A review of tonight's “Fargo” coming up just as soon as it's like a clown car back there…
“You don't want to know the disarray people leave behind.” -Linda
I was in Texas over the weekend for the Austin TV Festival, where I got to see this episode for a second time in a packed theater with several hundred enthusiastic “Fargo” fans. I cannot imagine a more perfect episode of the show to screen in that environment – not necessarily because big things happen in the hour (though they do), but because the level of suspense that Noah Hawley's script and Matt Shakman's direction create is almost unbearable, and that tension was palpable and powerful throughout the screening. Because Lorne Malvo is capable of hurting anyone at any time, and because Lester is now at a point where he will do any despicable thing to save his own skin – up to and including turning his adoring wife into the orange parka-clad canary in the coal mine – it felt like something horrifying could happen at any moment.
Sometimes it did, as Burt the dentist and the rest of Lorne's traveling companions took bullets in the head. Sometimes, it didn't, as Lou managed to serve Lorne coffee and pie without dying. (And I swear, even though I had seen the episode before, my stomach was in knots throughout that sequence.) But that threats of violence and tragedy and disarray were ever-present.
The teaser sequence alone was a masterclass in suspense filmmaking, with the long build-up of seeing Malvo undercover as a friendly Kansas City dentist (“Aces!”) before we return to last week's cliffhanger of Lester spotting him in the Las Vegas hotel bar. The Kansas City scenes are so disorienting at first that they almost seem to take place in a parallel universe from the show we know, or involve Malvo's identical cousin Gordon, but then Stephen Root's Burt mentions the brother in witness protection and it all clicks into place. And of course Lester – the confident, wealthy, self-satisfied, Bill Blass-wearing new Lester – can't stop himself from going over, can't take a hint despite ample personal knowledge of the danger Lorne poses, all because he needs validation from the person who turned him into the slick sonuvabitch he is today. It's a measure of how much Lester has changed that, when Lorne asks him if this is what he wants – a question he failed to answer positively or negatively back in episode 1, setting all these tragic events in motion – he says “yes,” but it's a measure of how selfish and myopic he's become that he doesn't so much as consider the consequences of that word.
Between the time Lester runs away from Malvo and when Malvo drives past Gus on his mail route, every scene is weighted down with the possibility that Lorne could show up and start killing people. He could be in the hotel corridor as Lester totes his and Linda's bags for a quick getaway, or in the woods outside Lester's fancy new house (possibly while Molly is there). And when we find out that Molly and the FBI agents are both heading for Lou's diner right as Lorne is stopping in for a slice of apple pie, there exists the idea that things could get awfully bloody for a lot of good people. Instead, none of the active law-enforcement officers arrive at the diner until after Malvo has left, but the way his conversation with Lou unfolds – and the way that we keep cutting from it to Molly taking her sweet time getting there, like she's Meadow Soprano trying to parallel park – suggests that Lou is one knowing look away from Malvo's knife winding up in his throat.
That there isn't any violence in between the elevator massacre and Linda's murder only illustrates the power of making your audience wait for something to happen, assuming you're a good enough storyteller to make it feel like something more than just the marking of time. By now, Malvo's homicidal bonafides are well-established, so all we need is the idea of him acting to make each scene unbearable in some way.
Lester, meanwhile, has become so monstrous in his own way that you would think nothing he did could be surprising or disgusting anymore. But he descends to new depths (or, if you're somehow still rooting for the bastard to get away with everything, ascends to new heights of self-preservation) when he not only sends Linda into the office, but makes sure she puts on his familiar parka (with the hood up!) to increase the likelihood that Malvo will shoot her while believing it's him. That he does this right after Linda has delivered a long and poignant monologue that explains her almost cartoonish devotion to him only makes it worse, especially since Lester barely seems to be paying attention to her story. Linda is the temperamental opposite of Pearl, and the sort of wife Lester should have clung to with all his might, but all Lester ultimately cares about is Lester, so he sends her in to flush out Malvo.(*)
(*) The reaction of the Austin crowd to that sequence was as loud and angry as I've ever heard in a theater, and my own notes on it are just a string of obscenities after a certain point.
Yet even as Malvo and Lester are sending innocent, unsuspecting people to their deaths, there's hope in the episode. Lou doesn't die, and Pepper and Budge arrive in Bemidji as desperate for answers as Molly is desperate for anyone to believe her theory. So the conspiracy board comes out again, and the FBI agents instantly see what Bill never really wanted to(**). Whether they're competent enough to actually do anything with the information remains to be seen, but the timeline of the show means that Molly has been waiting a very long time for this moment, and it creates the possibility that some good may come out of all the hell that was unleashed because two strangers wound up sitting next to each other in an emergency room.
(**) The theater erupted into cheers when Budge told her it was tremendous work, then shifted into giant laughter at Molly's sheepish expression as she side-stepped a flummoxed Bill.
During the Q&A after the screening, producer Warren Littlefield said part of the idea of both the film and the show is to demonstrate the best of who we are and the worst of who we are. In the actions of Malvo and Lester, this episode had a lot of the worst, but it also had Molly. We'll find out next week which side of humanity wins, or if it winds up as more of a stalemate (say, with Lester going to jail while Malvo slips away into the night).
Also, I asked Hawley if there was anything he felt comfortable telling the audience about the finale. His response:
“Hold onto your butts.”
Some other thoughts:
* I don't know the economics of the hitman trade, but spending six months posing as a dentist and living a dull life in Kansas City seems like an awful lot of effort – not to mention possible expense (he was living in a nice house) – for a mere $100,000 bounty on Burt's brother in witness protection. Then again, we also know that Malvo does things simply for the amusement of it – and before he goes to Vegas, he listens to the tape of another sap whose life he destroyed for the hell of it – so maybe he enjoyed the challenge, plus the opportunity to lie low for a while after the very public Fargo syndicate massacre.
* Like Martin Freeman last week in the moment where Lester recognized Malvo, Billy Bob Thornton got to do an impressive flip of the switch from Lorne's jovial dentist alter ego to the stone killer prepared to kill three people simply because Lester wouldn't walk away.
* Though Gus no longer lives near his Orthodox Jewish neighbors, Hawley keeps working in humor about that culture, here with Lorne responding to Burt's suggestion that his wife is like a Jew in the bedroom with, “Oh, you mean she wears a wig and makes you go through a hole in the sheet?”
* For those of you who don't know the solution to the logic puzzle Budge is telling Pepper about while they lie on the floor of the file room, the farmer takes the rabbit across the river first and leaves it there, then goes back for the fox, leaves the fox on the other side while bringing the rabbit back to the original shore, then brings the cabbage across to the side the fox is on, and then goes back for the rabbit. That way, nothing gets eaten while the farmer's not there to keep the three apart.
* When Lester goes looking for Chazz's pistol in the box of hunting gear, note the enormous bear trap in the center of the box. Chekhov's bear trap?
* So, are we meant to assume that Malvo was the killer from Lou's case in Sioux Falls? Or would he have been too young in 1979? Certainly, it sounds like the kind of devastation he would leave in his wake, and there were some flickers of recognition playing across his eyes as Lou told the story.
* Those poor kids who live in Lester's old house, and will now believe it's haunted. Even when he's not killing people, Malvo knows how to hurt them.
Back next week with a review of the finale, and most likely an interview with Hawley about all this madness.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org