‘Fargo’ Is Leaning Into Folk Horror in Season 5

ole munch sin eater fargo 500 years ago
‘Fargo’ Is Leaning Into Folk Horror in Season 5FX

WHILE THE ORIGINAL Fargo movie—released in 1996 and written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen—was generally pretty grounded, FX's Fargo series has, at times, been anything but. Let's quickly recall that Season 2, without any meaningful explanation, featured aliens and a flying saucer. Season 3 featured a character named VM Varga (David Thewlis) who may have just been the devil on earth. And, yet, despite that precedent being set, Fargo's fifth season may have topped itself with a bit of supernatural folk horror that's figuring strongly into the story's lore—and is rooted in some very creepy ideas.

Let's first recap the threat at hand. Fargo's fifth season centers on the story of Dot (Juno Temple), a Minnesota housewife who would seem, at her surface, to be one of the true rational, pragmatic people remaining in the show's increasingly unhinged 2019 setting. That surface appearance is quickly blown up, though, in the very first episode of the season, when two masked assailants show up at Dot's home, attacking and eventually kidnapping her.

Dot eventually escapes and makes her way back home, but not after a sequence that results in one of the assailants dead (skull cracked open on a rest stop toilet) and the other cut up by an ice skate. As it turns out, the assailants were hired by a terrifying North Dakota sheriff named Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm) who claims that Dot is his wife, Nadine, who's been on the run for a decade; he hired the assailants to find her when her fingerprints showed up for the first time in the police database following a riot at a local PTO meeting (of course, to this point, unexplained).

That surviving assailant is, in actuality, a strange man referred only as "Ole Munch" (Sam Spruell), who returns, battered and bruised, to Tillman, claiming that he wasn't given the full information he needed about Dot, and that since she was really a "tiger," he deserved to be paid far more. Roy, the villain that he is, told Munch to his face that he'd pay him out and right his wrongs—but then secretly ordered his death. Munch escaped, setting one of the season's major journeys of revenge on its course.

Munch has since been shown to be extremely strange, and perhaps even a supernatural entity of his own. Fargo has often dialed into the 'forced of violent nature' characters who pop up in Joel and Ethan Coen's movies—think Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men—and it seems like Ole Munch may be Fargo Season 5's take on this type of character.

But this time, as Season 5's third episode, "The Paradox of Intermediate Transactions" first introduced, his story may come with a surprising bit of supernatural folk horror. Let's dig a little deeper.

What was the deal with Fargo Season 5, Episode 3's '500 Years Ago' Scene?

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With Ole Munch positioned as perhaps the most terrifying, relentless figure in Fargo Season 5, Episode 3 catches up with him after he kills Gator Tillman's (Joe Keery) crony at the rest stop. Munch makes his way into an old woman's home, sitting in a chair in an upstairs bedroom before simply telling her that he "lives here now."

At that point, we cut to a black screen that simply says "500 Years Ago," and we see a man with Ole Munch's likeness (it's unclear whether this is actually him and he's ageless/immortal or simply an ancestor) who has "sinned," and, as a result, taken on the responsibility at a funeral ceremony as a "sin-eater." We'll get more into the actual definition of this below, but just from watching the scene it's very clear: this version of Munch (who, from now on, we'll just call 'Munch') eats a plate of food left on the deceased person's coffin, and inherits all of his sins. The deceased person is then absolved, and can rest in peace, and Munch—who's then paid with two coins—is both free to go and theoretically in possession of all the sin and evil of both men.

A large theme of Fargo Season 5 is the idea of debt—who owes it, who pays it, and what it really means. Lorraine Lyon (Jennifer Jason Leigh) owns the largest debt collection agency in the country, Roy believes Dot's (or Nadine's, as he knew her) mere presence in the world makes her part of a debt owed to him as his wife, and Munch believes that he's owed a debt for the work he did for Roy—and the trouble it got him into.

As it turns out, either Munch or an identical familial ancestor have made eating the sins of others into a defining trait—if it means there's some profit available. And he's going to get what he's owed, no matter what it makes anyone else think.

“What I wanted to explore with the Munch character was this idea of debt and sin-eating, and this idea of what the rich make the poor do," creator Noah Hawley told TV Insider. "Part of what the rich do to the poor is they make them feel like it’s their fault they’re poor, and that if these poor people have to borrow money from us, it makes them less than.”

What is a Sin-Eater?

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The basic idea of a sin-eater is rooted in a simple ritual: someone who has recently died continues to hold onto all the sin they've collected throughout their life. Someone else, then, will eat a meal near them, taking on all their sin, and, thus, absolving the deceased party before they head to the afterlife. A sin-eater would make a modest sum, and also be feared and seen as someone willing to “pawn their soul”; sin-eating was essentially seen as a form of black magic.

The practice of sin-eating is a ritualistic one, typically rooted in areas like Scotland, Ireland, Wales; the scene in Fargo takes place 500 years ago, in Wales, and you can see when "Munch" leaves the funeral how much fear the people in attendance have just from looking at him.

The idea of a sin-eater may sound familiar to fans of Succession. During Season 1, there was a conversation between Tom Wambsgans (Matthew MacFadyen) and Gerri Kellman (J. Smith Cameron) after Tom found out about an absolute plethora of crimes that took place aboard Waystar-Royco's cruise ships—the division he was now heading. Gerri, who is the company's lead counsel, in an effort to get Tom to bite the bullet for the company, told him a rhetorical tale of a man who showed up and ate all the little cakes—representing sins—that were put alongside corpses and coffins.

"The sin cake eater was very well paid. And so long as there was another one who came along after he died, it all worked out," Gerri explained. "So this might not be the best situation, but there are harder jobs and you get a fuckload of cake."

How does Fargo's Ole Munch (Sam Spruell), in 2019, figure into all of this?

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Munch's place in Fargo Season 5 is meant to represent the little guy who does the grunt work and gets squeezed out time and time again. To earn himself a pair of coins, "Munch" was willing to eat a vile plate of food, and take on whatever sins a dead man have, and face whatever punishment would ever be coming his way. 2019 Munch is the same way—he was willing to commit the crime of kidnapping at the very least (and is willing to murder without thinking twice) just for the simple price of a few dollars.

2019 Munch, however, doesn't even get his payment. Roy heard his story, acted like he agreed with him, and instead ordered for Munch to be killed. That's not the deal they made—and so Munch is out for his money (and his revenge).

Whether these two Munches are the same person—and he's some ageless, immortal entity—or just in similar situations, doesn't matter. This is simply meant to represent that this kind of person has been getting squeezed out and screwed over for centuries. (For the record, though, the fact that Ole Munch, at the end of the episode, was seen performing a rituation by smearing goat blood and dirt all over himself is probably an indicator that he's either a deranged, ageless entity, or that these kinds of rituals have run in his family for generations.

And, yes, that's very cool and a surprising bit of folk horror given what this show tends to cover. But it's also beside the larger point that Fargo is representing.

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