You can set your watch by penultimate episodes… if for some reason you have a watch that measures when in a season of television a lot of people will die.
The second to last episode of Fargo season 2 did not fail to deliver the promised Massacre at Sioux Falls, but since this is Fargo, the expected showdown did not lack surprises. Or, you know, impeccable acting, writing, directing, editing, lighting, color timing, and special effects. (More on the last one a little later.)
Something that has been true about Fargo since its first season is that it has never grown complacent, often using out-of-left-field cold opens or unexpected flashbacks. “The Castle’s” stylistic flourish came in the form of a narration (and a very welcome return) from Martin Freeman, who presumably plays the role of Brixby, the author of The History of True Crime in the Mid West, a book we page through in the episode’s opening moments.
The yellowed volume carries a familiar disclaimer: “The events depicted in this book took place in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota from 1825 to the present. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
The book opens to Chapter 14, entitled “Luverne, Minnesota – 1979: The Waffle Hut Massacre,” and Brixby begins to read. He explains that the other moniker for the bloodshed we’ve watched unfold — the Massacre at Sioux Falls — is more commonly used by laypeople, so to hell with that. I’m Team Waffle Hut Massacre all the way. The conclusion that the author comes to, and ultimately why he classifies the crimes as originating in Minnesota, is because of Ed and Peggy Blumquist, the supposed innocents who got unfittingly swept up in the violence. Innocent or not, the butcher and the hairdresser are the archetypal Fargoian characters, and it feels appropriate that the final hour is set to wrap up their story.
Who wants to create a Kickstarter to publish this book for real?
The action begins in media res as we see the fallout from last week’s tense and contained episode. Hanzee continues his Anton Chigurh tribute tour by returning to the gas station near the cabin. The attendant who alerted the police to Hanzee’s presence dies trying to do so again, and the still-long-haired man proves there’s a lot you can do with some hydrogen peroxide and some crazy glue, by cleaning himself up (in a similar fashion to the above scene) in the bathroom.
“Not much is known about our Hanzee Dent,” Brixby continues. “We have no birth certificate, no tribal or family history.” It’s fascinating that neither we nor Brixby cannot pinpoint when Hanzee turned against the Gerhardts. It’s telling that it’s his story, as the orchestrator of the bloodbath and as a Native American man, whose story isn’t heard. The show keeps most of Hanzee’s life, past and present, a mystery, mirroring the amount of concern those things were given by the people around him, and it’s left up to us and Brixby to posture what he could have been thinking. The best we have is the moment in which he tells Peggy that he’s “tired of this life,” which Brixby sounds aware of, but Hanzee still remains mostly a mystery.
NEXT: Take this quiz to find out if you’re Gary Cooper or Betty LaPlage. [pagebreak]
Not far from the gas station, four separate law enforcement agencies are trying to make heads and tails of Ed, Peggy, and Dodd’s dead body. There are the Sioux Falls cops, who think this, sir, is the sound of opportunity knocking. With Mike Milligan on his way to meet Ed at the Motor Motel, this hot mess could result in a serious arrest. The only problem is that there’s apparently some corruption down at the precinct, so there’s no guaranteeing that Kansas City won’t catch wind of the scheme early. The plan is to camp out at the Motor Motel, wire up Ed, and wait for the conspiracy to unfold before them. The Fargo police are inclined to agree and want in on the arrest. Hank and Lou are outnumbered, but that isn’t going to stop the state trooper from voicing his opinion. Putting Ed and Peggy in Mike Milligan’s line of fire is a death sentence. Lou, as a Vietnam vet, has seen death on the level that the Kansas City men can unleash.
“Thought you were Gary Gooper, ‘S— Cop,’” Ben Schmidt says. “Turns out you’re Betty LaPlage.” The snide remark is a reference to the fictional actress from the opening credits of Ronald Reagan’s The Massacre at Sioux Falls.
It was during this scene that the episode’s title popped back into my head. The Castle by Franz Kafka was posthumously published in incomplete form and tells the story of K., a man who is mistakenly sent to a mysterious town whose residents live under the rule of the eponymous structure. As K. tries to seek entrance to the Castle and find out why he was sent for, he runs into an endless cycle of bureaucracy, which appears to have no answers at all.
What makes Lou different from the cops he must contend with is his compassion. He feels a sense of duty toward Ed and Peggy, even though they aren’t the most deserving, and he always has, going back to when he tried to talk them into confessing about what happened to Rye. Now it’s too late. The couple has been swept into something larger and much dumber. This isn’t about keeping them safe or what’s just — Lou’s concerns. This is a competition between police departments and states where pride is on the line, and Lou’s attempts to save their lives is foiled by chain of command.
