Prior recaps are in here
“Stories used to be simpler, that’s for sure. This, then that. Now, I don’t know where it starts or how it ends. I truly don’t.”
There are few things I enjoy more than a proper filmmaker doing a mob war montage. It’s a mini-artform unto itself, and one that feels quintessentially American, like baseball, G Funk, or electorally-subsidized dick pics. Which is to say that the opening this week was like catnip to me. I don’t care that Bear and his idiot cousin from Buffalo machine-gunning people from a window washing platform was both predictable and combines being very public with an extremely slow getaway – I can be a pretty basic mofo, and shit was awesome. But the entire season has been awesome, so it should come as no surprise that FX has picked up the show for another season. What is surprising is that despite thinking every episode of the entire series has been at least “really, really good”, I’m ambivalent about that.
It’s truly phenomenal how this second season has managed to avoid the sophomore slump, and maybe that should give me faith in the creative team to keep it rolling right al ong. But it’s not as though it will be a continuation of the Gerhardt war, and while I don’t doubt that they can create a new cast of indelible characters, I don’t know how they can continue finding new stories to tell within this milieu without diminishing returns. Because while True Detective or American Horror Story are free to hop from one setting to another largely more or less at will (to admittedly mixed returns), Fargo’s identity is hyper-specific. It can’t stray far from the Upper Midwest, or not focus on a sprawling web of murder that ties in-over-their head civilians to truly monstrous criminals, or not have a thoroughly decent but perplexed lawman/woman at the center trying to puzzle out what it all means. And the setting has to remain sleepy enough that you can’t have such bloodbaths become a permanent state of affairs without disrupting that contrast, so the stories do have to be separated in time by a relatively wide margin. So the question becomes how far back can you go? Prohibition? There was a passing mention this week of tommy gun battles and heads rolling in the street, and it would give Hawley a chance to really riff on Miller’s Crossing, so maybe that’s doable. But I think that’s stretching the premise about as far as it can go. If you go back any further, to actual frontier times, then that contrast between man’s most brutal instincts and society’s most banal veneers is lost, because there’s no society to speak of. Perhaps there’s room for a more classical noir type story in the 40’s or 50’s, featuring a private dick/war veteran from the Twin Cities or Chicago dropping in and struggling to adjust to the more deliberately slow pace of Brainerd.
But I digress. This episode does a nice job of depicting how, in the heat of battle, both sides can feel like they’re losing the war. That dissolve of Milligan addressing less and less men as Floyd gives up information about their operation expressed his increasing desperation better and more elegantly than the venomous phone call from his superior down south. And speaking of Floyd, this was a great week for Jean Smart, though I’m not sure what to make of her Mona Lisa smile after putting up such a show about her reluctance to testify. Does she have a deeper game at work than just letting the law weaken the opposition? Or was it just relief at thinking she has an end in sight?
Of course, as much as she seems to have KC on the ropes at the moment, we know that Mike is right when he says that she is the past, and the conglomerate is the future. And the Gerhardts are doing their level best to take themselves apart at the seams even as they start to smell victory. The war has now taken a toll on all 3 generations of the family, with Otto shot to death in the farmhouse attack, Dodd about to be handed off from one enemy to another, Charlie in the clink and poor Simone killed by one of her own. Or is she? No doubt plenty of viewers will note that we do not hear a gunshot ring out over the tones of “Danny Boy”, and I recall the internets still not being convinced when we did get one in a very, very similar scene from The Sopranos. Plus the scene in Miller’s Crossing this segment is very pointedly evoking did end with such a fake out, not that the film hides the ball on that development for any length of time. And for as imposing as Bear looks, we did see him back down at some crucial moments last week, both with Dodd and Karl Weathers (I’m never going to not type that entire name out).
But on the other hand, such a fake out is kinda bullshit. Audiences have been trained to assume “no body = not dead” by years of cheap, sensationalist storytelling on the boob tube, and on the one hand, there are still plenty of shows that cannot be given the benefit of the doubt with such things (I’m sure I don’t need to name another show that’s been catching flack for it recently). And I hate to assume anything and look foolish in hindsight, but also I don’t like the idea that a show can’t employ a little artistry with their cinematography at crucial story moments without a big section of the audience fixating on the wrong thing and missing the point entirely. If every show has to treat us like children now and rub our noses in every death just to preclude the possible semblance of ambiguity, just because of the internet’s obsession with shouting “CALLED IT!!!”, well then that sucks.
