“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.
|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.
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.
COEN BINGO AND OTHER RANDOM SHIT
- 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...”