Fargo: Before the Law

Posted on October 20, 2015

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As Rye Gerhardt’s remains get hamburgered and Mike Milligan from Kansas City makes his presence known to the locals, the good officers of the law of Luverne, Minnesota try to make sense out of recent events while quietly keeping their pain and fears to themselves as much as possible. Meanwhile, Floyd Gerhardt goes up against her own son and makes her play for control of the family business, even as business concerns from Kansas City offer to buy it out from under them. In other local news, Peggy and Ed Blomquist are slowly being consumed by guilt and unhappiness.

And through it all, we just couldn’t take our eyes off all the outerwear.

Because think about it: if you’re setting your story in Minnesota in the winter, then you pretty much have to make the costuming all about the outerwear. And if we’re talking about a multi-layered, thoughtful and HIGHLY analyzable story, then how can we not look for all sorts of meaning in those costuming decisions?

As family bonds, business bonds, and possibly even marriage bonds all get tested or appear to be on the verge of being broken in this story, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that those bonds tend to be illustrated in the costumes. But because there are so many conflicting agendas at play, there’s also a sense of tension in the costuming. And through it all, certain motifs repeat, giving the entire affair an ominous and foreboding feel.

 

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There’s a heavy color motif of blues and earth tones in a great deal of the costuming and art direction. Part of that is simply because these shades in these combinations were very common in the late seventies, but there’s also a sense of parallelism among characters and situations; a tying together of people and conversations through subtle color cues. We’ll get back to that in a second.

Notice how every character’s outerwear is distinct and manages to say something about them. Dodd is both the flashiest dresser in the Gerhardt clan and simmering with violence and menace so his outfit is trendier than the others and dominated by animal skins. Bear is working a lumberjack look, because what goes better with an axe? They’re very different from each other and yet they’re both wearing brown jackets with blue shirts. Bear’s unnamed (?) son, who has some sort of physical disability and is clearly not exactly the apple of his father’s eye, is set apart from the other Gerhardt men with his more youthful style and grey jacket, but all three men are wearing a different print shirt rendered in blue: plaid, abstract floral, and stripe, subtly indicating their bond and their differences.

 

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Blues and browns. Every man in a different style. These two are dressed to look like the outsiders they are. Joe has a look more suited to the city and uses words like “farkakte,” which implies that he’s Jewish. His tweed coat, fedora and citified facial hair indicate someone who’s unwelcome and threatening to the Gerhardts. Mike is, of course, going to stand out in any scene in these settings simply by virtue of being black. That outsider status is further illustrated by his very distinct bolo tie. And while his tone-on-tone blue outfit tends to make him stand out, it also establishes its own motif, which will repeat in other characters. Blue is threatening, discordant, or ominous throughout many of the scenes.

 

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But let’s talk more about parallelism before we get to that. The Kitchen twins embody this theme, of course, but in far more ways than are obvious at first glance.

 

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While there are little attempts to assert an individual identity on each of their parts (like the different shirts and the reversed color schemes), there’s no denying that they aren’t quite so much individuals as part of a unified whole. This is pretty much the flip side of Dodd and Bear Gerhardt, whose costuming is more about their differences with much more subtle references to their bonds. So the Kitchen twins not only mirror each other, but provide a reverse image of the Gerhardt brothers. And there’s even something of a pun on their name in this episode, with two very important, flipped-image kitchen scenes as the centerpiece of this episode.

But before we get to that, let’s get back to Mike Milligan’s threatening blues.

 

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Ed and Peggy Blomquist are both working a similar blue-on-blue color scheme, which reflects that parallelism in most of the costuming but also ties them to Mike Milligan, who’s currently trying to find the very man they have in their garage deep freeze, Rye Gerhardt. We can’t predict where things will go, but this connection strikes us as foreshadowing through costuming. They’re all working the same blue-on-blue motif because their destinies are almost certain to cross in the near future.

Peggy’s blood-red accessories, especially her gloves, with which she struggles the entire scene, forcing you to look directly at her hands the whole time, serve as indicators of the guilt they’re both feeling. They literally and figuratively have blood on their hands.

Further ties to Rye Gerhardt in the form of ominous blues comes in the Waffle Hut parking lot scene:

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Betsy’s cancer hangs over every scene of the Solverson family and her blue-on-blue outfit tends to underline that sense of foreboding while also calling back to Mike Milligan, who’s looking for Rye Gerhardt, whose gun Betsy finds in this scene.

Betsy and Molly match more than you would think at first glance. All the colors of their outfits match. Neither of them is wearing a color the other one isn’t. Both are in blue coats with white accents (like Peggy Blomquist) and plaid pants. Again, the costuming illustrates a very close family tie while also asserting clear differences between the characters. Because so many elements repeat in their outfits, Molly and Betsy come off like a picture of harmony. Contrast this with the more adversarial approach to the Gerhardt brother costuming and the slightly creepy mirror-image similarities of the Kitchen brothers. The Solverson women costumes reflect a healthiness in their relationship rather than the dysfunction of other family relationships in the episode.

Now, about those kitchen scenes…

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The Solverson kitchen is an explosion of earth tones and what was once called “harvest gold.” Underneath the slightly tacky bric-a-brac and aggressively middle class aesthetic is a feeling of warmth and connection. These characters all have an easiness and constant affection for each other.

 

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Contrast this with the Gerhardt kitchen scene, which is confrontational to an almost violent extent and awash in icy cold whites and blues. The bric-a-brac of the Solverson kitchen is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a sensible farmhouse aesthetic.

 

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Betsy, Lou and Hank connect with each other through their costumes; Lou and Hank in their uniforms and Betsy and Lou in their matching browns. All three trade information about the case while Molly remains blissfully unaware of what they’re talking about and set apart from all of them in her blue bathrobe, which serves only to tie her lightly to her mother. Visually, all the adults are in perfect harmony with each other and with the surroundings.

 

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There’s no sense of that harmony in the Gerhardt kitchen. Floyd is seen earlier in the kitchen counting huge piles of money and handing them off to a henchman with instructions. Her green and white sets her apart from the family in a lot of ways, but it also tends to reinforce that sense of money driving her actions. She’s sensible and stark in these scenes, going quietly up against the more bombastic and flashily dressed Dodd, and forcing your eye to her at all times.

 

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And yet, despite the coldness and overt power play, she is literally framed by the most heart-warming trappings of hearth and home. The irony here is that she exerts her power over Dodd by forcing him to break bread with her. “I’m your mother and you will eat with me,” she intones, before shoving a loaf at him and watching him break a piece off. The Solverson kitchen, with its formica countertops, Mrs. Butterworth bottles and faux wood had more familial warmth than a farmhouse kitchen with a dozen loaves of fresh-baked bread. This is perfectly of a piece with another overriding theme throughout the story: that things are not what they appear to be on the surface. Women who look healthy are dying. Grandmothers who look powerless are actually the strongest in the room. A happily married young couple is actually deeply unhappy and overwhelmed with guilt and secrets. A simple farmhouse or a Waffle Hut can be a haven of crime and violence. “First Watergate and now this?” complains someone at the beauty parlor, perfectly illustrating what Jimmy Carter called the “malaise” that had gripped the country at this time. Nothing is true or honest or real anymore. Not fresh-baked bread or wooden cabinets, not family ties or healthy mommies or happy marriages. From stolen toilet paper to cancer, everything’s either a lie about to be told or a promise about to be broken in this world.

 

[Stills: Tom and Lorenzo/FX]

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