September 20, 2017

In the Aftermath of the Emmys — The Paranormal Pleasures of “Fargo” and “Twin Peaks”

By Stuart Mitchner

When my wife and I checked into the Library Hotel in New York eight years ago, we were installed in the Paranormal Room. We didn’t ask for the Paranormal Room. If we’d known about the hotel’s subject area concept, we might have requested a room on the 7th floor (the Arts) or the 8th (Literature). Even so, we were okay with being in room 11.05 on the 9th floor (Philosophy), though neither of us has ever been seriously into fantasy, science fiction, or the occult unless you count teenage readings of Ray Bradbury, a few seasons of Star Trek, and a brief fling with Carlos Castaneda (a copy of The Art of Dreaming was on the bedside table, along with volumes on ghosts, ESP, and UFOs). 

Now that we’re considering an October return to the Library Hotel after a year of watching shows with paranormal elements, among them Orphan Black, Stranger Things, Mr. Robot, Outlander, The Man in the High Castle, Penny Dreadful, The Leftovers, Fargo, and Game of Thrones, we might ask for our old room back. Better yet would be a Magical Realism suite with a sinister ceiling fan like the one haunting Laura Palmer’s house in Twin Peaks, which set the standard for television strangeness in 1990-91. If you want the ultimate in paranormal luxury, complete with room service (a glass of milk) from a tall, gaunt, gently otherwordly old waiter, check into Room 315 at the Great Northern Hotel in Twin Peaks. You can even buy a replica of the key the real Dale Cooper opened the door to a parallel universe with on his mission to save Laura Palmer from the fate that set the whole project in motion.

Like a number of other shows, Twin Peaks: The Return was ineligible for consideration at Sunday’s Emmy award ceremonies. Even if it had been nominated, the mixed reviews it’s been getting suggest the show might have drawn only marginal support unless its backers were able to conjure up a Best Drama nomination and a Best Actor for Kyle Maclachlan on the strength of his three-tiered presentation of Dale Cooper as superman of evil, Dale Cooper in limbo as Dougy Jones, and as the too-long-in-coming authentic living breathing coffee-drinking FBI agent who showed up just in time for the most provokingly enigmatic finale this side of The Sopranos.

“Fargo” Rules 

As for the Emmy winners, while I enjoyed HBO’s Big Little Lies, which dominated the Limited Series awards, and while I admired The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, which won for Best Drama Series and brought a Best Actress Emmy to Elizabeth Moss, I’d have cast my vote for the Emmy-nominated third season of FX’s Fargo in a Best Drama/Limited/Comedy Series trifecta. Of course such a thing is impossible even if I could vote because it would violate Emmy’s rules, but then the power and the charm of Noah Hawley’s Fargo is that it brilliantly, wildly, funnily violates the rules of decorum, probability, expectation, and common sense beginning with the flat out fakery of opening credits that claim “This is a True Story” and ending with Gloria the good cop (Carrie Coon) and Varga the bad guy (David Thewlis) facing off while the prison clock ticks: either the guards will come to put Varga away or Gloria’s supervisor will let him go, and since Varga has displayed the supernatural powers of a 21st-century Mephistopheles and since all of officer Gloria’s supervisors have been clueless Trumpish dupes, Varga’s chances look good. As Hawley tells Deadline Hollywood, the cliffhanger ending reflects the broken reality of the Trump era: “It’s an allegory to the conversation we’re having at this moment. How will we treat each other? Is it American carnage?”

It’s not just that every episode of Fargo begins with a deception, the fake disclaimer goes on to say that the events depicted actually took place, and that “out of respect for the dead, their story has been told exactly as it occurred.” Even if you know that Hawley is having you on (as were the Coen Brothers, creators of the original 1996 film), you can’t help going along with the idea that what you’re about to see has some kernel of real-life credibility, evidence in the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that, as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction.

Great Expectations

You know what’s in store right away when a show is titled Stranger Things, which earned a Best Drama Series nomination for Netflix. Curiously enough, when a show so-named reveals its agenda upfront minus the ploy about a “true story,” it’s easier to accept that the normal everyday middle American small town Indiana setting is located in the epicenter of evil.

