“Although ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ poses mortal problems, it sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.” – Albert Camus, 1955
From the film to the two TV seasons, all iterations of Fargo seem to hint at an existentially absurdist perspective, a viewpoint that held keep the abstract idea of Fargo cohesive. Fargo‘s second television season, however, expertly demonstrates what absurdism means.
Noreen, a morbidly curious teen, introduces Ed Blomquist and the audience to Camus directly. Existentialism hits us most viscerally when we learn about it at this time in life. Young adulthood is a time when we really get hit in the face with the true absurdity of existence when the myths of our childhood start unraveling. Forced to rebuild our meaning from the shards of our shattered childhood truths, we’re also hit with mounting pressures to do something with our lives in the face of a world that seems to be constructed of horrors and hypocrisy when it makes any sense at all.
Camus offers a solution, a workaround to the futility and “joke” of life, as Noreen puts it, but Noreen hasn’t processed that part yet. Instead, she unsettles Ed Blomquist with the blunts truth that we’re all gonna die, so our plans for our lives don’t really mean all that much. One solution to this is just to go ahead and kill yourself, as Noreen states, but the other solution, the solution that Camus recommends, is to build a life of meaning in spite of this. Although Noreen is toying with the rebelliously seductive notion of flaunting a lack of meaning and disregard for life, the next few minutes force her to cling to the bits of meaning that sustain her: flirting, religion, a will to survive and a basic reverence for the lives of others.
Humans are so wrapped up in a need for meaning, that we’ll do anything to infuse everything we encounter with it. The information we encounter from our environment is so startlingly overwhelming that we can’t process it, so we edit it a bit, we string it together in a tangible way. Every moment, every second, we are retelling stories, repainting our lives, making them make sense.
Ed Blomquist’s situation highlights the fact that our own narratives are often alien and maybe even in opposition to the narratives and plans of other people, including those closest to us. Ed lives in his childhood home with his wife, works hard, and had a plan to live a life in the template he grew up with. He dreams of kids and buying the butcher shop where he works. His wife Peggy has other dreams, but she can’t express them or live them very well because, as a housewife, she’s not in a position of agency in her own life.
She responds to her building frustration by hoarding magazines and reacting in an entirely mindblowing way when she has a chance accident with a man who turns out to be a member of the powerful Gerhardt crime family. Instead of driving to a hospital or otherwise getting help, she takes a man stuck in her windshield home with her, where her husband has to end up killing him (this scenario was inspired by real events about a man left in a windshield.) The couple then has to conspire together as the situation escalates, with present threats giving them an immediate goal.
Before all this, they lived in their own heads, dreaming of disparate things, but now they must live in the present, together. Her actions almost seem unexplainable, but when the reasons behind her peculiar actions are directly questioned by a cop, she pretty much lays out why she acted that way. “It’s like decisions made in a dream,” she says, explaining that living in her husband’s childhood home makes her feel like she’s living in a museum of the past. In other words, Peggy did this because, maybe even unconsciously at first, she saw disaster as her ticket out of her suffocating world. Instead, she shattered the myth of their lives for both of them.
Even though their worlds have been shattered and rearranged, both Ed and Peggy still represent Sisyphus. The rock we’re forever pushing uphill isn’t always the same rock. In the midst of chaos, Peggy clings to a dream of self-actualization while Ed holds onto the idea that if they just keep making the right choices, they’ll someday be able to get past all this and go on to a serene life. But there is no way out, even if they escape. They are still pinning meanings to their circumstances, and they can’t help it. This is the essence of the human condition.
This is Sisyphus’ task, and every means to escape it is not an escape at all. Camus argues that accepting it is the first step towards any contentment, and willfully assigning meaning to our lives (often this means changing rocks, or just looking at our old rock in a different way,) can give us the sense of purpose and fulfillment we crave. We cannot change craving this fulfillment, even in the absurdity of our existential position, because it is in our nature. In a way, Camus’ message is about accepting ourselves for the animals we are in the face of an onslaught of signals (which are often contradictory) from our society that tell us we should be dissatisfied with our lives. No matter what you do, someone will comment that you should do otherwise, that the answer is always somewhere else. This, too, is unavoidable, because we’ve all got a different perspective on things, and we find it hard to accept when we discover others may see things different, even if it’s clear they are in a different position. Looking for relief from others, or trying to oppose it on them can be agitating. “The worm is in man’s heart,” Camus says. “That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.”
When we refuse to assign meaning at all, or conclude that nothing’s ever worth it, we are still forcing meaning and a structure to our lives, just a dark one of suffering. Doing nothing or feeling useless exaggerates the problem of the situation. Bitterness and apathy make the rock heavier, make the monotony more dull and grating. As Camus argues, death may be the only escape from this, but it’s not the only solution. Death is inevitable, but so is this state we find ourselves in pre-death, this dream of living where we tell the story of ourselves again and again in our heads, recreating ourselves in every second.
Even Peggy’s “vision” includes ideas from the Myth of Sisyphus. When her delusion tells her “think or be, you can’t do both,” it’s hinting at a line from Camus’ essay: “Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” She feels enlightened by the idea that too much thinking or stewing about one’s identity can end up thwarting the act of actually being something. The conclusion she arrives at is sound, even if it seems to drive her “mad.” Part of her spiral into babbling, fierce, and glossy-eyed assuredness is her willful release of a pressure valve.
In their current position at the end of episode 8, Ed and Peggy have been spared from what seemed to be certain death almost innumerable times, and have also somehow evaded incarceration. Because of the strange accumulation of other circumstances hidden to them, they’ve continued to find themselves in situations where the next second is utterly unpredictable, making their lives seem even more absurd.
Underpinning all of this over-the-top drama is Betsy Solverson, who faces a quieter confrontation with death. Her husband, who spends quite a bit of time away from his dying wife, finds himself on Ronald Reagan’s security detail, and given a particular opportunity to affirm his own meaning. Reagan’s a consummate storyteller, both an actor and a population, his stories are polished and persuasive. Outside the spotlight, however, Reagan’s just another human fumbling through a mostly unknowable world.
Lou Solverson wants answers, though, when he finds himself in the same bathroom with the politician, or maybe he just wants to tell someone the best explanation he’s been able to come up with when dealing with his own bewilderment and pain. “I wonder if the sickness of this world is maybe inside my wife somehow, the cancer,” he says, linking his wife’s disease with the uncertain mess of the Vietnam war.
Meanwhile, Betsy is facing up to her death quietly and pragmatically. She softens blows for her family, but gets honest with lawyer Karl Weathers, who she pegs to take care of her family after she’s gone. She shares with him a certain candid intimacy we often shield from those we love the most. She knows she’s dying, and resents trying to coat her circumstances in inspirational analogies. When Karl tries to liken her cancer to John McCain’s POW experience, she shoots him down cold, letting him know it’s not the same thing, and she is aware of both her insignificance and powerlessness in the face of dying. This desire to compare cancer and other illnesses to war is a common compulsion. It feels better to see illness as a clear enemy. The problem is that even in war the lines are way more blurred that we’d like to let ourselves see, and illness is a part of life that is sometimes less of a fight than just something that happens to us.
In the face of her own personal absurdity, Betsy rejects the attempts at meaning she can see through. She finds purpose in keeping her family as healthy and as emotionally safe as she can with the knowledge that her death will eventually cause them pain. There’s nothing to be done to prevent their pain, but she’s devoting her last days to assuaging it.