A review of tonight’s Fargo coming up just as soon as I have to leave the cat…
“We all end up here eventually, to be weighed and judged.” -Paul Marrane
A lot happens over the course of “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” Nikki and Mr. Wrench escape certain death at the hands of Yuri and his crew, and Yuri’s pursuit of them may have taken him out of the picture. Varga poisons Sy, placing him into a coma from which he seems unlikely to ever wake. There’s a three-month time jump to a point where Gloria is now low woman on the totem pole in Moe’s department, even as she and Winnie are still going after Emmit on their lunch breaks. Someone is convincing Emmit that Ray is haunting him, which in turn inspires Emmit to break free from Varga and Meemo’s control and go to confess to at least some of his many crimes.
That’s pretty eventful for a season that’s been a bit more leisurely-paced than its predecessors, and we could certainly take a while to speculate about who’s actually haunting Emmit(*), to appreciate the brutality of the action scenes in the woods (or to talk about whether they were too darkly-lit to fully convey all that was happening) and Mr. Wrench’s continued ultra-competence at all things violent, to consider Moe’s decision not to fire Gloria for insubordination and just force her to serve foreclosure notices, to wonder why in the world Sy Feltz would drink anything VM Varga gave him after the mug incident, etc.
(*) My money is on Nikki (with or without Wrench’s help), but it could also be Varga in an attempt — that ultimately backfires — to make Emmit more dependent on him. (Also, Meemo’s hilariously deadpan response to the mustache suggests it’s not them.)
You’re welcome to discuss all that and more in the comments, but I really want to talk about a single scene from this episode: Nikki and Wrench taking refuge in a bowling alley that appears to be located somewhere in the afterlife.
On the one hand, this is yet another unexpected bit of overlap with Carrie Coon’s other TV show (you may have heard that it ended on Sunday). Kevin Garvey experiences mortal danger and finds himself in a karaoke bar, or an idyllic beach; Nikki Swango gets a pitstop in a bowling alley, whose only other customer is surprised to hear that’s what she’s seeing. Kevin has to assassinate someone, or sing a ballad, to make his way back to life; Nikki has to pet a kitten that may be her lover reincarnated, and she has to promise to deliver a message to the wicked when the time comes.
On the other, it feels entirely Fargo/Coen-y, and not just because Gloria Burgle’s LA traveling companion Paul is revealed at the bowling alley bar in a shot mirroring The Dude’s first encounter with The Stranger in The Big Lebowski:
While this season has felt overwhelmingly at times like a remake of the first, Noah Hawley’s Coen touchstones are a bit different this time around, with both Lebowski (violence as a result of confusion between two men with similar names) and A Serious Man (a good man suffering the wrath of an Old Testament God) as particularly strong influences. Revealing Paul to not be a traveling salesman at all, but a messenger of the Almighty — “Paul Marrane” is one of many names ascribed to The Wandering Jew, who was cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming because he taunted Jesus on the cross — matches not only the folkloric nature of a lot of this season’s storytelling (the East Berlin prologue, Yuri telling Irv the tale of the Cossacks, Varga’s various fake historical accounts), but seems a reasonable follow-up to season two’s UFOs. If Lou Solverson’s life can be saved because Bear Gerhardt was distracted by a flying saucer, then why can’t Nikki Swango’s be saved by The Wandering Jew?
Just as Fargo itself is a mash-up of many Coen ideas but still the movie Fargo itself first and foremost, so too is the bowling alley sequence a theological hodgepodge that also leans primarily on Jewish tragedy. Judeo-Christian teachings don’t involve dead people being reincarnated as adorable kittens, yet there is Ray the Cat to offer a moment of comfort to Nikki as she catches her breath from the terrifying ordeal Yuri has put her through(*). Jewish tradition is mixed on the existence of an afterlife, but the Book of Judgment to which Paul alludes is very familiar to any Member of the Tribe who’s sat through Yom Kippur services, and Paul speaks with eloquence and passion about the teachings of Hasidic trailblazer Rabbi Nachman, and about the Cossack massacre of the Jews of Uman, and later jokes that giving Nikki and Wrench a VW Beetle to drive away in is “the universe at its most ironic.” (For decades after World War II, most Jews refused to drive any German cars, and particularly Volkswagens.)
(*) Nikki has turned out to be my favorite character of the season, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead was just tremendous throughout this scene. There’s so much warmth and vulnerability and hope as she nuzzles the kitty, in a way that makes it clear once and for all that Nikki’s love for Ray was wholly real, and not just a con woman taking advantage of a useful sap.
I had not realize that I’d been waiting all my life to hear Ray Wise say the name of Rabbi Nachman over and over again, not to see him hold a kitten in a way that was simultaneously sweet and menacing, and yet apparently I was, in what’s turned out (between Marrane, Sy, the Widow Goldfarb, and more) being the show’s most Jewish season to date(*). Why is Paul Marrane interceding to not only save the life of Nikki, but that of Mr. Wrench (whom he has told his colleagues is on a better path since last we saw him)? For that matter, what put him on that plane and in that bar with Gloria? Though he speaks of God’s displeasure with the wicked, and later appears to deliver some Old Testament justice on Yuri by sending our resident Cossack to be confronted by the massacred Jews of Uman, he is also a kind and comforting figure. He provides Gloria company on the plane, and rescues her from an evening with Officer Hunt, and here saves Nikki — not a purely good person (see AC-meets-Maurice), but far far better than her opponents — and provides her with a message to deliver, presumably to Varga.
(*) I’m told that DJ Qualls’ character — who gets decapitated by the chain holding Nikki and Wrench together — is referred to in the script as “Golem” — the name of the mud monster of Jewish myth.
If Nikki is truly able to bring the wrath of God down on Varga and his organization, that would fit the ethos of the series so far, where the most egregious villains have tended to face justice (or worse), while the good guys have largely come out ahead (or, in the case of Lou being widowed, suffered for something having nothing to do with the crimes he was investigating). But it would be an interesting choice for a season that has been designed as the closest Fargo has come yet to commenting on The Way We Live Now. The villains of this season are amassing wealth through lies and con games, treating laws and rules of civil behavior as if they are inapplicable. The world has a lot of people like this right now, and for the most part, the world tends to let them get away with it. If Nikki gets to hurl God’s vengeance at this crew, and/or if Gloria and Winnie get to slap bracelets on Varga and Meemo, that would be more of a wish for a world we want than a world we know. But when we pray to the deity of our choice, we tend to ask for things that we don’t expect the world we know to provide on its own.
This season is still disappointing in some ways, mainly because a number of characters (the Stussy brothers in particular) don’t feel as fleshed-out and human as their counterparts from previous years, but a show capable of those two bowling alley scenes is a show I will roll with for a very long time — on Shabbos or otherwise.
What did everybody else think? Were you happy to see the show return to unexplainable phenomena? If this is the last we see of Yuri, are you satisfied? Do you feel like the assault on the prison bus was too public a display for a secretive organization like Varga’s? Did you laugh as much as I did at Meemo’s delivery of “Mustache”? And how are you feeling overall as we head into the last two episodes?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org