My review of tonight's penultimate “Fargo” of season 2 coming up just as soon as I show you what a South Dakota necktie looks like…
“It's just a flying saucer, Ed!” -Peggy
There's a Roger Ebert review that's always nagged at me, not because it should be impossible for me to disagree with my favorite critic growing up, but because the reason for the disagreement has always seemed so small to me.
Back in the summer of 1988, Ebert gave the original “Die Hard” only 2 stars, complaining that the movie's abundant technical merits, not to mention Alan Rickman's performance as the heavy, weren't enough to get him past the introduction of Paul Gleason as the LAPD deputy chief who refuses to believe that John McClane is a cop, or has anything useful to offer him and his men. “As nearly as I can tell,” Ebert wrote, “the deputy chief is in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis' progress. The character is so willfully useless, so dumb, so much a product of the Idiot Plot Syndrome, that all by himself he successfully undermines the last half of the movie.”
Now, Ebert's not wrong about the stupidity of Deputy Chief Robinson, and very little about the movie's plot would be different if Robinson were less of a jackass. (On the other hand, we know that Hans' plot depends on the dumbness of Agent Johnson and Special Agent Johnson – no relation – when they arrive to take over from Robinson.) He's comic relief more than anything, and wildly unnecessary, given how many other sources of humor “Die Hard” has to offer in between the shootouts. But to me, and to many others, the overall pleasures of “Die Hard” are so great that they outweigh whatever eye-rolling is required whenever no one in command is willing to listen to McClane or Al Powell. It'd arguably be a better film if Robinson was less of a putz(*), but when your starting point is one of the greatest action movies ever made, there's only so much it can be improved – and, thus, for many of us, there's only so much even Robinson can damage the experience of watching the movie.
(*) One of the weaker elements of “Die Hard 2” is that Dennis Franz's airport police chief also doesn't want to listen to McClane – even though the guy is a celebrity who survived overwhelming odds in a similar situation – and the franchise finally retired the concept with “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” where the lead cop already knew and believed in John.
Still, I thought about Ebert's review a lot while watching “The Castle,” which dusted off my least favorite element of “Fargo” season 1: the willful ignorance and provincial nature of local cops in the face of well-argued positions from one of our heroes. Whether it was Bill overruling Molly's interest in Lester Nygaard, or an older version of Ben Schmidt – who arguably should have learned his lesson from this deadly fiasco in Sioux Falls(**) – releasing Lorne Malvo from custody over Gus Grimly's protests, last season wasn't immune from Idiot Plot Syndrome when it was necessary, and it almost always made me wish Noah Hawley and company had figured out a different way to stymie Molly or Gus, even if the scene where Bill finally realized how right Molly had been all along was so satisfying precisely because he'd been so loudly wrong for so long.
(**) Then again, we get a hint that Ben is a slow learner, and has been through this kind of nightmare in the past: when the Gerhardts begin their assault, he moans that this is “Rapid City all over again.”
So when local cop Captain Cheney started bigfooting his way into the Blumquist/Gerhardt/Kansas City mess solely because he had jurisdiction, and was established almost instantly to be a blowhard who was going to get people killed, I found myself grumbling and wishing that the show hadn't chosen to play that note again. There's a degree of stubbornness that may have been necessary to get everyone to the motel at the same time, but maybe it wouldn't have, given that Hanzee had gone full wild card and was in position to interfere with any plan, no matter how well-oiled. And Cheney was such a loudmouth buffoon – going radio silent at the worst possible moment, giving his deputies such concrete orders that one of them wouldn't listen to Lou even when Lou was standing outside of a building that contained a fresh murder victim – that I found myself briefly understanding how Ebert must have felt screening “Die Hard” all those years ago.
And yet, “The Castle” overall was presented – like so much of this thrilling season of “Fargo” – with such verve and artistry that I was as able to ultimately overlook Cheney's stupidity nearly as easily as I did Dwayne T. Robinson's.
The show continues to go for broke creatively, even this late in the story. For the first time all year, we get narration – from an Englishman who sounds suspiciously like Lester Nygaard's real-life speaking voice – discussing the events and players surrounding the Sioux Falls Massacre from a great remove of space and time, as if the event is the subject of a BBC documentary being made about the event, or perhaps simply a bedtime story being told to campers in need of a scare under a full moon. It should feel jarring to add the narration at this point in the season, but it doesn't, because we know from how the older versions of both Lou and Ben referred to Sioux Falls in season 1 that the event has taken on the aura of myth in the region. And while the season to this point hasn't lacked for violence, it was never like this in terms of both the scale of the carnage and the ultimate pointlessness of it all. The only people at that motel when the massacre begins who truly seem to understand what's going on are Hanzee, Peggy, and Hank, and they're unsurprisingly among the handful of survivors. (Though we'll have to see about how bad Hank's gut shot turns out to be.)
For that matter, there is having characters occasionally be distracted by a trio of lights in the sky that could be a UFO, or could be some kind of unexplained phenomenon, and then there is saving your main character's life by letting his would-be killer be distracted at the perfect moment by what is unmistakably a flying saucer. Again, this should feel wildly out of place – the deus ex machina to end them all – but the season has had enough of an aura of Coen-y strangeness, and has peppered enough spaceman references (whether the lights themselves, or the “We are not alone” sticker on the convenience store wall, or the symbols in Hank's study) throughout it just felt like part of the tapestry. Talk of flying saucers was in the air in the '70s almost as much as complaints about long gas lines and Jimmy Carter's “malaise” speech. And if what Lou and Ben experienced at that motel was something that felt more like legend than fact, then why the heck couldn't a spaceship save Lou's life, and provide Kirsten Dunst with the line of a lifetime?
