V. M. Varga and the Boy Who Wouldn’t Lose His Temper: FARGO Season 3 As A Fairy Tale
What is it that makes certain television shows so gripping? What causes certain stories to stick to our ribs? The pathos, certainly, but as important as the pathos itself is the character who delivers it, whether hero or villain. The Coen Brothers have a particular talent for creating lively characters and invoking incredible pathos. From all light and dark shades of the comic spectrum, the Brothers are able to coax a kinship with mystery genres, heist genres, romance genres, and a great many more besides. More interesting than their ability to fuse genres without effort, however, is their sleek incorporation of mysticism into most of their stories, with one particular example which jumps straight to mind being Hudsucker Proxy. This spirit of mystic exploration blossoms in the heart, also, of a show created by Noah Hawley in deference to the Coen Brothers, an anthology series inspired by their 1996 film of the same name: Fargo.
Being an anthology but loosely connected season by season through means of theme and the constellations of their characters, the proper way to analyze a season of Fargo is as a means to its own end, rather than the end of the series as a whole. Thus, in discussing the third season as we will today, rest assured, viewers, seasons one and two will not be spoiled. But coming off of a vacation as I have, and with my most recent article set being a two-part series on Hannibal, I can think of no better way to get back into the swing of essay-writing than to explore what is, to my mind, the most successfully repugnant villain (and TV devil) to date: V. M. Varga.
Though I compare Varga to Hannibal, it is only in that they are a pair of villains who represent the fascinating dichotomy present within the archetype. On the surface, both bear similarities: they are lean men who wear suits, speak English with a European accent, and who tend to make life miserable for everyone around them. When those similarities are stripped away, however, it becomes apparent just how different the two really are. Hannibal’s ethical code—eat the rude—does not occur to Varga, who is, himself, appallingly rude, and not just rude, but disgusting. Hannibal will invite himself over to your house, carrying a glass dish with a human roast inside of it, hoping to extend to you hospitality; Varga will invite himself over to your house, eat the food you had already prepared for yourself, then go vomit in your bathroom. Yes, indeed: the character of V. M. Varga is so antithetical to that of Hannibal Lecter that, as much as Hannibal savors the sensory pleasure of cooking, table-setting and eating, Varga is a gluttonous bulimic who binges at disgusting length before purging in the nearest toilet. As a result, his breath is fetid and his teeth are rancid. The suits he wears are not fine-tailored three-piece windowpane affairs, but rather secondhand and possibly largely stolen. And yet, like all devils, he is a smooth talker, a quick thinker, and given to proselytizing—particularly about the Bible. When confronting the main character, Emmett Stussy, he takes care to point out the Biblical nature of the men’s feud: “ It’s all very Old Testament, really, this feud between you and Raymond. Do you know there are 25 chapters in the book of Genesis that refer to the feuds of brothers? Cain and Abel, most famously, but Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery. Not to forget the sons of Isaac. “And my brother Esau was a hairy man, but I am a smooth man.” Then not another peep. Corinthians, Leviticus. You’d think all the brothers of history had worked things out, but, of course, we both know that’s not true.”
So, what is the problem being represented by the brothers? The problem which so concerns the Bible—even Gnostic interpretations of the relationship between Christ and the Devil—and so concerns season 3 of Fargo? The answer, like the problem explored in The Master and Margarita, is the issue of duality. The Stussy feud which motivates a large portion of our plot is quite Biblical, with Esau’s bowl of soup replaced by the car younger brother (and deadbeat) Raymond Stussy received in exchange for the stamps which were willed to him by their dead father; Emmett received the stamps for his trade and sold them to make his fortune, but kept and framed one particular stamp, the “famed two-penny red U.S.” which is so rare because one of the 2s on the stamp is printed in reverse. The 2s, then, reflect one another, while in the center of the stamp Sisyphus pushes his boulder up his cursed hill. This subtle background detail is one of countless others emphasizing the point of duality: Raymond and his girlfriend, Nikki Swango, spend part of the first episode engaged in a bridge competition, bridge being a card game played in partners—and the outcome of the contest bears serious foreshadowing for later on in the season. Gloria, our cop of the season, is frequently forced to flip U-turns. And, of course, there is the story of The Planet Wyh, a fictional novel written by one of the show’s characters which concerns, ultimately, the yes/no nature of “To be or not to be” in an episode seemingly focused on the very same concern, titled “The Law of Non-Contradiction”. The problem of existence and non-existence, the problem of good versus evil: Varga, being the Devil and therefore the Devil’s advocate, comes to Emmett in a moment of crisis saying that, “I’m so rarely seen, maybe I don’t even exist,” and this is not just a throwaway designed to mess with Emmett’s mind. This is Varga contradicting his own, verifiable existence, the statement “I don’t exist” being an inherent paradox containing both sides of the duality, for if ‘I’ does not exist then the question of who exists to do the non-existence is quite a conundrum. Likewise, in the penultimate episode of the season, Varga tells defeated Emmett, “The problem is not that there is evil in the world, the problem is that there is good. Because otherwise, who would care?” This is the flip perspective, the opposite, in a way, of what the Devil tells The Master in Bulgakov’s masterpiece, as the Devil there does not indicate that either good or evil are a problem. Rather, they are mere conditions of being; and to call good ‘part of the problem’ is to indicate the same thing in perhaps a harsher way. Indeed, Varga is all about harsh lessons; and, like the Devil, he is all about deals.
