Fargo (1996) by Joel and Ethan Coen
How Would’ve Jerry Lundegaard Committed College Admissions Fraud, eh?
Retro Review by Reid Ramsey
Last week, charges were brought against Felicity Huffman as part of an investigation of a widespread college admissions scandal. Alongside others named in the investigation, Huffman, most famous for her role as Lynette Scavo on the hit, mid-aughts show Desperate Housewives, is accused of paying someone $15,000 to take the SAT in place of her daughter in hopes that they would score higher. The investigation ropes in several other celebrities and seems by all accounts to be extensive. There’s one strange caveat in all of it, though: the document fails to mention Huffman’s husband, William H. Macy, and only ever refers to him as “spouse.”
Macy is most recently well-known for his role on the TV show Shameless, but he is perennially recognizable for his role in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. In Fargo, Macy plays the hapless but culpable criminal Jerry Lundegaard who pays two men to kidnap his wife so that Jerry can request and accept the ransom money from his father-in-law. He wants the money so he can make an investment in some parking lots that he most likely wants to use to please his father-in-law. It’s a vicious circle of a film that spends scene after scene following Marge Gunderson, the local Police Chief, as she homes in on the truly nefarious truth of the crime. It’s one of the whitest crime movies ever made, both in terms of the nature of the crimes and the complexion of those who commit them.
For many, the revelations from last week’s cheating scandal were a harsh reminder of the massive inequality facing people of color when it comes to college admissions. It reminds those who have worked hard every day of their lives that there are people in the world that can simply have their parents pay their way into college, and that, yes, it does literally happen. In this way, the whiteness of the cheating scandal does remind me in many ways of the whiteness of Fargo. While it can be dubious to compare real-life crimes to fictional ones, this whole situation did have me asking one question: If given the opportunity, how might Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) have committed this crime?
Fargo Spoilers Ahead!
For this thought experiment, I have to first get through some basics. Let’s recall where the movie left off: Jerry, now partially responsible for the death of this wife and the subsequent murders of many others, has been arrested and is likely serving a hefty jail sentence. What happened to Jerry’s son Scotty, though? Maybe he’s indefinitely hanging out with his friends at McDonald’s now that his parents aren’t breathing down his neck. Maybe he’s concerned for his whole family. The movie doesn’t answer that question. For the sake of this experiment though, let’s assume Scotty still has college aspirations.
So Jerry is in jail. Scotty has college ambitions but not the grades to get himself there. It’s now the job of the criminal father to make sure the son that he has essentially abandoned can be accepted into a mid-tier university.
Without further ado, here’s the step-by-step guide of how Jerry Lundegaard would cheat his son into college.
Devise the Plan- First Jerry must figure out what Scotty’s reasonable strengths are. He’s never been a fiend for the classroom, so the top-tier universities are out of reach. Instead, he should be trying to get his son average SAT scores that will look pretty good for the Midwestern state university of Scotty’s choice. Lastly, he and his son need to have a long, honest chat about whether Scotty thinks he’s good enough to play collegiate hockey. Sure, it’ll be hard for them to have that heart-to-heart given their current situation, but let’s face it, if the kid’s got the athletic potential then we really don’t need to sort through the rest of this plan.
Assemble a Team- The major downside is that all the criminals Jerry knows are either dead or also in jail, and I’ll be frank, he should not enlist the help of the quiet, pancake-loving mass murderer again. Luckily, Jerry should be able to find a couple of schmucks to rope into this convoluted plan. Perhaps his cellmates?
Acquire Funding- In his first criminal escapade, Jerry had a really difficult time finding funding. He was mostly bankrolled by a stolen car and the promise of his father-in-law’s ransom. Getting two criminals to buy into such a lurid crime on only the promise of money wasn’t too difficult for the first time, but for this new, even whiter-collar venture, Jerry will need to lay down some serious cash. More than likely in the realm of $15,000. Where should he go first? All of his friends probably hate him and his family is mostly dead. I say Jerry must begin a new series of crimes from inside prison.
Perhaps he’s selling smokes or something typical, but the most on-brand option for the convicted father is to take advantage of his niche market: fathers attempting to reconcile their fractured relationships with their children by cheating them into college. Jerry could encourage the other fathers to put down a deposit under the guise of helping their children also cheat their way into college. He could then take their money and funnel it into the cheating fund for his own son.
Find a Ringer- Next, the crew must use their criminal connections to find someone to take the SAT in place of Scotty who fits the following specifications: must look like Scotty, must be much smarter than Scotty, and also must be willing to engage in a fairly large-scale cheating conspiracy.
Commit the Fraud- The easiest part, maybe? Now that Jerry has all of his ducks in a row, he needs only to sit back and make sure Glenn, Scotty’s doppelganger doesn’t get cold feet. Just like his last crime, I’m sure nothing will go wrong.
Cover your Tracks- It’s always important to cover your tracks when cheating on a level that would incite national, racial, and class intrigue. Just in case Jerry doesn’t cover them too well, though, it’s always important to have a fall guy. With this particular crime, the solution is easy: Scotty is the only logical fall guy. Set it up so that, if things go awry, the police find evidence of Scotty’s involvement and trace the money back to him and not his incarcerated father. Jerry’s already thrown many family members under the bus, so this is the only logical endpoint for this crime saga.
Of course, even if Jerry Lundegaard followed an intelligent plan closely, it would always come back to bite him.
Despite drawing too many nonexistent parallel lines between the famous Fargo crime and the newly-reported widespread college admissions scandal, the decision to omit William H. Macy’s name in the investigation has led many (particularly women) to ask, just where is William H. Macy? Is this one of those many things a mother “just needed to take care of for her children,” or did Macy really learn some evasion techniques from the failed criminal enterprises of his most famous role? Perhaps there’s much more to grapple with as this story continues to unfold.