Wednesday, December 16, 2015


This year I decided to do something a little different. Since the rankings are largely arbitrary anyway, particularly after the top couple slots, I decided that instead of doing full rankings and write ups of the 6-10 spots, I’d award a singular superlative to each of them. All have my wholehearted recommendation, but I am just going to highlight the aspect that stands out most in each.



The Martian is a wonderful, funny, optimistic time at the movies – the exact photo-negative in all respects to Ridley Scott’s prior outing, the pitch-black, interminable The Counselor, which just cements him as our most impossible-to-figure-out great filmmaker. Drew Goddard’s script deserves some love, but it’s the Damon show from start to finish. The heart of the story is him talking to himself and/or an unresponsive, sometimes hypothetical audience, and if he wasn’t so relentlessly likable the whole production would fall down around his ears. But he is, and it doesn’t, and it’s makes the most extreme, harrowing survival tale conceivable into a pure pleasure from start to finish.



I saw the 70mm roadshow production of this movie yesterday, and I’ll probably regret not putting this in the top 5 at some point, as Tarantino joints are frequently growers. But there’s a lot to process right now, so all I can say right off the bat is that his epic mash up of Django’s operatic western splatter and Reservoir Dogs’ claustrophobic paranoia is 1) absolutely gorgeous and cunningly staged in its intended format, and 2) acted to the absolute nines by all nine primary actors.  It’s hard to pick an MVP between Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins and Samuel L. Jackson, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that Kurt Russell or James Park are slouching.  It’s a shame that Goggins in particular took so long to make his way into QT’s stable, but he smacks on the man’s overly-written dialogue like particularly sticky piece of taffy.

The Hateful 8 certainly lives up to its name, and contains ugliness that even some who think themselves inured to Tarantino’s brand of provocation will find difficult to stomach. But the man is one of our most brilliant provocateurs, and every one of his works is a major one.
Except Death Proof. That one’s just eh.



A blend of the Coen’s apocalyptic border bloodbath No Country For Old Men and the paramilitary proficiency porn of Michael Mann, Sicario contains the pulse-pounding suspense and authenticity of the latter with the disregard for conventional story structure and unblinking despair of the former. It will probably be remembered for a couple of standout sequences (the border crossing “ambush” and final raid), but hopefully also for demonstrating that Dame Emily Blunt (it’s only a matter of time, so I’m just going to start calling her that now) is one of the best and most fearless actresses in the world.



I can’t believe I have two consecutive picks on this list that are foreign indie vampire movies.  And this one – black and white, subtitled and practically plotless, equally enamored of French New Wave cinema and 80’s New Wave music – sounds like it should be completely insufferable film school drivel.  But this Iranian gem casts its thrall through gorgeous cinematography and especially its pulsing, infectious soundtrack. Once Ana Lily Amirpour’s exercise in style started up, I only looked up once, for long enough to order the soundtrack from iTunes.


 Just look at this.  Jermaine Clement has the strongest deadpan in at least one hemisphere (it’s only Andre Braugher that keeps the Northern in contention), and this is the closest they could get to straight take for this line, coming from his very self-serious character.

Now the Top 5:



They don’t make movies like Bone Tomahawk anymore. They probably never did, really. They used to make movies like the first 95 minutes or so, straightforward westerns that rely on impeccable casts and sharp but not-fussed-over dialogue for their kick. But they never put 30 minutes of hardcore cannibal horror film on the end of one, and they certainly never filmed those cannibal flicks in the same measured, unsentimental way as the classical western.  The lack of gonzo glee in the (stomach-churning) effects and violence make them hit all the harder.  This is a movie where violence just happens, rising out of the landscape without dramatic music stings or frantic cutting, or even extended pregnant silences to set them up.  And the sickening suddenness of it has an unsettling effect, which grounds the exaggerated Troglodyte menace in something that feels realer than most films that don’t include battles with subhumanoid cannibals.

And those cannibals are striking, but it’s the performances that steal the show. Kurt Russell continues a great year in the West, and Patrick Wilson is his reliable self, though nothing he does here touches his stellar work in Fargo.  David Arquette is bumming around for a while at the beginning, if that’s your thing (it is not your thing).  The standouts are Richard Jenkins and Mathew Fox, however.  Jenkins maintains his innate sweetness as simple deputy, but seeing him play both fairly dumb and fairly capable inverts his standard persona to the point of rendering him unrecognizable.  And Fox sinks his teeth into a role that plays to his natural standoffishness and spins it into something compelling and ambivalent.

I don’t see this movie becoming a classic, even of the cult variety, because the two genres it grafts together have such a narrow overlap in their Venn Diagram of fans.  But if that overlap falls anywhere, it’s on a site like this one, so give it a shot.  It’s a movie that should not exist, which I mean in the most complimentary way possible.


Watch It For:  Marveling at how well it marries the content of a splatterfest with the sensibility of a reserved western.  Also Jenkins’ lovely Chicory.



This horror flick has a hook so strong and obvious that your first reaction is to wonder why it hasn’t been done a dozen times before: a sexually transmitted curse.  Though when you think about it, that’s just making the subtext of a hundred slasher movies literal, so it arguably does have its own subgenre already.  There are some discussions to be had about the “meaning” of the curse – is it meant to evoke STDs, unwanted pregnancies, general social stigmas – but ultimately it strikes me as less preoccupied with sex, and less sexy, than many of its less thoughtful genre predecessors.  A lot of those had more to say about sex on accident than It Follows does on purpose, in my opinion.

It’s not tying the monster explicitly to sex that makes It Follows work so well, it’s the visceral quality of how that monster is executed and the atmosphere in which it lurks.  The movie has taken flack from some for the “rules” of said monster being inconsistent, but that only feeds into the film’s tone of encroaching doom.  If you read film criticism, particularly the bad sort, you will see the term “dream logic” pop up sooner or later.  But I can’t think of another film that captures the peculiar, cruel logic of a nightmare for such an extended period (even David Lynch, the all-time master of uncanny dread, prefers to employ jarring contrasts that break up the spell from scene to scene).  Once you are targeted, It comes for you.  It never moves faster than a slow walk, but it never, ever stops.  It can look any way it wants, but its deliberate gait identifies it, and physical attacks have only the most perfunctory effect on slowing its progress.  The relentless pursuit, the unhurried nature, the physical invulnerability, the way it can look like one person while simultaneously being another thing entirely, these are all elements drawn directly out of my own recurring dreams and nightmares.  And Mitchell’s floating camera work and indistinct time period only accentuate that feeling of unmoored peril.

Which is to say, even when the creature acts “out of character” and doesn’t makes sense, it provides no break or relief from the creeping horror.


See It For: The way even the most basic establishing shots or moments of bald exposition become the most harrowing game of Where’s Waldo you’ve ever played.



Alex Garland is one of the most criminally underrated creative minds in the world.  His scriptwork is intellectual but accessible, bringing a hard sci-fi edge to genres as varied as horror (28 Days Later), men-on-a-mission (Sunshine), British Tragedy-Of-Manners (Never Let Me Go), shoot em up (Dredd) and now, with Ex Machina, a locked-room thriller.  All of those movies are remarkable in their own ways (Sunshine in particular is one of the best and most overlooked sci-fi movies of the century), and Ex Machina sees him stepping behind the camera for the first time to continue the streak in stylish but understated fashion.  Tightly scripted and immaculately acted by Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhall Gleeson, the movie is an unassuming marvel on a narrative and technical level; the digital work to make Vikander both disarmingly sensual and jarringly uncanny is of the type that is too off-handedly believable to garner the attention it deserves.

