A review of tonight’s Fargo coming up just as soon as the first world war is started by a sandwich…
“Things of consequence rarely happen by accident.” –Varga
“The Lord of Mercy” is an unusual episode of Fargo in a few ways. First, it kills off Ray Stussy — ostensibly one of our two main characters — just over halfway into the season. Second, it features the “This is a true story” line twice: first as the usual written disclaimer (with “true” always fading out before the other words, to make clear what is really being said), then uttered by Varga when he runs Sy through a historical triptych involving the fall of Lehman Brothers, the inciting incident of World War I, and the faking of the moon landing.
The last is, of course, nonsense, as Sy tries to argue before being verbally steamrollered yet again, but fits the series’, and season’s, larger interest in stories and the way fiction can overtake fact. And some interesting things are happening in the realm of what is real and what is not. Varga at one point attempts to Google Gloria Burgle after she proves a more troubling adversary than others he’s encountered in Minnesota, and his search comes up empty. This is perhaps part of the season’s ongoing commentary about the evils of social media — here presented less as, “People stare at their phones too much, amiright?” than a more pointed lesson about the value of not oversharing online — but there is having a small digital footprint and there is having no digital footprint while holding a public office. Other people see her and talk to her, yet watching Varga at his computer struggling to find anything about this meddlesome sheriff, I couldn’t help but think of Gloria’s lament in episode 2 when the library doors wouldn’t open for her: “I’m here, right? You can see me?” Near the end of this episode, when Emmit is expressing concern that Varga — who himself is nearly impossible to Google (at least not unless you want your computer fried right before you’re thrown off a parking deck) — has been seen entering Ray’s apartment, Varga smiles and says, “I’m so rarely seen, maybe I don’t exist.”
Is this story less a clash between Peter and the Wolf than between two phantoms who stubbornly cling to our reality? Or are these just literary flourishes meant to emphasize the not-really-true story of it all?
Hawley likes to talk about Mike Yanagita from the movie as a character/scene that is there to help maintain the illusion of a true story, because what screenwriter would devote so much time to Mike’s desperate pass at Marge in what’s otherwise a pretty lean crime narrative? Ray dying 3/5 of the way through the season — and stupidly at that, from a shard of broken glass to the carotid after he and Emmit have been shoving the framed stamp at each other for too long — similarly feels like it’s there to bolster the illusion, because who would build a season around a biblical story of two brothers feuding over an allegedly stolen birthright, then kill off one of the brothers well before the conclusion? If we didn’t already know by now that none of these are true stories, it might make it all feel more true, because it’s so messy and clumsy.
But if it’s surprising, it’s also necessary, and suggests a more exciting conclusion to the season than prior episodes might have suggested.
Though the story revolves around the Stussy feud, the brothers have never been the season’s most compelling characters, not by a long shot. Ray was basically a Nikki Swango delivery system, Emmit in turn gives us the excuse to watch Sy and the Varga crew, and the shenanigans of both parties have brought in Gloria and now Winnie. All of those pieces are still on the board, and Ray’s death — not to mention Varga’s plan to frame Nikki for it — should only accelerate the clashes between them. Ray’s murder could easily accelerate Gloria and Winnie’s investigation — or it could just give stupid Moe another patsy to blame it on while he’s yelling at the two women (I can easily picture Moe blaming Nikki for Ennis’s death, too) — and Nikki is now an extreme wild card who has nothing to lose by trying to tear apart Varga’s operation however she can. And while Sy will surely be glad to be rid of Emmit’s mooching brother, the bodies that keep dropping can’t be sitting well with him at all.
The Stussys never quite came to life like so many of this season’s other figures, despite the presence of Ewan McGregor, but Ray literally dying because of the stamp felt like an appropriately tragic ending to his part of the story. His attempt to steal the thing set so much of this violence in motion, and here he finally decides he doesn’t want it anymore — at least not unless Emmit comes out and admits that it should have been Ray’s all along — and is inadvertently killed while trying to give it back to Emmit.
That’s not a true story, but it’s a sad one, and it situates everyone else nicely for the season’s home stretch.
Some other thoughts:
* It’s a very good episode for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, here playing Nikki not as the flirt who’s much sharper than expected, but as a wounded animal just trying to survive, and more aware of the danger than her ex-law-enforcement officer fiance.
* As soon as Varga asked if Emmit knew what Lenin said about Beethoven, my first thought was, “Does he mean Lennon or Lenin,” and then my second was Walter Sobchak yelling at Donny about his confusion between John and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. And, sure enough, Varga not only clarifies which man, but recites all of Vladimir’s middle names, in one of the show’s most overt Big Lebowski references yet.
* The motel where Nikki hides out closely resembles the one where season two’s Sioux Falls Massacre (and UFO visitation) took place, but it’s not the same place either in the context of the story (St. Cloud is a long drive from Sioux Falls, and Ray heads back to the apartment like it’ll be a quick trip) or real-world production (the greater Calgary area apparently has multiple motels in that basic configuration).
* Meemo has been featured less prominently than Yuri so far, and here we begin to get a sense of the division of labor: Yuri (who turns out to be the owner of the wolf mask) is Varga’s blunt instrument, while Meemo is the subtler and more versatile weapon, who can slip into Nikki’s motel room quietly (then slip out again once Varga changes the plan from murder to framing), and who can turn himself into a perfect mirror of Larue Dollard as he pretends to be a lawyer chasing the IRS man out of Emmit’s offices.
* This week’s music included “Cossack’s Song” by The Red Army Choir (Meemo and Yuri drive), “John the Revelator” by Son House (Ray and Nikki go to the motel), and Plamena Mangova’s performance of Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op.57, ‘Appassionata’: III. Allegro Ma Non Troppo” over the end credits.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com