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Deciphering the Hidden Meanings in Fargo’s Episode Titles

One of the main themes of Fargo (Season 1) was the clash of cultures and values, and how a virtuous person can be affected by someone with a lack of morals.

Each of the 10 episode titles of Fargo references a paradox, parable, or logical puzzle. If you have no idea about their literal meanings, you may find them intriguing, as I did.

In this post, I will be explaining the actual meanings of the episode titles of Fargo. However, I will not be discussing the plot or content of the episodic series:

1. Buridan’s Donkey

Buridan's Donkey - Fargo's paradoxes

Buridan’s ass illustrates a paradox in philosophy in the conception of free will. The 14th-century French philosopher Jean Buridan proposed a philosophical thesis.

Imagine a donkey positioned equally between two identical bales of hay. Unable to choose which pile of hay to go to, the donkey starves to death.

If we are rational beings and we are faced with two equally good options, it may be wise to consider that both options are better than taking no action at all. If we are unable to decide which option is the best, it may be necessary to temporarily postpone taking action until we can make a decision.

2. Morton’s Fork

Morton's Fork - Fargo's Paradoxes

A Morton’s fork is a type of false dilemma in which contradictory observations lead to the same conclusion. Named after the 15th-century English lawyer, John Morton, the roots of this dilemma are said to have been in the tax collection policy.

His approach was that if the subject lived in luxury and had clearly spent a lot of money on himself, he obviously had sufficient income to spare for the king. Alternatively, if the subject lived frugally, and showed no sign of being wealthy, he must have substantial savings and could therefore afford to give them to the king.

These arguments were the two prongs of the fork. Regardless of whether the subject was rich or poor, he didn’t have a favorable choice.

It equates to being caught between the devil and the deep sea, two equally undesirable options. The best course of action, if you ever find yourself in such as situation, is to suspend action.

3. A fox, a Rabbit, and a Cabbage

Alcuin of York, an 8th-century English scholar, wrote a logical puzzle in which a farmer must transport a fox, a rabbit, and a cabbage across a river.

The farmer can only take one of these animals with him on the boat at a time, and the fox and rabbit or the rabbit and cabbage cannot be alone together.

This puzzle highlights the need for ingenuity in order to solve complex problems, but does not have a specific lesson beyond this.

4. The Crocodile’s Dilemma

The Crocodile’s Dilemma is an ancient paradox with its timelines being less clear. The modern version of this paradox, however, was created by the 19th-century German philosopher Karl Von Prantl.

One day while playing football with his friends, Thomas wanders off to a nearby swamp to retrieve the ball. Unbeknownst to him, a crocodile lies in wait. It slithers in front of Thomas. Much to his surprise, the crocodile is able to speak like a human.

Crocodile's Dilemma - Fargo episode titles

The crocodile tells Thomas, “If you guess my next move correctly, then I will let you go.” There are only two outcomes on the table – either the crocodile wants to make Thomas his dinner or he is just playing and wants to let him go without a scratch.

If Thomas says, “You want to eat me.” This statement could lead to a series of events and complications for both Thomas and the crocodile. If Thomas is correct and the crocodile does indeed want to eat him, the crocodile must let Thomas go, but this goes against its original intention.

On the other hand, if Thomas is incorrect and the crocodile has no intention of eating him, the crocodile is then forced to eat Thomas because Thomas was required to guess correctly. This goes against the crocodile’s promise to Thomas of making the right guess.

In the middle ages, the term “Crocodilite” was used to refer to a situation in which someone is cross-examined or questioned in a confusing or deceptive manner.

5. The Rooster Prince

Based on the 19th-century Russian parable, The Rooster Prince tells the story of a prince who becomes convinced that he is a rooster and begins to behave as one. He starts turning up at the court naked and pecking at food at the dinner table. After a lot of failed efforts, the Tsar turns to a wise man for help.

The Tsar is, however, perplexed by the methods of the wise man who also starts behaving like a rooster. Gradually, the wise man befriends the prince and convinces him that though they are roosters, they can dress and eat like humans – the rooster prince complies.

The lesson here is: When you are trying to convince somebody to do something that they don’t want to do, no amount of lecturing, browbeating, or intimidation is going to work. But if you come down to their level and start from where they are at, then, you can move them forward.

6. A Muddy Road

A Muddy Road is a koan – a paradoxical anecdote – in Zen Buddhism. Koans are thought-provoking stories or questions, originating in 12th-century China. They are meant to inspire contemplation and doubt and are not meant to be solved through logic but through intuition and wisdom.

Muddy Road - Fargo episode titles

Tanzan and Aikido were once traveling together down a muddy road. It was pouring that night. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

Without hesitation, Tanzan picked her up and carried her across the mud. Later that night, when they arrived at a lodging temple, Aikido scolded Tanzan for coming into contact with a woman, saying that it was dangerous for monks to do so.

Tanzan replied, “I left the girl there. Are you still carrying her?”

The moral of the story is that rigid beliefs about how things should be can prevent us from fully living in the moment and doing what is right.

7. Eating the Blame

One day, something happened that caused the dinner of a Soto Zen master named Fugai and his followers to be delayed. In a hurry, the cook went to the garden with a curved knife and chopped the tops of some green vegetables to make soup.

However, the cook was unaware that he had accidentally included a part of a snake in the vegetables. The followers of Fugai thought the soup tasted excellent, but when the master found the head of the snake in his bowl, he called the cook over and asked him what it was.

The cook quickly picked up the snake head and ate it.

What is it?” the master asked again. “It’s the head of a snake,” the cook explained. “Oh, I see,” the master replied.

8. Who shaves the Barber?

Bertrand Russell, the famous British logician, and philosopher used the Barber Paradox as an example to demonstrate his rather complex mathematical paradox.

On an island, there is a barber who only shaves men who live on the island and do not shave. The question is: Who shaves the barber? The answer might seem straightforward, but it is not. The barber can’t shave himself because he only shaves those who can’t or do not shave themselves.

If the barber is a man on the island who does not shave himself, then he shaves himself (because he is the barber who only shaves men on the island who do not shave themselves).

9. The Heap

The Heap got its name from the ‘Sorites paradox’ – a logical problem – also called the paradox of the heap. In Greek, Sorites means heap. Suppose we accept these two premises about heaps: (1) One grain of sand is not heap and (2) One grain of sand is too small to make a difference to what is or is not a heap.

The Heap paradox - Fargo episode titles

The question arises: When does a collection of grains of sand become a heap?

In everyday reasoning, we are accustomed to dealing with vagueness and often it does not matter. However, in mathematics, we cannot work with Vague Predicates and must use qualifying words such as “tiny” or “partial” to specify the exact meaning when precision is necessary.

So then, is the paradox of the heap a paradox at all? Does it force us to question the soundness of mathematical induction? No. What it does do, however, is demonstrate the intricacies involved in translating natural language into precise logical statements.

10. The Six Ungraspables

The koan in question involves a monk asking Ummon (a Buddhist monk and philosopher), “What is the DharmaKaya (timeless reality)?” and Ummon responding, “The Six Ungraspables.” (The “Graspables” are the five senses and the mind.)

I hope you enjoyed these 10 paradoxical dilemmas. I recently watched the series (I know I am super late) and was really captivated by these titles. If you are also interested in these mysterious titles, I think you would love this post. Please let me know in the comments section below if there is anything you’d like to share.

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