Thursday, May 25, 2017


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“The Lord Of No Mercy” follows up last week’s escalation of the season’s major plotlines with a further, even more shocking escalation, as the Stussy feud comes to a shocking, stupid end.  On the one hand, I am sorry to see Ray be the one to take the loss, as he was the more interesting and rounded of McGregor’s sibling performances.  On the other, Nikki is more interesting than either of the brothers, and leaving her as an increasingly desperate free agent is more promising than leaving Sy alone to be batted around by Varga’s crew.  And it is executed with characteristic canniness; the sequence where she is alone with Meemo looming around the motel with orders to execute is a neat misdirect, to help blindside us with Ray being the one who ends up suddenly, violently dead.  But it would be more effective at building suspense if I wasn’t so sure that Nikki would make it out okay.  Fargo is an odd and unpredictable show, but even it is not going to end one episode on an elaborate fake out that a major character has been killed by the bad guys, only to turn around and have the same bad guys kill her for real in the very next episode. That would not make for a very good story.

And more and more, a Story is shaping up not just to be the focus of the season, but its primary villain. Sure, Varga is literally occupying that role, but what is he if not Fake News incarnate?  He increasingly appears to be hiding Russian origins to pass himself off as an exemplar of American criminal entrepeneurship.  And his entire MO is to obfuscate, to use reasonable-sounding but dubiously-sourced anecdotes* to confuse people into opening themselves to ideas they should know much better than to consider.  The more they doubt themselves and their allies, the more vulnderable they are to the horrible surety he oozes through rotted, poisonous teeth.  That, to hear the consensus of Western intelligence agencies tell it, is precisely the tactics that Vladimir Putin has been using to disrupt elections around the world.  Sow distrust and confusion amongst the voters with incendiary stories sponsored by his state-run media and pushed by "astroturfed" trollbots.  The immediate ends don't have to be that clear-cut, when the overall goal is to fracture the Euro-American alliances that have acted as a check on Russian expansion since World War Two.  Widen the gaps, then look for opportunities where you find them.  

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This guy approves, not that he's Russ...actually, what is that accent anyway?

So was the first world war really started by a sandwich?  Only so far as it put a man in position to act with deliberate, murderous intent, but if you even find yourself parsing that distinction, you already have one foot in Varga's web.  Perception of reality becomes the reality, he assures Sy, and there is an extent to which that is true. The IRS doesn’t need to see the books, as long as they have some books to look at.  Lehman Brothers' assets didn’t change by 93% in the span of 8 hours, but its value did.  Ray ends up bleeding out on his carpet because he can’t bring himself to accept victory upon the mere surrender of all the spoils he was purportedly fighting over; what he really needs is his brother to adopt the version of the story where Ray was the innocent victim all along.

Varga meets a seemingly-immovable object in Gloria, however, as her (and the Eden Valley PD’s) lack of online footprint stymies his attempts to seek additional intelligence on a stubbornly analogue opponent.  For a man who weaponizes the internet, its inability to provide him with an asymetric advantage is doubly frustrating because she is also impervious to his bullshittery in person.  Because she refuses not only to be taken in by his flowery diversions, but even to be sucked into rebutting it.  To wit: when Sy attempts to refute the claim that the moon landing was faked, he stumbles and stammers, immediately back-footed by the audacity of the claim.  Whereas she succinctly punctures his confident assertions about the number of Hitlers in WW2 Germany, without allowing that to derail her from her line of inquiry.  Nikki pegs him as the boss and a threat during her surveillance earlier, and she’s right.  But when she is questioning Emmit, Gloria pegs him immediately for what he is in that particular moment – a distraction.  One she will circle back to, she notes, but one whose game she is not there to play.  

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"Byetch, please."

But as satisfying as it is to see someone brush Varga back from the plate, there is still something disconcerting underlying it all. Because if I’m reading these thematic tea leaves correctly, that would suggest that we’re not heading for a resolution as neat as “Gloria and Winnie lock Varga away for good and hits up the Dairy Queen for celebratory Blizzards”.  Personally, I choose to be optimistic that the success of Fake News in disrupting recent elections is only part of the growing pains of the internet, and people on both sides of the aisle are already building up the skills and skepticism to sift the factual from the bias-affirming.  I haven’t quite mastered that trick myself yet, but that’s beside the point.  Even if we've seen the high water mark for Fake News shifting elections, this season was written and produced while it was ascendant.  So to think that it would end with the avatar of digital trickery cast down and the Old and Quaint Ways triumphant…well, even the story that condemned poor Jakob Ungerleider for a crime Yuri Gorka committed had a basis in some sort of facts.