So ultimately, I kind of hope that Simone is dead, partly because she’s been a tragic but one-note character, and mainly because I don’t want a show as adept at delivering surprises through the natural course of its plot to lower itself to such charlatan tactics. I have a lot of fun trying to predict what’s going to happen next, and I’m already wrong so frequently that I don’t want to have to second-guess what I’ve already seen. You’re good enough to beat me playing straight, Fargo, there’s no need to cheat on top of it!
Case in point: While I always figured that Betsy was unlikely to make it out of the season, due to the allusions to the Solverson family history last year, I never thought she was at risk of running afoul of the violent aspects of the show. But this week, her scenes entering first her own house and then her father’s became suddenly, highly tense. All of a sudden I was convinced that Dodd (or worse, Hanzee) was about to appear behind her in every shot. And then what happened was something else entirely. I’m not even sure what it was, actually. It’s like she steps into a Dharma station on Lost, which doesn’t seem to make any sense because Danson has never seemed anything but even-keeled as Hank, and these symbols or hieroglyphs or whatever seem to be the product of a more feverish mind. Maybe it will tie into the UFO stuff somehow, but I don’t really want that to suddenly become important when the earthbound stories are humming along so wonderfully.
Speaking of, I love how the episode offers teases out what’s going on with the Blomquists, Dodd and Hanzee off-screen, only having it tie in at the very end. While it would not have been difficult to put together the phone calls Bear was ignoring about some guy knowing where Dodd is (and eventually being told to “sell that shit somewhere else”), I was still distracted enough by all the stuff with Floyd and the wacky room of symbols and Simone’s fate and the Breakfast King of Loyola and carnage at the Hotel Pearle that I truly failed to see it coming. I assume we’ll be flashing back to all the good stuff next week, and I can’t wait to see the ruckus in Sioux Falls, and can’t tell you how disappointed I’ll be if ol’ Dutch doesn’t swing through there for at least a few words with Peggy. Splitting a narrative like this is nothing new for sprawling shows like Game Of Thrones, Lost, or Boardwalk Empire, who do it out of necessity. But when a show like Fargo does it, it feels like more a refreshing break from formula, rather than a concession to the confines of a standardized runtime. Because FX certainly isn’t about imposing strict timeslot restrictions on its original series; it’s just that some of them used that leeway cannily and responsibly, and some of them are The Bastard Executioner.
This show is just better than other shows, is what I’m saying. Okay then, time for Coen Bingo And Other Random Shit:
COEN BINGO AND OTHER RANDOM SHIT
– The management-type getting gunned down in his office is reminiscent of Stephen Root’s end in No Country.
– Simone drives around listening to “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In)”, which scored the memorable “Logjammin!” sequence in The Big Lebowski.
– Adam Arkin appears to be the default gangster overboss for any FX crime show. I love that when he’s berating Milligan on the phone, the bodies are being cleared by folks that are obviously not Mr. Wolf, but some office drones still decked out in their 80’s pantsuits.
– Across genres, networks, timelines, and facial hair configurations, one thing remains constant: Nick Offerman knows from breakfast foods.
– Hank’s wife died in Brainerd, setting of much of the Fargo film. He also offers to cut off a toe at one point, as the nihilists do in Lebowski.
– Speaking of those nihilists, it’s offscreen until the very end, but Ed spends most of the episode trying to ransom a kidnapped victim whose family doesn’t actually want them back.
– Simone’s trip into the woods apes Bernie Bernbaum’s long walk in Miller’s Crossing, even before “O Danny Boy” starts up.
– Mike dresses to meet the Undertaker to “O Death”, which the Klan leader sings at the rally in O Brother Where Art Thou?
– The most difficult thing about this section is finding slight variations on the phrase “is reminiscent of…”
– Hank’s arcane mishmash of symbols in his study recalls the Mentaculus from A Serious Man.
– Mike has never sounded more like a Coen character than when he’s quoting Louis XVI and pontificating about astronomy at Simone (or waving her an absent-minded goodbye).
– Floyd’s musings about things being even rougher in frontier days is extremely similar to what Ed Tom’s uncle tells him at the end of No Country.