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?!
“I’m an optimist, so when I see this, I don’t think the sky is falling,” Milligan says to Simone. “I think that, sir, is the sound of opportunity knocking.” Finding the silver lining in the cloud, rather than the other way around, Milligan sees Dodd’s daughter as an aid to his retaliation. Given that he’s most likely the smartest character this season and that he still has the service of one Kitchen brother, I’d imagine that the retaliation will be brutal.
Once the majority of Kansas City’s Fargo team is out of the picture, Floyd turns her focus to avenging Rye and slaughtering the Butcher of Luverne. Dodd, knowing the truth about Ed, sends Virgil to tie up the loose end, but Charlie wants in. Bear’s son reasons that a Gerhardt died, so a Gerhardt should get the revenge, and he questions Dodd’s status as a good boss to seal the deal. Charlie will be the one to pull the trigger, with Virgil making sure that everything goes smoothly.
Virgil’s instructions to Charlie are to leave no survivors. That means Noreen has to go, too, but as Charlie waits for Ed to come out from the back, he and the girl get to talking. He’s read her book, the philosophy of Albert Camus that Noreen scared Ed off with in the previous scene.
The idea that she refers to in the scene — that life is pointless because we’re all going to die eventually — is the core of absurdism, a school of thought popularized by Camus and Søren Kierkegaard, among others. (Two previous episode titles, “The Myth of Sisyphus” and “Fear and Trembling,” share names with works from the writers, respectively.) The conflict at the heart of absurdism is between man’s nature to search for meaning to life or value inherent therein and the fact that none such meaning exists, at least within man’s capacity to understand it. Ed’s plan to buy the butcher shop and have kids is a blueprint in accordance with what he believes is the meaning of life. It’s the very definition of the American dream, which is what makes Fargo’s absurdist bent particularly targeted at the U.S. of A. As Ed struggles to push his boulder up the hill, he’s blind to both death creeping up behind him and Peggy’s total disinterest in his plan.
But Noreen had it only part right, and considering what she left out, I’m inclined to side with her family. “Noreen, you’re morose,” they say. Halloween is her favorite holiday, after all. As Camus concludes in The Myth of Sisyphus, true freedom in a world without meaning is only achieved through embracing the absurd and taking the world as it is, in a manner that is individual to you and not based on the parameters of institutions. Fighting to find meaning in a world that one knows is meaningless is enough to fill one’s life with purpose.
As Ed watches the shop burn and his boulder roll back down the hill, he stares into the face of absurdity, and in case he missed the point then, the randomness of the violence in the backroom scene and Peggy deciding to sell the car in order to fund the butcher shop purchase should help him see.
But as the cops pulled up the Blumquist house, my thoughts weren’t with Ed and Peggy. They were with Lou Solverson, the man we know in 1979 — lost and confused — and the one we first met in 2006 — contented and wise. Somewhere in between Lou finds his meaning and comes to terms with the world that once confused him. Something helps him reach the state Camus chose in The Myth of Sisyphus. Maybe it’s Molly. Maybe it’s the Massacre at Sioux Falls.
Or maybe he just borrowed Noreen’s book.