A review of tonight's “Fargo” – which FX just renewed for a third season – coming up just as soon as you see why they called me the Breakfast King of Loyola…
“This family? Deserves the ground.” -Simone
“Did you do this? No, you did it!!” is perhaps the series' most overtly Coen-y episode by far, with nods at various points to “The Big Lebowski” (Hank offers to cut off his toe, Mike Miligan says “Sometimes, there's a man,” and we hear a version of “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” twice), “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (“O Death” plays), “Miller's Crossing” (Bear not only takes Simone out to the barren woods to kill her, but we hear “Danny Boy” as he prepares to do it), and even “Fargo” itself (Hank's wife died in Brainerd). For the most part, I've enjoyed these tips of the trooper's hat at the show's inspiration (and hands-off producers), but this was the first installment of the season where I agreed with the occasional complaint that the references can be a distraction from a story and characters that are strong enough to stand on their own.
But then, this was something of a sloppy episode overall, and the first one of the season where I found myself questioning a lot of what was happening. The passage of time was conveyed strangely, with certain events marking it as taking place the day after the events of “Rhinoceros,” while others (the back-and-forth murders of Gerhardt and Kansas City captains, for example) suggesting this was all happening over several days, if not longer. There was also no good explanation for why Mike Milligan and his troops didn't simply kill everyone at the largely undefended Gerhardt compound last week (though RIP, Otto, you mean bastard), and Hank's acknowledgment that he should have checked on Peggy before getting in his car – something I just assumed happened off-camera last week, because it's hard to imagine Hank not doing that – doesn't excuse that rather gaping plot point, even if it was apparently necessary to set up whatever's been going on with Ed, Peggy, Dodd, and Hanzee.
… the parts of the hour(-plus) that worked were so great that I will happily forgive the parts that didn't.
One of the key themes of this season is the fall of family-owned business at the hand of corporations, and we've seen illustrations of just how different the Gerhardts do things from the Kansas City syndicate. But this hour shows members of both the criminal family and the criminal corporation turning on each other at a time when each should be coming together, even as the extended family on the law-enforcement side is coming together at a time when it should be falling apart.
The Gerhardts lose another relative this week (two if you figure Otto didn't die until after the last thing we saw in “Rhinoceros”) in Simone, but it's not at the hands of Mike Milligan or his men. Lou steps in to play hero once again in that scenario – but still in that polite Minnesota way, where he warns, “Just don't be offended next time if I don't say hello before I shoot” – only for Simone to almost immediately be taken away by Bear, who's looking for payback against Dodd for his role in Charlie's current predicament. It's not a particularly logical idea for revenge, as we've seen just how awfully Dodd treats his daughter – and Simone suggests that what Bear has witnessed is only the tip of the abusive iceberg – but the Gerhardts are past logic now, and all Bear can see is the most direct form of tit-for-tat with the brother who sank them so much deeper into this mess.
This season has been so absurdly packed with great characters and performances that Rachel Keller's work as Simone has been easy to overlook. But the Minnesota native has been quietly wonderful as the understandably resentful representative of the latest Gerhardt generation, and she was fantastic here in showing Simone working through the various stages of grief for herself as Bear took her on the long journey from that hotel parking lot to her final resting place(*), particularly her angry rant in the car about how Dodd has treated both her and Bear over the years. I'm hoping to see a lot more of her in the future.
(*) Based on recent developments on other cable dramas, not to mention the response back in the day when the “Long-Term Parking” episode of “The Sopranos” also featured a female character dying slightly off-camera in the woods, I'd understand if a few of you are hoping that Bear gave into Simone's request for banishment. But I'd like to think “Fargo” has no need for any shenanigans, and knows that we understand Bear's single-minded nature enough to know that he finished the job he set out to do.
