This is a Classic Blog Post from 2017.
I admit it. I got hooked on the TV show FARGO, especially the season with Mary Elizabeth Winsted. I confess, there is nothing like a sexy protagonist (antagonist?) who is dangerous. Through the entire show I thought, “I want her on my side.” She was great. However, I am writing this due to running into what I recognized as a bit of Ancient Greek script writing advice.
Deus ex Machina is a Latin phrase from the Greek ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, meaning ‘god from the machine’. The term has evolved to mean a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to allow a story to continue when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” … or so they say.
I have been told that the ancient playwrights would have an appropriate god literally lowered from the ceiling by pulleys where the actor or actress would happily tidy up the plot or end the show with a pretty bow – i.e. girl gets boy / boy not killed by evil tyrant.
I was surprised to see the show FARGO employ this old trick. Most people consider Deus ex Machina as an easy out for any plot. I confess I’m not too concerned. Each episode seems to be a movie unto itself, with strong characterizations. If you missed the show, here is a brief synopsis.
In 2010, St. Cloud probation officer Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) and his parolee girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), dream of a better, wealthier life as they attempt to steal a valuable vintage stamp from Ray’s more successful older brother, Emmit (also played by McGregor), the self-proclaimed “Parking Lot King of Minnesota”. However, their plans backfire, and they soon have to hide their involvement in two deaths, including the stepfather of former Eden Valley police chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon). Meanwhile, Emmit wishes to pay back a shady company he borrowed money from two years prior so he can settle things between them. However, the mysterious company and its employees, V. M. Varga (David Thewlis) and Yuri Gurka (Goran Bogdan), have other plans.
end of description.
It’s the character Nikki Swango that had me. She is a shady type, but beautiful and smart. Very smart. In the long run she is just trying to overcome the cards that have been dealt her. You got to love a character that truly loves her man, and she is NO wilting flower – on more than one occasion she takes matters into her own hands – a perfect representation of a film noir damsel. Name one who is not willing to kill for her man.
SPOILER ALERT ON EPISODE 8.
Nikki is on the run, chained to a fellow prisoner. People are killed, a crossbow arrow goes through her leg, but she presses on. She has spunk. Nikki does not quit. She and her fellow prisoner are almost killed, but they kill an attacker with the chain that binds them together, and an ax provides a handy tool to remove the attacker’s left ear. The chain is broken, but they continue to flee together. They make it to a bowling alley. Nice how one pops up in the middle of a Minnesota highway. It is warm inside, she leaves her partner to rest as she get a whiskey from an obliging bartender that does not even ask if she has the money to buy. The police are after them. Assassins are after them. It does not look good. She has been a target for two episodes, barely escaping with her life. She has nowhere to run. In the middle of the Minnesota countryside in winter, there is nowhere to hide.
Welcome the Deus ex Machina.
A man sits next to her. It is the actor Ray Wise. You may remember Wise as playing the Devil in the TV show Reaper. Who better to play a religious character? In this episode he is playing the part of the Lord God Yahweh. At least that is how I interpreted it. He gives our heroine a way out by offering up a Green Volkswagen with the keys under the mat. “You look like you could use a break,” he said.
Nikki is saved. She and the other fugitive drive away just as the earless maniac shows up.
The assassin sits down to have a vodka. The Yahweh-like character introduces him to all dead that he is responsible for. The day of reckoning has arrived in a vision of black and white. There are no pulleys to bring the God down from the ceiling. He is just sitting there waiting for you.
Why do I like the show so much? There can be only one answer. I have faced death three times, and somehow, maybe, I have hoped there was someone with God-like powers giving me a break.
Don’t say a good writer won’t borrow from the Ancient Greeks when given half a chance.
Mors est A.P. Style dux