I am having such an American weekend! Star Wars yesterday, and finally catching up on Fargo today! But, since I am still a student of Indian film, just like Star Wars yesterday, Fargo made me start thinking about what it has in common with Indian narratives, and how those narratives might actually be universal.
In this case, the Mahabharata. Or more accurately, the Mahabharata versus the Ramayana.
Fargo, if you haven’t seen it, is a limited episode mystery anthology, each season is a completely new situation loosely connected by location (mid-sized towns in Minnesota with some criminal connection to Fargo, North Dakota). The first season, which was delightful, set the killer Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton) against the responsible cop Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). The entire season was set up as Malvo’s implacable force of evil against Molly’s noble force for good, with a variety of characters with shades of grey caught between them.
At first, the second season appeared to be establishing a similar dynamic. Molly’s father is the hero this season, another noble cop. And there is a powerful crime family with a terrifying old man in charge of it. We will have a noble hero and his family set against a terrifying villain and his.
But then the head of the crime family dies. And we start to learn that our hero is not perfect, struggling with nightmares from his time in Vietnam and grief and denial over his wife’s impending death from cancer. And after that, we meet cops who are not just incompetent, but cowardly and self-interested. And we begin to sympathize with the members of the crime family, all of whom are driven by their own needs and fears and relationship drama. By the 3rd or 4th episode, it becomes clear, not just to me but to all the other online reviewers I read and the comments on their reviews, that this is a different kind of world and a different kind of story from season 1.
Season 1 was set in 2006, the world was scary, but settled. Good was good and bad was bad. Season 2 is set in 1979. At first, that seemed to just be a random decision, allowing them to use younger versions of the same characters. But it was a calculated choice, a year when everything in America seemed to be falling apart, with Reagan coming to power and promising to solve it all.
So, right, all of these reviews were using long complicated sentences to explain how season 1 just felt different from season 2, and I was watching it going “Hey! It’s the Ramayana versus the Mahabharata!” Right? Ram and Sita and the gang were more or less perfect. And Ravaan and his cohorts were a clear cut evil. And just in general, the world makes sense. Ram should be king, Sita should be Queen, Ravaan should be defeated. And then in the Mahabharata, it is all much harder to define. The Pandavas are our heroes, but sometimes they do things that are less than heroic. And the Kauravas are our villains, and yes they do bad things, but very occasionally they will do good things as well. And some of their allies are actual good people who have been forced into this alliance.
More than our main characters, the times themselves are different. The Ramayana takes place in Treta Yuga, when everything is slightly worse than the Satya Yuga, but still pretty good. The world is lush and peaceful, kings are wise, subjects are obedient, and so on. The Mahabharata takes place in the Dwapara Yuga when resources are becoming scarce, war is becoming more common, and all people are just slightly weaker, sicker, morally less than they used to be.
I don’t think this is because the writers of Fargo are stealing ideas from Hindu mythology. I think that Hindu mythology found a basic human reality. Sometimes, when the economy goes down or the climate changes or social injustices suddenly hit the news, it feels like the whole world is spinning out of control around you. And in those times, it can be hard to believe in pure heros or villains.
But in other times, everything seems settled. Maybe things are bad, but they are the same bad that they’ve been for a while. The world makes sense, we know what the problems are and how to fix them, we know what is bad and what is good. And it is obvious who is the villain and who is the hero.