“I know. We’ll figure it out.”
I can’t promise I will figure it all out, as “Who Rules The Land Of Denial” is almost 4 distinct episodes mashed together, and at least one of them is really damn weird. You have the survival horror sketch of Nikki and Wrench fleeing through the woods from Yuri and DJ Qualls. Then you have the surreal interlude where they wander into a supernatural safe haven bowling alley. Then you return to civilization for Varga’s last meeting with and removal of Sy from the picture, and then the jump to three months later, where his hold on the Stussy empire is secured but the only remaining Stussy is unraveling under the nagging guilt of fratri-manslaughter and consistent poking from Burgle & Lopez.
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That last half has some surprising twists and a tantalizing cliffhanger, but it’s the first half everyone will be talking about. It left me so offbalance that the time jump, despite being a trick the show pulled in the first season and not being all that large in comparison to those undertaken by this or other shows, still caught me completely flat-footed. This jump is only about 3 months, and if it makes for a disappointingly abrupt exit for Michael Stuhlbarg, it allows for a jolt to the section of the show that needed it most. Ewan McGregor has done a fine job of differentiating Emmit from Ray, but beyond that has not had much opportunity to portray him as a real guy of any depth. Skipping right to the point where Nikki’s campaign of revenge mindfuckery can begin in earnest, instigating his break with Varga, promises to give McGregor more, if not necessarily more nuance, to play. At the very least, the final moments of the episode have him taking his first proactive measure of the season.
But we’ll get back to Emmit next week. The more striking part of the episode is the first half, starting with the harrowing escape from the bus and flight through the woods. It’s par for the course for the characters to be hunted at this point in the season, but the way that the show can segue from comedy of errors to straight-up horror continues to impress after several years. “Tonal Mastery” is the sort of term that pops up a lot in reviews/criticism, and most of the time it will refer to the ability to insert jokes and gags without breaking a more serious overall tone. But I would also say that it’s a sign of this show's absolute mastery of tone that despite its pronounced sense of the comedic and absurd, it is also confident enough to cast DJ Qualls as a heavy, and play it completely, unwinkingly straight. And it actually works! Qualls’ character (apparently credited as “Golem”) fails at every turn, but the intensity of his scowl and unrelenting effort made him register as an actual threat, right up to his giddily grisly demise. Until then, the quiet stalking sequences are intense, eerie, and stomach-churning when it comes to the coldness with which guards, motorists, and hunters are dispatched by the real predators.
|"That's it. That's our face of Terror."|
As their prey, Wrench and Nikki make a surprisingly and immediately likable team. I’ll be honest, as much of a booster of the series as I am, I don’t remember many specifics of his story in the first season. His insertion here as a major player is probably confusing to those that started more recently, but it’s also extremely utile in providing both stakes and complications to the chase. Considering/flattering myself to be a savvy viewer of television, I have been convinced that Nikki would survive the season and bring about the downfall of her tormentors since she crawled away from Yuri’s beating. So while I was eating up the stylishness with which the attack and pursuit were filmed, I was never especially scared as to the outcome for our girl. Which is why shackling her to a partner, and one I had a preexisting but minor connection to, was such a brilliant little twist. If he was just an entirely new face, I would have immediately marked him as a redshirt and refused to invest in his survival. And if he had been a more major or sympathetic character in prior seasons, I would have assumed the show wouldn’t kill him off either. But instead, Wrench hits this perfect little Goldilocks balance, where I thought the show might sacrifice him to secure Nikki’s escape, and also I actually cared whether or not it did. This is the kind of quiet, nuts-n-bolts storytelling genius that distinguishes Hawley’s shows for me, that grounds the plots as he preps for the giant leaps of narrative fancy.
Leaps like the interlude in the bowling alley. As sure as I was that Ray Wise would return, I never for a second thought “maybe it will be as a possible dybbuk, distributing cats and harsh Jewish philosophy in a purgatorial bowling alley.” But I went back to his first appearance in episode 3, and his introduction there makes more sense (well, a different kind of sense) in hindsight. When told Gloria’s book features a wandering robot searching for the meaning of life, his wry “I know how that goes,” and mention of constant travel did not evoke any particular suspicion that he was a divine emissary. But it also fits with the revelation that his name is one of the monikers of the mythical Wandering Jew. And I’m of two minds about this, really. As a viewer, I think I might prefer a version that suggests Wise and the alley’s mystical natures with a lighter hand, evoking the theological implications without confirming their supernatural-ness expressly. The Coen’s ability to walk that line is one of my favorite things about their output.