But it’s the story that is the star, a sleek, sexy bit of business that would do Rod Serling proud with its (just barely sub-)text.  It starts out as an explicit interrogation of artificial intelligence and Turing tests, then morphs into a fascinating dissection of gender dynamics, then twists back to the sci-fi before it can calcify into a simple “Men Be Like…, Women Be Like…” treatise.  The result is something much more complicated and nuanced than interpreting it as a straightforward gender allegory gives credit.  It’s a story about projection, about the dangers and folly of insisting on viewing that which is disconcertingly different solely in terms that we are most comfortable with. If we owe machines better than that, we owe an entire gender even more, and it’s at our own peril that we deny their sentience and complexity.


See It For: Alicia Vikander gives the knockout performance, but she don’t dance like Isaac.  What. The. Fuck.



I have only the Constitutionally-mandated love the Rocky series (meaning the first is a classic, and think the sequels start unnecessary and gradually became embarrassing enough that I wasn’t even interested in watching the “franchise redeeming” VIth installment), and I quite simply do not trust Sylvester Stallone.  Not even in that I think he’s exploiting his most popular character/persona for crass reasons, just in the way I don’t want to bring a mixed-race girlfriend around my drunk uncle.  It’s not that his intentions are bad, just that he’s unable to transcend the time/place in which he lives, and almost congenitally uncool.  So you never know what you’re going to get with a Stallone joint.  It could be a stone cold, era-defining classic; it could be a garish, embarrassingly misguided failure. Or it could be Demolition Man, which is somehow both.

On top of which, I really wish that the 80’s could have died with dignity (a strange thing to expect, given how it lived). We all could have left Rocky Balboa, John McClane, John Rambo, Indiana Jones and the T-800 all in 20th century and probably been all the better for it.  At least that was my attitude coming into 2015, but having seen Rocky, Mad Max and Star Wars all manage to return from significant hiatuses and not only do justice to their old white icons, but to effectively pass the torch to a new, more inclusive generation, it’s a lot harder to hold to such blanket dismissals.

It helps that Stallone relegates himself entirely to a supporting player here, finally ceding that Rocky is too old to put on the trunks himself. He also passes the torch behind the scenes, and writer/director Ryan Coogler brings the hunger of a young fighter to the film, while plugging it into the heretofore neglected black communities of Philadelphia and boxing.  Michael B. Jordan gives a searing star turn as Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, but those of us who knew him when he was Wallace expect nothing less at this point.  Stallone himself brings the beating heart, and Coogler’s camera captures the fight action in a way that is both more immediate and authentic than the series’ effective but cartoon-y aesthetics have ever been.  If you had any misgivings about this concept or trailers, then believe me I feel you on that. But this is exactly the movie we were afraid to hope it was.


Watch It For: The stunningly visceral, intimate boxing scenes, particularly the breathless one-shot middle bout.



I don’t need to tell you about this movie at this point. The internet loves it. This site in particular loooves it. Critics love it. Cosplayers love it in their special, vaguely unsettling fashion. One would assume Australian cosplaying bassist bungie enthusiasts really, really, really love it, but it turns out they don’t like to feel pandered to (sensitive bunch, really).  I actually didn’t want to place it here because I feel like the spot is better used to draw attention to something that might otherwise pass under someone’s radar.  And because I think the movie is not quite the flawless masterpiece some have hailed it as – there are a couple parts where the action goes on too long without a break in intensity, which can create some sensory overload.

But literally perfect movies don’t exist, and Fury Road is both the best film of the year and awfully close to a platonic ideal for balls out, R-rated action.  The world-building is unparalleled and striking, while also being confident enough not to ever fuss over itself.  It hits the ground running, introducing and developing a full ensemble of characters on the fly.  It has vehicular action that will stack up against absolutely anything the medium has ever produced, and also one of the year’s best fistfights.  It also has a couple of the year’s most flat-out beautiful shots (the entrance into the sandstorm and Theron’s desert scream).  It has a nearly perfect blend of practical and computer effects. And it has Imperator Furiosa.


I’ll leave thinkpieces about Furiosa’s larger significance to feminist whatevers to others.  Instead I’ll just say this: Furiosa kicks ass in this movie. Tom Hardy is one of our best actors working today, and Charlize Theron absolutely hijacks the movie from him, jury-rigs her own steering wheel from a human skull, and drives it straight into a sea of exploding tornadoes.  It’s only Max’s relationship to Furiosa that makes him at all relevant to the movie, or even sympathetic.  She’s the one with the plan, the boldness to launch it into action, the skills to pull it off, and an emotional stake in the outcome. He is just along for the ride.

And what a ride it is. Much has been made in the last week or two about the other iconic 70’s/80’s sci-fi action franchise revival, and the feminist credentials (or lack thereof) of its’s ass-kicking heroine.  And while I’m not qualified or really all that interested in saying whether Rey is a more empowering depiction than Furiosa, I can say for sure that she is a hell of a lot more boring.  Because The Force Awakens is so worried about making her awesome, that it forgets to actually challenge her in any real way.  Fury Road absolutely puts Furiosa through the ringer, forces her to face real loss and despair and compromise, to rely on others to beat the incredibly long odds she’s taken on, while still being their leader.  And her triumphs, while not nearly as all-encompassing, are vastly more satisfying because she bled with us to get there.


Watch It For: Charlize Theron being elbowing her way into instant-icon status.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015



“I don’t even know how to write this thing up. Where to start…”

I feel Ben Schmidt’s pain here, I surely do.  I suppose we’ll take Lou’s advice and start from the beginning, with the montage showing the wreckage of the Gerhardt clan.  The final breakdown, with Cause(s) of Death:

Rye –hapless typewriter salesman, not-fucking-around-judge, poorly-timed UFO appearance, inadequately-actualized beautician
Otto – Corporate encroachment
Simone – Missed out on the 60’s
Dodd – Underestimating said beautician, constant abuse of chief lieutenant
Floyd – Hanzee’s betrayal
Bear – Well-timed UFO appearance, remembrance to always put one in the brain

The Gerhardts have been entirely removed from the board with the motel massacre, with only stupid cousin Ricky escaping long enough to be waxed at by Milligan and waxed by the remaining Kitchen Brother.  Which, if you guessed after last week that the finale would end with not only Hanzee and Mike still breathing, but also the remaining Kitchen, then congratulations!

You goddamn liar
You goddamn liar
But perhaps I should have suspected it would pan out like this. I mean, not exactly like this – the idea of Hanzee getting plastic surgery and taking back enough Gerhardt territory from Corporate to become the mob boss we saw briefly in season 1 is actually a bigger stretch for me than the appearance of the flying saucer. But from the way the “Sioux Falls” case was discussed in the first season, it should have been apparent that Lou was not going to fully resolve this matter and put away all the bad guys.  But I certainly did not think both Mike and Hanzee would come out in such similar places: mostly victorious, but in a manner that destroys their identity.

Mike fancies himself the new king of the Northern Territories, issuing decrees prohibiting conquered cuisines and theories on American royalty, and protesting that “in the old days, when a guy conquered a place-“ before being cut off by Adam Arkin’s character (didn’t get a name, but I’m sure he’s executive vice president of something or another). He’s unconsciously echoing the words of the short-lived usurper Otto re-regicided in the flashback: “kill the king, be the king.” But it doesn’t work that way in Reagan’s America. Mike beats the odds, and in return he gets a 401k, an obstructed view of a parking lot, and that most thorny of existential questions: “Who am I without my bolo tie?”

