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