It’s our first recap of FARGO! Which is poor timing on our part, because things in Bemidji are getting quite serious.
Only a fool thinks he can solve the world’s problems.
When it was first announced, and even when it premiered, many had a specific, almost visceral reaction to Fargo: “Why does this exist?” Or, more particularly, “Can Noah Hawley really get away with shamelessly ripping off the Coen Brothers for ten episodes?” And it’s true, at first the parallels were a little heavy-handed. You had Martin Freeman in the William H. Macy part, as the bumbling midwesterner discovering his inner monster; Allison Tolman in the Frances McDormand part, as the remarkably competent and decent policewoman; you had the usual assorted n’er-do-wells and quirky side characters, populating an identically bleak snowscape to the landmark film.
And yet…as events have unfolded, paths have diverged, and Fargo has become an altogether unique beast. As last week’s episode revealed, these events certainly take place in the same universe as the movie, but these characters — while sharing tendencies found all across the Coens’ filmography — are much more original, and the plot developments more surprising, than the series was originally given credit for. (Not to say it doesn’t enjoy riffing on what we already know, like this week’s opening credits coming straight out of O Brother Where Art Thou.) Which has made Fargo, non-hyperbolically, the show that currently brings me more pleasure than anything else on TV: its blackly comic tone, capable of wringing humor out of nearly everything, even the shot composition; the incredibly strong performances across the board, particularly from Tolman, Freeman, and a magnetically droll Billy Bob Thornton; the sprightly pizzicato-and-woodwinds score from Jeff Russo; the gorgeous cinematography, never better than when out in the great expanses of white. It’s a wildly entertaining, confident, brilliant show, and has justified its own existence — and then some.
“The Six Ungraspables,” marking the halfway point of the series, sacrifices the whimsy and caprice of earlier installments for things like “Plot Development,” which means it’s tougher to watch, but ultimately more satisfying. Not a single scene this week takes place out on the barren tundra, instead keeping to darkly-lit interiors and even darker night scenes. But there is a light at the end, in our intrepid officer Molly putting most of the pieces together, and FINALLY bringing Chief Oswalt around to her side. Oswalt has been at least half-wrong about basically everything since the series began, and it’s a great relief that it only took Molly just over four episodes to vindicate herself, so we can dispatch with the fabricated obstacles and go directly at the Big Bad, Lorne Malvo. Molly has traced his path to the motel, and connected the dots to his meeting Lester at the hospital and the tokens stolen off Hess at the strip club. She’s got it all figured out, except for one thing — that Lester is the one that killed his wife. For now, the theory is that Lester hired Lorne to kill Hess, who went on a rampage when Lester couldn’t pay. It’s a notion that Lester obviously doesn’t dispute, even when under sedation on his way to the hospital for the third time.
It’s Lester’s telltale hand that ultimately dooms him, the hidden mark of a shotgun wound that he should not have, from the shotgun that he never intended to buy, and never even used himself. “If anyone can shoot themselves in the face with an unloaded firearm, it’s you,” his wife says in flashback. All Lester wanted to buy was a set of mismatched socks. All Lester wanted was for his wife to leave him alone. All Lester wanted was to feel like a man. All Lester wanted was for his life to be significant. He gets all of those things, but a terrible cost, the sum of which he has yet to fully comprehend. Because once you open your front door to the Devil, he doesn’t leave willingly. And now that Molly is onto him, following her gut even when she fails to find the smoking hammer in the washing machine (but returning to Lester’s hospital room to give his back a withering death glare), she won’t be leaving him either.
Lester buys a reprieve from Mssrs. Numbers and Wrench when he finally gives up Lorne’s name, trading his fear of that unknowable malevolence for the ease of his pain in the present, and now everyone is on to Malvo except poor Stavros, strung out on amphetamines and dealing with the plagues of Egypt in his own home. Malvo’s blackmail plan is working to perfection, as Stavros’s deep spirituality doesn’t let him even entertain the thought of those locusts having a natural origin — they were all bought from the same store, his idiot son tries to say, but no, “God sent them” — so he is ready to give up his prized suitcase of heaven-sent cash to his mysterious nemesis. While driving him home on the eve of the exchange, Lorne gives him another one of his patented creepy monologues, this one about Wolves and the Roman Empire: “You know what wolves do? They hunt. That’s why I never bought into The Jungle Book…there are no saints in the animal kingdom. Only breakfast and dinner.” It seemed obvious for a while that Lorne’s adopted partner in blackmail, Chumph, was going to be breakfast as well — I know I’m not the only one who expected Lorne to gruesomely use that drill for something other than locking him in his pantry — and perhaps he still will, but he will be considerably more oblivious to the lesson than Stavros Milos.
Because Lorne is essentially evil incarnate (his name doesn’t even come up in an internet search — though an awfully-photoshopped image of “Pastor Peterson” does, because he has an almost supernatural ability to hide in plain sight), it makes the innate goodness of Officers Molly and Gus that much more important. The latter has been wrestling for weeks about whether going after Malvo — at the possible expense of his life — is the right thing to do, and it’s a late-night conversation with his Jewish neighbor that brings him to a tipping point. The neighbor, for now oblivious to his wife’s silent come-on to Gus back in the second episode, tells him a parable about a wealthy man who was so troubled by the problems of the world he chose to offer everything he had, even his body, to solve them. The message is that the world can’t be fixed by one man, but Gus’s response — “But you have to try, dontcha?” — lines up with what kind of man he is: a fundamentally good one, who is bravely but foolishly overmatched by Lorne’s coolly pathological force.
It is Gus’s supposed strength — his belief in his fellow man, or in some kind of cosmic justice — that is also his biggest weakness; in between tormenting Stavros (while recording and carefully labeling every phone conversation) and making sure Chumph doesn’t get “cold feet,” Malvo takes a detour to buy a police scanner (no, not a pink one) and a single walkie-talkie, the reasons for which become chillingly clear by episode’s end. Gus has been retracing Malvo’s steps, but Malvo follows Gus home instead, and lingers outside the gates listening to the radio conversations of Gus’s daughter. (How does he know to do this? He heard Greta chime in on Gus’s radio when he stopped Lorne back at the end of Episode 1.) The neighbor interrupts him, but gets the same cryptically threatening brush-off Gus did: “You know, a lot of these second-floor apartments don’t have alarms?” It’d be a shame if someone were to break in. With the darkness lurking behind Malvo’s eyes, no one can stare into them for long.
No one, perhaps, but Molly, who is the only character who has yet to try. She has promised the widow of Chief Thurman — the widow who is now also a single mother — that she would get to the bottom of what happened at the Nygaard home, and when she comes by to give her updates, Ida says “I don’t need details; just tell me you’re taking care of it.” “I’m trying,” Molly says, letting her frustration and fear show just a little bit. But you have to believe she will get her man, because — well, you have to. (Hawley owes us that much. This is Fargo, not No Country for Old Men, despite Malvo’s similarities to Anton Chigurh.) What we can’t predict, not yet, is what it will end up costing her.
Shot of the Week
Two lonely men, beacons of sincerity bridging a cruel expanse of black.