Let it never be said that a television show cannot simultaneously feature a modern and distinctly American examination of absurdism and a guy getting a meat cleaver slammed into his head. That’s because this week’s episode of Fargo, “The Gift of the Magi,” managed to cram both of those into a single scene.
And they go together very, very well.
I’m beginning to feel that an appropriate subtitle to the second season of Fargo would be “No, This Was The Best Episode Yet,” as it’s what I’ve exclaimed after nearly every hour. But there’s something about how all of the elements of the most-recent episode worked together that has me meaning it more than ever. It contained everything that Fargo does best — suspense, humor, philosophy, action, heart — all utilized with great precision.
It also helped that the realization that “The Gift of the Magi” was hitting a new height for the season came at an unexpected moment. It wasn’t the Gerhardts descending upon Joe Bulo’s men during the deer hunt, though that was Fargo’s signature suspense coupled with misdirection at its finest. It wasn’t even Ed’s bloody confrontation in the butcher shop — though the fiery Barton Fink homage could not have been more appreciated.
Everything clicked into place as Lou Solverson took a leak next to the then-future President Reagan.
The state policeman had caught extra duty while the California governor toured through Minnesota, delivering his “city upon a hill” message to the middle of America. Toward the end of the detail, Lou had an awkward encounter with Dutch that went to show that you should never start a conversation at the urinal. (You just end up standing there as the guy misremembers the plots of his old war movies.) Anyway, Reagan’s message of hope stirred something in Lou, who has limited a lot of his personal expression thus far to well-timed “yeahs.” The world no longer makes sense to him. Vietnam wasn’t like World War II, and it looks like his wife may be taken away from him. “I wonder if the sickness of this world is maybe inside my wife somehow, the cancer,” he tells Reagan, hoping for one all-encompassing explanation for why the world feels like such a broken place.
Since Reagan is only human, he doesn’t have an answer for Lou. He does, however, make a wonderful exit. Bruce Campbell deserves real praise here for his performance, which is surprising in its restraint. When the news broke of his casting, anyone could have added up “Bruce Campbell,” “Reagan,” and “Fargo” and imagined something infinitely hammier. Instead, Campbell’s take on Dutch employs just the right amount of impersonation that strikes a balance between subject and performer. He’s all Reagan and all Campbell and a total joy to watch.
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I can’t help but draw a line outward from Lou in that moment toward two other characters in this episode. The first is Betsy, whose brief appearance in “The Gift of the Magi” contains the one obligatory reference to the UFO presence in 1979 Minnesota. Nauseated yet hopeful that her symptoms are side effects of a trial medication she’s on, Betsy becomes momentarily transfixed by one of Molly’s doodles, which seems to depict a saucer flying in the sky. Is this because she senses a possible explanation for Rye thoughtlessly stumbling into the road the night of the Waffle Hut murder? Or does the presence of visitors from another planet hint at the hope of something larger, an unknown that could give her and Lou the answer to why their lives have taken the turns they have.
If it’s the latter, that philosophically aligns Betsy, Lou, and Ed. All three sought inherent meaning in the American dream, only to find their lives upended by chance. For Betsy and Lou, it’s her lymphoma. For Ed, it’s the systematic destruction of his plan to buy the butcher shop. All three stand to learn a lot from Noreen, the girl who works the butcher shop counter, and that depressing book she’s reading.
Ed’s desires are so simple that it’s appropriately absurd how complicated their unmakings are. Now that Hanzee knows the truth about what happened to Rye, the Butcher of Luverne has landed in the family’s crosshairs alongside the Kansas City mafia. For efficiency’s sake, Dodd has fudged Hanzee’s account to make war with the invading outfit more appealing to Floyd. The story Dodd and “his man” — possession not being a coincidence here — concoct casts Ed as a KC-hired hitman posing as a blue-collar meat monger. The explanation for Rye’s disappearance is enough to spur an ambush on Joe Bulo and his men as they woo a local zoning commissioner who would put them in touch with politicians once the takeover was complete. The talks are premature, however, as the Gerhardts and Hanzee rain down upon Kansas City. The encounter leaves only one of the Kitchen twins alive, so that he can bring the head of Joe Bulo back to Mike Milligan.
NEXT: Who’s ready for some philosophical talk?!