Other shows devoid of “true-story” claims, far from it, are Game of Thrones, which takes you immediately into another world where anything can and does happen, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, with its demons and witches and heady literary channelings of Dorian Gray, John Clare, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In HBO’s often fascinating but ultimately wearying The Leftovers, you’re asked at the outset to believe in the simultaneous disappearance of 140 million people. However brilliantly the premise is developed, it creates a domino effect of improbables that have you feeling as jerked around as the characters dancing to the frantic music of the concept. On the other hand, a production like BBC America’s Orphan Black, misleadingly labeled as science fiction, knows when to stop taking itself too seriously, though the absurd plot twists tempted us to give up on the final season. The show’s saving grace, along with Tatiana Maslany’s virtuoso performance as the clone sisters, is a sense of humor reminiscent of the black comedy delights of Fargo.

Other shows we’ve enjoyed that play fast and loose with the normal from the get-go are USA’s Mr Robot, where the seemingly living title character (Christian Slater) is actually dead; Starz’s Outlander, where a 20th-century woman travels back and forth in time; and dystopian shows like Emmy winner The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon Prime’s Man in the High Castle. In both series, the effectiveness of the fantasy depends on true to life, convincingly established settings.

Magical Realism

“I’m not against magical realism within a larger realistic story,” said Noah Hawley when TV critic Alan Sepinwall asked him about “the Wandering Jew in a bowling alley that may not be a bowling alley” in Fargo. “My concern,” he went on, “is if you start with magical realism, then you’re basically saying the story isn’t realistic on a mundane level, so I think the way to give the magic realism the most impact is to have it come in the middle of an otherwise grounded story, i.e., a UFO might arrive during a gun battle outside a motel [as happens in Fargo 2] and [we’re] saying that it’s a true story, and so it creates this tension …. Are we saying that there was a literal UFO [and] are we saying that there was a literal bowling alley in the woods?”

What happens is two characters we’re pulling for are being pursued by the apparent reincarnation of the murderous Cossack Yuri Gurka. The woods are dark and deep and cold and snowy, and the two people on the run (a beautiful parolee named Nikki and an unnamed hitman from previous seasons of Fargo) find refuge in a bowling alley. To anyone who knows the Coen Brothers, any bowling alley anywhere means The Big Lebowski, and to anyone who knows David Lynch, the man sitting at the bar (Ray Wise) means Twin Peaks and Leland Palmer, who killed his daughter Laura while possessed by a demonic force named Bob. In Fargo, Wise is a seer from the Other Side who has a special message for Nikki and the key to a car for her and her companion to escape in. He also has a kitten in his pocket named Ray, who may or may not contain the spirit of Nikki’s dead lover also named Ray (one of two feuding brothers inhabited by Ewan McGregor). Played with charm, force, humanity, and indominitable energy by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Nikki is by this time our favorite character (even including Carrie Coon’s steadfast Gloria), and when she picks up the kitten and stares into its eyes looking for Ray, it may be taking the paranormal to sentimental extremes, but it’s a special moment, and the whole sequence stands out among all the great shows of the past year.

Harry Dean’s Swan Song 

It’s a treat when the news of the day chimes with the theme of the week. For a column beginning in the Paranormal Room, I open this weekend’s New York Times to obits of “a Priest Who Evaluated Apparitions,” a science fiction novelist, and Harry Dean Stanton (1926-2017), who ends his extraordinary acting career as Carl Rodd, the manager of the Fat Trout trailer park in Twin Peaks: The Return. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting swan song for this 90-year-old trouper singing and strumming “Red River Valley” in the haunted heart of Twin Peaks. Stanton is also the compassionate witness to a hit and run that leaves a child dead and a mother in shock. It’s he who sees the boy’s spirit soar into the sky, one of the rare moments when something positive happens in the David Lynch firmament.

What Harry Dean Stanton does with the role of Travis in Wim Wenders’s Paris Texas is worth a column all by itself. Writing about the film on the occasion of its author Sam Shepherd’s July 27th death, I referred to Stanton’s “once-in-a-lifetime, beyond-praise performance as a mute spectral stranger-in-a-strange-land who relearns how to be a father.”