Review: ‘Fargo’ – ‘Buridan’s Ass’

A review of tonight's “Fargo” coming up just as soon as God tells me not to park here…

“Fargo” the movie is often held up as the best thing the Coen brothers have ever done, and certainly the best balance of their silly “Lebowski”/”Ladykillers”/”Burn After Reading” side and their much darker “Blood Simple”/”No Country For Old Men” side.

With “Fargo” the series, Noah Hawley and his various directors (here, Colin Bucksey doing outstanding work) have worked very hard to maintain that balance, though as a 10-part weekly TV show, they get to lean on different ends of the tonal spectrum in any given week. “Buridan's Ass” is fascinating in that respect, in that emotionally, it's by far the darkest episode yet – with the violent deaths of Don, Mr. Numbers, Semenko and Dmitri Milos, and the possible death of Molly – yet so much of that darkness takes place in an episode so filled with literal whiteness that it becomes impossible for the characters to see what's happening inches in front of them.

The shootout in the blizzard was a pretty dazzling piece of low-fi action filmmaking, using the effects budget not to make something hyper-realistic, but simply to give the impression of characters slipping in and out of the all-consuming white, visible one second, ghost-like the next, unsure of where they or their opponents are at any given moment. Malvo, unsurprisingly, comes out best in the process, recognizing the value of using a color other than white (dripping blood from a superficial cut he makes on his arm) to draw one of his attackers into a location where the tables can be turned. Gus, unsurprisingly – especially given all this episode's talk about how he only became a cop because the post office was in the middle of a hiring freeze – comes out the worst, firing blind in Molly's direction in hopes of protecting her, and instead badly wounding her, or worse.

We'll have to wait until next week to see what actually becomes of Molly. On the one hand, it would be yet another subversion of our expectations to eliminate the obvious Marge stand-in midway through the story, and having Gus pursuing all the bad guys on his own (possibly with help from a grieving Lou) would allow him a big redemption arc for the rest of the season. On the other, Allison Tolman is just so good in this role, and Gus isn't at this point a strong enough character to form an effective dramatic counterweight to what Malvo, Lester or the other villains are up to. So we'll see. But at this stage, Hawley has earned an almost shocking level of benefit of the doubt, given the absurd task he's taken on with this project.

The blizzard brings with it a high body count (including Semenko and Dmitri dying when the storm turns Biblical and starts dumping fish on their car), but Don's death – which will be mistakenly described on the police frequency as a weird suicide-by-cop – is even more harrowing. Here's this character who's been nothing but comic relief: a spray-tanned idiot to be pushed around at every turn by Malvo, not having the first clue of how dumb or outclassed he is. His long, cruel demise doesn't magically give him new depth, but seeing any character placed in that predicament – gagged and duct taped into place with an empty gun that will invite a Sam Peckinpah level of bullets from the invading SWAT team, powerless to do or say anything to improve his situation and simply wait in emotional agony for the end – was a devastating end even for a complete clown. Malvo has always been a sadist and a casual murderer, but the way this one plays out makes it seem even nastier than his previous misdeeds – especially since it was just as a distraction for what he hoped to be doing with Stavros before he was so rudely interrupted by Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench.

Even Lester's exploits to get himself out of the hospital – and possibly out of the legal bind Molly has placed him in – while ostensibly the episode's comic relief, is pretty damn dark. Framing his brother – after Chaz pointed out, correctly, that there is something very wrong with Lester – for Pearl's murder is bad enough, but putting a gun (even an empty one) in his autistic nephew's backpack? However that winds up tying into the frame job (maybe forcing Chaz's wife to take a more thorough look through the gun inventory), that's awfully twisted.

In choosing to re-bury the satchel he found back in 1987, Stavros winds up re-tracing Carl Showalter's steps from the movie – even arguing with the parking garage attendant just like Carl did (note that the fee is actually cheaper in 2006) – in the hopes of reversing his standing with God. It doesn't work, of course, and he has to suffer the sight of his dead child lying in the road (even if it's Stavros' own fault in telling Semenko to drive back in a blizzard, and for not listening to Dmitri in previous episodes).

Though the series has winked at the movie before, and even had the two plots intersect with Stavros' discovery of the ransom money, this is the most literal recreation of scenes from the film we've gotten so far. By all rights, the comparison should be wildly unflattering. But if any episode of the series has earned the right to do it, it's “Buridan's Ass.”

Some other thoughts:

* Interesting that Hawley would choose to bump off Mr. Numbers instead of Mr. Wrench, not only because Adam Goldberg's the better known actor, but because this leaves Mr. Wrench without his translator. Russell Harvard's been very good so far, though, so I look forward to seeing how he seeks vengeance for his partner without talking.

* The episode's opening gives us our first real glimpse of the Fargo mob that employed Numbers and Sam Hess, including a cocky Australian guy, a soft-spoken accountant, and a blunt, intractable mob boss who enjoys his fish served whole.

* One more nod to the movie: the parking garage is named after Wade Gustafson, who of course died on the roof deck of a garage just like it in Minneapolis, before his money was buried by roadside and eventually discovered by Stavros.

* Loved Molly's response to the parable Gus' neighbor told him last week: “Why wouldn't the fella just go work with a charity?”

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at