This is the second piece in a series of detailed critical readings of the FX series “Fargo,” which will be specifically be focused on analyzing how the anthology show continues to pay thoughtful tribute to Joel & Ethan Coen’s prolific body of work.
*These essays contain spoilers for both the show and various Coen Brother movies*
In my previous post on the new season of “Fargo,” I somehow neglected to mention a key character/storyline that could eventually end up shaping the overall historic framework of the series: the curious case of Oraetta Mayflower – the chatterbox hospital nurse, played oh-so radiantly by Jessie Buckley (“I’m Thinking Of Ending Things”), a free-spirited, seemingly unabashed/unfiltered woman in the form of a walking human thesaurus; oh, and who also happens to be a congenially conniving sycophant and sociopathic killer on the side, no big deal.
Donning a neighborly mask of maternal homeliness, when Buckley’s casting was announced, her character was probably not the expected candidate to fill the archetypical role of quirky Coen Brothers’ assassin, a la Lorne Malvo/Anton Chigurh (Billy Bob Thorton/Javier Bardem). Frankly, people’s gendered expectations (my own included) probably led to assumptions that she might be filling the shoes of characters like Gloria Burgle or Molly Solverson (Carrie Coon, Allison Tolman) – the small , Midwest beacon of light represented by Arby’s chomping super detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in the original “Fargo.” But, in Coppola-esque gangster film style, the kindly nurse smothers Don Fadda to death in his hospital bed, bodyguard taking a nap on the other-side of the room. After injecting the head of the Italian crime family with a lethal dosage, Oraetta removes his giant gold ring with her mouth, as if performing fellatio on the mob boss, then she starts singing to him. We were clued in to shades of her strange and shifty personality earlier, shrewdly catering to child-like whims of the newly crowned crime prince, Josto Fadd (Jason Schwartzman) sharing cocaine fun time with him when paying a visit to his fallen father figure. Her shadowy agenda has thus far been shrouded in mystery, but it seems she’s playing a longer game; is she the Goldilocks of the story – on a quest for some kind of personal retribution – or just a piece of a larger machine? One theory: we might have met Oraetta Mayflower way back in Season 2’s premiere, and we may have seen how her story ends already.
The second season of Fargo is set off by the Waffle House massacre, one of the murder victims’ names: Judge Mundt (Ann Cusack). Coen scholars will recognize the surname from “Barton Fink,” – a film whose connections to the FX series I touched upon in the previous article – as the true identity of Charlie Meadows: A.K.A. Karl “Mad Man” Mundt (John Goodman, robbed of an Oscar nomination), a serial killer who may, or may not, have left his neighbor a package containing a former lover’s severed head. The Judge is killed by the young and reckless Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) after a blackmail gone wrong, but Ms. Mundt puts up a hell of a fight and doesn’t go down easy (lending credence to my theory), defending herself with a can of bug spray after realizing the man who keeps staring in her direction wishes her harm. There’s something about her air of confidence, an almost self-absorbed assurance housed inside hasty blocks of banter – an intelligent passion to her cadence that really rings Oraetta. I may be reaching to connect the season dots here, but I wonder if her last name, paired with medical attire which looks very much like a Pilgrim’s get-up, points to it being a false one, not unlike Mr. Charlie Meadows.
Think about the character of Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon) a Native American fixer used by a White family to enact their personal brand of justice. Many audiences were shocked when the 2nd season finale revealed that Hanzee was the Fat Man Crime Boss in the 1st season of “Fargo,” all along, having undergone a plastic surgery, face-lift. Paired with the “Massacre at Sioux Falls” opening image, the finale brings into focus one of the sophmore season’s main through lines: the mythic transformation and rise to power of an Indigenous hit-man to the head of the table, having spent all his life playing second fiddle to those who colonized his homeland. Remnants of an American meadow have become a graveyard thanks to the rivalry between Cowboys and Indians. And, how has the United States perpetuated this myth for the past few hundred years? By teaching young impressionable students about the Mayflower, and churning out Western pictures. I know I had to write at least one elementary school report on the subject (no doubt, one far less comprehensive and accurate than Ethelrida Pearl Smutney’s family history chronicle). But, like many decisions made by characters society has shunned in a Coen Brothers’ flick, Hanzee decides to strike back against his oppressors at the end of the season.
I have a strong suspicion that Oraetta’s murderous motives are similarly rooted in historic oppression, but in her case, abuse and misogyny. Judge Mundt’s hair and attire are incredibly similar to Buckley’s character, as is her regional dialect (but that’s obviously something that could simply be coincidence, given how many people share the now-famously mocked Minnesotaahh, Yah! accent). The gravity the Judge holds over the second season’s first hour feels quite notable. She may be killed immediately upon us meeting her, but weren’t things very much the same in regards to Fatman Hanzee, A.K.A. Moses Tripoli (Mark Acheson)? She also just happens to be the friendly neighbor of another main cast member – like Turturro’s titular scribe in ‘Fink.’ In Season 4’s second hour, the hospital worker refers to herself as an “Angel of Mercy” (very Anton Chigurh), a befitting nickname for a future figure of judiciary power, one who could actually enact change within our problematic criminal justice system given her seemingly well-educated background. Seems Oraetta knows more than a thing or two about the life of the mind…
But enough words expended here on my Mad Oraetta theory (to clarify, FX has been ghosting me about screener access, so I’ve been watching the show week to week, just like the average viewer – that said, I’m going to be pretty damn proud if I’m truly on to something with this). I know I should probably start diving into, you know, all the other plotlines the show is unfurling before us, but I just keep finding specific details that the Coen Brother geek in me keeps honing in on. I also find it interesting that the new season produced 11 episodes, instead of the usual 10, and I’ll bet that had some effect on the leisurely pace Season 4 has taken thus far – probably my only real criticism outside its over-reliance on symmetrical optics (but more on that in a later piece).