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I would have loved to watch church-trained audience members reacting to the 500-year-old sin-eating assassin receiving the Bisquick biscuit of redemption in Fargo's fifth-season finale. As the child of an Irish-Catholic altar boy father and a Calvinist mother, I will say that I pointed in awe at my iPad, hitting a pose I hope looked more like one of the background players in Raphael’s The Transfiguration straining toward Christ ascendant and less like Rick Dalton.
It's rare to see such an explicitly religious image on TV used with such beauty. This Fargo season's antagonist-turned-antihero Ole Munch (Sam Spruell) was tricked into a curse and then bade for centuries to kill for whichever rich so-and-so paid for his services. All season, Munch had been trading flesh for debt, blinding the vaping, manosphere-enraptured failson (Joe Keery) who tried to rip him off, helping Juno Temple’s Dot fight back against her captors in the penultimate episode before visiting her home in the finale, seeking to collect a blood debt on the fight that they’d abandoned in the premiere. Dot listened to Munch tell the story of his horrible, endless, spiritually manacled life, then talked to him about the pettiness of debt. Life, she argues, doesn’t have to be a brutal stoichiometry. And Munch considered her point, twitched when offered a pop, and then extended his hand to receive the holy biscuit. The show dared to give a superb Anton Chigurh riff a backstory. And then it gave him communion.
In my mother’s church, the Dutch Reformed Church—better known as Calvinism for those who do not believe in predestination (the fate of your soul was decided before your birth) nor absolute depravation (we suck as a species)—they keep the word “debt” in the Lord’s Prayer. The gentler sects of Protestantism substituted “trespasses” years ago. My parents were not churchgoing people, but as a child, when I visited my grandparents in the Hudson River Valley, I attended the Dutch Reformed church in which I was baptized. I thought it was kinda badass, the word “debt”—like God was a mob boss, and you better get to hustling if you didn’t want to defame the life you had been given. The wood in the church around us was bare, maybe painted white. Even to depict Christ on the cross was a kind of idolatry. Centuries ago, Calvinists vandalized cathedrals across Belgium and the Netherlands, shattering statues and destroying religious iconography. When I do pray the Lord’s Prayer, I like to keep the “debt” in there. Keeps me honest.
An Abrahamic God flows across all branches of the Fargo universe. The noble survive only through divine protection: recall Patrick Wilson and the UFO in the climax of Season 2. This season, Jon Hamm’s Roy Tillman justifies whatever he wants with tryhard death metal beat poetry that he thinks carries Old Testament fervor. But it’s Ole Munch’s dinner table testimony turned Pentecost that’s the transition from the stark Old Testament to the hope of the New.
Noah Hawley’s Fargo universe isn’t the only place where religion has infused prestige TV.
In Mad Men, before a trembling, detoxing Don Draper melts down in front of Hershey executives, he punches a minister while blackout drunk. Peggy walks away from the Catholic church and then leans on its imagery in her work for years: a mom offering popsicles in the pose of the Virgin Mary; the promise of a shared table at Burger Chef. I love every episode of Ramy, in which Mia Khalifa references and jokes about an eager white convert share space, and whose titular character sometimes has premarital sex but makes wudu and refuses alcohol, though other Muslim characters on the show do not. The cathartic Unorthodox has a young woman leave her Haredi community in Brooklyn for a more secular life in Berlin.
Religious imagery and observant characters bring the shock of the new for a younger generation that largely identifies as secular. I’ve taught in a Catholic school. I’ll testify that the call and response cycles during mandatory school mass were not slapping among the young. While the algorithm keeps bending every corner of the internet toward your most avaricious clicks, and keeps flattening all the holy weirdness of the 2000s internet into dick pills and mom guilt, anytime our stories on the TV dip into the religious, they offer the most precious thing of all: shared mystery. They stoke nostalgia and recognition and pain and regret from people raised with faith, and curiosity from those raised without. It’s always been that way. From Byzantine mosaics to qawwali singing to Bernard Malamud’s short story masterpiece “The Magic Barrel,” religious art brings its audience together with questions that echo. You might say [adjusts youth-pastor flannel-shirt sleeves] that the Holy Ghost was the first crossover.
The other ghost in American religious pop culture is our other god: money. In recent American TV, there’s very little space between faith and the market. Consider Logan Roy’s funeral on Succession. After all the CPAC suites and Sun Valley chalets have faded away, we’re in an old Jesuit church. The dead man’s fearless bearded brother talks about both the dead man stoking evil and the horrors and shame that the dead rich man endured as a child. And then the rich man’s youngest son weeps because he has an epiphany: his father’s body and spirit are now separated. There are no more jokes to tell, no more dick pics to send. The money is useless. You have to weep before God.