Meanwhile, Hanzee’s situation is outwardly much different, and ultimately I think it’s less effective because you have to connect so many dots that no casual viewer ever could in order to puzzle out what is even being hinted at (and what’s being hinted at is so much different and more specific than what you’d think without catching the reference that it actually makes a difference).  The idea that Hanzee becomes “Moses Tripoli” requires some fairly clunky exposition to graft onto the very different looking guy we saw last year, and while the echoing dialogue draws the requisite connection, it doesn’t really make a ton of sense as far as being something these people say in this situation.  Why are they talking about “apprehending” gangsters as retribution?   Plus the idea of this ultimate badass eventually receiving a not-particularly-dignified offscreen death may stick in some craws.

But it is what it is, and when we look at what this implies for Hanzee’s future, some less obvious implications come into play.  Tripoli’s brief appearance in the first season suggest that he has adopted much of the corporate infrastructure of Kansas City, if not having been outright absorbed into the conglomerate.  This suggests that he will be surprisingly successful in carving out a piece of Reaganomic pie for himself, but in the process he has to abandon his name, lose his hair, and literally put on the face of a white man.  Maybe that’s a lot to read into what was really just a too-cute-by-half attempt at continuity porn, but it’s interesting to think about in conjunction with Mike’s edict to sell him a suit, cut off his hair, and go to work in tall buildings.

God damn it, he looks even better without it
God damn it, he looks even better without it
Meanwhile, things don’t end so well for the Blumquists.  Hanzee fatally shoots Ed, and he essentially asks Peggy for a divorce with his dying breath, which has to sting no matter how unhappy you were in the marriage.  And the fucked up thing is that Peggy really has been happier with her marriage in the back half of the season; you know, once their home was invaded, business was burned down, and they were on the run from vicious killers and potentially capital charges.  That doesn’t mean that the marriage is healthier for it (and Ed certainly isn’t), or that it had reawakened her feelings for her husband, just that those feelings were stronger when it was very literally them against the world.  That Ed didn’t find this nearly as exciting was something she couldn’t let herself accept, which kept them talking past each other right to the end.  These two would’ve made a prime case study for Hank’s language of pure symbols, had he ever gotten it off the ground. Even after he dies divorcing her, she still can’t process what he was saying, having to funnel it into a movie-based fantasy wherein the chase continues, this is just a further test of her actualization, and not the end of the line, her already locked up with a corpse for company.

Finally, her wild and never very concrete ambitions are reduced from having it all in sunny California, to maybe seeing a pelican from a cell on Alcatraz.  Of course, The Rock had already been closed for 15 years in 1979, so even this diminished hope is not going to come to pass.  But are we to condemn Peggy for the toll her delusions take on the population of the Upper Midwest?  Lou is right when he cuts off her self-pitying monologue with a curt reminder that people are dead because of her dissatisfaction.  And while not all of them are entirely innocent, some were, and not all of them were men either, so it’s not as though the carnage has been a real blow against the patriarchy.  This doesn’t mean that her dissatisfaction is not justified, though, and in fact I view her as more of a tragic figure than a villain.  It’s just that when we submit our last Quarterly Statements to the great Accounting Department in the sky, saying that people died so you could snap out of your middle-class funk is going to go over about as well as saying it was all some Frenchman’s joke.

pictured:  Albert Camus, probably.
pictured: Albert Camus, probably
Speaking of that, I was tickled to see Noreen pop up again, and her having been granted a semi-permanent place in the Solverson home.  Our little nihilist has met her match in the unflappable Mrs. Solverson, though.  She wakes up to the blackest, most cosmic joke imaginable at her expense: the pills she thought were placebos were actually the experimental drugs!  But they are killing her faster than the disease they were meant to fight. Wamp. Wamp.  But this doesn’t deter Betsy even momentarily; if she has less time to work with, it’s just more important that she doesn’t waste it wallowing in despair or dissatisfaction. Her purpose is to make her family’s life better, for as long as she can, and if Constance Heck would scoff at such a square ambition, Betsy’s husband expresses essentially the same feeling when he says it is a man’s privilege, not burden, to do the same.  It’s no wonder Molly turns out alright.

Maybe that’s sappy and simplistic, but Fargo in all its incarnations has only ended on notes of (extremely hard won) domestic simplicity. And the reveal that Hank’s secret study had nothing to do with UFOs, while something I suspected after his failure to react at all to one’s appearance last week, was still surprising and appropriate in its particulars.  He just wanted to create a system that would allow people to communicate more directly, and thus remove some of the confusion, nonsense and violence that has threatened to engulf him ever since he went to war, and that makes Fargo so compulsively watchable as it works itself up to that quiet ending. It’s a silly, pie-in-the-sky idea, doomed to fail (as Chud commenter 3nnui put it “I like that Ted Danson invented emoji”). But Danson’s explanation of it is so sheepishly sweet that it almost sounds like a good idea. Or one with good intentions, at least. And if enough people had those, it might be enough.

Okay then. Time for Coen Bingo and Other Random Shit:


– Betsy’s beautiful dream of the future is modeled very closely on HI’s wonderful dream sequences in Raising Arizona, and puts Hanzee even more in that Coen nemesis tradition by tying him directly to the Lone Biker Of The Apocalypse. It also allows for nice, brief cameos from Alison Tohlman, Colin Hanks, and Keith Carradine.

– The Sepinwall link above lays out the details of the most direct connections with season 1.

– Ed and Peggy trying to commandeer a ride, only for Hanzee to promptly cap the Samaritan, is straight out of Moss’s flight from Chigurgh in No Country For Old Men.

– Hanzee being shown waiting outside the freezer with a knife in hand, only to have disappeared when the door is opened, also recalls Chigurgh’s disappearing act when Sheriff Bell enters the motel room.

– Milligan calls the cousin from Buffalo “friendo”, another Chigurgh signature.

– The use of “War Pigs” in the cold open is fucking boss.

– Ted Danson really is great as Hank. Just the way he quickly pivots away from the quote about angels bearing the faces of your children is subtle, but masterful.

– Similarly, I’ve never found much room to crow about Zahn McClaron’s performance, as it is so consistently subdued even when he’s blowing off kneecaps, but he would absolutely be deserving of a Supporting Actor nom, in my opinion.

– And Kirsten Dunst, obviously, deserves mention as well. I’m a bit disappointed that there will be no more Peggy Blumquist misadventures to follow, despite loving the close-ended nature of these stories.

– The burning supermarket calls to mind the flaming Hotel Earle from the end of Barton Fink.

– That’s it for Fargo Season 2.  Noah Hawley said today not to expect season 3 until 2017.  I hope to still be around to rap about it with you then.  Unfortunately, I’m being relentlessy hunted by quasi-supernatural predator, for sins I only partly understand.  So we’ll just have to see.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015



“This thing’s officially out of control.”

That was quite a thing, wasn’t it? The long-promised Massacre At Sioux Falls certainly lives up to the name, and the quasi-mythical quality it’s taken on via things like this week’s introduction of the True Crimes Of The Midwest literary framing device (narrated by Lester Nygard, doing his best Paul Bettany). There are upwards of a dozen violent deaths, hundreds of shots fired, double-crosses, and oh yes, a goddamn flying saucer. And then the perfect button, with Mike Milligan and his Kitchenette showing up too late for the party and having perhaps the most sensible reaction possible.

