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In the Coen brothers' movie "Fargo" the detective Marge Gunderson gets called by and meets an old schoolmate, Mike Yanagita. He tells her that he is widowed and tries to make a move on her.

Later she finds out that he lied about being married and that he actually is a failed existence, a man who lives with his parents and has psychological problems.

The character of Mike Yanagita seems to be a side plot and does not add to the main plot of Fargo, the kidnapping and the consequent crimes, in any way.

So why did the Coen brothers put this character in? Is the subplot just there to give a better picture of one of the main characters, Marge? Is it supposed to explain the moral of the movie, which I think was "money does not bring you happiness"? Or does this character have any significance to the movie, that I am missing?

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5 Answers 5

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The "Mike Yaganita" subplot is discussed on the Subplot Screenwriting Tips page, and a blog commenter writes: (Source: Kathleen A. Ryan)

Every time my husband and I watch FARGO (we own the DVD, & are huge Coen bros. fans), we have the same conversation about the purpose of the subplot you mention. My guess, however, is this: Marge is presented as an intelligent cop; however, she can be very trusting and slightly naive about the nature of people. She bought Mike’s story, and was shocked after learning Mike lied (and so convincingly). This, in turn, propels her to return to Jerry (because maybe he lied, too…and the evidence does point to that business). Without this scene, what would have prompted Marge to reinterview Jerry? Her instincts are confirmed when he “flees the interview.” (I’m a retired cop, and I love that scene).

This was further clarified by blog commenter Joshua Christopher Mills who wrote:

Great article, by the way. I wouldn’t fault anyone on missing the point of the Mike Yanagita subplot (I know I didn’t get it for a long time), so I think the observation we need to take away from Fargo is, perhaps, clarity. Even though the subplot does have a specific, solid, necessary purpose, it ends up confusing a lot of viewers because it appears unnecessary. The last thing you want to do is lose the audience–luckily the scenes with Mike Yanagita are funny and well-written, a definite testament to the Coen’s skill–but most writers aren’t the Coen brothers.

IMHO, a spot-on analysis. In short, the character/subplot exists to demonstrate to the viewer that she's too trusting of people.

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5  
Great question and answer –  iandotkelly Dec 7 '11 at 13:59
    
Of course, that's why she reinterviews Jerry! Great answer, I totally missed that. –  atticae Dec 7 '11 at 14:26
    
Thanks @atticae, don't forget to accept the answer if you like it! –  Shawn Holmes Dec 7 '11 at 18:42
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For what it's worth, this is exactly why I don't think questions like this should be closed automatically, or even quickly. ( meta.movies.stackexchange.com/questions/53/… ) What seems like it could be poor writing, a plot hole, an inconsistency, etc. could in reality hide something more profound. –  Beska Dec 15 '11 at 20:29

From an interview with Richard Kelly (writer/director of Donnie Darko):

Can you explain the character of Cherita [Chen]?

I like to call her my ‘Mike Yanagita.’ Remember Mike Yanagita from “Fargo?” He hits on Frances McDormand at the Radisson. They have Diet Cokes at the Radisson and he comes on to her.

If the Coen Bros. didn’t have final cut, a studio executive would have demanded that they cut that scene because it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t contribute to the plot. But if you really pay attention to “Fargo,” that scene is really pivotal to Frances McDormand’s character because when she finds out that Mike Yanagita is completely lying about his wife dying, that it was a complete lie, she’s just shocked that she could have been lied to. She’s such a trustworthy person and it makes her go back to William H. Macy’s car lot to question him again.

So the Mike Yanagita scene is actually really, really important on a character level. On a plot level, it’s superfluous and it’s just the Coen Bros. just being weird or self-indulgent maybe. But I think it’s a great pivotal scene for character reasons and I think that’s probably what they thought, too.

Using that metaphor for Cherita Chen, she contributes nothing to the plot at all. She is extraneous and superfluous, but that moment where Donnie is wearing the earmuffs couldn’t exist were it not for Cherita Chen. That is a very important character moment.


