FARGO: “Buridan’s Ass”

It’s a bloodbath, of Biblical proportions.

We’re supposed to know better. To be better.

–Gus

Must be hard to live in this world if you think like that.

–Molly

First off, Molly better not be dead. I think the episode leaving her fate somewhat ambiguous helps her; it provides us with a cliffhanger without having to actually kill off the beating heart of the show. Stunts like that, thanks to series like Game of Thrones, are in vogue, and Noah Hawley has earned a lot of trust, but seriously: Molly better not be dead.

In the actual Fargo, North Dakota — a place we are only now visiting in the show — a group of mobsters gather around a table. The head of this syndicate, an imposing figure with a gigantic face and a taste for eating fish whole, asks a question in a single word: “Hess?” His lieutenants explain what they know: it was probably an extra-marital thing, Numbers and Wrench are looking for the killer; they’ll apprehend him soon. The response: “DEAD.” Lorne Malvo should not be “apprehended.” He should be dead.

But that will prove considerably easier said than done; while Malvo seems less god-like the more time we spend with him, he is undeniably ruthless, and still has plenty of tricks up his sleeves. For starters, Don Chumph — how many scenes go by where we expect Lorne to just murder him outright? — is finally let out of his pantry, and is asking for a 60-40 split of Stavros’s cash considering the amount of risk he’s putting himself in. He then looks around the kitchen, and sees bags of supplies: guns, and a lot of duct tape. But just when he begins to ask what that’s all for, Lorne knocks him out with a blender.

Stavros, meanwhile, broods in his office; framed by his elaborate, ridiculous stained glass, gazing upon that fateful red ice scraper like it’s a holy relic. He gets the call (and another cryptic story about wolves) via Lorne’s voice modulator, and is off to a nearby parking garage to make the exchange. But sitting there in the snow — the storm of the century, they say — he gets another idea, or is it the voice of God? Whatever its origin, it spurs Stavros to leave the garage (“Open the goddamn gate, your Lord demands it,” he orders the smug lot attendant, who thankfully does not meet the same fate as the one in Fargo the film).

Throughout the episode, we hear radios warning listeners to stay off the roads; which means that this week’s climax will inevitably take place in the middle of the blizzard. Gus and Molly have teamed up, braving the storm to trace a new lead, which is the car Lorne was driving when he parked menacingly outside Gus’s house last week. It was a company car, as it turns out, belonging to Stavros’s grocery chain, but when the officers go to visit (“Dave, are we telling anybody about the bugs?”), they strike out. But the two continue to hit it off — I loved the little gesture from Allison Tolman, fixing her hair when Gus isn’t looking — and get to know each other: we learn that Gus never wanted to be a cop, but a mailman. He liked the routine, and getting to know the people of his community. But there was a hiring freeze, and a friend recommended he join the force instead…unfortunately, all he’s gotten out of his newfound career is frustration, and a growing horror at how human beings can treat one another. This case, this Malvo case, is his first chance to really be a “good cop,” but he’s terrified he’ll find a way to screw it up. Hold that thought.

Back at the Chumph home, Lorne’s downright evil plan clicks into place: Don wakes up gagged, duct-taped to a treadmill, and Lorne straps a rifle to his hands. “Yeah, that 60-40 split? Doesn’t really work for me,” Lorne intones. Don is meant to be a distraction for the police, to keep them too busy to respond anywhere else in case Stavros gets cold feet. Don, seeing Lorne standing right in front of the barrel of his gun, fires — but nothing. “That’s okay,” Lorne smiles. “I’d be insulted if you didn’t try.” And sure enough, after Lorne sends a few quick bullets into the street with a second gun, it isn’t long before the Duluth police arrive in force. Don is powerless to move, or speak; the cops order whoever is inside the house to stand down and come out, something Don obviously can’t do.

And it’s remarkable, as this horrifying sequence unfolds (poetically directed by Colin Bucksey), how Fargo manages to make us suddenly care for one of its least interesting characters; Don’s terror is our terror, and when the police cross Lorne’s tripwire, unleashing more gunfire, it becomes a slow-motion trainwreck — Don, silhouetted in his hallway, wreathed in smoke, only just able to work off his gag and beg for the police to wait, but there’s nothing he can do. He goes down, as a children’s choir sings in the background; the series’s most distressing moment yet. Chumph was a slimeball, and an idiot, but he didn’t deserve that.

