One of the great successes thus far in the second season of Fargo has been watching how the writers weave together the many story lines both narratively and thematically and seeing them doing it in a way that is more cohesive and organic than the first season. With every episode, we begin to see more emotional overlap in stories that are connected but haven’t collided at full speed yet.
But this is Fargo. The crash is coming.
This week, in an episode called “Fear and Trembling” — likely a reference to Kierkegaard’s philosophical examination of faith through the lens of Abraham agreeing to sacrifice his son — we see characters across the show’s many story lines nostalgic for a time when things were “different,” whether it’s actually the case or not. Simone tells Mike Milligan, who has already lamented that the country isn’t what it used to be, that she wants to return to the ‘60s. Hanzee can’t get use to the quiet since returning from Vietnam. And I’d wager a guess that Ed wouldn’t mind going back to a time before Peggy ran over Rye with her car.
On top of all of this, the wonderfully unexpected opening takes us all the way back to Fargo, 1950, back when Otto Gerhardt’s position in the criminal hierarchy was temporarily thrown into question by the man who murdered his father. “Kill the king; be the king,” the man reminds Otto in a movie theater, as Dodd sits nearby (and closer than the man thinks). So Dodd does exactly that, taking out the man and leaving his pops to handle the rest.
This coup, while re-securing his father’s place at the head of the table, is clearly a formative event for Dodd, whose main dilemma comes out of the world no longer honoring the code he heard spoken in that movie theater. He’s killed the king, but he has no kingdom to show for it. The world he’s grown into isn’t as clear as it appeared that day. The Kansas City mafia has more in common with Goldman Sachs than the Corleones, and his father is caught in some fog between life and death. This conflict between the world and how Dodd wishes it were is causing turmoil outside the confines of his newsboy cap, as we see with the failed deal later in the episode. His old ways have only been destructive for the family, and I fear that Bear’s son, Charlie — who is sidestepping his father’s attempts to break free of old patterns — may become a casualty of it, as well.
And perhaps it’s a sign that I’m reading too much into a show when I find significance in a character’s donut choice, but Charlie did order an old-fashioned one, after all.
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Just as Bear is being thwarted in securing a better life for his son, Betsy Solverson is having her legacy ripped aware from her by cancer. She and Lou got some news that was not — as they say — good when visiting her doctor for a checkup. The cancer is spreading, and she’s getting worse. There is some hope, however, in an experimental drug that the doctor calls Xanadu. The catch is that since this would be a trial, Betsy has a 50-50 chance of getting a placebo, like a Smartie, a detail so tragic and absurd that it’s actually hilarious, and it leads to a very real, emotional moment later in the episode when Lou asks if she wants to be treated differently. Betsy tells him “no” and that he needs to feed Molly more than beef jerky, before choking up. This wasn’t what she was promised. She was always supposed to be there for Molly, and yet the world has conspired against her. This feel is something she shares with Dodd and his lack of sons. Except that her sense of injustice comes from love rather than archaic entitlement.
That system of belief came toe-to-toe with the new world, and the results were what they’ve always been: war. It was finally time for the Gerhardts to meet with Joe Bulo to discuss the terms of the not-yet-hostile takeover. Floyd took the lead and all of the good one-liners. Her offer to Kansas City was fair: $1 million, plus 20 percent of the territory and a discount on Kansas City merch. The family would keep control of the operations, framing all of the proceedings as a partnership, not a sale. “The point is don’t assume just because I’m an old woman that my back is weak and my stomach is not strong,” Floyd says. Bulo likes the offer. In fact, he’d accept the offer if it was his to take, but that’s not how things stand. At the present, the management in KC worries about how viable a partnership with Fargo is when they have someone like Dodd storming into a donut shop and electrocuting two men.
NEXT: Things get a little No Country for Old Men
Bulo’s counter-offer comes in the form of Mike Milligan & the Kitchen Brothers (not the prog-rock band) and one excellent scene of suspense. While most of the Gerhardts are at the hotel meeting with Kansas City, other members of the outfit have taken Otto to see a doctor about the drooling. We know that something’s coming, and soon enough, the people guarding the patriarch get that sense too. But none of us has any idea what direction it’s coming from. Again Fargo demonstrates that it can stand with the very best television of at least the last decade when it comes to staging dramatic suspense. The fallout is quick and brutal, with Mike Milligan sporting a sleeve gun right out of Taxi Driver. Otto is left alive, but the family’s hopes of maintaining control without spilling blood are not.
Although the show is named specifically after one Coen brothers movie, creator and showrunner Noah Hawley has spoken at length about how Fargo is not limited to looking to the 1996 film for inspiration. They have to entire Coen oeuvre to play with. Thus far this season, we’ve seen nods to A Serious Man and — to my great delight — No Country for Old Men. The homages to the Cormac McCarthy adaptation continue this week as Hanzee fills in as this story’s Anton Chigurh, silently searching for something belonging to his employers in a beat-up pickup, capable of violence that the people around him do not understand, as inevitable as death.
Hanzee picked up the trail on Rye Gerhardt, or what’s left of him, on the road outside of the Waffle Hut. There in the snow he found a shard of Peggy Blumquist’s headlight, which he then matched to the car currently parked at the auto shop. While inquiring about the car, Hanzee meets Sonny, a mechanic. The two have Vietnam in common, but Hanzee’s service was quite unlike “Mad Dog’s.” As the native, he went down into the tunnels to sniff out Charlie and rip his ears off. Although Hanzee’s origins aren’t as obscure as Chigurh with his ethnically unplaceable name, their shared “otherness” unites them — and the Southeast Asians twice mentioned in the episode by a racial slur — as being perceived as dangerous.
At this point, we know that hell is coming for Ed and Peggy. They did everything they could to cover up the tracks connecting them to Rye, but the grinder is acting funny and there are black boot prints leading from their fireplace. Not making their prospects any better is the fact that Peggy’s seminar — the one that she empties out the checking account to pay for — is in Sioux Falls, where a massacre is set to take place. Even without knowing all of the details, Lou is smart enough to see the writing on the wall, and he offers them an out. Peggy, newly empowered to never be told how to live her life, refuses, and she convinces Ed, who missed Vietnam and didn’t familiarize himself with death quite like Lou, to back her up.
The decision is undoubtedly a fork in the road for the Blumquists, similiar to Lester Nygaard’s encounter with Lorne Malvo in that casino elevator.
And if that wasn’t all ominous enough, the credits roll under Bon Iver and The Chieftains’ take on “Down in the Willow Garden,” an Appalachian murder ballad that most likely originated in Ireland and chronicles a woman’s poisoning, stabbing, and drowning.
Peggy, is this what you want?