“We see what we believe, not the other way around.”
This twisty, dark, bizarre season began with an accused man being brought into a room, to sit before a representative of the state who coolly laid out the circumstantial evidence that he was responsible for a terrible crime. It ended the same way, only this time instead of knowing the man was being railroaded, we knew that he was guilty of everything the government was saying, and more. This time the accused was the one rattling off state-sanctioned “facts” as irrefutable proof of his innocence, rather than the inverse. In the Cold War era, the nightmare was that the state could dictate its own preferred reality upon the helpless individual. Today, the even more frightening prospect is that even the government is powerless to rein in the shadowy, moneyed interests that set the terms for our brave new world.
But before we get to that room, we have the final moves in Nikki’s revenge scheme. Her transformation into a commando may not be the most believable of turns, but having Wrench to do the heavy lifting helps in that regard and in any case it is satisfying as all get out to see the tables turned on Varga. He slithers away, but the moments of fear, vulnerability and surprise she engenders in him will be important to remember when we circle back to that room, and that ending. But first, she still has to reckon with Emmit. This is less satisfying, as she pulls her shot just enough to take out an innocent highway patrolman instead. That she gets taken out too should seem like a bigger deal, but the introduction of this wholly innocent collateral damage puts it in a more nebulous place. It’s still a bummer, but she kind of has it coming and it’s neither the biggest tragedy or most deserved comeuppance the series has depicted. So my favorite character gets shot in the head and my response is basically mirrors Gloria’s “well, okay then.”
|It was a flippin' sweet coat, though|
It appears to be just the latest iteration of Emmit’s completely inability to get himself punished for his misdeeds, no matter how directly they place him in a literal crossfire. But then the show plays its niftiest little trick of the episode, using a time jump, chyrons, and an elegiac version of the main theme to suggest that it is transitioning to a coda. The expectation forms, quickly and quietly, that we will float through a couple more check ins with the survivors and go straight to the credits. But then Wrench shows up to throw a
wren...some sort of spanner in the works, and put a
bullet in the back of Emmit’s head. It’s
belated payment for his late(st) dead partner’s end of the deal. He did get the money, after all; she was owed
With Swango and the Stussys sorted, we circle back to that interrogation room, and that ending. It’s a classic Lady or the Tiger ending, and boy, I love me a Lady or the Tiger ending. Enough that I liked the ending of The Sopranos right off the bat, and I rank Inception as one of the best films of the century despite finding about 50% of it to be a boring slog. I like it because it allows you to have it whichever way you like, or both, if you prefer the Lady on Tuesdays and Tiger on Thursdays. But I also like it because it makes you work. Because it forces me to take at least that final step for myself, and requires an engagement beyond passively lying on my couch while shoveling Rocky Road into my gullet.
Now, there’s a case to be made that this sort of ending is a cop out, a failure to follow a particular thematic throughline to its logical conclusion. And done poorly, that may be the case. The key to properly crafting such an ending, and what this finale excels at, lies in making both the Lady and Tiger seem like equally viable options. This is actually very, very difficult. Generally, a long lead up will have accumulated enough evidence to accidentally favor one side over the other, even though by definition there can be no “right” answer - if Tony “really” was killed, they would have just shown it rather than crafting an elaborate question mark. In this case, we have seen ample evidence that Varga does have connections and powers that may as well be supernatural for all that local law enforcement is concerned. And it wouldn’t be the first time he had whisked a suspect Gloria thought she had dead to rights out from under her. IRS Agent Dollard also noted that his initial investigation was stymied by interference from Washington, and even after the evidence was dropped in his lap, the result was a misdemeanor plea and probation. On the other hand, Varga is most definitely not infallible, given the loops through which an amateur bridge player was able to throw him. He didn’t plan on losing 2 million dollars, or Yuri or Meemo or any of the rest of his men, to her. And he never intended to see Gloria again, or the inside of a DHS interrogation room. When people refuse to play along with his line of fables and bullshit, as Gloria pointedly does in the room, he has been shown to be quite mortal. It also seems entirely plausible that the bloody, costly end to the Stussy affair led to some loss of standing, such that whatever other forces control the levers of power are more inclined to just cut him loose.
