I would have loved to watch church-trained audience members reacting to the 500-year-old sin-eating assassin receiving the Bisquick biscuit of redemption in Fargo‘s fifth-season finale. As the child of an Irish-Catholic altar boy father and a Calvinist mother, I will say that I pointed in awe at my iPad, hitting a pose I hope looked more like one of the background players in Raphael’s The Transfiguration straining toward Christ ascendant and less like Rick Dalton.
It’s rare to see such an explicitly religious image on TV used with such beauty. This Fargo season’s antagonist-turned-antihero Ole Munch (Sam Spruell) was tricked into a curse and then bade for centuries to kill for whichever rich so-and-so paid for his services. All season, Munch had been trading flesh for debt, blinding the vaping, manosphere-enraptured failson (Joe Keery) who tried to rip him off, helping Juno Temple’s Dot fight back against her captors in the penultimate episode before visiting her home in the finale, seeking to collect a blood debt on the fight that they’d abandoned in the premiere. Dot listened to Munch tell the story of his horrible, endless, spiritually manacled life, then talked to him about the pettiness of debt. Life, she argues, doesn’t have to be a brutal stoichiometry. And Munch considered her point, twitched when offered a pop, and then extended his hand to receive the holy biscuit. The show dared to give a superb Anton Chigurh riff a backstory. And then it gave him communion.
In my mother’s church, the Dutch Reformed Church—better known as Calvinism for those who do not believe in predestination (the fate of your soul was decided before your birth) nor absolute depravation (we suck as a species)—they keep the word “debt” in the Lord’s Prayer. The gentler sects of Protestantism substituted “trespasses” years ago. My parents were not churchgoing people, but as a child, when I visited my grandparents in the Hudson River Valley, I attended the Dutch Reformed church in which I was baptized. I thought it was kinda badass, the word “debt”—like God was a mob boss, and you better get to hustling if you didn’t want to defame the life you had been given. The wood in the church around us was bare, maybe painted white. Even to depict Christ on the cross was a kind of idolatry. Centuries ago, Calvinists vandalized cathedrals across Belgium and the Netherlands, shattering statues and destroying religious iconography. When I do pray the Lord’s Prayer, I like to keep the “debt” in there. Keeps me honest.
An Abrahamic God flows across all branches of the Fargo universe. The noble survive only through divine protection: recall Patrick Wilson and the UFO in the climax of Season 2. This season, Jon Hamm’s Roy Tillman justifies whatever he wants with tryhard death metal beat poetry that he thinks carries Old Testament fervor. But it’s Ole Munch’s dinner table testimony turned Pentecost that’s the transition from the stark Old Testament to the hope of the New.
Noah Hawley’s Fargo universe isn’t the only place where religion has infused prestige TV.