  • Meemo’s disappearing act in the motel room imitates Chigurgh’s late in No Country For Old Men, to the point that its efficacy was further blunted because I recognized the homage as it was being set up. 

  • Overall, the whole motel sequence recalled more Tarantino than Coen – both the standout sequence in True Romance where Alabama confronts a mob hitman (James Gandolfini in an early standout role) alone in a motel room, and Butch mucking up his clean getaway by doubling back to his apartment to retrieve something stupidly left behind, only to find an uninvited guest.

  • I don’t think Ray and Nikki are staying in Sioux Falls, but it sure looks like the same motor lodge where the big shootout/massacre occurred at the end of last season.

  • I’m also going to say that Gloria flipping a B-word to return to Ray’s place is a callback to Marge deciding to loop back to see Jerry Lundegaard again after her meeting to Mike Yaganita.  I don’t know, either the show isn’t making as direct references as seasons past, or I should have boned up again on my Coen filmography before it started.  But I haven't been seeing as much of them this year.

  • That said, Varga asking Emmit if he knew what Lenin said about Beethoven, and clarifying that he meant V.I. Lenin, not the Beatle, recalls Walter’s frustration with Donny in The Big Lebowski.

*In particular, his vague assurance to Emmit that “people are talking” about Sy’s possible disloyalty immediately called to mind Trump's way of regurgitating conspiracy theories in interviews without taking responsibility by couching it in wheedling “well, lots of people are saying that my opponent's father killed Bambi's mother.  I'm not saying it, but you look around and people are talking about it...”

Thursday, May 18, 2017


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Sorry about the gap last week, folks.   Schwartzblog was traveling the prairies, in some dusty burgs that would make Eden Prairie look like the bustling metropolis of Brainerd, and that meant no cable, no internet and only occasional glimmers of phone.  It was for a good cause, but to be honest, I felt as if I’d left the known world.  Stepped off the map entirely.

Sy Feltz parrots that wholly-original thought of mine in “The House Of Special Purpose”, as he and Nikki are horrendously victimized by Varga and his goons.  And while he avoids the most physical brutality, I have to say I think I’d prefer the internal hemorrhaging over drinking pee.  I’m way more desensitized to vicious beatings (on TV) than I am to seeing people be utterly and deliberately debased like that, such that like Sy himself I had a hard time getting back into the swing of the episode after that part so disturbed me.  But for all my discomfort, the episode went on to be quite a showcase for Michael Stuhlbarg, who finds humanity and humor in the dozen different forms of “stricken” that he plays throughout the hour.  He tries, as Varga immediately predicts, to reassert some semblance of potency by hopping in his ridiculous yellow Hummer (that most appropriate shell of desperate, hollow masculinity) and trying to strong-arm Ray and Nikki.  But he barely even has time to have his lowball payoff shot down before Yuri and Meemo show up to intervene. 

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Stuhlbarg's Stricken, With Moustache

And that is where some of Fargo’s trademark zigzagging came into effect, in a season that has been if not actually predictable, then at least more familiar and languidly paced than prior years.  It had felt like the entire episode had been been building up to Sy, in his frustration, deciding to kill Nikki.  I thought he was so certain to bungle it that he was more likely to wind up dead in the parking lot than her, but that the showdown between the Stussy brothers' surrogates would be the main thing.  But once the thugs got involved, things changed, and I found myself leaning in the way I only do when my favorite shows catch me flat-footed.  It’s a tough thing to pull off, because it requires a combination of elements that are individually difficult to achieve.  I have to have lived with the show long enough to get a little complacent about thinking I know where it is going with something.  I have to be sufficiently emotionally invested, to really care which way it does go.  And when the zag comes, it has to make as much internal sense as the zig I was expecting, but still be surprising enough that I had not given it any real consideration beforehand.  And finally, it has to be a surprise with real stakes, generally of the life-or-death variety. 

