There's no use crying over spilled milk, but there is a use in searching for deeper meaning when that spilled milk is a literary device used in a television show such as Fargo, an intricate and complex masterpiece where nothing happens by coincidence. Searching for meaning in something so innocuous may at first sound like a lost cause, but a closer look at the symbolism of the white liquid tells a different story, a story stretching all the way back to the storyteller of all storytellers, William Shakespeare.
There are two key moments (spoilers ahead) where milk becomes metaphorical in #Fargo, and on both occasions, it's mixed with blood. The first occurs in the opening episode of the second season, as the show goes back in time to 1979 and focuses on the Gerhardts. In a bid to prove his worth to the family, Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) is tasked with extorting Judge Mundt, but after his efforts at intimidation cease to have an impact, things take a dark turn when Rye shoots and kills Judge Mundt, along with two employees at the Waffle Hut.
The second instance takes place in Fargo Season 3. In a macabre-but-cunning plan to get Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) released from prison after he confesses to the murder of his brother Ray, V. M. Varga (David Thewlis) orchestrates a murderous cull of unsuspecting civilians with the surname Stussy, in a bid to frame someone else (a convict willing to do the time) with the crime. The opening scene in Episode 9 shows one instance, when Meemo mimics Ray's death by using a shard of glass to viciously slice the throat of a man called Marvin Stussy, as he walks to his fridge to pour his morning cereal.
Although separated by one season and over three decades in the show's narrative, both of these bloody executions are connected by one trait. Judge Mundt falls back onto the table in the Waffle Hut, knocking over a milkshake, which spreads all over the table and mixes with her blood. When he is killed, Marvin Stussy drops a carton of milk on the floor, which again mixes with the scarlet flow oozing from his neck. Visually, the mixture of red and white is striking, but it's the historical context of the two substances — blood and milk — that gives chilling depth to the pretty facade.
Macbeth, Milk, Blood And Cinematic Symbolism
In Macbeth, Shakespeare used strong symbolism for both of these liquids. The use of blood changes throughout, beginning as a sign of courage ("brave" Macbeth slays a rebel with a sword "which smoked with bloody execution"), moving on to a sign of guilt (Macbeth visualizes blood when planning to kill, and exclaims that not even the ocean can wash the blood from his hands), and finally as a marker of the character's inherent morality ("Make thick my blood. / Stop up th' access and passage to remorse").
Milk, on the other hand, represents innocence. In Macbeth, this is highlighted by Lady Macbeth, who tells her husband he is "too full o'the milk of human kindness" to commit evil deeds. This symbolism has spilled (pun intended) into mainstream cinema, so much so milk itself has become a cinematic trope. As with Macbeth, it's used as a sign of youth and innocence with deliberate, disarming and often disturbing effect. An insightful video breakdown by Now You See's YouTube channel highlights significance of this interpretation in films such as A Clockwork Orange, Léon: The Professional and Home Alone.
In Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, the opening scene features Christoph Waltz's beguiling villain, Hans Landa, searching a dairy farm in the hunt for a missing Jewish family. Landa cheerfully gulps down a few sips, his charming demeanour and joy at drinking the childlike refreshment contrasting his fearful reputation. Here, Tarantino gives milk a different meaning; from Landa's position of evil intent, drinking the liquid is a sign of power, a demonstration of dominance over purity and innocence.
HBO's theory-heavy sensation, Westworld, had fans scratching their heads when the show's opening episode contained gallons of the white stuff, as two malfunctioning and murderous hosts poured milk over their victims, which, like in Fargo, also mixed with blood. In Westworld, the allegory goes deeper still — the same episode revealed that the hosts are created by being drenched in a white substance that could easily be milk, suggesting that when hosts are first "born," they are uncorrupted and pure, but their purity becomes contaminated.
How Milk Links The Coen Brothers To The 'Fargo' Series
As we're on the topic of Fargo, milk provides an interesting connection to two Coen Brothers' movies. In the opening scene of The Big Lebowski, when The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is first introduced, he's buying milk from the supermarket. When he arrives home, he's assaulted by intruders and thrown against his toilet. As this happens, the milk carton splits and the liquid sprays all over the wall, a nice metaphor for lost innocence. Furthermore, The Dude's favourite drink is a White Russian, which mixes milk with alcohol, a substance associated with impurity and misbehavior.
No Country For Old Men takes the symbolism even deeper. In one scene, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) breaks into Llewelyn Moss' trailer. He opens the fridge, takes out a glass of milk, sits down. He doesn't sip. Then he stands up and leaves. Moments later, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives at the trailer. When he notices the milk has dew drops of condensation, he remarks "that's aggravating," before nonchalantly pouring himself a glass and drinking it. Unlike Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, Chigurh is unable to conquer innocence, while Sheriff Bell is at ease, his morals aren't corrupted, he is still good.
What Does This Symbolize In 'Fargo'?
In the instance of Judge Mundt's murder, this is the beginning of the chain of events that link the blood war — between the Gerhardts and the Kansas City syndicate — with the innocent and ultimately well-meaning lives of Peggy and Ed Blumquist, as well as the police officers investigating the case, Lou Solverson and his father-in-law Sheriff Hank Larsson. This mixture of ruthless, organized gangs and unsuspecting civilians begins the moment Rye stumbles outside the Waffle Hut and is hit by Peggy's car, and ends with the bloody shootout at the motel in Sioux Falls.
My interpretation for Fargo Season 3 is different. The murder comes at a climactic point, a point where Emmit and Sy are already deeply entrenched in the brutal get-rich-quick scheme overseen by V.M. Varga and his henchmen. Unlike Season 2, then, this doesn't seem to bookmark the beginning of the clash between criminal and civilian. Instead, I'd say that this scene exposes the flippancy and the blasé attitude Varga (also referred to aptly as the wolf) takes toward murder. This is only enhanced by the setting; it takes place in the morning, a time we are least alert, wearing dressing gowns, eating cereal.
The blood that mixes with the milk on Marvin Stussy's floor — overlaid with an upbeat, lively and borderline comical violin piece — shows that events have spiralled, so much that evil is effortlessly mixing into the mundane, that there is no barrier, no safety, the two opposites easily merge and no one is safe. Dark, 'eh?
How do you interpret the symbolism of blood in milk used in Fargo? Is this a trope you've noticed before? Leave your comments below.