A more extended dance with faith and money in contemporary American TV belongs to a uniquely American religious sect: The Mormon Church, and its role on Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. There’s no quick way to recap the story of the Mormon church nor its outsized influence on 20th century American politics and American business. A recently published book, American Zion by Benjamin Park would be an excellent place to start. Or begin with the early seasons of RHOSLC, whose focus on the Church of Latter-Day Saints remains unique. Several of the cast members identify as Mormon. Heather Gay, the show’s star, makes grappling with the LDS central to her heroic journey. She was raised in the church, married into Mormon aristocracy, and was the ideal Mormon woman and mother until her marriage ended and she left the church (her husband is never seen on camera).
In the first season she traverses the world outside the church, having been excised from her old community. She struggles to reconnect with her estranged sister, who left the church before Heather did. She becomes a kind of counselor for others leaving Mormonism—a lunch where she talks with a young couple leaving the church, who share that their first foray into alcohol was straight vodka, is sweet comedy. Heather talks with her own preteen and teenage daughters about girlhood and womanhood, about what was offered to her in the church and what she wants to offer to them in a different world. When she cries as her daughter leaves for a big fun state school in California, it’s what any good psychodynamic therapist would call meaningful reparenting. It’s damn near a Marilynne Robinson novel on Bravo and I still cannot believe it happened.
But it’s also a Real Housewives show. Money remains close. Heather launches a series of successful medspas. Lasers and fillers as chapter and verse. The other women on the show, some self-identifying as Mormon, are never far away from debt. Like all RH franchises, accusations about who is truly rich and who is leveraged to the gills fill the hours. We spend plenty of time in hastily built exurb mini-mansions with the kind of subway-tile backsplash that should have “adjustable-rate mortgage” written across it in neon. Somewhere over Lake Geneva, John Calvin shakes his head.
Money is part of Mormonism’s pitch. Salt Lake City’s downtown and BYU’s campus are manicured grace. Mormons are overrepresented in the most visible layers of American success: in top business schools and in C-suites (Romney, Huntsman, etc.). When I lived in Samoa, I drove past the Mormon Temple in Apia every day. On a Polynesian island filled with traditional thatched roof houses and grim concrete blocks, the spire and golden figure of the angel Moroni could make the island’s endless wreath of palm trees look meek in the right light. The church-going Samoan people have been converting to Mormonism in droves. You really can’t ever know why one chooses one church over another, but as I heard from many Samoans: the LDS church has the best schools, the best air conditioning and the best basketball courts. Park argues in his book that the biggest piece of Mormon outreach in the 21st century was the seamless, spotless Olympics in Salt Lake City.
It’s the plentitude of Mormonism that makes it such a perfect fit with the Real Housewives franchise. Outer abundance should mirror inner grandeur. But maybe I’m fascinated with this because of my own life’s path. I married into a Swedish-American family deeply embedded in The New Church—another mystic 18th century Protestant sect, this one founded by the Swedish polymath and scholar Emanuel Swedenborg (Swedenborg and The New Church are used interchangeably). In Swedenborg’s writing, angels are active agents in daily life. There are multiple earths. My mother-in-law told me than during the moon landing kids from around the community ran to family TVs, anticipating seeing the humans who walked on their knuckles on the moon, as Swedenborg had proclaimed there were. When my wife and I were married by a Swedenborgian minister, we were joined in celestial marriage like Mormons are. We said “in this life and the next” instead of “till death do us part.”
The way Heather talks about the links between rococo images of heaven and domestic responsibility in the LDS—to be fruitful (make that money) and to multiply (have those kids)—matched what I heard from older members of The New Church. Like in Mormonism, there are no boundaries between being a good capitalist and a good Christian. If you aren’t going to secure the bag, preach or teach.
In the middle of Season 5 of Fargo, as Temple’s Dot flees from Hamm’s murderous sheriff—the man who abused her and forced her into child marriage—she gets into a car accident. As she’s unconscious, she has a vision of other women survivors who live like a congress of angels in an otherworldly commune where they must exorcise their own harrowing pasts through shadow puppets. It is, as Emanuel Swedenborg proclaimed his own visions to be, a revelation of true faith. And on Fargo as on Real Housewives as on Ramy, all the recurring images and careful allusions delivered weekly, can, at their best, take us out of the mundane and into some strange televised American form of holy mystery. We can see ourselves through a screen, darkly. Maybe that’s enough.
Originally Appeared on GQ