That last bit is crucial, because it means that the biggest surprises don’t arise simply from being the hardest to predict.  At the outset of the season, I would have been much more likely to prognosticate that at some point Nikki would catch a nasty beating from one of Varga's thugs than that Gloria would spend an entire episode on her own, chasing a dead end in sunny LA.  There are shows, like Mad Men or The Leftovers, where I never have any idea what will happened from one episode to the next, but because they aren’t especially plot-driven stories, I never expended much mental bandwidth even trying to guess.  Their biggest curveballs are met with a “huh, isn’t that interesting”, rather than the dropped jaw and pounding heart that only my absolute favorites can elicit.  I’m not putting this episode on the same level as the most intense episodes of Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or The Shield, but the assault on Nikki was the first time this season where I felt some of the same buttons that “The Rains Of Castamere”, or “One Minute”, or “Long Term Parking” or “Postpartum” smashed into smithereens getting pressed.  I don’t have the same emotional investment in one Nicole Swango as I did in the characters whose lives hung in those pivotal episodes, but my reaction did follow the same basic trajectory of “no…no, they wouldn’t be…holy shit, maybe they would…”

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My optimal viewing expression

For the first time, this season that had been interesting and amusing and entertaining became exciting.  And that alone would have been a commendable shift into a higher gear, but the genius of Fargo is that once it had me off balance, the screw kept turning a couple more times.  Once I realized that the scene was not going to be about Sy and Nikki’s confrontation, my mind started racing in the way it does in those other episodes where I can start to see the hammer dropping on a character I’m invested in, looking for ways this could be a fake out.  And it was!  But first it fully convinced me that she was dead.  The push in on Stuhlbarg’s stricken reaction and the sound work really sold the savagery of the beating, and as it went on, and then the camera lingered on him deciding to flee and even after, I had just enough time to consider the possibility that the last shot of the episode could be a battered Nikki gasping and spitting blood onto the snow.  And then to decide that no, it would actually be her phone going off as Ray called, connecting it to the pre-season teaser of one buried in a snowbank.  

Then it ended up being closer to the first, and also not the end of the episode, and I felt great relief.  Partly because I like Nikki as a person more than I probably should (her genuine affection for Ray and enthusiasm for her meager ambitions balancing out her more lunatic tendencies, at least so far) and would miss Winstead’s firecracker performance and almost musical lilt she brings to the Minnesoootan accent.  But also because having her survive sets up more interesting story possibilities.  Yuri is going to regret not finishing the job, of that I am certain, and I would lay very generous odds that he ends up dying at her hands.  And perhaps a common enemy will be the thing to bring the two sides of the Stussy feud together, trying to find a way to strike back at the vicious bastards that are brutalizing their women and fornicating with their cookwear.  Or maybe it somehow cranks the sibling rivalry up another notch.  I don’t know what happens next, but now I’m eager, rather than just interested to find out.

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Suboptimal viewing expression

But while this review is being dominated by my visceral, more than critical, reactions to two scenes, another reason this episode represents the season shifting into a higher gear is that not just the plot, but the themes are snapping into clearer focus.  The emphasis on the power of perceptions trumping actual fact has been there since the premiere’s cold open, and to some extent in both prior seasons. But it’s been increasingly explicit the last two episodes, what with Yuri’s extremely topical musings on Putin’s misinformation strategies and Varga’s conman pitch about how being strong-armed out of your business by violent criminals is really a success story from another perspective.  Emmit’s marriage is brought to ruin by an affair that did not actually happen, “factual” evidence to the contrary.  And Gloria knows the truth of Ennis’s murder, but this means little as long as she cannot convince Captain Moe to accept it.

