FARGO: “Rhinoceros”

Yeah, doesn’t look like Peggy’s going to make it to that seminar.

Whatever your status, I will defend you to your last breath. Or my last breath. Forgive the death penalty snafu. I am slightly inebriated.

–Karl Weathers

The big takeaway from “Rhinoceros” — a truly outstanding episode of television in which every piece glided together effortlessly, a joyful, dizzying sequence of moves and counter-moves and counter-counter-moves — is the supreme wonder of Nick Offerman. Luverne’s erudite barrister has been off on the sidelines, offering a quip here, ranting about a government conspiracy there, crying during a Reagan speech over here…but last night thrust him center stage, a spotlight episode for both Offerman and Noah Hawley’s serpentine writing. (He even gets a tag over the credits, a first for Fargo.)

Karl Weathers finds himself in the unenviable position of negotiating a temporary cease-fire in the war that has come to his town’s doorstep, with the stubborn Blumquists on one side, and the quiet rage of Bear Gerhardt and his “jackboots” on the other. And he has to do it while drunk. But he pulls it off through sheer loquaciousness and gruff, reckless courage, appealing to Bear’s desire to protect his son. Charlie can “stay clean” if Bear will take his goons and go, and though he strongly considers just blowing Karl’s brains out, Bear eventually takes the deal. Meanwhile, Lou sneaks Ed out of the station through the back window, but at this point, why even bother?

Both Blumquists are infuriatingly stubborn at the episode’s beginning, and Peggy in particular as she loudly protests to Lou and Hank and anyone within earshot as to her certain innocence. Ed, name-checking Sisyphus, demands a lawyer because he’s “seen the shows on TV.” Everyone except our officers seem to think that’s how the world really works. Yet people have died, and will keep dying, so Lou’s patience has run out, and we feel his exasperation. (Even with his own team — one cop thinks just locking the door will be enough. “Let’s barricade that, ya?”) Poor Hank doesn’t even know how to react to Peggy’s nonsense. She recites the talking points from her self-help brochure, focusing on herself instead of the fact that her husband is in jail for his own protection. “You’re touched, aren’t you?” wonders Hank. By the time Peggy drops “Life’s a journey, you know?” my notes simply read “WHAT THE F–K IS SHE TALKING ABOUT.”

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And yet, as awful as she’s been, you have to root for her when she’s pitted against Dodd. The eldest Gerhardt is in rare form today, creepily belittling his daughter, whipping off his belt in retaliation against Bear (before that gets blessedly interrupted by Floyd), and accidentally shooting his own man when going after Peggy in the basement. The best you can say for him is that he’s not so stupid as to murder the sheriff in cold blood. I was ready to get really sad, as it didn’t seem like Hank would be able to escape death twice, but he only gets knocked out with the butt of a gun. (By the way, how great is Ted Danson’s understated performance? If Hank’s afraid, he doesn’t let on. His quiet “Here we go” spoke volumes about what kind of man he is and how far he’s willing to take it.)

Anyway, down in the Blumquists’ Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque magazine archive, Peggy surprises Dodd with a cattle prod to the chest, and not a moment too soon. First she finally, FINALLY cracks to Hank, confessing not just what she did but why she is the way she is (“I’m living in a museum of the past,” she tells him), then she gets the drop on the show’s biggest sociopath. It’d be worth cheering about if it didn’t feel like only a temporary reprieve. Her husband hasn’t really escaped, either. Hanzee’s the type to finish a job even when his employer is out of the picture, and begins tracking the idiot butcher down the road to the strains of a funky cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

So you’ve got Dodd going after Peggy, Bear going after Ed, Hank and Lou running interference, Hanzee always flanking, Karl giving a performance for the ages, and I haven’t even mentioned naive Simone giving Mike Milligan the window he needs to strike at the Gerhardt homestead while the men are away. She phones him almost immediately, complaining that her dad called her a whore (Mike’s perfectly dry response: “Well…technically…”), but is too naive to realize that he’s just using her, and doesn’t care if she’s in the line of fire when his Kansas City men attack. Moments before the shooting starts, Floyd appeals to her granddaughter’s feminist streak: “We all got a role to play. This is our time.” But she’s cut off, because these characters have a habit of waiting just a scene or two too long to say what needs to be said.

The opening minutes of “Rhinoceros,” as this is all set in motion, is masterfully edited by Bridget Dernford and Regis Kimble, using breakneck match cuts and split screens and Mike’s out-of-nowhere recitation of Jabberwocky (though that is SO Mike, isn’t it?) to keep all those plates spinning. As typical with Fargo, there’s not a wasted moment. Every piece matters. And has each episode has built in intensity, it’s also grown in pure entertainment.

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