Fargo Season 2 and the Violent Eloquence of Mike Milligan

Mike Milligan

A strangely pensive yet strikingly verbose Bokeem Woodbine brings a slick 70’s blaxploitation vibe to the sophomore season of Fargo on FX.  Set in 1979, Noah Hawley‘s tightly connected plot explores the end of an era in surprising ways.  Perhaps the most surprising of these is Woodbine’s portrayal of Mike Milligan, an articulate gangster who wields a thesaurus to deadly effect.

The setting of Fargo takes us back to a turbulent time in American history.  It is the dawning of the computer age, as evidenced by a debt-ridden typewriter salesman.  It is the end of “family business” in the eyes of the Kansas City mob, who move to absorb the Gearhardt shipping operation with an aggressive corporate takeover, and global politics are set to take center stage, foreshadowed by a brief stint with the Reagan campaign.  Above all, the trauma of the Vietnam War still haunts all of Fargo’s characters.  Milligan navigates this desolate landscape with malignant restraint, emerging from the fray to carve a place in the new world order.

Milligan’s own distorted world view, when taken in context, somehow makes sense in the violent underworld of organized crime.  He is essentially a sophisticated knight-errant, on a quest for riches, social advancement and self-acceptance.  He sees his current alignment to the Kansas City mob as a means to an end.

Attended by his two men-at-arms, the Kitchen brothers, Milligan proves that the pen is indeed mightier.  His words carry the weight of his veiled threats, and he manages to wreak havoc through language and sleight of hand, while the Kitchen boys provide the muscle.  In one particularly menacing scene, Milligan quotes from “Jabberwocky” as he undertakes a bloody errand for his mob bosses.   It is here that we see his sense of nobility and his romanticized view of the enforcer’s life.  While some would drift into sadism, Milligan drifts toward chivalry.  Instead of seeing himself as a knuckle-dragging head-buster, he equates his bloody exploits to the noble deeds of the Knights of the Round Table.  His is a violent yet honorable profession.

In the end, Milligan’s expectation for risking life and limb on the field of battle is to be rewarded with a castle, feudal lands, and a fat allowance. He would have been content with just a slice of the Gerhardt empire which he helped to conquer.  To his disappointment, however, he discovers that he has been tilting at windmills, and the expected benevolence of his liege lords in Kansas City is the stuff of bygone days. A cramped corner office with a barren desk, a rusty lamp, and a creaky wing-backed chair are the only spoils of war.  We feel his utter disbelief, and the claustrophobic desperation of a man imprisoned deep within the corporate dungeon of bureaucracy.

The question of “what now?” lingers for Woodbine’s character.  It is an unsettling end to the violent and quirky tale.  Ironically, the boss comments on this, suggesting that he get a hair cut and join the 1980’s. Like the knights of old, Milligan finds that the feudal era has ended, and the world is now that much bleaker for the most eloquent of warriors.

Finn the Emasculated Storm Trooper

Finn

Actor John Boyega plays Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Man, I really wanted to love the character of Finn, I really did.  When I saw the trailer, I said to myself, “Hell, Yeah, a Black Storm Trooper!”  I mean, I was all jazzed at the idea of seeing a brotha straight stomping some Rebel scum, then turning away from the Dark Side to redeem himself.  Unfortunately, the Finn I wanted to see was not the Finn I got.  J.J. Abrams and the new crew at Disney nerfed the poor guy and turned him into a sniveling caricature. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

Now I acknowledge that Star Wars is a fantasy, and the platform isn’t necessarily supposed to push a social agenda, but Finn’s story arc left me frustrated to say the least.  It’s as if Disney was afraid that a gritty, heroic, fully realized black character would scare away their audiences. As a result, poor Finn spent most of the film being rescued, getting his ass kicked, helplessly shrugging his shoulders, and shuffling through this tired retread of a plot from 1977.

Disney missed a huge opportunity to move forward in the depiction of a black character on the big screen. When the scrolling yellow preamble told us about the “best fighter pilot in the squadron, dispatched on a secret mission”, my heart leapt.  That’s Finn, I thought to myself, as I sat mesmerized by the glowing screen in the dark theater. That’s the Finn I wanted: an actualized and progressive black character, presented to us from a position of strength.  Alas, this was not to be.

Even when the “best pilot” turned out to be Poe Dameron, I still held out hope.  My next thought, was: Damn, that’s tight, Finn somehow managed to infiltrate the First Order, and he’s Poe Dameron’s contact on Jakku. Nope, wrong answer. Turns out, he was just a defective cog in the Imperial machine. Lastly, during that first fateful eye-lock with Kylo Ren, I thought surely it would be Finn who had the Force awakening within him.  Nope, wrong again.  My heart sank.

I suddenly realized that poor Finn wasn’t written to embody any of these more complex story functions. Instead, Disney gave us, in Finn’s backstory, a hastily constructed, and thinly veiled escape from slavery narrative (e. g. – captured young, forced to serve, breaking his chains, fleeing from his masters – you get the picture). There’s even a painfully convenient, and vaguely inconsequential, reckoning with his former overseer.  Come on, Hollywood, really? Is that all you got?  Unfortunately, yes it is.

Are these more nuanced story threads too heady for the summer blockbuster crowd?  Hollywood apparently thinks so.  It’s about what sells, right? And edgy girl power is all the rage in Hollywood these days. Fine, fine–don’t challenge us, squander an opportunity to develop a complex character of color,  then pummel us over the head with rehashed images from the original trilogy.  After all, you got my fifteen bucks, which is what you really wanted anyway.

In all fairness, newcomer John Boyega did the best he could with what he was was given.  I actually liked the guy as an actor. And even though his character was systematically marginalized throughout the film, at least they didn’t kill him.   We’ll have to wait and see how Finn will continue to grow as the series continues.

But I’ll tell you right now, I ain’t holding my breath. The Hollywood blockbuster machine is all about making money, not progress.  No matter how you slice it, stereotypes are still stereotypes, even if you place them in a galaxy far, far away.