Moe’s truly herculean obstructionism would be more frustrating were it not for some outside knowledge about the nature of the show in which he’s operating.  For one, having seen prior incarnations of Fargo makes me certain that his obstinacy will not ultimately prevent Gloria and her new gal Friday from closing the case. For another, having seen Noah Hawley’s incarnation, not to mention Legion, I am fairly certain that he is due for some explicitly humanizing turn pretty soon.  From the scraps of character we have on him so far, it seems that his confounding conviction that life and death and calamity are doled out without pattern or purpose was hard-won during his time in Iraq - i.e., the only thing harder than accepting the randomness and pointlessness of death via roadside bomb in a military adventure without clear victory parameters would be to un-accept it.  Acknowledging the senselessness of such violence actually puts him ahead of the Fargo curve in a way; it’s like he already went through his season of the show in the desert instead of the snows.  Such a perspective makes him a more sympathetic figure, if not a heroic one.  Fargo will, and should, reserve its highest esteem for those that look into the abyss of violence and insanity with both eyes and endure with their own moral compass intact.

And that’s what I love about it, beyond its dexterous hand with plotting and facility with sketching immediately engaging characters with hidden depths.  Beneath the considerable depravity and absurdity, there is a real, and intelligent, morality at work.  One that is acutely aware that keeping to a simple ethical core is about the most complicated thing there is.


  • While their consiglieres endure the wrath of the criminals, the Stussy brothers are feeling the heat from law enforcement, in the form of Gloria and IRS agent Dollard, respectively.  Dollard is played by Hamish Linklater, who played a sneakily non-villainous antagonist on Legion. Based on that role and Hawley’s knack for making bit players rise rapidly to prominence, I’d say we’re going to see more than a quick death from him.

  • I didn’t catch much in the way of Coen references this week, but I see shades of Ed Tom Bell in my interpretation of Captain Moe’s character.  I suppose the Fargo film also features a botched extortion negotiation in a snowy parking lot that ends in violence, but I have to keep that description pretty vague to maintain the connection.

  • Speaking of stretches, I want to somehow connect Sy having his mug urinated in and Ray’s micturated-upon footwear from a few episodes back, but...yeah, that's about it.
  •  One other great bit about the execution of the Nikki death fake-out: because they hold on the scene straight through to the reveal, it doesn't piss you off the way a fake-out should.  A lesser show would wait until the opening of the next episode to milk it for fake drama, and leaving us to stew in a false premise for a week would just be cheap and irritating.

  • Varga really is the most odious villain the show has ever had.  He has the loquaciousness of Milligan and Malvo, but none of the genuine charm they brought with it.  Hanzee was terrifyingly implacable, Dodd was a boorish asshole, and Malvo was Lucifer incarnate, but with the horrendous sadism, the casual racism, and physical repulsiveness all rolled into one, he’s the totally gross package.

  • Nikki doesn’t want to accept Ray’s proposal in a hooker wig, but they both fail to recognize that he is still disguised as his brother, for fraudulent sexual blackmail purposes.  Somehow their lack of self-awareness comes off more sweet than anything.

  • Among the corners of the internet I frequent, I seem to be alone in thinking that the 25 year discontinuity between Ennis’ age of death and supposed backstory indicates that he is not actually Thaddeus Mobley.  I still think Ray Wise will turn up again and prove to be the actual author, but it occurred this week that my estimation would make Mobley 60 in 2010, which Varga could just about be.  I would guess Thewlis as playing a little below that, but it’s certainly not as big a stretch as a Native American Vietnam veteran morphing into a vaguely Eurasian crime boss as he ages.   

Thursday, May 4, 2017


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There’s a box with a switch on the top.  You flip it, and a panel opens next to it, and a hand extends, flipping the switch back to where it started and retreating.  Such is the entirety of Gloria’s sojourn to Los Angeles. It’s the Mike Yanagita scene from the movie stretched out to an entire episode, complete with a clumsy come-on from an unhelpful cop played by Always Sunny star Rob McElhenney (whose fellow Gang Member Glenn Howertown must have recommended him, after his turn as the overtanned, extremely ill-fated gym rat in season one).

Gloria Burgle doesn’t know why Ennis Stussy was killed.  But we do, inasmuch as there was a reson, and what’s more we know that it had precisely nothing to do with a prior life as science fiction writer Thaddeus Mobley.  Now, in most detective stories, the point of a red herring is to mislead us, the audience.  I can’t think of another one that devotes so much real estate to the detective chasing a lead that we know from the start is not just a dead end, but the wrong direction entirely.  It should have us howling at the TV, impatient for her to get back to the actual story already.  But Fargo makes liberal use of flashbacks, Fred Melamed and shockingly poignant animation to turn this narrative cul de sac into a melancholy novella.