From an interview with Frances McDormand:

[The Coen Bros.] told me they wanted to develop Marge’s character in a different context, other than with her husband, or with the murder case. Any character development—that’s good. So when they come up with this Mike Yanagita scene—I didn’t really get it until I saw the finished movie.

[...]

In that scene with Mike Yanagita, she realized he was lying. That’s the biggest thing she has to accept, because at the end when she talks about greed and not understanding why these guys did what they did, that’s just Marge’s general condition.

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I agree with the comment that Mike's convincing lying points out to Marge that Jerry may be lying too, and so the second interview with Jerry, where Jerry becomes less and less convincing ("I'm cooperating here") under Marge's polite but insistent questioning.

But I think there is something else. Consider the consecutive scenes where the criminals are banging the TV and yelling obscenities at it, followed by Marge and Norm calmly watching a show where insects prepares for birth by storing food, followed by the phone call from Mike. The next day, she decides to go to the Twin Cities, a four hour drive from Brainerd. Notice how surprised Norm is, and notice how she doesn't tell him about Mike. Does she really have to go to the Twin Cities? Not really, a state trooper was killed, the state police would be all over this investigation. She is going to see Mike, who she knew and liked in high school, and who she may feel would be a better provider for her and her child than the virtually unemployed Norm. The investigation is a convenient cover (and pays the expenses) for the trip.

Of course, when she gets there, she realizes that something is wrong with Mike, she cuts the meeting short, and next morning she calls her girl friend in the Twin Cities to find out. She is surprised to find that everything Mike said was a lie, and he is a mess in general. Which leads her back to Jerry, who is even more of mess.

At the end of the movie, again watching TV in bed, Marge learns that Norm sold a painting to the Postal Service, so some money will be coming. So Marge now feels they are doing pretty well (she may not have felt that before). So the point of the sub-plot - it is better to do the lawful thing, rather than be tempted to circumvent the law - reflects the point of the main plot, which is the same point exaggerated by the complete stupidity of the criminals and the magnitude and violence of their crimes.

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I think she's a little more Columbo than Mason (and I just happened to reach it as I also have a copy). I think she is flattered when Mike calls her because she makes a side trip to meet him while on business in the Twin Cities, and when she goes into the restraunt to meet him for lunch, she makes a point of straightening out her clothes (the most feminine and prettiest wardrobe she wears in the whole movie) and smooths her hair. She's obviously happy to see him and called him back to make the date as she got the restraunt info from the hotel staff.

Although her husband Norm is sweet and attentive, he does seem a little dull and at 6 months 7 months pregnant, Marge may also be looking for a little validation. But, she's quick enough to pick up on Mike's insecurities and talk with her girlfriend to uncover the truth.

I think what leads her to Jerry's office is simply a follow-up question on the Dealer plates questions. The car must have been stolen from a dealership.

But in the end, she got her man!

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I don't think the Mike Yanagita subplot advances the plot at all. Some of the things said above don't add up.

What brings Marge back to the car dealership isn't renewed suspicion of Jerry, but the fact that records showed that the perpetrators called Shep Proudfoot, who works there. When she goes back to Jerry, she seems as credulous as ever, but she does point out that it was "quite a coincidence" that they called Shep. It isn't until Jerry resists her questions and then flees the interview that she realizes that he's connected to the crimes.

I see no signs at all that Marge is dissatisfied with her relationship with Norm. He may seem less than attractive to us, but the two of them seem totally loving throughout the movie--and they both seem happy at the expansion of their family in two months. It's true that she's flattered by Mike's phone call, but she shuts him down immediately when he sits next to her in the booth at the Radisson.

I think that the Mike Yanagita episode functions thematically. I think of Rear Window, where the various couples Jeff (James Stewart) peeps at are variations on his relationship with Lisa (Grace Kelly). Likewise, the other characters in Fargo represent family failures--the pathetic Jerry, who winds up sacrificing his wife and father-in-law and leaves his son without parents; the comic murderers, who know only sex with hookers; and the sad, sick family fantasies of Mike Yanagita.

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Welcome to the site, Dan! Very interesting theory, I guess I will have to see the movie again some time to see if it holds up. My memory of the exact events is a bit blurry. –  atticae Aug 7 at 21:25

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