On this season’s sightseeing tour of the Coens’ back catalog, Fargo has already mounted one hell of a No Country for Old Men tribute episode (“The Gift of the Magi”), and this week, we saw a decent amount of Miller’s Crossing, mixed with a dash of The Big Lebowski, to rather satisfying ends with some Camus and UFOs thrown in for good measure.
Dodd Gerhardt may have helped start the war with the Kansas City mafia, but even without him around to spur it forward, the brutality is growing like a snowball rolling down a hill. When things pick back up in episode 7 — conversationally titled “Did You Do This? No, You Did It?” — putting Joe Bulo’s head in a box seems downright subtle. Mike Milligan’s surprise attack on the Gerhardt farm took out the former patriarch, Otto, once and for all, so the family responds with an elaborate hit on Kansas City management, which involves commandeering a window washing rig on the side of a skyscraper.
But while the family is scoring plenty of points, the war has degraded them to the extent that “family” might not be the best descriptor. Charlie was recently moved to the state penitentiary to await trial. Simone is feeding information to Mike Milligan. Dodd is missing, and Bear isn’t hiding the fact that he has no interest in finding him, going so far as to ignore calls from someone claiming to know where his older brother is. And then Lou Solverson comes a-callin’ with Ben “S— Cop” Schmidt to take Floyd into the station.
With the arrest of the Gerhardt matriarch, the state trooper wants to apply pressure on both sides. The war between the outfit and their would-be acquisitors has gone too far. “I think I want to live in a world where people leave the front door unlocked,” Lou says, so he and Schmidt are off to see the Kansas City fellas, still staked out in the local hotel and not doing so well themselves.
The Kansas City management isn’t happy about the bodies piling up on their end. The boss who entrusted Mike with picking up where Bulo left off had done so on the assurance that he was “not like the other darkies. This one is smart, capable.” The remedy, as Milligan’s superiors see it, is to send The Undertaker, sadly not the famed WWE Superstar. This Undertaker is a different old white guy, but an old white guy nonetheless.
In its second season, Fargo has dealt extensively with the evolving face of business in America over the last century and the death of the small business under the weight of the corporations, and this development is a key chapter in the allegory. Mike, the Kansas City mafia’s only apparent man of color, has proven himself almost superhumanly capable thus far, and yet his employment had to be predicated on the insistence that he was better than his skin would indicate. Even that assurance isn’t enough, however, because once Mike finds himself in a position of power after the death of Joe Bulo, the management slams the glass ceiling shut.
NEXT: Simone drops in (to see what condition her condition was in).
By the time Simone arrives in Mike’s hotel room — after doing some coke to “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” of course — he isn’t looking to revolt. He wants to start a revolution.
I love it when Mike Milligan gets quote-y. Fargo now stands alongside Lost and Mad Men as the champions of the well-placed literary reference because whenever he spouts off some Camus or a little Louis XVI, there’s a reason. “Did You Do This? No, You Did It” moves on from The Myth of Sisyphus to sample some of the author’s The Rebel.
“Freedom, ‘that terrible word inscribed on the chariot of the storm,’ is the motivating principle of all revolutions. Without it, justice seems inconceivable to the rebel’s mind. There comes a time, however, when justice demands the suspension of freedom. Then terror, on a grand or small scale, makes its appearance to consummate the revolution. Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being. But one day nostalgia takes up arms and assumes the responsibility of total guilt; in other words, adopts murder and violence.”
One of Camus’ main points in this essay is that rebellion is a very natural state of being for all people. As “The Gift of the Magi” brought up, we live in a meaningless world where the struggle to find meaning is enough for a purposeful life. Camus believes that rebellion is a natural byproduct of that state, and in the quote above, he explains how violence comes out of revolution.
A funny word, revolution. As Mike points out, in astronomy, the term means coming full circle, a return to a previous state. The sentiment aligns with part of the quote above, which explains that a revolution’s drive for justice will eventually “demand the suspension of freedom.” While a revolution may begin with lofty ideals, violence and terror will follow.
With every episode, I’m becoming more convinced that Camus, and more specifically The Myth of Sisyphus, is as central of a text to this season as the original film was to the first season. In the previous episode, we watched as Ed finds his purpose in his family — or at least the one he believes he will have. Mike, unsatisfied with the structures of his society (the Kansas City mafia), has found his in rebellion. “If I’m going to the noose, I’m going, but I’m done lying down for men,” he says.