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Season 2 of Fargo has wrestled with some mighty big questions, but the one it keeps coming back to is whether people can find purpose in a meaningless world. The question alone, as posed by Noreen, nearly brought Ed’s world crashing down, and Lou sought answers from Ronald Reagan, himself, to no avail. As this story winds to a close and Lou experiences — thus far unknowingly — his greatest loss to date, the presumed death of his wife in a scene scored by Dr. Hook’s “Sylvia’s Mother,” I think we’re seeing how Lou has found peace and becomes the even-keel man we met in season 1. For him, the answer is helping people or at least trying to help them. The idea even ties into what he does once leaving the force, feeding others in his diner. Like the sticker says, “We are not alone.” And neither is Lou. He’s surrounded by people to care for.
Once at the gas station, Lou is able to pick up the Hanzee trail when he finds that the attendant’s car is missing, but the other officers on the case have other plans. A trooper arrives to escort Lou out of the state, the ultimate slap in the face for the cop just trying to help out. It’s a good thing that the heave-ho doesn’t stop him. Once he hears that Constance’s body has been found, Lou turns right back around.
NEXT: It’s time for the Massacre at Sioux Falls. [pagebreak]
And so everyone is heading to the Motor Motel. The cops are with Ed and Peggy. This includes Hank, who shares a story about his World War II service that confirms times really haven’t changed and that he and his son-in-law are very much alike. Hanzee’s already there with a sniper scope on the proceedings. The phone call we saw at the end of episode 7 is revealed to be a very purposeful set-up on his part, to make sure that the Gerhardts walk right into a cop convention. Then there’s Mike Milligan, who lies to Kansas City about the Undertaker ever arriving, in order to bag Dodd and win the war himself.
On that last note, I can’t decide whether I love how hilariously brief Mike’s role was in this episode — Bokeem Woodbine’s delivery of “Okay then” was pitch perfect — or if I feel a little shortchanged. Thankfully, there’s still one episode left to figure it out.
Considering that the Massacre at Sioux Falls has been teased since last season, it’s kind of incredible how fully Fargo delivered on the promise. The back end of the episode was a master class in set piece design, complete with dramatic tension (the radio silence just killed me!), red herrings (Floyd’s gun, which she never uses), humor (Mike Milligan’s quick arrival and exit), and surprises (uh, the UFO). Since there was entirely too much happening in the scene to breakdown everything, I want to hit on a few select moments, big and small.
That being said, I’d like to start with the single best line reading of the season: “It’s just a flying saucer, Ed.” (This just narrowly beat out Kirsten Dunst’s other gem, “I stabbed him.”)
Another smaller moment that made me laugh out loud was a throwaway Ben Schmidt line: “Aw, Christ. It’s Rapid City all over again.” This might sound familiar to everyone who watched the first season and remembers Old Lou Solverson’s set-up for season 2. The line is here presumably to make viewers believe a similar flashback is in store for us next year. But Ben Schmidt ain’t no Lou Solverson, and season 3 is headed back to the present. What it amounts to — at least I think so — is a fun bit of trolling on behalf of the writers room.
Good one, guys.
And then Hanzee killed Floyd. It was a shocking moment for a number of reasons, and my hope is that the series explores it further before the finale ends. Though Hanzee had obviously lived in proximity to Floyd, there was never a strong sense of the relationship between the two, and when it came time for one to kill the other, I almost felt like this was the first time these people had a meaningful interaction. It could be that Hanzee is just looking to do as much damage to this already-broken family as possible — essentially burning down the house — but I wonder if there is more there.
Actually, what am I doing worrying about all of this stuff when there’s a UFO in the parking lot of the Motor Motel? Brixby’s voice is noticeably absent from the sighting, suggesting that the people who saw it — Lou, Ed, Peggy, and Hanzee — don’t mention it to anyone after the fact. I don’t name Bear because Lou shot the stuff out of him when he was distracted by the lights in the sky.
What does the UFO mean? I’m not sure. A season of teases and an office full of symbols have led to this moment, and the close encounter (technically of the first kind) was as vague as I hoped it would be. Is it an over-the-top comparison between the trivial matters that humans kill each other over and the galaxy beyond our little blue ball? Is it a necessary cultural artifact, reflective of what the Midwest was like in 1979? Or is it a tease for the aliens that will act as the main characters for season 3?
What I like about the UFO is that it could be any of those things. Throughout this season, Fargo has been stunningly fantastic television. I called it the true heir to Breaking Bad after episode 2 aired, and I still feel that way. It’s impressive on every technical and creative level, a stand-out during an insanely good era for the medium. But it takes real courage to hover in a big, fat flying saucer above your climactic shootout. It’s a weird note that suggests that all of the drama we’ve been watching hasn’t been in the service of just getting us to a gunfight. Fargo proudly flaunts its genre roots, but it’s happiest undercutting them, just like when Mike Milligan recited “Jabberwocky.”