A few months back, Hawley sat down with our Roth Cornet to talk about the UFOs and some of the other odd flourishes from the start of the season. He noted that the Coens' own “The Man Who Wasn't There” had given him permission to incorporate such a thing into a Coen-adjacent story, and said, “The challenge is that I don't want to be gimmicky.” And he pulled it off. On paper, it sounds ridiculous, but in the moment, it was just another thing that none of the participants (save Peggy, who has become incredibly goal-oriented since her hallucination/epiphany at the start of “Loplop”) could quite believe they were experiencing in a night full of them. Bear's reaction to seeing that his mother had been killed by Hanzee, for instance, was no more stunned than when the UFO's lights distracted him from his attempt to beat Lou's head into paste against the parking lot asphalt.
Given the number of players in this season, some kind of pre-finale housecleaning was necessary, and Hanzee's mysterious decision to turn on his employers – which, as the narrator observes, could have plausibly been made at any point in his affiliation with the family, going all the way back to the day Otto recruited him – provided a clean sweep of the remaining Gerhardts. Ideally, Floyd would have had a grander death, but Jean Smart played Floyd's response to hearing that the motel was filled with cops – and, instantly, understanding that Hanzee had betrayed them all – so wonderfully that it was ultimately enough. Angus Sampson's animal rage as Bear shrugged off bullet after bullet to get his hands on Lou made up for Bear's sidelining in parts of the season's first half. And the image of Mike Milligan processing the scene, recognizing that he had everything to gain from leaving immediately – and possibly taking credit for the whole mess, just like he blamed the Undertaker's death on the Gerhardts – was a great comic touch in a pretty grim sequence of events.
And I haven't even gotten to the episode's most powerful moment, which took place well before the massacre: Betsy's collapse in the Solverson family kitchen while Lou is still far away dealing with this Gerhardt mess. We don't know for sure that she's dead yet (in chatting with Fienberg about the episode last night, he suggested we might see Hank and Betsy in adjoining hospital beds in the finale, even if one or both of them won't make it to the end of the episode), but there was sure a sense of finality to the way Adam Arkin shot that sequence (and its stunning horizontal split screen) – Betsy's stooped and tired movements, the big smile on Lou's face as he tries calling home and pictures seeing his wife again, the image of young Molly staring at the broken glass on the kitchen floor – that left me feeling as pained as Lou was at having to leave his wounded, possibly dying father-in-law to chase after Hanzee and the Blumquists. I've been fearing for a couple of weeks that Lou wouldn't make it home in time to say goodbye to Betsy, and it looks like I was right, dammit.
But that's why this season of “Fargo” has been so great: it can go as big as a UFO interrupting a massacre, and as small and intimate as young woman in the late stages of a terrible disease, and have them feel like all of a piece, in the same way that the voiceover, the split-screens, the freeze-frames, and all the other stylistic devices don't distract from the storytelling, but enhance it.
The only thing I know for sure about the finale is that Lou, Molly, and Ben will survive it. Whatever else Hawley and company have to offer – whether it's focused largely on Lou's pursuit of Hanzee, or still makes plenty of time for Mike Milligan, Karl Weathers, and all the other remaining players, whether it explains the UFO (or Hank's study) or leaves it as a thing that happened that no one really talks about – is fine by me. They've earned that trust, even if they can't resist occasionally leaning on stupid, stupid cops to keep the story moving forward.
Some other thoughts:
* Songs this week included Dr. Hook's performance of the Shel Silverstein-written “Sylvia's Mother,” and Britt Daniel's cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Run Through the Jungle,” whose original version was on “The Big Lebowski” soundtrack.
* I will admit that the idiocy of Cheney, Ben, and the other cops did shine a light on what a savvy survivor Peggy has turned out to be. She knows all along that the motel is bad news and is plotting to make her and Ed's escape long before the Gerhardts show up, and she's ready to go – and, again, not at all fazed by the UFO – when the opportunity presents itself. The Blumquists have no business being alive at this point, and have been saved entirely by Hanzee turning on the Gerhardts, but I'm far less convinced of their doom than I'd have been a few weeks ago.
* On the other hand, RIP, Constance. I assumed Hanzee killed her off-screen – as one commenter noted last week, Hanzee strokes her hair just like he does the fur of the rabbit right before he guts it – but we get confirmation here.
* I'm not sure which would be worse to see in the finale: Hank survives, and has to deal with the death of his daughter, or Hank dies, and Molly loses her mother and grandfather on the same day. If this was it for Hank, another great performance from Ted Danson, particularly when Hank told the story of the lieutenant who told Eisenhower to go to Hell, thus allowing Hank to still send the man a Christmas card decades later.
* Ben's Rapid City reference could be a set-up for yet another prequel story down the line (though it seems next year will not be a prequel), or it could have been a reference to “North By Northwest,” where part of the climax takes place in Rapid City. The crossroads where both Mike Milligan and Lou stop to use the payphone certainly is evocative of the one where Cary Grant ran from the crop duster.
* Just FYI on the finale: as of now, the only finale press Hawley is doing is a conference call the day after it airs, so there won't be a post-mortem interview up on Monday night. Maybe down the road? Certainly, the Internet won't be lacking in conference call write-ups next Tuesday.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com