If you talk about Fargo — the Coen brothers' classic Midwestern rural noir/comedy of manners that was first released March 8, 1996 — long enough, you'll inevitably touch on a part of the movie that's destined to provoke arguments: Just what is that Mike Yanagita scene about, anyway? (Watch it above.)
In that scene, Brainerd, Minnesota, Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, in an Oscar-winning role) goes out for dinner with an old friend named Mike Yanagita (Steve Park, in one of the best one-scene performances ever). Yanagita, it turns out, has designs on the heavily pregnant Marge, since his wife just died — or so he says. The seduction proceeds awkwardly and unsuccessfully, and Marge returns to the movie's A-plot. Later, Marge learns Yanagita was never married, and that the woman he said was his wife is still alive. That's it.
Here's the important thing about Yanagita: Superficially, he has absolutely nothing to do with the story. The main plot of Fargo is about Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) paying two other men to kidnap his wife, so he can collect a ransom from his rich father-in-law. Things go south, multiple people end up dead, and Marge tries to crack the case.
When I spoke with Macy during a recent interview (look for it in the next couple of weeks), he told me that the script for Fargo was as good as any he'd read, that he was drawn to its intricate plot and pitch-perfect dialogue. And the Yanagita scene is crucial to that.
Famously, Fargo is "based on a true story," even though the events depicted in the film never actually happened in any way, shape, or form. The Yanagita scene, then, is a sort of "this is the kind of weird thing that happens in real life" sidebar, a brief diversion from the main plot — or so the most popular interpretation goes. But that interpretation might also be wrong.
The Yanagita scene accomplishes something important to the story
There's actually a fairly easy explanation for how the Yanagita scene serves Fargo's plot. After she learns that Yanagita lied to her, Marge decides to take another look at Jerry, who's also been lying to her. Realizing the truth about Yanagita opens up a tiny little crack in her facade of believing the best about people, and that's what allows her to finally solve the case.
The Yanagita scene, then, isn't just a random aside or a way for the movie to increase its seeming veracity. It's also an opportunity to challenge the main character on one of her most cherished beliefs, so that she might rethink something in time to catch a truly pathetic criminal.
This is a pretty classic storytelling trope: The main character confronts a long-held belief that either does or doesn't hold up to inspection, often in the third act. Joel and Ethan Coen are just so smart about how storytelling works that they bury their use of the trope in a side plot that doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything else.
But it goes beyond even that. In a discussion of Fargo at the sadly defunct film website the Dissolve, Keith Phipps writes:
Marge is a great detective: fast, instinctive, and canny. She uses the codes of Minnesota nice to cut through Jerry’s defenses, and follows clues that others miss. So what’s she doing in small-town Brainerd, Minnesota? In some respects, settling. Fargo is above all a story of greed and discontent, a film filled with characters who always want more than they have, and will do what it takes to get it. Marge isn’t one of those people, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the same instincts. Note this: She never tells her husband she’s meeting Mike. Note, too: She makes herself up for their meeting, checking her hair as she walks in the door, and looking nervous in a way she never does when interviewing suspects or chasing down bad guys. I’m not suggesting she enters the restaurant prepared to embark on a torrid affair with Mike, but she at least wants to keep the meeting to herself, maybe just to contemplate paths not taken while reconnecting with someone who left Brainerd for the (relatively) big city.
So in some ways, Mike Yanagita's deception is also a chance for Marge to realize that she's not as good of a person — or even a cop — as she thinks she is, which is something that ultimately allows her to arrive at her big revelation.
But the more popular interpretation of the scene is somewhat right too
Obviously, the popular interpretation of the scene — it's just a weird, funny thing that happens — isn't wrong, per se. (Roger Ebert, who largely subscribes to the "Mike Yanagita is why Marge figures out Jerry's lying" reading, says here that the scene works in and of itself as human drama.) But it does miss how the scene functions within the film's overall story and moral universe.
Yet it persists as the most popular interpretation, even among some very smart people. For instance, Noah Hawley, who adapted Fargo for TV and did a very fine job of it, seems dedicated to the thought that without Yanagita's presence, Fargo would feel less real somehow.
When he spoke with me after the end of the TV series' first season in 2014, Hawley said:
In that first meeting with FX, I said, "What we have to figure out is what is our Mike Yanagita," who is the guy from high school who calls Marge out of the blue and turns out to be nuts, and you’re like, "Why is this in the movie?" But it’s in the movie, in my opinion, because it’s one of those details where you’re like, "Well, they wouldn’t put it in the movie unless it really happened. It has nothing to do with anything."
And, critically, Hawley has taken that question of how to add in weird little digressions that don't seem to fit and used it to construct some of the TV Fargo's most memorable moments.
So even if there's a seemingly obvious story reason for Mike Yanagita's presence, the character also doesn't seem to stand for any one thing. In other words, Hawley and Ebert and Phipps can all be right, because that's how life works sometimes.
Often, you'll find yourself at a crossroads, unsure of what to do, when some other piece of information comes in from out of the blue and first leaves you baffled, but eventually leads to understanding. Our minds don't always assemble information in easy, sequential order. Sometimes it takes a visit with a classmate we haven't seen in years to help us realize what should have been obvious all along.