single
Native American character on the show). [3]
But how true is he to the Coens’ vision? If there’s a takeaway from Fargo the movie, it might be that the
inherent inscrutability of human behavior is not a reason for nihilism or
solipsism. Marge Gunderson’s (Frances McDormand) short soliloquy, as the movie
wraps up, distills this to a point:

"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." 

Of course, for Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud, it
isn’t about money at all. In the end, Marge’s incomprehension of his motives
proves no bar to her pursuit—though she is aided by a brief encounter with an
old classmate, Mike Yanagita, that spurs her to push deeper. In one of the
film’s more remarkable scenes, Marge figures out, over dinner at the Radisson during
a work-trip to Minneapolis, that the emotionally disturbed Yanagita has lied to
her about his life (inventing both successes and tragedies) in order to make a desperate,
loneliness-driven pass at her. In the course of ten minutes, the Coens show us
two sides of “Minnesota nice.” 

Although Marge’s trusting nature temporarily blinds her to Yanagita’s motives,
she nonetheless uses Yanagita’s desire to conform to “Midwestern” conventions
(modesty, a desire not to cause a scene, the fear of imposing on another) to
reject him gently but firmly, defusing the situation. Beyond this, however,
Yanagita provides Marge with a glimpse at the obscure alchemy that transforms human-scale
desire into elaborately irrational action, a realization that sends her back to
re-interview Jerry Lundegaard. If there is a single scene in Fargo (or any Coens’ movie) that defines
the Coens’ vision, it’s this one.  And
yet Hawley’s comments in interviews suggest that he never completely grasped its
importance,
a fact I can’t be alone in finding troubling.

*          *          *          *

Hawley’s exposure of the
barely-concealed venality underlying the placid surface of Bemidji suggests
less the Coens of Fargo (venality and
greed have their place, but the characters rarely fall prey to
one-dimensionality) than the David Lynch of Blue
Velvet
and Twin Peaks. This is,
perhaps, a natural or even obvious parallel, given that both Fargo and Twin Peaks are thematic continuations of revered films. An overt
debt is suggested by Lorne Malvo’s discourse on pie in Fargo’s penultimate episode, as well as the presence of  Bemidji Deputy Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) who,
like Twin Peaks’ crime-scene weeper
Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), can’t handle the sight of a dead body. Both shows,
as well, provide sly, structural acknowledgements that they take up where their
predecessors left off. In Fargo, it’s
the bag of ransom cash left behind by the film’s ill-fated Carl Showalter and
found by the show’s ill-fated Milos Stavros. In Twin Peaks, there’s the way the opening credits move from an image
of a Varied Thrush to the town’s churning mill machinery, a casual
deconstruction of the mechanical robin that sits on the windowsill, a beetle in
its mouth, at the end of Blue Velvet.
In each case, we are assured the stories, although different, are nonetheless
connected.

Of course, it’s not exactly novel
to acknowledge that Fargo owes a
great deal to Twin Peaks (the list of
shows with a similar debt is long and distinguished).  Still, something seems to get lost in
translation. Whereas Fargo (the
series) adopts the naturalism and
realism of its forbearer —not just the pretty snowscapes, but the grubby
reality of ice-laced sidewalks, parkas, mukluks, and bulky sweaters—Twin Peaks eschews naturalism for Peyton Place-like melodrama. Lynch’s
performers, pushed toward soap operatics, enact a kind of repeated denaturalization.  Twin
Peaks
’ distance from realism (and the
real
) is established from the opening credits of the first (and each) episode,
which inform us that Twin Peaks is far from
a small town (pop. 51,201).  As a result,
the sense that it’s a place where everyone knows everyone else (Laura Palmer’s
corpse is recognized by everyone at the crime scene) isn’t based on geography, demographics,
or any other extrinsic ordering principle. In other words, the world Lynch is
exploring is, and is not, ours. It remains unbounded by logic even as it mimics
the narrative logic of other genres.

In the end, the Lynch of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks is less concerned with human nature than he is in the
ways we simplify it—and thus betray it—through representation. Indeed, the
“wholesomeness” of Twin Peaks is really the construct of Agent Cooper (Kyle
McLachlan)—who eventually takes up whittling because it’s “what you do in a town where a yellow light still means
slow down, not speed up”—and not the town itself, which is full of secrets. The image
of Blue Velvet’s fop-ish Jeffrey
Beaumont wandering the streets of a very 1950s-appearing Lumberton (in what
Jameson would describe as a “synthesis of nostalgia-deco and punk,” but what
non-academics might identify as an art-house cousin of Back to the Future’s Marty McFly) swaps historical linearity for an
eternal feedback loop in which artists merely adjust the dials. At its best,
however, Lynch’s fusion of “aw-shucks sincerity” with a non-programmatic pastiche
hints at genuine mystery within the “depthlessness." Indeed, in a period
when small towns could be elevated to the level of fetish through the violent,
nationalistic jingoism of movies like Red
Dawn
(1984), attacking these representations at the root is admirable. In a
sense, Jameson mistakenly identifies depthlessness where there is simultaneity.
And he fails to give enough credit to Lynch’s attention to the animal drives
underlying the placid, constructed surface of wholesome Americana. Sure, we
push through the lush grass at the outset of Blue Velvet to find the terrifying, chittering beetles churning
beneath. But what separates those beetles from the robin that devours them? In
other words, in the Lynchian universe, "civilized" and "uncivilized"
may be nothing more than a matter of perspective.