And it’s going to get worse before it gets better: Lorne, on his way to collect Stavros’s money, is rear-ended by Numbers and Wrench (cue the drum solo), who burst out of their vehicle firing shotguns. How did they find him, especially in this weather, when you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you? The figures move in and out of view like ghosts; the henchmen think they have Lorne pinned, but he slithers away into the white. However, it’s not enough for Lorne to simply get away, though he could do so easily; he must claim some kind of victory, so he slices his hand — leaving a trail of his own blood for Numbers to follow. (At this point, Wrench disappears, never to be seen again this episode.) Lorne gets the drop on Numbers, and stabs him until Numbers reveals who sent him; then he slices his neck. That’s two characters down.

Molly and Gus hear the shots up the street, and she takes off to investigate, leaving a very nervous Gus with no choice but to follow her. They come across the body of Numbers moments later: “He’s dead, I think,” Gus helpfully observes. But then Molly has run off again, and Gus can’t see her, and he’s terrified, he never signed up for this, and he sees a fuzzy shape and fires a shot. Like the scene with Don, we know exactly what’s going to happen before it happens — the body on the ground turns out to be Molly, and she’s not moving. Gus kneels in the snow, stunned, as the camera pulls back to show the shell-shocked Officer Grimley, alone in the storm.

Stavros has had enough of plagues, and enough of fear; he has decided that the only way to end things is to put that case of money back where it came from. So, in the middle of the blizzard, he returns to that fated spot. The shot selection mirrors the original burial from the film to the letter: a look left, a look right, stick the ice scraper back where it belongs. And, amazingly, the storm stops. Is God satisfied? Stavros’s dimwitted son Dmitri and his bodyguard are also on the road when the skies clear– “Let there be light?” Dmitri asks. We’ve had the blood, the locusts, the darkness — but not the final plague. Out of nowhere, the sky begins to rain fish (not an impossible thing, as major storm cells have been known to empty bodies of water and deposit their contents elsewhere), knocking their car out of control. Minutes later, Stavros comes across the wreck, and the body of his firstborn son. “I gave it back,” he cries to the heavens. What else is he supposed to do? What else must he lose?

If all of this isn’t bleak or cruel enough for you, there’s still Lester, who learns that he is under police surveillance. His brother Chaz comes to visit, and lays into him, ordering him to tell the police what he knows. “If you want this to go away, you’ve got to give them someone.” But Lester refuses to admit to anything; “You’re my brother, you should be on my side.” That’s not good enough for Chaz, who finally snaps: “You’ve been a burden my whole life….There’s something wrong with you, something missing. You’re not right in the world.” This is not a case of circumstances turning Lester into someone he isn’t; this is Lester’s true nature finally being revealed. And Martin Freeman is so adept at playing a half dozen emotions at once: he’s defensive, he’s hurt, arrogant; his grimace tells us one thing, but the hardness in his eyes tells us another.

Lester shows us an ability to improvise that we haven’t really seen before, as his actions turn from “saving his own skin” to something more outright malicious; he switches beds with the burn victim next to him, and covers his face with bandages; when the nurse wheels him out, and leaves him in a hallway, he hops out and steals a car. First stop is his house, where he sees that someone has been in his basement, but Molly never found that hammer — which he stashed in the wall, behind that ridiculous poster with the fish. We can see Lester’s gears turning, as he deposits it in his brother’s garage, along with a photograph and a piece of his dead wife’s underwear; there’s little chance this frame will hold up, considering what the police already know, but Lester wants to see his brother suffer for once. His successful, respected brother, with the nice house, and the beautiful family portrait — a portrait that seems to make Lester reconsider his plan, but instead he doubles down, leaving an unloaded handgun in the backpack of Chaz’s autistic son.

“Buridan’s Ass,” the philosophical paradox that gives the episode its title, refers to free will: a donkey, when equally placed between hay and water, will be unable to determine which is the better choice and die. The lesson, as applied to Fargo, is that those who are passive will be destroyed by those who choose to act. His plan executed flawlessly (though he is seen for a moment by the son, who turns away without saying a word), Lester returns to his room the same way he left it, with his police tail none the wiser. He allows himself a smile. He may have been a weak-willed buffoon just five episodes ago, but Lester has embraced the darkness.

Shot of the Week

Fargo cap 2

No pun intended. Poor Don Chumph; he died as he lived: on an exercise machine.

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