Yes, we have definitive proof that aliens exist. At least on Fargo.
Ever since those unearthly lights first descended upon the massacre at the waffle house near Luverne, Minnesota, Fargo fans have been wondering: Was that some kind of spaceship? And if so, would the show ever directly address the existence of alien life, or would it remain one of the many cosmic jokes in the Fargo world? In “The Castle” (read the recap here), we finally got our answer as Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) saw an actual UFO hovering above the shootout that she and her husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons), were escaping. “It’s just a flying saucer, Ed,” Peggy said, delivering one of the season’s best lines. “We’ve got to go.”
Of course, a flying saucer is never just a flying saucer. There are already a million great theories circulating about what that flying saucer really means. Is it a riff on a real-life close encounter that a Minnesota sheriff’s deputy claimed he experienced in 1979? Is it a reference to another Coen brothers movie, The Man Who Wasn’t There? Is it a way of illustrating the widespread feeling of paranoia in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam? Is it just a local inside joke about Fargo’s own Space Aliens Grill & Bar?
At first, I assumed the aliens were just another good excuse to do what this show does best: exploring what makes people “good” or “evil.” Or, more accurately, how the illusion of being observed can make you act like a better person, even if, deep down, your character is better defined by how you behave when you think no one’s watching. Think about Ed and Peggy. Outwardly, they’re the very essence of Minnesota nice, but inside their own twisted reality, they don’t see a massive disparity between stealing toilet paper from work or putting a human being through a meat grinder. Think about Hanzee or Mike. They’re ruthless murderers, but they act the same in public as they do in private — and unlike Ed and Peggy, they live by a strict, less malleable honor code. It’s not that they have no morals; it’s that their morals are different from ours, and the stakes are higher. In the Fargoverse, morality is relative and indeterminate. Think about Lou and Hank. When they talk about fighting in Vietnam and World War II, they remember people being killed in the name of freedom; in peacetime, they’re out to prosecute murder as a crime. To them, that difference is not remotely subtle. It’s the essence of ethics.
Now consider the voiceover track that plays at the end of the episode: “Before the Law,” a clip from Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that human affairs were being watched from the timeless whirls of space. No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even consider the possibility of life on other planets, and yet across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us.
Those words reminded me of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon, a building in which the inmates are all observed by a single watchman. Because one watchman can only watch so many people at one time, the inmates can’t possibly know if or when they’re being watched. So they have to act as if they’re being watched at all times, which makes them act like better people in the long run. That’s a little like living in a small Midwestern town, right? There’s always the chance that someone will listen in on your conversation or run into you while you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing, so it’s best to act your best at all times — at least, when you’re in public. But what about the times when you don’t know that you’re being watched? Would that change how you behave?
Imagine that unknown watchman as an alien, spying upon Peggy and Ed and Hanzee and the others. When you hear that War of the Worlds voiceover, the camera pulls up, as if to remind us that some unseen force is lurking above them. It’s a God’s eye point of view, one that Hitchcock often used, particularly after filming murders, as if to question where the souls of the dead would end up. Hitchcock used to say that in movies, the director is God, while in documentary, God is the director. But here, in this godless Fargoverse, what exists above them are flying saucer lights. This is a secular depiction of a failed Christian paradigm — a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world where “good” and “evil” don’t apply in the same way. The aliens are the gods… all-seeing, but also post-moral. And they’re a metaphor for another type of watchman, one who’s looking down at these characters with “minds immeasurably superior,” while also lapping up their misdeeds as pure entertainment. Maybe we are the aliens, watching them and judging them, especially at times when they don’t realize they’re being observed.
That was theory No. 1, anyway. But now that I’ve seen so many other episodes, I wonder if it’s slightly more political than that.
In many ways, this season of Fargo has been about a nation on the brink of great change. Showrunner Noah Hawley recently told Vanity Fair that he wanted to capture American identity as it evolved from the peaceful, activist 1960s into the radical, violent 1970s. “It seemed like all the disenfranchised groups, the American Indian movement and the Black Panther Party and second-wave feminism, it just seemed like everyone was going to fight and finally get their seat at the table,” he said.
You can see that idea reflected in Floyd, the first woman to run a family crime syndicate, who tells her granddaughter that there’s no such thing as “women’s work” and “men’s work” now. Her ideas are more modern than her lifestyle. You can see it in Hanzee, who’s finally rising up to claim the same power as the white family he defended for so long. He no longer believes the lies he was raised to accept. You can see it in Mike, who’s surely the only stylishly afro’d enforcer in the lily-white plains of Minnesota. This world is beneath him. The traditions long upheld by white men in America are starting to crumble. And some people are worried that America itself might soon crumble, too — which is why Reagan’s “Morning in America” message had such a profound effect on the good people of the Fargoverse in “The Gift of the Magi.”
“Remember, we just came out of Khrushchev and Nixon and we’re terrified of the Cold War and Vietnam, and everyone foreign was always a threat,” Jeffrey Donovan, who plays Dodd, said when asked about the alien subplot during a recent press conference. “I think [Hawley] was just trying to play into that.”
Americans. Men. White people. Everyone thinks they’re the center of the universe, until they aren’t anymore. And who believes they’re the center of the universe more than the people of Earth? When those aliens finally descended in this week’s episode, it felt like a warning. Some people might be dead. Peggy and Ed might have survived. But all of that is arbitrary. Everyone’s just biding their time until the little green men take over.