The syndicate's presence in Fargo, meanwhile, starts to fray as their side starts taking casualties back home. When syndicate boss Hamish Broker (played, as he was briefly in shadow in the premiere, by Adam Arkin) chews out Mike Milligan for failing to take care of the Gerhardts more quickly, we learn that Mike, for all his smiling confidence, has always been on unofficial probation within the syndicate for the terrible crime of being born black – Broker vents that he was told Mike “wasn't like the other darkies” – and can be replaced, or worse, at a moment's notice(**). The episode then gives the Undertaker and his two henchmen a big build-up suggesting they're about to be major players, only for Mike to execute them immediately upon arrival with a handy sleeve gun(***), in a darkly comic reversal of expectations. We've seen the Gerhardts turn on and lie to each other already, and how things have only gotten worse for their side as a result; even if the Undertaker's death is successfully pinned on the Gerhardts, I'm not expecting smooth sailing for the syndicate going forward.
(**) Again, the episode is weird with the passage of time, so it's unclear whether Broker jumps the gun on sending in the Undertaker before his initial threat, or if two days have gone by. Because other parts of the story are inconsistent there, it's hard to tell which is happening.
(***) This being FX, the obvious reference point is Quarles on “Justified,” but Quarles' gun was itself inspired by “Taxi Driver,” which is just a few years in the rearview mirror from Mike Milligan's POV.
Yet even with all the carnage happening on the criminal side of the ledger, the relative peacefulness for the good guys – who, by design and genre tradition, are mostly (the great Breakfast King of Loyola excepted) not as colorful as the crooks – didn't feel any bit the lesser. If anything, the moment when Karl absorbs the reality of Betsy's imminent demise was every bit as powerful (God bless Nick Offerman) as what happened to Simone, if not more, because the show has generated so much more sympathy over two seasons for the Solversons and the people who care about them.
And it's amazing how tense I found myself feeling in all of those Betsy scenes. It's not just the one where she comes home to find strange boots in the foyer, or the one where she goes to feed Hank's cat, both of which were intended to make the viewer worry about her safety. It's the phone calls she has with Lou and with Hank, where my fear turns away from violence and to the more mundane but still sad possibility that the Gerhardt case will drag on so long that Betsy will die before Lou makes it home to her.
I started doing the emotional math in my head this week. When Lou told the adult Molly about Sioux Falls last season, it was clearly a story she didn't know, which could well suggest that both Hank and Betsy are safe: surely devoted family woman and future dedicated cop Molly Solverson would know by heart the details of the case that claimed the life of her beloved grampa, or would know that her dad was otherwise occupied at the time her mother was dying, which would mean Lou wouldn't have to tell her anything about Sioux Falls.
UPDATE: As a few commenters reminded me, old man Lou told the story not to Molly, but to Greta, so everything is back in play for Betsy and Hank. Oh, well.
That's no guarantee of anything, as the season 1 references to Sioux Falls were ambiguous enough to leave a lot of wiggle room for what's to come in the season's final three episodes. Maybe I just want it to be true. Maybe seven episodes into this season, I've once again fallen so hard for “Fargo” and its people that I can't stand to see the good ones fall. The whole point of doing these anthology miniseries – even one like this which shares characters across seasons – is that the investment is short and you know that everything will be different the following year. But even knowing that this story will wrap up in a few weeks, and we may not see any of these people again – or may see a few of them at very different ages, played by different actors – I'm attached. That's how great the show has been again, even in an episode like this where you could see the strings more clearly than usual.
Some other thoughts:
* Does anyone recognize the various symbols that took Betsy's breath away when she found them in Hank's study? They seem to be in connection with the UFO, but I don't know if they're more specific than that.
* The complete song list: “Locomotive Breath” by Jethro Tull, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by White Denim, “Danny Boy” by Lisa Hannigan,” and “O Death” by Shakey Graves.
* Love that Floyd not only smokes a pipe, but has an elaborate kit for it. Of course she does.
* The surviving Kitchen brother whispers in Mike Milligan's ear at one point, so we know that he does speak, even if it doesn't seem to be to anyone else.
* Noah Hawley brings in another alum from The Unusuals as Terry Kinney plays Ben's boss Chief Gibson.
* I was looking at the guest cast list to see if I knew the actor who played Ricky from Buffalo (I didn't, but his name is Ryan O'Nan), and was amused to see that one of the murdered Gerhardt affiliate characters was named Roost Bolton, which is a wink at one of the more despicable characters on “Game of Thrones.”
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com