Although Hawley’s Fargo foregoes Lynchian pastiche, it doesn’t
avoid pastiche altogether. Instead, his series is a collage and pastiche of the
Coens’ films as a whole, with the heaviest cribbing coming from No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.
And, indeed, the nihilistic outsider has a long-standing place in the Coens’
cosmology, spanning from Tex Cobb’s bounty hunter in Raising Arizona to Anton Chigurh in No Country. But this “mash-up” of radically different source
material leads to problems. Even the Coens, masters of tonal manipulation,
struggle at times to keep their competing tonalities in balance. When they
fail, they slip into belittling condescension (Burn After Reading, A Serious
Man
). Fargo (the movie) took some
heat from critics for this on release, but in watching it now, its balance and
control seem exceptional, a highpoint in the Coens’ filmography.  The laughs are real, but its swift, graphic
violence is unsettling. For the Coens, there is no “good America” or “bad
America,” only America in endless variety. 
Thus, the cultural conventions that amount to “Minnesota niceness” are
nuanced and, like all conventions, neutral. In other words,

Midwestern
niceness can be deceptive—a form of fiction, or a means of avoiding the
unpleasantness that constitutes so much of the world. If the Coens only
highlighted the pleasant parts of the Midwestern disposition, that would be
condescending in its own right. Smartasses they might be, but they respect the Midwest enough to chronicle it in all its niceness and its
complexity.

But Hawley lacks the Coens’ mastery, and his Fargo provides little evidence of the
generosity—the grant of personality, intelligence, agency —that a sense of
the “tragic” requires. The reliance on stupidity and venality to drive the
series’ plot has significant psychic costs. In particular, I’m thinking of the
death of Glen Howerton’s Don Chumph, whose dimness and small-scale ambitions
(he wants to extort just enough money to open a Turkish bath) are seized upon
by Malvo, who belittles his dream and orchestrates his death. That death, duct
taped with a shotgun to a chair, in a hail of bullets that would make Peckinpah
proud, is given an operatic treatment so much larger than Chumph’s life that it
can only be seen as a last joke at his expense. It’s one thing to play the
dimness of your characters for laughs; to then dispatch them violently,
mercilessly, or worse, humiliatingly, is nothing more than cruelty.

*          *          *          *


Fargo
isn’t the only major
miniseries of the past year that centered on a mysterious outsider spinning
webs of Philosophy 101-level nihilism, of course. There’s a moment early in Nick
Pizzolatto’s True Detective, the
camera tracking Detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew
McConaughey) from high above their Chevy Caprice as they glide through the
Louisiana countryside, where Cohle offers his opinion of the people he’s sworn
to protect and serve: “People around here,” he says, “it’s like they don’t even
know the outside world exists. Might as well be living on the fucking moon.”
Like the clockwork universe of Hawley’s Fargo,
True Detective’s Louisiana also takes
issue with individual ambition. Down on Louisiana’s southernmost edge, in
Pelican Bay, the grandfather of murder victim Rianne Olivier restates the
sentiment as an ethical imperative, suggesting that her disappearance is the
result of fatal immodesty: “Everybody
think they gonna be something they not. Everybody, they got this big plan.”

True Detective doesn’t
share Fargo’s single, coherent
community, of course. As enamored with Louisiana’s landscape as True Detective is – the camera lingers
over not only its idiosyncratic natural landscape but also its “jigsaw” of
pipelines and the refineries – it’s far more interested in that landscape as a site
of cosmic horror than in socioeconomics. As a result, the show traffics in clichés
of Bayou exoticism: the Cajun, the Creole, corruption and conservative
politics, “Santeria and Voudon all mashed together,” Mardi Gras, evangelism, a
swampy apocalypticism. [4] As
Detectives Cohle and Hart move among the kith and kin of the murder victims, the
thread tying the various characters together seems to be a feeling of persistent
degradation: the headaches and corroded hands of Dora Lange’s Mother (Tess
Harper), the neurologically-damaged former baseball player Danny Fontenot
(Christopher Berry), Burt (Douglas M. Griffin), the castrated and
mentally-handicapped member of a local church, and even Tiger Thomas (John
Eyez), the drug dealer kidnapped and tortured by Ginger and his crew of Iron
Crusaders. 