Varga initially comes into the picture when Emmett Stussy and his partner Sy contact the money lending firm which put up their initial business capital in hopes of paying them back; however, when Varga arrives from the lender, he assures them that they can keep the money and consider it a gift, then goes on to explain that he will, moving forward, be using their business as a money-laundering operation. It is important to note first that Emmett is now forced to deal with Varga as a direct result of what he did to his brother—rather than NBC Hannibal‘s story of unwilling chaos magician Will Graham, the psychic allegory being played out in Fargo is far more terrifying: that of a mundane, materialist person with no frame of reference for the Devil who nonetheless becomes caught in his clutches through acts of bitterness, jealousy and greed. Emmett has, quite literally, already signed a contract with him, and he is coming home, not to collect his payment, but to collect Emmett’s soul. He not only moves into Emmett’s business, but, after Emmett’s wife leaves him due to his brother’s faked sex tape, practically moves into Emmett’s home, an act which involves opening Christmas gifts intended for Emmett and eating in massive quantities the food from Emmett’s refrigerator. He is also accompanied by three, ‘less-conscious’ manifestations of shadow archetypes, who come along like a trio of demons. If their quiet mannerisms and nature as background workers are not enough evidence of their low level of consciousness, the fact that all three are paired with a particular animal mask—specifically, the very Satanic combination of a black wolf, a goat, and a pig—links them with unconscious qualities and marks them as being somehow less (or more) than human. They seem to owe unquestioning loyalty to Varga, and are all as calm as he is.
The quality of calm is important to the Devil archetype, and it is highly important to Fargo. In Season 3, characters are constantly having temper tantrums, resulting in verbal arguments, property damage, cars being booted and at least one person’s death. These are all, obviously, huge losses; and, when paired with a cool that Varga does not begin to lose until episode 9, they bring to mind an obscure Devil fairy tale with which Americans may not be familiar: “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Lose His Temper.”
The story is, on the surface, very simple:
There was once a boy who got the best of the devil. His name was Erkki. Erkki had two brothers who were older than him. They both tried their luck with the devil and got the worst of it. Then Erkki tried his luck. They were sure Erkki would be worsted too, but no. Here is the whole story:
One day the oldest brother said: “It’s time for me to go out into the world and earn my living. You two younger ones wait here at home till you hear how I get on.”
The younger boys agreed to this and the oldest brother started out. He was unable to get employment till by chance he met the devil. The devil at once offered him a place but on very strange terms.
“Come work for me,” the devil said, “and I promise that you’ll be comfortably housed and well fed. We’ll make this bargain: the first of us who loses his temper will forfeit to the other enough of his own hide to sole a pair of boots. If I lose my temper first, you may exact from me a big patch of my hide. If you lose your temper first, I’ll exact the same from you.”
Naturally, the Devil is an expert at getting human beings to lose their tempers, much as Varga is capable of saying almost any absurd thing with a flat expression in order to get a rise out of other people.
The oldest brother agreed to this and the devil at once took him home and set him to work. “Take this axe,” he said, “and go out behind the house and chop me some firewood.”
The oldest brother took the axe and went out to the woodpile. “Chopping wood is easy enough,” he thought to himself.
But at the first blow he found that the axe had no edge. Try as he would he couldn’t cut a single log. “I’d be a fool to stay here and waste my time with such an axe!” he cried. He threw down the axe and ran away thinking to escape the devil and get work somewhere else. But the devil had not in mind to let him escape. He ran after him, overtook him, and asked him what he meant leaving thus without notice.
“I don’t want to work for you!” the oldest brother cried, petulantly.
“Very well,” the devil said, “but don’t lose your temper about it.”
“I lose my temper as I will!” the oldest brother declared. “What tomfoolery – expecting me to cut wood with such an axe!”
