FARGO: “Who Shaves the Barber?”

It’s the calm after the storm: Molly lives, Malvo is unkillable, and Lester is the worst.

Keep your chin up, Gus Grimley. We’re winning this thing.

–Molly

Remember how, in the first few episodes, Lester was being set up as an aw jeez Midwesterner who just got in over his head? How he scrambled to save himself week after week, awkwardly blustering, while occasionally being overcome by grief and regret? How, after being legitimately victimized by Hess, he stumbled backwards into Malvo’s world and bit off more than he could chew, like the doomed William H. Macy character in Fargo the film?

Well, that Lester is gone. Now, Lester 2.0 has traded in his hideous safety orange jacket for a more dangerous suit; his posture is a little straighter; he doesn’t stumble over his words (unless it’s intentional); he’s got swagger. Not done lying, but done lying to himself, his Heisenberg-ian (or is it Malvo-ian?) transformation is complete. Remarkably, that frame he set in motion on his brother Chaz works perfectly; it’s only a matter of hours before the (unloaded) handgun falls out of Gordo’s bag, and Chief Bill Oswalt and Bemidji’s finest swarm the wealthier Nygaard home, finding the hammer, the underwear, and the photos. Bill, who just a couple episodes ago had been brought around to Molly’s way of thinking, latches on to this new evidence like a drowning man; he never fully believed that Lester could be guilty, because he’s known Lester forever. He should know what he’s capable of, shouldn’t he? It’s an enormous relief for Bill to pin the crime on almost anyone else, and Lester is more than happy to provide the hockey assist.

“Was your wife having an affair?” Bill asks. Lester almost can’t believe his good luck. “Mmhmm,” he answers, without even a nod. So the story is this: Lester came home to find Chaz and Pearl fighting in the basement, he hears the pop of the hammer finding its mark (a sound Lester will never forget, in the only true statement he makes the entire interview), confronts his brother, but Chaz grabs the shotgun first and blows away the chief when he arrives. The telling of the tale gets more wobbly as it goes, as Lester’s mind whirs trying to plausibly reconstruct the scene in real time (another impressive performance from Martin Freeman), but an emotional Bill buys it all — hook, line, and sinker. “We all know your brother had a temper,” Bill concludes. You kind of feel for the chief, who has been overwhelmed by the crime wave and has now been straight up deceived, though his own sense of decency remains intact.

That this can happen so quickly, that Bill can be duped so easily with nary a dissenting voice or thought, is due to Molly’s absence as the moral center of this unit; Bill is already pissed he has to deal with this bloody soap opera instead of checking on her, so he is all the more eager to close the book on the Nygaard case. Chaz, for his part, knows exactly what happened the moment the police pull out the hammer (after his wife Kitty has already presumed his guilt for something, surely); his anguished “What did you do??” to his brother as Lester passes by goes unheeded, without even a glance in Chaz’s direction. But Lester’s evil half-smile returns; he’s ready to finally move on now, to go back to work, to get his house cleaned. (“Do you do crime scenes? Let’s say there’s a lot of blood…”) With a spring in his step he visits Hess’s sultry widow, under the guise of arranging for insurance money he has no intention of actually providing. He puts the moves on her, and gets his ultimate revenge on Sam Hess: staring down a framed picture of the dead man while Lester and the widow go at it, until it crashes to the ground in symbolism of the heaviest kind.

Completely unmentioned in Lester’s improvised tale? Lorne Malvo, who has fled Minnesota with the single-minded goal of striking back at whoever sent Mssrs. Numbers and Wrench after him. He first visits a realtor in Reno, Nevada, who — after some whining about “not wanting to get involved” — points him in the right direction. Next time we see Malvo, he’s storming the Fargo crime ring’s headquarters in the episode’s centerpiece sequence: an unbroken tracking shot outside the building, following the action from window to window, though we can’t actually see what’s going on inside — instead we hear it, gunfire, shouting, crashes, the clicks of empty magazines, and let our imagination fill in the rest.

It’s an extremely cool flourish from this week’s director, Emmy-winner Scott Winant, and reestablishes Lorne as a “Loki” figure, an impish force of destruction. He single-handledly takes out the entire circle of criminals, because of course he does — all under the nose of a pair of squabbling FBI agents (I’d say, “who are played by Key and Peele,” but they basically are Key and Peele) who suddenly have a lot of explaining to do. Introducing a pair of important characters this late in the game — especially ones portrayed by extremely recognizable faces — is a risk, but everything else Noah Hawley has tried has worked, so why not?

“Who Shaves the Barber?” is a table-setter, the series taking a breather while establishing new conflicts in the aftermath of last week’s blizzard (and fish plague, which goes unremarked-upon — is Stavros’s story over?), as Lester and Malvo seem more iron-clad than ever. Molly, on the other hand, has lost a spleen (it’s obvious, in hindsight, that she wasn’t going to die; she is the show, and this show is not Game of Thrones). Gus — who we see at the top of the episode in a magnificent shot, pulling back in reverse time as he despairs alone in Molly’s room — doesn’t wait long to confess that he’s the one who shot her: “Well, that don’t make sense,” she mutters; “I’ll get ya a new one, I swear!” Gus hilariously replies. (He also brought her flowers, which: aww.) He figures they’ll take his badge for this, but Molly doesn’t want that to happen. Besides, she knows she shot someone, too — a someone who turns out to be Wrench, who is also not dead, but clams up (more than usual) when he learns that Numbers is gone. Molly, ever the good cop, still tries to get to know him: “It’s crazy, I never shot anyone before. I gather this wasn’t your first time, though,” but Wrench refuses to answer Molly’s written query of “LORNE MALVO?”, leaving her with no further leads.

She resorts to graphing out everything she currently knows on the hospital window with a grease pencil, and she and Gus piece together that they have enough circumstantial evidence (again, no actual evidence) to take another run at Lester. The problem is, they have no idea about Lester’s frame of Chaz, and that Molly will once again be setting herself against even-more-exasperated Oswalt (ugh). Whatever confidence she had is blown to pieces when she re-enters the Bemidji station, after everyone has already left to celebrate apprehending the younger Nygaard. The news — that Lester’s brother did it; it’s open and shut — rocks her like a gale-force wind, and she staggers back out into the snow, stunned. How is it possible? Could her instincts have failed her this badly? And if not, how the heck is she going to uncover the truth on hunches alone, swimming upstream like the fish in Lester’s tacky poster?

It’s worth mentioning, of course, that the acting on this show continues to be sensational — Freeman, Bob Odenkirk, and Allison Tolman all do career work in this episode alone. The final scene with a dazed Molly, stunned by the developments in the case while she was out of commission, is heartbreaking, and incredibly endearing; we need Molly to get her man — so much so that we give no thought to her being up on her feet days after losing an organ —  and feed off the confidence she exhibits to Gus. And when that gets snatched away, it’s devastating. It’s a gamble in this age of television, to trust that the writer believes in a sense of “cosmic justice,” but we know the Coen brothers do; I’ll take that chance. Good grief, is Lester the worst.

Shot of the Week

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 10.11.41 AM

The framing! The snowflakes! The performance! Gorgeous.

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