And even with everything else being zeroed out, the scales of interpretation still tip, in my view, toward the last person to speak, or the final image. “Somebody To Love” balances this really well, by allowing Varga to lay out his version of events after Gloria’s, making it seem more credible from an audience perspective. But then she reiterates her conclusion, and he closes the debate by calling it a waste of breath. So he technically gets the last word, but it’s not as authoritative as if his story about the man who would set him free had been our closing statement. And then we see her face last, as an uncertain smile creeps onto her features. And then, the final image isn’t either of them, but the empty hallway and ticking clock, as they wait to see what sort of tiger will show itself.
|"Is...is that it?"|
Which is how it has to be, I think. Wedded as I am to my interpretation of Varga as the embodiment of disinformation and Fake News, it would not be appropriate to end with him soundly defeated by the forces of traditional American values. And it would be too defeatist to end with him utterly triumphant, suggesting that the conquering of same is complete and irrevocable. We are still fighting against what he represents, a fight that is complicated and difficult and significantly bigger than my personal loathing of Donald Trump. Passing the White House back to the other side won’t end that fight, if such a shift also happens on the back of dubiously-sourced innuendo and outright lies. If Varga does go away, chances are his replacement won’t have such fucked up teeth, and maybe he won’t be talking of pitchforks specifically. But the new boss's message will be the same. Nothing is as it seems. All your fears are justified. In fact, it’s worse than you thought. Your friends, your neighbors, your institutions, they can’t be trusted and aren’t worth investing in. Only I can tell you the real story, which is that the only way to keep what you have is to play dirtier than everyone else. But all you have to do is sign on the dotted line, and we’ll take care the rest…
“There’s violence to knowing the world isn’t what you thought,” Gloria tells her son over popsicles. But, she adds, even though the world doesn’t make a lot of sense, “how we get through it is, we stick together.” The Vargas of the world want to use that violence to induce feelings of helplessness, and when they succeed it leaves us so vulnerable that even DJ Qualls can seem like an unstoppable adversary. But I do think Gloria has the right of it; if the Stussy brothers had stuck together, instead of clinging to the versions of the story that flattered their preexisting perspectives and grudges, Emmit would not have been such easy prey for the predators, and the Wildcat Regional may have been the start of something beautiful, instead of something stupid and bloody.
COEN BINGO AND OTHER RANDOM SHIT
- The title of the episode is the same as the Jefferson Airplane song that features prominently in “A Serious Man”.
- In a great interview with Alan Sepinwall (requests from Schwartzblog for such access have sadly gone unaddressed), Hawley calls Fargo a “tragedy with a happy ending”, which is a turn of phrase I really should have come up with myself, in 20 weeks of trying to describe the show.
- For the record, I was totally wrong about the Widow Goldfarb. I still don’t quite understand how having her in the wings to buy a bankrupt company after its value has been bled dry benefits anyone. Also, as nothing ever came of it, I guess Thaddeus Mobley was just a very fresh-faced 40 year-old in those 70’s flashbacks after all.
- This is the second Lady or Tiger? Finale to fall on Carrie Coon’s shoulders in the last month. The Leftovers finale is another of those cases where when you dig into the particulars, one of the options doesn’t seem all that viable. SPOILERS: She confirmed the possibility of undoing the giant traumatic event that broke the entire world, and this is not of any particular interest to anyone? Does not compute.
- Varga gives his name, if I’m not mistaken, as “Daniel Rand”. Which is…Iron Fist? I have no idea what to make of that, except that Hawley has an established affinity for more obscure Marvel comics.
- Varga has one last lie for the road – “Anything further would be wasting our breath. And if there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s waste.” Now just point him to the bathroom stall with the softest kneeling towels, please.
- The finale could have used one more beat with Lopez. If you aren’t going to exit her on her tremendous friend game from last week, you need to give her more than a line or two of exposition at a crime scene. I also could have used one last scene with Chief Moe and Deputy Donnie, who both dropped out of the narrative without the grace notes Hawley normally grants to characters of even minor stature.
- Speaking of minor characters, there is really no better show on which to be cast as a henchman than Fargo. Roles that appear at first blush to be mere flunkies wind up being as formidable and distinctive as Yuri and Meemo, where in years past you have Hanzee usurping Big Bad status from the ostensible shot-callers and Wrench resurfacing in a different story altogether as a righteous ass-kicker.
- I do wonder how Wrench’s prominence played to people who had skipped season one. Not that there is any truly vital backstory missing, but you have to be more inclined to accept his sudden airdrop into the frontlines of the story if you know who he is as soon as Nikki sits down on the bus.