The camera focuses on a pea green bumper sticker with the words "We are not alone" next to the white outline of a UFO. The rest of the screen is filled with the window of a local gas station, a bullet hole dead center, evidence of a senseless murder we just witnessed.
This shot nicely encapsulates FX’s Fargo. Loosely inspired by the 1996 Coen brothers movie of the same name, Fargo's second season is set in 1979 and features a winding, character-driven plot that would be impossible to fully explain. Among the elements involved: both a local and national mafia, a small-town butcher and his wife, a detective trying to solve a murder, New Age self help, feminism, Ronald Reagan, big businesses swallowing up local economies, post-Vietnam ennui...
Oh, and also aliens. As in full-blown, flying saucer aliens.
As ridiculous as this sounds, it's the random alien presence — including a spacecraft that sporadically shows up out of nowhere — that's the most fascinating part of the show. The aliens occasionally appear at pivotal moments, setting this season's plot in motion, delaying a hitman long enough for someone to get away or most recently bringing the climax of the season to a halt in one of the most audacious deus ex machina moments I've ever seen.
This view of God is a common theme in the work of the Coen brothers.
Yet equally as noticeable as the presence of the aliens is their absence. In between their appearances, dozens of people die, many of them as innocent bystanders. Oftentimes justice seems far too slow in coming and when it does show up it seems too little too late. Meanwhile, the aliens seem to be watching. Throughout the season the camera frequently adopts a "God's eye” perspective, reminding us that this is all being observed from above. Because they rarely intervene — and when they do their motives are obscure — we’re left to wonder: "Just who are these creatures and why do they seem so casually indifferent to human suffering?"
It’s not too far-fetched to assume that the aliens are a stand-in for God. In fact, this view of God is a common theme in the work of the Coen brothers. In many of their films — most notably No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man — God may exist, but only as a deist watchmaker who wound up the world and now sits back as life plays out. In capturing the late ’70s UFO craze and turning aliens into a representation of God, FX’s Fargo claims that humanity will always look to the skies for answers, but that doing so might end in madness. The bumper sticker says "We are not alone," but the show counters by asking what good does that do us when so much suffering goes unanswered?
Even so, there are moments when Fargo seems to be searching for the God of Christianity — the one who, through the Incarnation, became "God with us." The series is slightly less caustic in its searching than the Coen brothers’ movies, where the only way to respond to God's absence is with a shrug and bitter smile. Here, the characters’ search for meaning is treated with more warmth and with more hope. In this world, it’s possible a divine benevolence could still, in some form, exist.
And so as Fargo wraps up its second season on Dec. 14, I'm rooting for its characters to find what they’re looking for: evidence we truly are not alone.