Homer Simpson hiding in the bushes
“Okay then.”
There’s so much craziness to unpack here. The narration alone is a ludicrous thing to just have pop up one episode before the finale, and yet it fits the slightly lurid shaggy-dog style of the show’s storytelling so perfectly that it doesn’t feel jarring.  And the fact that it is inherently nonsensical – how does the author know enough specifics to wax philosophic about the exact next 2 words Hanzee will say to a woman who will not live to give any interviews on the subject, moments after expounding on how little is known about Hanzee’s motivations? – only furthers the cheeky “this is a true story” conceit of the series and film.  Part of the peculiar genius of Fargo is that this framing device could continue through the finale, and into next season, and even be obliquely shown to encompass not just the misadventures of the Blumquists and Lunde/Nygards, but also the machinations of Tom Reagan and Johnny Caspar, and Mattie Ross’s dogged pursuit of Tom Chaney in the Arkansas Territory.  Or it could not even factor into the finale at all, and that would somehow feel just as appropriate.
The appearance of the UFO, in such striking and definitive fashion, should be a total dealbreaker as well.  It’s technically the deus to end all machina-s, appearing from the ether to save our hero from imminent death.  And as a rationalist spoilsport, the intrusion of the supernatural into a narrative that was doing just fine without it should be especially galling to me.  I won’t name names, as I don’t want to drop vague but large spoilers in a post about a different topic entirely, but there are a few genre pieces that have raised my ire by taking a hard turn into the magical at the end.  And this is only exacerbated the more I felt they had already succeeded at building up a cast and universe that I cared about on its own terms.  You know, the actual hard work.

And others that aren't there yet, but exist on thin ice (and fire)
And others haven’t reached that point, but are teetering on the edge.
This should be bullshit of the highest order, but for reasons I’m still puzzling out, it delighted rather than infuriated me.  Maybe it’s because this season of Fargo has been, in particular, about bullshit.  Whether it’s the magical thinking bullshit of Reagan or Peggy’s self-help guru, or how Betsy has to pretend she’s taking real medicine until she just ups and dies, or the entire Kansas City war and Ed’s reputation as The Butcher of Luverne being based on lies, or just the way that Hanzee is the only one (including us, as the narration points out) at the motel that really understands why they’re all there and killing each other, it’s evident that no one actually has all the answers.  Not even Eisenhower.  And if our elevated position as audience allows us to see a few of the puzzle pieces that Mike or Lou can’t, it just means we can see how little sense even the big picture makes.

Or maybe it’s just that Peggy’s “it’s just flying saucer” dismissal is so pitch-perfect that it punctures any head of steam I might have been building about the laziness of using magic or aliens to wrap up plot threads or bail characters out of corners you regret painting them into in the first place.  Because if there are two things I can’t accuse Fargo of, it’s laziness or sloppy plotting.  This season, much like the first, has had gears turning within gears within gears on a plot level, with storylines interweaving in a manner that manages to be at once organic and consistently surprising.  And I can’t even hold the brazen inorganic-ness of the UFO against the show.  Sure, Bear had never seemed more formidably like his namesake than when he was charging straight through gunshots to maul our hero, but he could have just keeled over at any point, or caught a final stray bullet, or a deliberate one from Hank, or Hanzee, or even Mike, and any of it would’ve been perfectly natural and believable.  They didn’t need to do this at all, so the fact that they did just tickles me instead of making me call bullshit.  The show is so confident in its voice and style at this point, so unafraid of jumping the shark, that it’s attaching freaking laser beams to their foreheads.

Pictured: better than sharks with laserbeams
Finally, I haven’t said much about Ted Danson this season, but his performance reaches a remarkable peak here.  From the moment Hank was introduced, he seemed like he was there specifically to be a sacrificial figure to give all this violence some weight (as Lou can’t die heroically and still serve pie to Lorne Malvo three decades down the line).  This week, he seems to fulfill that exact role, and wouldn’t you know it, despite my instinctive attempts not to get too attached, Danson’s been so warm and resolute and darn loveable that it still got to me.  His final words with Lou were, like so many other little bits this year, just perfect, and hit particularly hard on the heels of the minute we spent on the Solverson homefront.  As wacky as the UFO intervention may be, even it can't undercut the knowledge that Lou only has more hardship and death awaiting him when he gets home so much.  And if that death is not as exciting as the 60some and counting murders we’ve witnessed throughout the course of the season, it’s no less senseless.

Okay then, time for Coen Bros Bingo And Other Random Shit.


– Hanzee’s self-surgery in the bathroom calls to mind Chigurgh’s in No Country.

– The fanciful narration has a little bit of The Big Lebowski’s cowboy wraparound, with its inability to quite nail down its own theme.

– Man, that driving drum theme that closed out last week and played when Lou turned back to South Dakota this week gets my blood pumping.

– A great touch: The Gerhardt kids’ height markings on the door jam, now riddled with bullet holes, next to Floyd during that last phone call are a wonderful touch, driving home that even if they “win” that night, the war has already cost her what they’re fighting for.

– The episode ends with a country-fied rendition of “Run Through The Jungle”, one of the Creedence songs to appear in The Big Lebowski, and maybe my favorite.

– If there were any bum notes about “The Castle”, it was the narrator spelling out Hanzee’s motivation for continuing to pursue the Blumquists, or the Dakota police chief being so over-the-top antagonistic to our guys that looking back, I see and hear Paul Gleason playing the role, all DVR and IMDB evidence to the contrary.

– And maybe, if I’m being extra churlish, I could’ve wished for a more elaborate death scene for Jean Smart (because Lord knows there wasn’t enough going on in the Massacre sequence). Actually, I wish we’d gotten a little more Floyd overall, though I’m not sure how or at the expense of what I would want it to come.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015



Is there anything more Fargo than a hulking criminal being taught to speak politely while being held at knifepoint by a Midwestern housewife?  I submit there is not, unless the woman were also significantly pregnant at the time.  I assumed that this episode would focus almost exclusively on Ed and Peggy and Dodd and Hanzee, but I thought it would be more of a cat and mouse game between the Blumquists and the hunter rather than a twisted comedy of manners between them and the Gerhardt scion.  But I am so glad it became the latter.

This is in part because Dodd has been built up to be such a magnificent bastard that he makes for the ideal “victim” in this scenario.  Poor Simone went to the wrong person to dish him out his comeuppance, but she would be tickled to watch this episode and see her pops get, in very short order, punched, tased, tied up, stabbed, force fed beans, partially stigmata-ed, and brained with a fire place poker by a couple of shnooks, before being shot in the head by the lackey he always treated like a dog (though still slightly better than his daughter).  She may have started feeling conflicted somewhere around the beans, him being her father and all, but for those us who have watched him brutalize everyone he thinks he can get away with these last 8 weeks, an hour as a punching bag feels about right.


A fair bit of has been made about the Gerhardts representing the past, but that has generally been in the context of their family business vs. corporatization conflict with the KC syndicate, which casts them in a romanticized, John Henry-type light as hold-outs against the dehumanization of commerce.  But Dodd also represents a darker side of the Old Ways, as his scorn for woman and minorities is absolute enough to make him a dinosaur even by 1970s standards, much less today’s.  Milligan’s issues with his superiors may show that prejudice survives just fine in corporate clothes, but the silver lining of the inhumanity of the system is that it is less dictated by human prejudice – the bottom line is all that matters, and any other bigotry falls by the wayside until profits fall and it’s time to cast blame.