These witnesses and leads never
amount to much more than a gothic menagerie (a touch of Flannery O’Connor, a
bit of Night of the Hunter). They
provide True Detective with rich
atmospherics, and an occasional red herring, but Pizzolatto doesn’t ask his
audience to imagine the day-to-day (let alone the internal) lives of the characters.
Instead, they’re emblematic of the forces of entropy (both natural and
cultural) that continue to work on the landscape and its inhabitants, the
zombie population of Cohle’s “fading memory of a town.” This persistent
degradation—of memory, culture, and landscape—presents a staging ground for
cosmic terror.  Our brief experiences
with the residents of southern Louisiana makes it abundantly clear that they’re
incapable of resisting whatever forces are at work. And Errol Childress (Glenn
Fleshler), in the grotesque grandeur of his ruined family and his ruined home,
is the embodiment of that terror. Perversely, and fittingly, it is in the
chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction that this evil is
permitted to "have a real good time."

Of course, True Detective was, from the jump, more interested in what was
going on inside that Chevy Caprice than in how people live outside it, in the
dialectic between the flinty Cohle and the good-old-boy Hart (with its easy
reduction into “cold” and “hot” and “coal” and “heart”): the former shunning
community while secretly craving it, the latter arguing on its behalf while
constantly betraying it. Hart invites Cohle to dinner, but doesn’t really want
him to stay; Cohle doesn’t even want to show up and yet lingers in conversation
long past (Hart’s) welcome. When we finally arrive at the story’s end, after the
climax has finally, definitively divorced the story from reality, it’s pretty
clear that the narrative and emotional drive of the series is fundamentally
that of a Romantic Comedy (by way of its homosocial cousin, the “buddy cop”
story) that happens to have a Southern-fried supernatural thriller grafted onto
it.  Because of this, the show’s
preoccupation with the relationship of its main characters means that we hear a
lot about what the characters think
about community rather than experiencing that community for ourselves. And yet
there are moments that reveal the region’s social and cultural transformation
as, over the years, the pastoral background gives way (enacting Jameson’s
“imperceptible thickening,” perhaps) to an anodyne wasteland of strip malls and
storage units. When the detectives visit a dilapidated bunny ranch tucked off
of the secondary roads near Spanish Lake, we glimpse the myriad ways in which
cultural and/or economic entropy can lead to new social arrangements.  It’s also one of the show’s sole assertions
of female autonomy. Even if that autonomy is colored by sexual commerce, it
stands out from the other scenes in which Cohle and Hart talk with witnesses by
being something more than a simple reification of narrative hierarchies.

*          *          *          *

What is it
about these small towns and rural spaces that inspired Hawley and Pizzolatto to
animate them with their cosmic and/or philosophical stories of good and evil?
Their reasons are different on a number of counts, I’m sure.  But I can’t help but think they share at
least two. The first is a reliance on their settings as “separate points on a
map,” a separateness that allows them to control their experiments in good and
evil but only at the expense of nuance and complexity. The second is diminished
expectations. Whether it’s the novelty of Hawley’s surprisingly cruel
Minnesotans, or the passive acceptance of the evil in the midst of Pizzolatto’s
Louisianans, stereotypes and assumptions about the people who inhabit the shows’
locales allow Hawley and Pizzolatto free reign to wax exegetic on so-called
forces of light and dark. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone accepting their
manipulations anywhere but the "moonscape" of small town or rural
life.  As with Jameson’s essay, however, this
tells us more about how we imagine small towns than it does about those who
live in them.  Of course, our own
collective imagination has been influenced by a long, pervasive history of
representation. Shows that manage to step outside or beyond the level of
stereotype or trope are rare.  The second
part of this essay will discuss some of that history and two recent examples of
shows that complicate it.

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of
poetry,
Tremolo (Harper 2001), was
awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have
been published in
The Boston Review, Coldfront, the Columbia Review, Hyperallergic,
Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Brooklyn.



[1] Thornton
has described his character in interviews as “this mysterious stranger who
comes to town.”  See http://www.vulture.com/2014/04/billy-bob-thornton-fargo-interview.html

[2] The graphic nature of the violence in the
Coens’ Fargo leaves one with the mistaken impression that there are far more
casualties than there actually are. Further, the Coens’ directly reference the
impact violence has on community in Blood
Simple
, a phrase taken from Dashiell Hammett that acknowledges its
collective psychic toll.

[3] In this sense, “small town” fictions,
particularly in the Midwest, provide an opportunity to avoid pesky diversity
issues.  In Fargo, the cast is overwhelmingly white, and the few minorities
written into the script are the object of ridicule, violence or both.

[4] As others
have noted, the Louisiana landscape is a perfect fit for Pizzolatto’s purposes
– which is probably why it’s also the setting for HBO’s other series about the small-town supernatural, True Blood. 
See
http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/03/true_detective_louisiana_is_more_than_just_the…

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