I should have known that if I wrote about the brilliance of Fargo season 2 that the show would suddenly do something wrong. Perhaps it’s just that last week’s piece got me thinking more about the series, and it’s actually been flawed the whole time. Maybe there was just nowhere to go but down after two installments perfectly directed by Keith Gordon.
Whatever the case, last night’s penultimate episode, “The Castle,” was a bit of a disappointment. I wouldn’t say it was bad. Even with the return of so many reminder flashbacks, which were the bane of season 1. Most of the episode was still greater than anything else on TV right now. The new storytelling device, framing the episode as a chapter of a book on the history of true crime in the Midwest with season 1 actor Martin Freeman narrating (usually making the flashbacks okay), was a fabulously fresh idea. And his lack of omniscience is particularly Coen-esque.
As usual, the split screen and soundtrack were terrific in between the bigger moments (another neat nod to The Big Lebowski came with Britt Daniels’ cover of “Run Through the Jungle”). Also the biggest moment of the episode, a motel siege and shootout between cops and Gerhardts, was very well-executed. I especially loved when Ben Schmidt (Keir O’Donnell) recalled a line of his from season 1 by stating the massacre was like “Rapid City all over again.” Now we obviously need a prequel to the prequel showing what that was all about.
But as much as I appreciate anything to do with UFOs (I used to be a ufology junkie) and any allusions to other Coen Brothers works (here to The Man Who Wasn’t There), the flying saucer appearance in “The Castle” didn’t wow or shock me, as it apparently did many others. Like Peggy (Kirsten Dunst), my reaction was more “it’s just a flyin’ saucer” than surprise. I felt some relief because I was expecting it to come eventually, but I also felt indifferent because I was expecting it to come eventually. In fact, I was pretty certain it was going to come in this episode.
There’s foreshadowing and then there’s forespotlighting, and in “The Castle” director Adam Arkin (who also played Kansas City mob boss Hamish Broker in two previous episodes) does more of the latter. We’ve been given plenty of hints that a UFO would make a grand appearance since the beginning, when Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) met the front of Peggy’s car while staring at strange lights in the sky. And if you’re familiar with The Man Who Wasn’t There, you definitely anticipated this. But two separate close-ups on the same “We Are Not Alone” bumper sticker in the gas station convenience store in this episode put the foreshadowing over the line.
One reason to include foreshadowing in a story is to provide suspense. Typically that type of can be a little more blunt. Prominent display of a gun leads to someone being shot with it, as per Chekhov’s instruction. A bunch of characters putting on white t-shirts prior to a shootout signals that there’s going to be a lot of blood. There’s nothing really suspenseful about the chance of a UFO showing up for no explained reason during that same shootout. Because once it’s there, we don’t know what purpose it serves, unless perhaps we can deduce that a Gerhardt or any character will die as a result of staring at it. That does happen to Bear (Angus Sampson), even more so than it did for Rye.
Another reason to use foreshadowing is to subtly set up something that will seem like a surprise out of nowhere but is backed up by easily missed clues, usually discovered only after a first run-through of the story. Season 1 did it better with the fish falling from the sky, a shocker that was in fact led up to by a lot of fish imagery. Flying saucers aren’t much different from a rain of fish, in the Fortean sense, but UFO imagery is a lot more noticeable in a scene as being significant than are posters of cartoon fish and a mounted big mouth bass and an aquarium-like screensaver.
There are a number of spotlighting moments in Fargo season 2 that are okay, because they’re not foreshadowing so much as they’re pieces of a larger picture regarding that theme. The strange markings found in the office of Sheriff Hank (Ted Danson) and maybe even the drawing of a sun accidentally turned into a flying saucer by Betsy’s (Cristin Milioti) coffee cup aren’t necessarily hints of something to come. The “War of the Worlds” broadcast played over the end credits of an episode was blatant but still more of a clue because it doesn’t involve the characters. Random extras talking about aliens is foreshadowing. Stickers in the background of a scene is another definite clue related to foreshadowing, which would be fun to spot later. Allowing those stickers to fill most of the screen, though, is overdoing it.
When the Coen Brothers featured UFOs in The Man Who Wasn’t There, it was for thematic symbolism and also as part of the pastiche of the late-1940s setting. Flying saucers were a new phenomenon then, thanks to the Roswell crash and the Kenneth Arnold sighting, both in 1947, and excitement over UFOs continued to swell through the next decade. The Fargo series could simply be copying the pastiche idea. In the late 1970s, when it is set, we had an increase in UFOs in pop culture due to the success of movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977 and even having a President of the United States who claimed to have had a sighting.
If that is the case, that pastiche and thematic symbolism is the intention, then the saucer in “The Castle” shouldn’t have been either foreshadowed, let along excessively teased, nor a big deal. And we can assume we won’t be seeing its extraterrestrial contents or anything else related to it in the finale. Maybe Peggy’s response to Ed’s (Jesse Plemons) wonderment is actually the main thing to come away from with that scene, that it’s nothing. Just a flyin’ saucer. She is the show responding to the audience. I will forgive the rest if that’s the truth.