But as a reviewer, there’s a way that it is exciting to have such a weird and significant departure from “formula” to talk about. There is an extent to which Fargo is hemmed in by its hyper-specific setting and strictures of the genre-unto-itself that demand we always begin with some bumbling dilettante crooks that run afoul of genuine Evil, and a stalwart, salt-of-the-earth cop that will close the case after all the requisite blood has been shed. I mentioned in the premiere review that such familiarity is not the same as predictability (a much worse problem to have), but I try to only do episodic recaps of shows I love absolutely because familiarity can breed contempt when you force yourself to rehash it on a week-by-week basis. There are some shows whose flaws I'm sure I could take more in stride if I hadn't made myself try to find new ways to articulate them for ten straight weeks.
|Apropos of nothing|
That is certainly not an issue I’m having this week. As I wrote about at some length last season, quasi-supernatural hunters are nothing new for Fargo and the Coen sensibility it emulates. But while the mysterious Nemesis figure is a staple, it is normally aligned with the forces of Evil. At most, it is completely detached from the efforts of the good guys as it hunts the hapless sinners. Marrane breaks from this tradition by offering forgiveness and affirmative assistance to the prodigal grey hats, and direct judgment upon the black hats. Divine retribution has always been central to Fargo’s thematics, but it has at best been callously indifferent to the “good guys”: a UFO whose intentions are too inscrutable to tie to the effects of its appearance, or a car crash demonstrating Anton Chigurgh is not above the caprices of fate he claims to embody. This is the first time that the supernatural has been depicted as genuinely benevolent.
|Well, as benevolent as a Cat Person could possibly be|
And yet, while this could be construed as a major thematic betrayal of the Coen ethos, I can’t imagine them doing anything but grinning at the audacity and manner of presentation. Not just because of the aesthetic nods to the Big Lebowski, or playing to their particular Talmudic interests, but because it can take even a devoted aficionado of their ouvre like me and throw my assumptions for a loop. And because when it comes down to it, Marrane does seem to echo their view that, give or take one Yuri Gorka, if there is going to be any shift for the positive in the world, it is going to have to come from the meager, imperfect efforts of regular people. He does not offer Nikki simple aid, he gives her a mission: punish the wicked, and when you do, tell 'em you're on a mission from God.
I am not sure how the implications of this will play out in the remaining two episodes, but if I would hazard a guess that Marrane will at the least encounter Gloria one last time, to give her some sort of vague, cosmic affirmation. Whether that’s a congratulation for excising Varga’s malignant influence permanently, or an encouragement to keep toiling in the face of defeat, I’m not so sure. But I’m keen to find out.
COEN BINGO AND OTHER RANDOM SHIT
- Gloria suggests that Sy might have been poisoned “like that Russian fella.” Does that mean Yuri turned up poisoned at some point, or is she referring more generally to cases like Alexander Litivenko?
- The opening sequence of Yuri and co. setting up the bus ambush reminded me not of a Coen movie, but the opening train robbery in Andrew Dominik’s 2007 surreal western masterpiece The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. It’s a long, slow, sad, and absolutely beautiful movie.
- Meemo taking off in pursuit of the unfortunate couple that happened to drive by the bus is very similar to the inciting incident of Fargo the film.
- Nikki and Wrench being chained together while on the run, of course, recalls the Stephen Baldwin/Lawrence Fishbune classic Fled.
- No sign of the IRS the last couple week. No way that doesn’t come back in some fashion by the end.
- This was the first time I noticed that for all their nightmarish efficacy, Meemo is the only of the villains that has touched a gun all season.
- I keep wanting to make some connection between the biblical Joseph and Nikki’s technicolor dreamcoat. Alas, I got nuthin’.
- The manner in which Wise appears next to Nikki at the bowling alley to wax philosophical echoes Sam Elliot’s cowboy in The Big Lebowski.
- The woods that Nikki and Wrench trudge through are reminiscent of the iconic killing grounds of Miller’s Crossing.
- Emmit’s guilt and conviction that he is being haunted by Ray has shades of Blood Simple to it.
- It becomes more obvious this week that Andy Yu, who plays Meemo, is a trained dancer, which I should have known just from his posture. Dancers have a way of standing still, a coiling, that belies a complete control of their physicality beyond simply being light on their feet. Properly utilized, this makes for a quietely menacing performance even when at rest (for the best, most chilling example I can think of, see Mads Mikkelsen’s performance on Hannibal).
- Speaking of performances, Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been absolutely killing it this whole season. Her performance has only gotten better as it transitioned from the brains/mouth of Swango n’ Stussy to a quieter, internalized engine of survival, still cut through with little moments like her involuntary coo at the sight of the kitten. It’s a G.D. shame that she will likely be submitting for Lead in a Miniseries against Coon, who is not giving as good a performance on this show, but will likely be given the trophy as a sop so that Emmy voters can justify ignoring her performance on The Leftovers in the Series category, in favor of some benign network vehicle. Not that The Leftovers is as good a show as Fargo, imo, but it features a deeper, more challenging performance by Coon. So it goes.