Dodd fails to recognize that his status is propped up entirely by the brains of his mother and the ruthless competence of his Tonto figure, despite ample demonstrations of those facts.  And it ultimately proves his eminently-avoidable undoing, as he immediately reverts to treating Peggy as a nonentity once he’s out from under her thumb, and then insults his would-be rescuer into becoming his murderer.  Fargo’s social commentary tends to be too oblique to directly address the privilege and social justice issues de jeur, but Dodd is emblematic of a type of white guy who is born on third base, but whose willful ignorance of that fact manages to get him thrown out at second.

"Sir, please step away from the sports metaphors."
“Sir, please step away from the sports metaphors.”
As for his captors, Actualized Peggy is (surprise, surprise) a goddamn nightmare.  Even Dodd is quickly, if temporarily, cowed by her once she starts the stabbing him and force-feeding him beans, in a scene that would make Annie Wilkes blanch.  Her positivity and Lifespring blathering become scarier and scarier the more she comes to believe them, to the point that the beans thing becomes worse than the knifings, because she genuinely didn’t mean the former as torment.  She’s just so enamored with her own feelings of giddiness at fleeing her home/prison (never mind the authorities and their, you know, actual prison) that she doesn’t register how insanely untenable her situation has become, or that her boss is clearly jittery and overly nosy when she makes a completely unnecessary phone call to her hotel.  Which, if this was all Constance amounted to, she’s kind of a waste of a character.  Hanzee’s tracking abilities had been established plenty well enough that the phone scene was not strictly necessary, particularly if this were a show even slightly beholden to a standard hour runtime.  It’s only Kirsten Dunst’s unhinged enthusiasm and Hanzee’s thoroughly-established menace that keeps things from dragging during this scene.


But moving over to Hanzee, his killing spree looks at first blush like a tossed off detour, just a secondary character shooting up a bunch of asshole nobodies.  Only there to fill some of that bloated runtime,  meet the show’s expected quota of violence, and a check off the box that last week’s allusions required.  Except that Hanzee’s experience at the bar has everything to do with his decision to kill Dodd at the cabin, and it’s a bit more complicated than just making him especially sensitive to race-related barbs.  When his tours and medals fail to mitigate the assholery of the establishment in the slightest, he sees in stark and final terms that his service, no matter how diligent and singular, will never overcome the prejudice against his heritage in the eyes of these crackers.  And that’s as true of the Gerhardts in this war as it is of the greater USA in Vietnam.

I did not watch my friends die face down, in the muck, etc. etc…
Now that Hanzee’s on his own, he wouldn’t seem to have any reason to pursue the Blumquists further, or do anything but run.  Perhaps he will try to sell his services to Milligan in the final two episodes. Perhaps the Blumquists will try to sell Milligan to the police to buy themselves leniency.  Perhaps Noreen will bust Charlie out of jail and they will run off to France together.  I don’t know, I really did not expect Dodd to be dead, Ed and Peggy to be in custody, or Hanzee to be a free agent at this point.  But it’s the exciting type of not-knowing, and I find myself both bummed that there are only two episodes left for all of these storylines and characters, and excited that this means there are no stops left to be pulled.  This season is going to have to really muff the landing if it wants to not be my favorite thing of the year.

Okay then, time for Coen Bros Bingo And Other Random Shit.


– Dodd’s hostage situation in a remote cabin parallels poor Mrs. Lundegaard’s predicament in the film. He even has his head covered in a pillowcase at one point.

– The Blumquist’s departure from and Solverson’s arrival at the homestead is shot from an overhead view, as if it were shot by an unidentified floating object of some sort.

– I’ve been on the fence about whether the split screen device had been adding enough to justify its ostentatiousness, but it definitely worked to literalize the divide between Ed and Peggy when they’re sitting in the car, looking directly at each other from inches, but worlds, apart. It also created an interesting effect when showing him in the phone booth with his phone call going unanswered at the empty Gerhardt house.

Blood Simple also features a woman pinning an attacker’s extremity to a windowsill with a knife.

– The bar Hanzee shoots up has carvings of the symbols Hank had plastered all over his study on the walls. Perhaps they weren’t hieroglyphs, but Sioux or Lakota writings? I dunno, I only speak American and conversational l33t5p34k over here.
- “…Hon, you gotta stop stabbing him…”
– Hanzee’s interrogation of the gas station owner is reminiscent of Chigurgh’s iconic coin-flipping session early in No Country.

– Peggy doesn’t get to chat with Bruce Campbell’s Reagan as I hoped, but she does get lost in fictional picture Operation Eagle’s Nest, which Dutch told Lou about making (well, sort of – we never did find out if he made it out of that one).  Ominously, its nazi villain shrugs off a shot in the back to continue stalking after the heroes. Besides presaging Hanzee’s “rescue” of the Blumquists, if you somehow had the Coen Bros making a WWII propaganda flick, this seems dead on to what they’d do.

– Hanzee is primed for ugliness outside the bar when he eyeballs a plaqued commemorating the hanging of 22 Sioux, adorned with a puddle of puke.  True Grit features the darkly comic, dismissive hanging of an Indian.  I’m not sure if this counts as a reference, really, but it brought it to my mind.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015



“Stories used to be simpler, that’s for sure. This, then that. Now, I don’t know where it starts or how it ends. I truly don’t.”

There are few things I enjoy more than a proper filmmaker doing a mob war montage.  It’s a mini-artform unto itself, and one that feels quintessentially American, like baseball, G Funk, or electorally-subsidized dick pics.  Which is to say that the opening this week was like catnip to me.  I don’t care that Bear and his idiot cousin from Buffalo machine-gunning people from a window washing platform was both predictable and from a tactical perspective, combines being very public with an extremely slow getaway.  I can be a pretty basic mofo, and shit was awesome.   But the entire season has been awesome, so it should come as no surprise that FX has picked up the show for another season. What is surprising is that despite thinking every episode of the entire series has been at least “really, really good”, I’m ambivalent about that.

Image result for white people problems
For more on my misgivings, download to your Kindle
It’s truly phenomenal how this second season has managed to avoid the sophomore slump, and maybe that should give me faith in the creative team to keep it rolling right along.  But it’s not as though it will be a continuation of the Gerhardt war, and while I don’t doubt that they can create a new cast of indelible characters, I don’t know how they can continue finding new stories to tell within this milieu without diminishing returns.  Because while True Detective or American Horror Story are free to hop from one setting to another largely more or less at will (to admittedly mixed returns), Fargo’s identity is hyper-specific.  It can’t stray far from the Upper Midwest, or not focus on a sprawling web of murder that ties in-over-their head civilians to truly monstrous criminals, or not have a thoroughly decent but perplexed lawman/woman at the center trying to puzzle out what it all means.  And the setting has to remain sleepy enough that you can’t have such bloodbaths become a permanent state of affairs without disrupting that contrast, so the stories do have to be separated in time by a relatively wide margin.  So the question becomes how far back can you go?  Prohibition?  There was a passing mention this week of tommy gun battles and heads rolling in the street, and it would give Hawley a chance to really riff on Miller’s Crossing, so maybe that’s doable.  But I think that’s stretching the premise about as far as it can go.  If you go back any further, to actual frontier times, then that contrast between man’s most brutal instincts and society’s most banal veneers is lost, because there’s no society to speak of.  Perhaps there’s room for a more classical noir type story in the 40’s or 50’s, featuring a private dick/war veteran from the Twin Cities or Chicago dropping in and struggling to adjust to the more deliberately slow pace of Brainerd.

