Streetlights in Minnesota are just captivating.


Warning: this piece contains minor spoilers to several episodes of the show. 

By now everyone knows Fargo's famous disclaimer—"This is a true story." The Coen Brothers' 1996 classic starts the same way each episode of the TV series it inspired on FX does, but just because something is true doesn't mean it can't get a little fuzzy or downright weird. And the currently-in-progress-season two is playing with pop culture's favorite oddity—aliens. UFOs, technically.

Then again, were there UFOs in this season's penultimate episode last Monday? The cop (Lou Solverson, played by Patrick Wilson), the villain (Angus Sampson as Bear Gerhardt), and everyone in-between sure seemed to stop mid-firefight to stare at something, but only the in-over-her-head beautician (Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist) said anything: "It's just a flying saucer, hon." This is the same person who hallucinated a Lifespring coach in her basement one week earlier.

Fargo, obviously, is not a true story. The people are made up, the intercity travel times fudged, the Midwest accents exaggerated. But among other things making its current season an all-time great is that its brand of aliens feels different. Rather than having any scientific or nefarious purposes or creature-like appearances, Fargo's aliens are… a mystery. That's what makes this season the most realistic pop culture depiction of extraterrestrial life to date.

A dose of reality

Fargo S2 takes place around Luverne, Minnesota in the late 1970s. And this time and place is a massive reason for its extraterrestrial success. One of the most famous real-life UFO sightings in the United States happened to have taken place in the very same setting, when a sheriff deputy named Val Johnson saw a strange light and crashed his service vehicle near the Minnesota-North Dakota border in 1979. Minnesota Public Radio's excellent Aw Jeez podcast caught up with Johnson recently, and to this day he refuses to say one way or another whether he encountered an alien that night. He'll merely describe the incident:

"I saw this very bright light off in the distance—maybe a semi with engine trouble or an aircraft with difficulty that landed on a straight stretch of road… after I accelerated to examine the situation, the light joined me in the car and it hit me like a 200-pound pillow." (Johnson woke up in a ditch 30 minutes later.)

The car now sits in a local culture museum (labeled "U.F.O. car"), and this incident remains one of "the top 10 most influential UFO encounters in history" according to the author of The UFO Encyclopedia. That's because it's both talked about and has physical evidence that can be examined, including the damaged car, the injuries to Johnson, and strange details such as the coincidence that his watch and car clock were both 14 minutes slow. (We tried contacting the Hynek Center for UFO Studies, a Chicago research outfit that looked into the Johnson case, for this piece. They were harder to reach than extraterrestrial life.)

Even if Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley isn't directly borrowing from the Johnson saga, it's an undeniable influence. This entire season is set in motion when the youngest son of a crime syndicate sees an unusual light and gets hit by a car experiencing the same thing. And in a subsequent episode where this crime scene gets examined, a light flashes and pushes the mob's detective (an American Indian named Hanzee Dent, played by Zahn McClarnon) to check his pocketwatch. Time strangely jumped.

"In the year or two after Star Wars and Close Encounters came out, and after Watergate, a lot that late-70s paranoia involved this feeling of being watched and not being able to even trust the skies," Hawley told The Hollywood Reporter.  He echoed this sentiment to Hitfix as well. "The idea is that the American narrative was so complicated in 1979 after Watergate and Vietnam and there is this conspiracy mindset, which had proven to be true. Conspiracy did go all the way to the top and there were layers within layers, and it really fed into this idea that we can't trust anything and we're being watched." So it may not be a true story, but it's certainly based in reality.

It's all in the atmosphere

That's likely why, to date with only one episode remaining, no one has actually seen an alien on Fargo. After all real-life sightings are just that, sightings. An eyewitness sees something but typically cannot confirm exactly what, and corroborating evidence just isn't available. Stephen Hawking (not magic carbon layers) may suggest the possibility of alien existence, but many people are quite adamant that these on Earth situations are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. The Welsh government responds to such inquiries in Klingon for example.

Fargo appears to have this on its mind. The show is a crime story, not science fiction. As such, it can't introduce little green men without abruptly knocking the audience out of the show's universe to mutter "WTF?" Call it the Signs problem, as that film similarly built a level of eeriness and tension throughout its first two acts before dropping in a physical manifestation of alien that ruined the movie for some.

If you're not going to show aliens, however, it takes more than a few lens flares to properly get the point across. This is where Fargo has truly excelled—it built an atmosphere where the possibility of paranormal to feels real.

The Fargo universe is famously quirky and full of non-essential but "true" happenings (think Mike Yanagita in the film). Hawley carefully laid alien life breadcrumbs from the beginning; just enough for plausibility but not so much as to veer into sci-fi. There was the soundtrack for starters. In an early season episode, dialogue from The War of the Worlds is read out loud over two characters disposing of a body. And the first two songs Hawley requested for his series, according to music supervisor Marguerite Phillips on MPR, were the not-so-subtle "Children of the Sun" and "The Eve of the War."

The earliest character to acknowledge alien life was also painted like many real-life spotters—he seemed just a bit off. A man at a gas station tells Solverson in Episode Three about these visitors, speaking in a weird pentameter unlike anything prior to or after it in the series.

"Some round, some oval… circular patterns, unnatural. Hovering in the sky, they come only in the odd months, the visitors, always in sets of three. Such a night was two nights past, reports from Mankato to Vermillion. From above some say they take you to the ship and probe you in places you don't want to mention, I think their purposes are more benevolent, as the caretaker to the zoo. Strange happenings occur, they are near."

(And as main characters seemingly have encounters, most are in denial and refuse to acknowledge anything. Only Peggy Blumquist has said anything out loud at this point in the season.)

Still, the real piece de resistance has likely been the alien nods located in the margins of the show. Thematically, existentialism is brought up again and again.  A shopkeep reads Camus, episode titles reference Sisyphus. All this plays into big picture questions where aliens come up, namely what's the purpose of life and is there something more.

For the non-philosophy majors, there are physical references to extraterrestrial life as well. Solverson's daughter draws a picture of her family, but as a coffee cup gets placed on it suddenly the sun coffee-stain-transforms into a UFO. Local convenience stores have "We Are Not Alone" stickers on the wall and sell local papers declaring "Satellite record keeping begins in Antarctic." (The shop keep mentions unseasonably warm weather, as this record keeping helped show climate change over time, but the Antarctic has also become a hotbed for supposed alien activity with "proof" via satellite imagery.) And we catch a quick glimpse of Solverson's fellow policeman/father-in-law's den, which appears to be an entire room devoted to decoding some kind of alien language.

Perhaps best of all, the spacey backdrop perfectly echoes what's happening in the human storylines of this season. Thus far, the crazed gas station guy has been genuinely right about any UFO happenings (if real, of course)—they are neither good nor bad, they're just outsiders impacting this community. And from the Kansas City mob's only black employee to the Minnesota cop working in North Dakota, the American Indian tracker to the suburban housewife mixed up in major mischief, this season is driven by outsiders that are neither good nor bad. It's a fitting and even more compelling idea as daily NPR reports remind us of a "Western world anxious about outsiders."

In total, the alien content within this season of Fargo likely totals less than 15 minutes of screen time. But the hints of it have flavored the entire storyline and sparked plenty of sleuthing Reddit threads (my favorite is this one centered on a YouTube clip showing a supposed alien in the Blumquist basement from episode one). Anyone can drop some space creatures into their story, it takes a lot more research and care to take the Fargo route. Don'tcha know the series is much better for it.