Review: ‘Fargo’ – ‘The Gift of the Magi’: Morning in America?

A review of tonight's “Fargo” coming up just as soon as I find out if Joan Crawford had crabs…

“Do you really think we'll get out of this mess we're in?” -Lou

After being alluded to throughout the season's first four episodes, Ronald Reagan finally appears in the fleshy form of Bruce Campbell (who's having himself quite the fall, between this and “Ash vs. Evil Dead”). Reagan – even more than most American presidents of the TV age, given his acting background – is difficult to portray as anything but a caricature, but Campbell is able to get across the essence of the man whom many Americans believed could finally pull the country out of the morass it was in from Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines, and Jimmy Carter's comments about our national malaise. When he busts out his “shining city on a hill” rhetoric (which the real Reagan famously used in both his '84 convention speech and '89 farewell from office), you can understand why Betsy and Constance are so enraptured, and why the usually reticent Karl has been moved to tears by it.

But the episode contrasts the speech with a brutal battle between Gerhardt and Kansas City soldiers, that ends in the deaths of Joe Bulo (whose head gets delivered in a hat box to Mike Milligan), one of the Kitchen brothers(*), and a local zoning commissioner. Between that editing choice and Reagan's inability to give Lou any specifics on how he intends to fix the mess left by his predecessors, “The Gift of the Magi” is making clear that fancy rhetoric isn't enough, and that even the toughest of leaders – also including Floyd (who doesn't realize Dodd has manipulated Hanzee into lying about Rye's death, and thus escalating the war with Kansas City) and Joe – can fail to grasp how deep the problems run.

(*) Why does Hanzee not just kill the other one once he's knocked him unconscious? I get that the series is going for a parallel to when Mr. Wrench lost Mr. Numbers last season, and didn't want to lose both Kitchens so early in the season – particularly since it could exploit the loneliness of being the surviving twin – but Hanzee has just seen how quickly those two turned the tide against his men, so leaving one alive makes no practical sense for a character who's been depicted as supremely confident, and a ruthless pragmatist. If the idea was that he was in a hurry to catch up with Joe, it didn't come across, since he could have very quickly stabbed or shot the other Kitchen and still caught up to the very slow Joe.

The episode's title refers to the classic O. Henry tale of a husband and wife who each give up something to get the other a gift that becomes meaningless due to their respective sacrifices. And there's something of that in Peggy's decision to sell the car for the sake of the butcher shop, rather than using it to flee to California, only to have the shop burn down in the aftermath of Charlie's failed attempt to murder Ed(**). Both Peggy and Ed suffer from varying degrees of blind belief in their future plans – like Reagan, Ed can't entirely articulate why buying the shop is going to solve all his problems, but simply knows that it will – and are now suffering the consequences. The Gerhardts are only going to be more angry, not less, with Ed, and now law enforcement is coming to their door.

(**) And Jesse Plemons' TV bodycount keeps rising – in an episode directed by Jeffrey Reiner, who was behind the camera for the infamous “Friday Night Lights” episode that began Landry Clarke's killing spree. If only Reiner had come in to direct a late-stage “Breaking Bad” episode, their trilogy of murder would be perfectly complete. 

But the parallels between Peggy and Charlie – and the contrast with Hanzee – are more striking. In each case, a character is placed in a position to choose between what is easy and what is right. Peggy ultimately can't bring herself to abandon Ed, and Charlie tries very hard out of having to kill Ed (and, more importantly, Noreen), but things wind up going very badly for them, nonetheless. Hanzee, meanwhile, makes the split-second decision to stay loyal to Dodd and support his lies about Ed being a contract killer for Kansas City, rather than telling Floyd the truth. In the process, he not only pushes the war to graphic new heights – under other circumstances, Floyd might have taken Joe captive as a bargaining chip – but puts another Gerhardt into the crosshairs of this mess. Hanzee never suffers from indecision (except when it comes to killing the second Kitchen), but the end result is a bloody, intertwined fiasco for all involved.

After Ed has used his butchering tools to kill Charlie's accomplice, he stares at his dream burning down around him, and it looks like the fires of Hell itself. No wonder he needs to comfort himself afterwards (and try to establish some legal protection) by insisting to Noreen that he saved Charlie and only defended himself.

But it doesn't matter that he can justify his actions. All that matters is that he's finally starting to realize just how right Lou was last week. He went to work thinking it was Tuesday, and now he might be dead already.

Some other thoughts:

* Songs this week included “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” by The Dramatics, “Let's Find Each Other Tonight” by Jeff Tweedy (Carl hears Jose Feliciano perform it live in the “Fargo” movie), “Shambala” by Three Dog Night (which I think “Lost” may own for all time on the small screen), and “Children of the Son” by Billy Thorpe.

* Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a great piece last week about the value of casting actors against type, spotlighting how unexpectedly wonderful Bokeem Woodbine has been as Mike Milligan. Here, he offers Simone a glimpse of how he became the smiliing perpetual optimist we've come to know: as a calculated rebellion against a mother who was so fundamentally gloomy, she made her family eat in the dark.
* Despite cutting an imposing figure (and having a cast on his hand, for reasons unknown), Bear Gerhardt hasn't had much to do so far, and seems a bit of a ticking time bomb – and one likely to go off now that his son has been wounded and on a direct route to prison because of Dodd. His conversation with Hanzee suggests he's smarter than Dodd believes, and he's also much bigger. It's hard to imagine things ending well between them.

* We knew from the first episode that Peggy had a hoarding problem when it came to old newspapers and magazines, but the fact that she would feel compelled to pack some of them for her new life in California was particularly striking.

* That was Canadian actor Greg Bryk as Virgil, the scarred Gerhardt soldier who suffers Ed's wrath.

* A predictable joke, but still a funny one: Karl goes back on his refusal to shake Reagan's hand the moment Dutch offers it to him.

* This week in UFO references: the sun in Molly's crayon drawing looks more than a bit like the three lights that have mesmerized Rye and Hanzee.

* Ted Danson's not in this episode very much, but is so wonderful in showing how much trouble Hank – clearly a caring and protective father – is having trying to talk to, or simply be around, the dying daughter he can't really help.

* Can Jean Smart get an Emmy just for her wonderfully muted delivery of “Oh” as Floyd learns the circumstances of Rye's death?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at