Aint' no party like a Brainerd party, cuz a Brainerd party BLUE OX
Aint’ no party like a Brainerd party, cuz a Brainerd party BLUE OX
But I digress.  This episode does a nice job of depicting how, in the heat of battle, both sides can feel like they’re losing the war.  That dissolve of Milligan addressing less and less men as Floyd gives up information about their operation expressed his increasing desperation better and more elegantly than the venomous phone call from his superior down south.  And speaking of Floyd, this was a great week for Jean Smart, though I’m not sure what to make of her Mona Lisa smile after putting up such a show about her reluctance to testify.  Does she have a deeper game at work than just letting the law weaken the opposition?  Or was it just relief at thinking she has an end in sight?

Of course, as much as she seems to have KC on the ropes at the moment, we know that Mike is right when he says that she is the past, and the conglomerate is the future.  And the Gerhardts are doing their level best to take themselves apart at the seams even as they start to smell victory.  The war has now taken a toll on all 3 generations of the family, with Otto shot to death in the farmhouse attack, Dodd about to be handed off from one enemy to another, Charlie in the clink and poor Simone killed by one of her own.  Or is she?  No doubt plenty of viewers will note that we do not hear a gunshot ring out over the tones of “Danny Boy”, and I recall the internets still not being convinced when we did get one in a very, very similar scene from The Sopranos.  Plus the scene in Miller’s Crossing this segment is very pointedly evoking did end with such a fake out, not that the film hides the ball on that development for any length of time.  And for as imposing as Bear looks, we did see him back down at some crucial moments last week, both with Dodd and Karl Weathers (I’m never going to not type that entire name out).


But on the other hand, such a fake out is kinda bullshit.  Audiences have been trained to assume “no body = not dead” by years of cheap, sensationalist storytelling on the boob tube, and on the one hand, there are still plenty of shows that cannot be given the benefit of the doubt with such things (I’m sure I don’t need to name another show that’s been catching flack for it recently).  And I hate to assume anything and look foolish in hindsight, but also I don’t like the idea that a show can’t employ a little artistry with their cinematography at crucial story moments without a big section of the audience fixating on the wrong thing and missing the point entirely.  If every show has to treat us like children now and rub our noses in every death just to preclude the possible semblance of ambiguity, just because of the internet’s obsession with shouting “CALLED IT!!!”, well then that sucks.

So ultimately, I kind of hope that Simone is dead, partly because she’s been a tragic but one-note character, and mainly because I don’t want a show as adept at delivering surprises through the natural course of its plot to lower itself to such charlatan tactics. I have a lot of fun trying to predict what’s going to happen next, and I’m already wrong so frequently that I don’t want to have to second-guess what I’ve already seen. You’re good enough to beat me playing straight, Fargo, there’s no need to cheat on top of it!

Apropos of nothing in particular
Apropos of nothing in particular
 Case in point: While I always figured that Betsy was unlikely to make it out of the season, due to the allusions to the Solverson family history last year, I never thought she was at risk of running afoul of the violent aspects of the show. But this week, her scenes entering first her own house and then her father’s became suddenly, highly tense. All of a sudden I was convinced that Dodd (or worse, Hanzee) was about to appear behind her in every shot. And then what happened was something else entirely. I’m not even sure what it was, actually. It’s like she steps into a Dharma station on Lost, which doesn’t seem to make any sense because Danson has never seemed anything but even-keeled as Hank, and these symbols or hieroglyphs or whatever seem to be the product of a more feverish mind.  Maybe it will tie into the UFO stuff somehow, but I don’t really want that to suddenly become important when the earthbound stories are humming along so wonderfully.

Speaking of, I love how the episode offers teases out what’s going on with the Blomquists, Dodd and Hanzee off-screen, only having it tie in at the very end.  While it would not have been difficult to put together the phone calls Bear was ignoring about some guy knowing where Dodd is (and eventually being told to “sell that shit somewhere else”), I was still distracted enough by all the stuff with Floyd and the wacky room of symbols and Simone’s fate and the Breakfast King of Loyola and carnage at the Hotel Pearle that I truly failed to see it coming.  I assume we’ll be flashing back to all the good stuff next week, and I can’t wait to see the ruckus in Sioux Falls, and can’t tell you how disappointed I’ll be if ol’ Dutch doesn’t swing through there for at least a few words with Peggy.  Splitting a narrative like this is nothing new for sprawling shows like Game Of Thrones, Lost, or Boardwalk Empire, who do it out of necessity.  But when a show like Fargo does it, it feels like more a refreshing break from formula, rather than a concession to the confines of a standardized runtime.  Because FX certainly isn’t about imposing strict timeslot restrictions on its original series; it’s just that some of them used that leeway cannily and responsibly, and some of them are The Bastard Executioner.

Pictured:  Not The Bastard Executioner
Pictured: Not The Bastard Executioner
This show is just better than other shows, is what I’m saying.  Okay then, time for Coen Bingo And Other Random Shit:


– The management-type getting gunned down in his office is reminiscent of Stephen Root’s end in No Country.

– Simone drives around listening to “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In)”, which scored the memorable “Logjammin!” sequence in The Big Lebowski.

– Adam Arkin appears to be the default gangster overboss for any FX crime show. I love that when he’s berating Milligan on the phone, the bodies are being cleared by folks that are obviously not Mr. Wolf, but some office drones still decked out in their 80’s pantsuits.

– Across genres, networks, timelines, and facial hair configurations, one thing remains constant: Nick Offerman knows from breakfast foods.

– Hank’s wife died in Brainerd, setting of much of the Fargo film.  He also offers to cut off a toe at one point, as the nihilists do in Lebowski.

– Speaking of those nihilists, it’s offscreen until the very end, but Ed spends most of the episode trying to ransom a kidnapped victim whose family doesn’t actually want them back.

– Simone’s trip into the woods apes Bernie Bernbaum’s long walk in Miller’s Crossing, even before “O Danny Boy” starts up.

– Mike dresses to meet the Undertaker to “O Death”, which the Klan leader sings at the rally in O Brother Where Art Thou?

– The most difficult thing about this section is finding slight variations on the phrase “is reminiscent of…”

– Hank’s arcane mishmash of symbols in his study recalls (boom! nailed it) the Mentaculus from A Serious Man.

– Mike has never sounded more like a Coen character than when he’s quoting Louis XVI and pontificating about astronomy at Simone (or waving her an absent-minded goodbye).

– Floyd’s musings about things being even rougher in frontier days is extremely similar to what Ed Tom’s uncle tells him at the end of No Country.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”
– Alice, upon reading the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” in Through The Looking Glass
“Rhinoceros” was probably the closest we’ll ever get to seeing a Coen Bros version of Rio Bravo, which is something I never realized I wanted, and now I’m simultaneously elated that I sort of got it and disappointed that I’ll probably never get it for realz-real.  Ah well, at least this made for one seriously great, maddeningly tense hour of television. Fargo has never felt more like a western than in tonight’s episode, wherein sheriffs have stand-offs with goons who lay siege to the local jail, while an actual Indian stalks silently about with murderous intent.  And also Mike Milligan recites “Jabberwocky”.  Because why not?


