There’s a moment early in Fargo’s intrepid second season when Hanzee, played to menacingly cold perfection by Zahn McClaron, is crouched in the midwestern snow looking for signs of Rye Gerhardt, the youngest son of a regional crime ring. The screen splits. On the right sits Hanzee, face downward, the object of his interest placed off-screen, while the left side reveals his hand reaching for a shard of glass. But the action’s timing is off, just a few seconds as the hand scoops the evidence, but enough for the viewer to feel the pinprick of disconnect.
With the recent season releasing on DVD and Blu Ray, I find myself remembering why I fell in love in the first place, and it isn’t the wacky onslaught of characters or the lurking UFO subplot. Rather, it’s how the show utilizes the split screen device to dazzling effect. The split screen itself isn’t a unique invention; it’s been used elsewhere on TV but is most popularly associated with cinematic directors like Brian De Palma. Traditionally the split raises tension or shows the audience multiple perspectives to otherwise emphasize contrasting elements within a scene. How that split is syncs with a linear timeline, however, is another story.
What makes this season different is how the show plays with time to tell a character-driven story, whereas others use cinematic effects as a stylistic flourish or gimmick. This season of The Walking Dead is good sampling. The premier opens with a flash-forward and -backward story structure, the latter of which is signaled by switching to black and white. The past few seasons of TWD have experimented to varying effect, but only for premiers or finales. Fargo, on the other hand, stays consistent with its chosen direction from beginning to end.
We’re first introduced to Fargo’s split screen in the opening seconds of the pilot, as a montage of actual news footage from the Jimmy Carter “Crisis of Confidence” era is spliced with snippets of establishing setting and characters. The images shown aren’t chronological, except for the fact they happen in 1979, and they show real and fictional events out of order. Not only does this opener introduce many of the show’s themes, namely a lack of unified purpose, but also makes a stylistic argument—that time, at least in the traditional sense, is irrelevant. By displacing time through split screens, the show highlights and unites characters’ disparate relationships with the world and each other.
Such editing complicates how the show develops its characters. For instance, after killing a treacherous family member in the woods, Bear Gerhardt (Angus Sampson) slumps back to his truck. The screen divides, splitting the scene between the present and seconds in the future. In the future, Bear stands beside his truck for a moment before pounding his cast on the hood until it shatters. Why track Bear from behind then, particularly when the emotional payoff comes moments later? Why not shoot the scene in a single shot? One possible answer is aesthetics, which is true, but the camera argues we’re looking at two different people—the Bear before and after he arrives at the truck.
In another scene, the camera crawls along the basement of Ed and Peggy Blumquist, a dim, tightly packed room stacked with Peggy’s newspapers and magazines, as the camera winds toward Peggy herself, all between split shots of characters in other locations. The scene is indicative of Peggy’s devolving state of mind, as if she’s dragging herself along the floor, a moment reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The sequence positions Peggy’s motivations between those of the other cast. While her husband searches frantically for her and the police are in casual pursuit, Peggy sits on the stairs waiting not for a hitman’s bullet but an escape from an unsatisfying reality.
What’s even more amazing, however, is how the show manages similar effects by dividing the scene instead of the screen. This split works particularly well because it draws attention to details that may otherwise be overlooked, whether it’s Lou Solverson and his daughter reading in a well-lit room while his wife works next door in the dark, or simultaneous reflected images of Kansas City mob men—one primping in a hotel room, the other in an mirror-lined elevator. A favorite of mine comes as Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) frantically answers a phone. To her right, on the wall of her familial home, are the marked heights of the Gerhardt children, a somber reminder of what’s at stake for her. Each of these moments reveal something about those characters, both as a whole and in that moment, and they tell a story without forced exposition.
One could argue many shows do indirect characterization through camera editing, which is true. Mad Men, another show I’m fond of, relies heavily on its performances for substance while reverse angles, occasionally zooming in or establishing a wide shot, and other techniques are used as dramatic bookends, contextualizing themes such as loneliness or isolation. While the camera will occasionally reveal key characteristics or facts that the characters themselves don’t realize, I rarely admire the camerawork and editing in Mad Men. This isn’t to say the show is void of artistic merit, but it’s disappointing that a medium’s key characteristics, namely that of a captured image and its presentation, don’t add much.
Even spectacular visual shows like Mr. Robot have something to learn from Fargo—how a dedicated artistic vision can present itself in multiple ways throughout the entire season. This is a show that begs for multiple viewings, not only because it’s funny or moving (which it is), but because the layers only deepen with each visit.
Andrew Arnold received his MFA in creative writing from Oklahoma State University. His work can be found in Superstition Review.