A review of tonight's “Fargo” coming up just as soon as I tell you to kiss my grits…
“This kind of thing didn't work in Westerns, and it's not gonna work tonight.” -Lou
Howard Hawks' 1959 Western “Rio Bravo” didn't invent the idea of lawmen protecting a jail from outlaws looking to free one of their own. (After all, that trope's just a subset of the fort under siege premise that fueled so many Westerns.) But the movie was so entertaining(*) and so successful that Hawks and star John Wayne remade it twice more (as “El Dorado” and “Rio Lobo”), and it's served as inspiration to various unofficial remakes over the years, whether “Assault on Precinct 13,” a recent episode of “Banshee,” and tonight's crackling installment of “Fargo.”
(*) Even the musical interlude, designed to take advantage of the primary talents of Wayne's co-stars Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, is fun.
Because I know the source material, and because this season has had such a masterful command of tone, story, and character, I had a smile on my face damn near from the beginning to end of this one, even as I feared that one of the good guys (Hank is always the most likely candidate) was going to wind up collateral damage in the Gerhardt/Kansas City war, and now these overlapping missions to liberate Charlie and murder Ed at all costs. Even though the actual siege of the sheriffs station didn't last particularly long – with more genuine action happening at the Gerhardt compound and in the basement of Peggy and Ed's house – “Rhinoceros” was an hour where all the series' components and players were moving in perfect, gleeful harmony.
Think of the various stylistic flourishes employed here, and how easy it would be for any one of them – let alone all of them together – to feel like the show was trying too hard. For goodness' sake, Mike Milligan recites Lewis Carroll's “Jabberwocky” as we watch the various forces arm up and head out in search of their targets, and it's not the least bit self-indulgent, because by now, Mike Milligan seems like the kind of guy who'd enjoy saying “snicker-snack” when the occasion calls for it. (He's also far smarter than any of the Gerhardts, which is why he simply heads to attack the relatively unprotected family compound while Dodd, Bear, and Hanzee are traipsing around Luverne.) The poem, the desaturated freeze-frames, and the trisected image as we watch the Gerhardts move about while Lou asks Karl for his help aren't needlessly show-offy, but of a piece with everything else “Fargo” has been doing this year.
Speaking of Karl, after half a season where it seemed Nick Offerman had only been brought in to contribute some interesting facial hair (not that there's anything wrong with that), he more than got to earn his money with tonight's showcase, in which Karl is simultaneously drunk, terrified, incoherent, and wildly heroic as he convinces Bear to go home, while buying time for Lou and Ed to sneak away through the woods. You see as Karl stumbles into the interview room to talk with Ed that he's used to talking his way out of trouble (even if that trouble is simply his own intoxication), and that gift for oratory as delay tactic gets put to spectacular use by the episode, and by Offerman. Karl Weathers is a joke name, especially for a show set the year “Rocky II” came out, but this Karl has a gift of gab every bit worthy of the character played by the more famous Carl.
The showdown at the Blumquist house, meanwhile, made masterful use not only of Ted Danson's gift for understated concern – his quiet delivery of “That's what I thought” as Dodd and his men approached conveyed so much about who this man is, what he's seen, and what he's prepared to deal with – but of Peggy's magazine hoarding, which turns the basement into a hedge maze where she has a home field advantage over her attackers, which she uses to give Dodd the cattle prod jolt he so badly deserves.
Thanks to those conveniently-placed magazine stacks, Lou's quick thinking, and Karl's loquaciousness under pressure, an episode that started off seeming apocalyptic ends with a relatively low body count. (And one of those guys dies from Dodd's friendly fire.) There's obviously still lots of potential for murder and mayhem ahead, between what Mike Milligan is up to in Fargo and Hanzee's ongoing pursuit of Ed, but “Rhinoceros” demonstrated throughout that the threat of violence, when executed properly, can be just as powerful a storytelling tool as giving fatal consequence to that violence.
Damn, I love this show.
Some other thoughts:
* This one almost entirely does without songs, but the closing credits (and the snippets of Karl back at the VA, boasting of his wartime heroism) is scored to Blitzen Trapper's cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the folk song featured in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
* When Karl exclaimed “Great Caesar's ghost!,” it made me desperately want to see Nick Offerman play Perry White in a Superman adaptation at some point.
* Hank's not a 180-degree turn from Ted Danson's “CSI” character D.B. Russell, who is himself soft-spoken and thoughtful. Still, it was funny to hear him talking about looking for blood “on the atomic level” in Peggy's car, given Danson's day job.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org