But “Rhinoceros” had something you don’t often see in classical westerns, or siege movies for that matter – a lawyer emerging as the unlikely hero of the whole affair.  Some of us were talking last week on the message board about our nominees for the next generation of the Coen bros’ repertory, now that the McDormand/Buscemi/Turturros of the world are getting on. I suggested Nick Offerman to succeed John Goodman, and tonight bore me out beyond anything I could’ve anticipated.  We know from Parks And Rec the guy can make anti-government ranting funny, but his little breaks in his drunken anti-authoritarian ramblings to say hi to Sandra and whatnot slayed me. We knew Karl Weathers did not lack for sand after backing off Hanzee (who just gets more terrifying by the week) from the garage. But his efforts this week while outnumbered, outgunned and also drunk, were on another level, particularly because he could’ve excused himself from the whole affair had he been so inclined.  But Karl Weather, much like Carl Weathers, doesn’t back down from a challenge, even when clearly overmatched.  Have another drink counselor, you earned it.

And pour one out for an American icon while you're at it
And pour one out for an American icon while you’re at it
It’s a bad week for the Gerhardts all around.  Bear is going to look foolish upon finding out the cops were secreting Ed out from under him, and that’s assuming that Weathers’ “deal” regarding Charlie actually pans out.  Dodd has an especially loathsome showing, not to mention thoroughly incompetent – though I imagine he won’t come out of that basement telling people that he killed one of his own guys with friendly fire and was incapacitated by a housewife, albeit a pretty darn actualized one, mister, thank you very much.  The only silver lining for either brother is that when they get home their own screw ups are going to be overshadowed by Milligan’s double-cross of Simone (not that he ever promised her a rose garden), and ambush of the house.  I can’t imagine the show is done with Jean Smart just yet, so I imagine Kansas City is going to try to take the Gerhardt fraus hostage instead. I refuse to watch the previews to find out if I’m right, but if you don’t give us one proper face-off between her and Bokeem Woodbine, then you done fucked up, show.

So both Blomquists live another day despite the respective lynch mobs that show up on their doorsteps, but it’s hard to say that they’re winning.  Ed is on the run with Hanzee on his trail, which is pretty much the very last place I’d ever want to be.  I was clearly wrong a few weeks back when I talked about Milligan in relation to the Coen’s nemesis archetype, as the tracker would give Anton Chigurgh the willies with his efficiency and implacability over the last few episodes.  The KC syndicate would actually be in a world of trouble if he wasn’t bound to help nimrod Dodd undermine his own family.  We must be due for a flashback to show how Dodd saved Hanzee’s life when they were little, because that alliance seems to make less sense each week.


Anyway, it’s unclear where Peggy ends up after administering potentially the most satisfying cattle prodding in television history (to be fair, it’s a fairly young medium).  Presumably she took off before Hank woke up, or maybe after since he gets called away to deal with the siege situation right away.  In any case, it was a very strong episode for Kirsten Dunst, starting with the homespun denial as she swears to a nonplussed Hank that she and Ed have done nothing wrong (though even at the height of her lather, she doesn’t declare that he is innocent but that the charges are “unproveable!”), moving to outright desperation as Hank threatens her with forensics and she eventually tiptoes right up to the precipice of a confession.  That little speech about how she feels like a stranger in her own house provides some context for the obvious question of why you would just drive home with a Gerhardt in your windshield, making her a little more sympathetic without really justifying her actions.  It makes Peggy into a near-tragic figure; she has done some really terrible things, but could be so much happier if she was either a little bit better of a person, or if she were a little bit more callous and could actually throw herself into her self-centered pursuits whole-heartedly.  But alas for her, her nature is restless enough to always have one foot out the door, but just sentimental enough to keep California permanently out of reach.

One assumes that she’ll make it as far as Sioux Falls, however, even if she doesn’t like what she finds there. Okay then. On to Coen Bingo and other random shit:


– Karl and Sonny’s relationship is very reminiscent of Walter and Donny in The Big Lebowski

– No sign of the UFO this week, unless I was just distracted by all the awesome cowboy shit.

– A very 70’s-upped version of “Man Of Constant Sorrow” plays over the end credits, which song plays a large role in the soundtrack and plot of O Brother Where Art Thou?  It’s apparently done by Blitzen Trapper, whom I know for their earworm “Furr”.

– All the standoffs this season call to mind the various instances in True Grit where Cogburn, LeBeouf and Mattie face down larger/more numerous foes. How that has become the most forgotten Coen movie is beyond me; it’s fantastically entertaining and beautiful from start to finish.

– Betsy opines that Vietnam would’ve gone a lot smoother if the cooler heads of women had been allowed to prevail.  Given current circumstances, Floyd Gerhardt would no doubt agree.

– Dodd claims not to see his nephew as crippled, saying instead he sees heart and will, much as Milligan claimed that his boss’s severed head is naught but a business opportunity to him.  But nobody takes this selective perception as far as Peggy, who sees dead gangsters and a burned down shop as a ticket to California.

– Peggy fighting off Dodd in the basement calls to mind Frances McDormand’s troubles at the end of Blood Simple.

– Lou slips with Ed out a second story window while being stalked by Hanzee, which is a move also employed by Coen protagonists Llewelyn Moss and Leo when their domiciles come under attack.  They also all have “L” first names, which is significant because oh hell I’m just making shit up at this point.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015



“It’s pretty depressing.”
“Really? See, I think it’s beautiful.”

Noreen and Charlie are talking about Albert Camus with this exchange, but it’s just as applicable to the classic O. Henry story that gives “The Gift Of The Magi” its name.  The end of that story, with the couple exchanging thoughtful presents that have each been rendered useless by what the recipient had to give up in order to secure their gift, can be seen as a bleak joke on the futility of all human endeavor, no matter how noble the intentions.  Or, if you believe that the purpose of a gift is not to provide a tangible benefit but simply to demonstrate that you care, then the “joke” is actually a wonderful validation of that relationship.  Those two had to be perfectly attuned to reach such a uniquely bad result. That synchronicity is beautiful, even if the circumstance is sad.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Fargo a beautiful show, as while it is very well shot, its grace notes tend to be subdued rather than flowery.  And it’s certainly hard to call “The Gift Of The Magi” beautiful, as it is the bloodiest episode of an always-violent show, by a wide margin.  Skulls are cleaved, feet blasted off at the ankle, throats graphically cut, and heads put in hat boxes.  And that’s without getting into Milligan sexually threatening Dodd’s daughter (who the internet tells me is named Simone, though I don’t recall hearing the name on the show), or how Dodd himself physically threatens her, or how nastily he insults his brother Bear.  This is as ugly as the show gets, and yet those grace notes still shine through, however spottily.  It’s in the underplayed interactions of the Solverson clan.  Floyd’s protection of her granddaughter.  Peggy making her first truly selfless (if ultimately pointless) decision to put Ed’s dream ahead of her wanderlust.  Ben’s implicit apology to Lou and the way Lou responds by casually offering help rather than making him squirm.  How young Noreen, for all her affectations to being the goth queen of Luverne, guilelessly stirs Charlie’s compassion just by being a self-evidently nice gal.