“Well,” the devil remarked, “since you insist on losing your temper, you’ll have to forfeit me enough of your hide to sole a pair of boots. That was our bargain.”
The oldest brother howled and protested but to no purpose. The devil was firm. He took out a long knife and slit off enough of the oldest brother’s hide to sole a pair of big boots.
“Now then, my boy,” he said, “now you may go.”
Eventually, after the middle brother fails, the youngest proves his patience through all number of absurd nonsense tasks, the Devil resorts to trying to slay the youngest brother and in the end is tricked into killing his own wife, and thus, loses his temper. This story brings to mind the patience of “Old Chief” Gloria Burgle while she pursues a case which initially seems unrelated to Varga and is, every step of the way, interfered with by the New Chief of her small town police station; it also brings to mind the smug patience of Nikki as she confronts Varga in the hotel lobby where she once played bridge with Ray, and the bout of temper which Varga shows as he fails for the first time to keep it together. (That same episode, we are treated to a particularly repulsive scene of him anger-eating a pint of Rocky Road ice cream while sitting on a toilet.) And though the story seems like, at best, an interesting parallel, one must wonder if it is not a direct influence on the plot of the season when one discovers that the last name ‘Varga’ is a Hungarian word meaning ‘leather-worker’, much as our temper-retaining Devil makes leather boots from men’s hides.
Further evidence that the season is, at its heart, a Devil fairy tale comes from episode 4, “The Narrow Escape Problem”, which features extensive use of motifs from Peter and the Wolf, and even uses Billy Bob Thornton, who played season 1’s Mercurial Malvo, as its narrator for the Peter and the Wolf references. Here, Gloria Burgle is paired with Peter, and indeed throughout the season bears much resemblance to the standard wide-eyed ‘youngest child’ fairy tale protagonist who must learn the truth throughout the course of their journey and come out the other side of the revelation a grown man, world-renown for his pair of devil’s hide boots. If Emmett is our ego plagued by the Devil, then Gloria is the renewing archetype who may or may not find her own position as Chief renewed as a result of her actions by series’ end, which is as of the writing and positing of this article, yet unfinished: and what of the mysterious Widow Goldfarb, who, from mysterious cell phone calls to unexplained covering, may well be the real identity of Emmett’s original benefactor? The Chthonic mother—archetypes like Hekate or Persephone—is that unconscious from which the Devil originates, the Devil in you, in me, in Emmett Stussy, who admits to Gloria that he’s been killing his brother slowly, over time, through allowing his younger sibling to fail while he himself, a smooth man, lived a smooth life. (Jacob and Esau is even represented in their mustaches: Ray has one, Emmett does not.)
The other side of this duality of poor choices and evil arises out of Gloria Burgle, but also, above her, out of a man whom she meets twice in episode four, and who later appears to Nikki during her near-death experience (which she interprets as happening as a conversation at a bowling alley). He introduces himself as Paul Marrane, which is the name of the Wandering Jew in The Turkish Spy by Alexander Dumas; his presence at the alley, and his function to confront the daemonic Yuri (whose name, ‘Yuri Gurka’, means ‘George George’ and represents another pair) with his crimes and the crimes of the cossacks with which he so identifies, place Paul in a clearly holy light, despite the Wandering Jew’s nature as a man cursed to wander the earth for taunting Christ while carrying his cross on the way to his crucifixion. Indeed, the Wandering Jew’s eternal nature—and the fact that Christ essentially cursed him to live forever, saying in response to the Wanderer’s urging that Christ ‘Go on quicker’, “I go, but thou shalt wait till I return.”—makes the character a symbol for that eternal part of us which must live and suffer forever, again and again, each time the world is made, and which knows it, watching, waiting: consciousness, unrealized. Until we awaken the Christ consciousness within ourselves, Consciousness waits forever in the shadows like the Wandering Jew, smiling, waiting for us to realize what it is we have been missing all this time: only when we raise our consciousness will Paul Marrane be able to abandon his post upon the Earth, and relax, while the Christ consciousness in us does the doing and the talking, and allows the Devil to kill himself in a fit of temper—probably, if I know my foreshadowing, by choking on his own, rotten tooth.
Thanks as always for reading, folks. Please be sure to read DELILAH, MY WOMAN if you haven’t already, and leave a review; in the meantime, I continue to search for an agent for THE LIGHTNING STENOGRAPHY DEVICE, but I am also contemplating self-publishing this book as I did its forebear, so let me know in the comments if you’d be interested in reading it. Finally, the in-progress novel code named RUBEDO is, I would say, halfway done, and I continue waiting on responses for the scripts I’ve sent out while I prepare to write the next. Thanks as always for reading and stay tuned for more essays—and more work from me—soon.