I imagine a lot of people were bored (rather than moved) to tears by it, particularly those that don’t write TV blogs preoccupied with the vagaries of narrative structure.  But as part of that latter group, I found the audacity of taking an entire hour from a season that only has 10 to work with to leave the entire overarching plot and ensemble behind to watch a single character chase smoke where we know there is no fire.  I have generally not been a fan of when prior cable dramas would send Don Draper or Christopher Moltisanti out west to spin wheels for an episode.  Somehow, with the looser formats of those shows, those tangents carried a vague feeling that the writers had become bored with their own story, and were trying to goose their interest in the characters by throwing them into a drastically different environment.  But in the context of a story as tightly-plotted, and closed-ended, as a Fargo season, it feels like a bolder, more purposeful choice, even as the storyline is explicitly about futility.  

This episode also more explicit than ever about the quantum nature of Gloria’s existence as Schrodinger’s Cop. She is still the chief, but she isn’t.  She is divorced, but still married to a man who is not her husband, while she is sort of on a date but not with a dingbat who just assumes she’d require two beers at a time.  She is in Fargo even as she is thousands of miles away from Fargo, investigating the murder of a stepfather that wasn’t even her stepfather, while getting no closer to any truth about it.  In fact, she may have gotten further from the truth, because she was digging after the past of a victim that isn’t even the victim.   

Because the math says grandpa Ennis and Thaddeus Mobley can’t be the same the person, as Gloria assumes. At the funeral home last week, her son noted that Ennis was 82 when he died.  Which would mean that when fresh-faced Thad Mobley was winning extremely phallic Golden Planet awards in 1975, he would already have been pushing 50.  Either this is a large and uncharacteristic continuity flub, or this entire goose chase was based on another case of mistaken identity in a season already rife with them, and she is mistaking her stepfather for Mobley just as much as Maurice mistook him for Emmit.  When you layer that on, it becomes a very bleak joke that even when she figures out that the whole thing was a waste of time, she still doesn’t realize the actual reason why it was pointless, or full extent of that pointlessness.  But that mechanical finger doesn’t realize it’s only purpose is to shut itself off either.


  • Fred Melamed is a a one-of-a-kind comic performer, who has Coen experience from playing the uniquely unctuous Sy Abelman in A Serious Man.  That role of a devout Minnesotan Jew would seem to be the opposite of his tinseltown sleaze here, but both actually share a way of fleecing a poor shmuck while couching it in paternalistic teachability.  If the Oscars weren’t hopelessly biased against comedic performances, he would’ve gotten a Supporting Actor nom for that one.  

  • Meanwhile, the elderly version of Howard Zimmerman is reminiscent of the decrepit senior partner in Intolerable Cruelty.  That one is not known within the bros' filmography for its deep thematics, but it seems apropos to reference it in relation to the '70s storyline featuring a glamorous gal bleeding a poor sap dry.  Said gal is played by the mother-daughter duo of Francesca Eastwood (1975) and Frances Fisher (2010).   

  • I have family in LA, and while I love them dearly, I do always leave that town feeling like my suitcase got stolen by a Santa Claus at a cheap motel.

  • Officer Hunt has found that even the wonders of Facebook cannot prevent cases of mistaken identity, as the “smoking hot” chick he met there turned out to be a Nigerian guy who wanted money.  Sad trombone.
  • Assuming the time frame isn’t a flub, the real Mobley should still be alive.  He’d probably be in his early 60s, possibly flying up to six times in a single week, and repeating bits from his book about man’s progression from swimming to crawling to flying.
  • The bell droning until the Guild attendant comes to steady it is a beat lifted from Barton Fink’s arrival at the Hotel Earle. And Gloria sitting on the beach in her city clothes is an image lifted from the same film. 
  • The 8-bit version of the Fargo theme music that quietly plays during Minsky’s animated adventures is a wonderful touch.
  • And in sad news, next Wednesday I will be traveling for my sister's wedding, so if I am able to post anything it will be more brief and addled than usual.