Deus ex Machina and the TV show FARGO


I found a book at a library sale in Alexandria, Virginia.  It is titled Smaller Classical Dictionary.  It was published in 1949 by a London Press.   This type of reading material is like reading a dictionary, but instead of starting with Aardvark, you begin with ABACENUM, ancient town of the Siculi in Sicily, W. of Messana and S. of Tyndaris and ending with ZOSIMUSGreek historian who lived in the time of younger Theodosius. 

If you’re the type that like reading this type of thing – like me – it is not beyond reason that I pick up stuff like a dramatic term such as Deus ex Machina.

According to Wikipendia:

Deus-ex-machinaDeus ex machina is a Latin calque from 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” …

I have been told that the ancient playwrights would have the gods literally lowered from the ceiling by pulleys where the actor or actress would happily tidy up the plot where everything would be tied up in a pretty bow – i.e.  girl gets boy / boy not killed by evil tyrant.

I confess…I am hooked on FARGO.  Each episode seems to be a movie unto itself, with strong characterizations. If you have not been watching 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.

It’s the character Nikki Swango character that has me.  She is a shady type, but beautiful and in the long run just trying to overcome the cards that have been dealt her.  You got to love a character that truly loves her man, and is not a 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. 


Nikki is on the run, chained to a fellow prisoner.  People are killed, a crossbow arrow goes through her leg, but she presses on.  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 persuade a maniac to slow his attack after losing his 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.  She has been a target for two episodes, barely escaping with her life.  No where to run.  In the middle of the Minnesota countryside.  No where to hide.

Question:  Have you written yourself into a corner?  Welcome the Deus ex Machina.

A man sits next to her. It is the actor Ray Wise, who through many different episodes of the same narrative seems to crop up.  You may remember Mr. 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, brought down from on high.  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 says.

He even offered a snuggle with her true love now reincarnated into a kitten after being killed in an earlier episode.  Nikki is saved.  She and the other fugitive drive away just as the maniac, missing an ear, shows up.

The maniac 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.

This has always been considered a mistake for the writer.  However, I was taken aback upon the viewing.  And I couldn’t believe this was happening.  It is strange thing to see Deus ex Machina be played out in a police procedural.  I wanted to yell out, “STOP.  UNFAIR.  GET BETTER WRITERS!”

However, it somehow worked.  The show is a little strange to start with.  Face it – the antagonist, Mr. Varga is a perfect personification of the Devil.  He is alluring, filled with attractive stories and persuasions – as he forces you to drink poisoned tea.

So, why not an appearance by God?  Why should it not work?

I have been thinking why I liked the episode just the same.  There can be only one answer.  I have faced death three times, and somehow maybe, there was someone saying to me:  “You look like you could use a break.”


  • Tim H. · October 6, 2017 · 8:38 am

    Hi Rob,

    What exactly made you think of Yahweh when Ray Wise’s character appears?

    I can understand liking the episode, I felt the same way. I’m still somewhat befuddled by the bowling alley scene. I don’t think we can simply equate Ray Wise’s character (God) to Varga (Devil) as a sort of counter-balance like you suggested. Varga’s character is well developed and, despite the enigmatic, elemental quality he possesses, is still very much human (he has bulimia, which, among other things, conveys a unique vulnerability unafforded to previous villains in the Fargo anthology such as Malvo). In that sense, they are similar in their enigmatic quality, but Wise appears much more celestial and Varga much more human.

    I’m also not fully convinced this moment in Season 3 constitutes a Deus ex machina. Sure it appears somewhat like one, but in reality, Nikki and Mr. Wrench getting away from Yuri was not a “seemingly unsolvable problem” — there is plenty of ways they could potentially escape, albeit none as convenient as a car being handed to them. It wasn’t as if Yuri had them pinned against a wall and Ray Wise descended from the sky and took his gun away — they were well ahead of Yuri at the time they found the bowling alley. I guess there injuries were serious, but going off of memory, they weren’t about to die, were they? In saying that, Ray Wise’s character certainly is an “unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object”.

    Let me know your thoughts.



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