The attempted hit at the butcher shop is Fargo operating at its absolute best, blending queasy humor and Minnesoooooootan affability with undercurrents of brutal violence, and mining a terrific amount of suspense from the intersection.  And Noreen is the key to it all.  Because from a distance, it should be obvious how this plays out. While many of us have theorized that Ed could predecease his wife by an episode or two, he is clearly the most important player in this scenario.  He’s one of the headliners of his storyline, and the fact that Dodd sends a henchman to guide his nephew through his first kill (to avenge his own brother, no less) makes less sense as a character decision than a concession that the writers aren’t ready to put him in a “one man leaves” scenario with another principle just yet.  Which, along with Charlie being the 5th or so most prominent Gerhardt, telegraphs pretty hard that Ed is going to make it out of this.

And yet, there is still so much tension, because of Noreen’s presence.  She’s a wildcard, as this is not a show that shies away from merking innocents (see the Waffle House, or the fate of a certain Mrs. Nygard last year), and she is not so well-developed as to be afforded any sort of sovereign immunity relative to the other characters.  So even if you’re convinced that Ed is not in any real danger, there’s another level of plausible threat that hums throughout the entire build-up.  The writing is wonderfully observed, and Emily Haine is terrific at showing how quickly and unconsciously this girl sheds the pretensions she was trying on a moment earlier, as teenagers are wont to do.  She’s just old enough to begin to grapple with existential cynicism, but too young not to be innately optimistic about the chance to interact with a cute boy.  It’s immediately endearing, which in turn makes things immediately more fraught, as she’s oblivious to the other level of which we and Charlie are acutely aware.


And it’s all about perception, isn’t it?  Whether Camus or O. Henry or the Coens’ works are beautiful or depressing or both is in the eye of the beholder, and to a certain extent, this allows us all to shape our own reality.  We are doing this constantly, unconsciously, and it’s amazing and magnificent and dangerous when we get carried away and start thinking that the ability to mold our own subjective reality to our preference is an actual superpower that means we can change the outside world just by believing really hard.  That way leads us to mystical bullshit like The Secret, and to Ronald Reagan.

Reagan is an oddly elusive figure for someone who lived so prominently and so recently.  I was alive for at least some of his presidency, and yet, I don’t have any sense of who he actually was, the way I feel (however erroneously) that I know what sort of guys his successors were/are.  A significant segment of today’s conservatives look back on him as something better than the Second Coming. They view his tenure through a soft focus lens of nostalgia as the last time America Was Great, which leads to a weird double-distortion effect because Reagan himself ran on a rose-colored vision of taking us back to a simpler time past.  And being a liberal, I also think he is responsible for a lot of domestic policies that are still having devastating consequences for multiple generations, and things like Iran-Contra are an absolute disgrace.  So I’m more than a little suspicious of the efforts to deify him.


And yet, even I have to admit that he was instrumental in drawing the most dangerous conflict in human history to a close, and that it may not be hyperbole to say doing so averted the extinction of the human race.  And as fan of the human race (some of y’all ain’t bad looking), I have to give that some props.  But he did so by spouting some pretty shameless propaganda about Evil Empires and so forth, when the Soviet Union was already fast crumbling from within.  Maybe he was a savvy enough operator to recognize that some inflammatory rhetoric would speed things along, or maybe he just saw that the game was close enough to over that he could score cheap points taunting an opponent that was already on the mat.  Maybe he just had a knack for knowing exactly what America needed to hear, or maybe he wholeheartedly believed every word of what he said.

That is the essential enigma of Reagan for me:  there’s no denying that he was beyond successful as a politician, but to what degree did he buy into his own line?  His famous “city on a hill” rhetoric is all about projecting appearances; the city doesn’t actually have to be Shangri-La, it just has to pass for it from below.  But it is undeniably powerful rhetoric.  Everyone is affected by it – Lou, Betsy, Constance (none of them simpletons or particularly soft touches), even the proudly paranoid Karl Weathers.  Whether its gospel truth or a line is practically irrelevant. The imagery is important, because perception is important. He’s selling a comeback narrative, and everyone loves that, like they love Rocky.


What’s genius about Bruce Campbell’s Reagan is that the performance, in addition to not going overboard trying to be either an imitation or caricature, never indicates just how full of shit he really is.  Obviously, we’re supposed to take his reminiscing about making war movies as if it was actual combat to be ridiculous.  But is he wrong when, forgetting the ending of that particular “mission”, he concludes “ah well, either way, it was a fine picture.”?  It’s soldiers that win wars, but propaganda has played a major role in every successful war effort in history, because it shapes those all-important perceptions.  Whose to say that a movie star who becomes the face of a such a war effort doesn’t contribute as much to the cause as any one foot soldier?  And a president’s duty is so tied to public opinion that projecting the right image is arguably the most important aspect of the most important job in the world.

But even when his line of patriotic patter fails to reassure Lou completely, it’s still unclear whether this guy is an idiot savant or a Machiavellian genius who simply decides chasing this one sale isn’t worth the trouble.  I don’t buy that either the real or fictional version of the man is dumb enough to believe that ketchup is actually a vegetable, but is saying so the height of cynicism?  Or is there something perversely optimistic about thinking that if we could just get everyone to go along with that idea, that would be just as good?

Of course, there are limits to this sort of magical thinking.  The 70s were always going to come in like a hangover, the killers are still coming even if you still think it’s Tuesday, and Betsy might feel a little more relief if she thought her Smartees were medicine, but she’d still be dying just as fast.  Same as you and me, and Ed’s grandpa. Just ask Camus.

Just kidding.  You can't.
Or not
Okay then. On to Coen Bingo and other random shit:


– I didn’t catch any direct quotes, but all this talk about perspective has reminded me of the meeting with the junior rabbi from A Serious Man. “Just look at that parking lot…

– The exchange in that clip about how “The Boss may not always be right, but he’s always the Boss,” calls to mind Lou and Betsy’s skeptical words about his boss. “He knows best. Probably.” “Said he did, anyway.”  Meanwhile, Reagan is boarding his bus to give another speech.

– Molly is apparently drawing the UFO now.  Little sucker sure gets around.

– About the only knock I have on the episode is that both Dodd and Hanzee act out of character at points.  Dodd sending a stand-in with Charlie is addressed above.  Hanzee slashes one Kitchen Brother’s throat, but settles for merely punching out the other a half second later?  It’s like he’s trying specifically to preserve a more dramatic confrontation down the line.  Perhaps as a Native American tracker archetype, he’s simply more naturally attuned to the ebbs and flows of seasonal arcs?

– It’s dumb, but I get a kick out of “Erstwhile on Fargo” as opposed to “Previously”.  And this week it drew attention to another thing that is great – the subtle Minnesotan lilts that sneak into Zahn McClarnon’s gravel-voiced portrayal of Hanzee.  Most of the accentwork on this show (Jeffrey Donovan, looking at you in particular) are miles from subtle, but the occasional “ya” that slips out of this stone killer, particularly when interacting with his adopted family, do a lot to suggest that he may have been born apart from these honkies, but he was bred amongst them, and it’s left it’s mark.

– Giggly Nick Offerman is a delight. Glad they found time (not that FX puts any pressure on its originals in that regard) to include his little mancrush on ol’ Dutch.

– I brushed past Milligan above, but he chooses to view Joe’s severed head as an opportunity to climb the ladder rather than signal to give up, just as he chose his own devilish brand of optimism as a rebuke to his mother’s oppressive gloominess.  He also knows the relevant question to ask Simone – “what are we, in your mind?” He knows they aren’t actually Romeo and Juliet, but what matters is whether she thinks that way.

– I like the parallel of Bear thanking Hanzee for his service to the Gerhardt family, with more conviction than Dutch thanks Lou for his.