And that’s bad news for the Undertaker, who sure could have chosen a better opening line than “Where’s this eggplant that can’t stop s—-ing the bed?”
NEXT: Let’s find out who earns an Emmy this week!
Mike Milligan’s newfound meaning could also mean ruin for the Gerhardts, who are more lost and fractured than ever. The interrogation room that Floyd is held in ironically acts as a respite from the madness, giving her a moment to smoke her pipe(!), reflect on everything that has transpired, and talk life and death with Hank Larsson and his colleague in Fargo, who echoes the opening of No Country for Old Men. He recounts a story of a boy who killed his parents one day without warning. “Our stories used to be simpler, that’s for sure,” Floyd says.
With the metaphysical stuff aside, the three get down to brass tacks. The cops want the war to go away, and Floyd is in a position to help them make Kansas City’s northern expansion unpalatable. They want her to snitch, and she’s sharp enough to pick up on that. Even engaged in a bitter war that took away her son and husband, Floyd still honors that rule breaker’s code. Eventually, she acquiesced, offering what claims to be the details of Kansas City’s drug operations in exchange for immunity, but I’m not so quick to believe her and that little grin.
Also, if you watch this scene closely, you can see Jean Smart’s Emmy materialize right in front of her.
The victory could be short-lived, however, because while Floyd flips in the interrogation room, Bear drives Simone out into the middle of the woods. Uncle and niece met outside Mike Milligan’s hotel, and it was clear to everyone that she had been caught at last. This is just the position that Bear likely hoped to find himself in, wanting to deliver a blow to Dodd that is at least comparable to what he did sending Charlie to kill Ed. That impulse for vengeance and violence, though, is what Bear fought against when telling his son to go back to school. As we watch Bear drive Simone out into the wilderness—and as Fargo flexes that drone budget!—we’re watching a man become the worst version of himself, his metaphorical descent into hell.
But now there’s the question of whether he managed to pull the trigger. Structurally, the scene mirrors Tom Reagan’s stroll through the woods with Bernie Bernbaum in Miller’s Crossing, and the use of “Danny Boy” in its wake hammered that point home, just in case anyone’s memory of the Irish gangster flick is a wee bit foggy. If the homage continues beyond the cut, Bear lets Simone go, telling her to get out of town and perhaps fulfilling the destiny taken away from Charlie.
NEXT: The revenge of Ronda Canuteson!
Coming back to Mike Milligan for the second, the meeting between him and Lou in the hotel room could not have come at a more interesting time for either character. One has just found new purpose and the other is about to lose his. Even though Lou is entering a period of uncertainty, he can already see the flaws of where Milligan is heading “Believing we can tame things,” he says, “that’s a problem, not a solution.” This idea harkens back to Camus and his views about the arch of a revolution. To quote the Wikipedia page for The Rebel (fancy, I know): “Because this end [a utopian society, the goal of a revolution] is unattainable, according to Camus, terror ensued as the revolutionaries attempted to coerce results.”
For all of the philosophical underpinnings in this season of Fargo, I’d argue that the soul of this story’s greatness is much simpler. The kind of love that Lou and Betsy Solverson share is why we have philosophy. How else would we be able to cope with the idea that we and everyone we know and love will someday die? There is so much heart in this show, and it’s never been clearer than during Betsy’s conversation with the King of Breakfast, Karl Weathers. She’s pretty sure that she got the sugar pills instead of Xanadu, and now she’s getting her affairs in order. “If he needs to get married again, it’s okay, he says. “Just not Ronda Knutson. Her eyes are too small, too close together or something.” My heart.
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Would it make sense for Fargo to kill of Betsy in a surprise twist, in which she’s gunned down while trying to feed Hank’s cats? No. Was I terrified that it was going to happen the entire time she was in the house at the end anyway. You bet your ass I was.
Part of Fargo’s mastery is its complete understanding of tropes and cinematic language. Everything about the quiet way that Betsy’s time in her dad’s house was framed and edited telegraphed that she was about to be beset upon by an intruder, even though there’s no reason to believe that would ever happen. There is a reveal at the end, however, but it’s not the one we’re expecting. The residual tension is just there to align us with Betsy as she opens Frank’s study to reveal pages and pages of symbols, most of them looking alien in origin. It’s been a few episodes since Fargo went into the UFO territory, but I’m glad to see it back.
My theory: Frank’s distress at the impending loss of his daughter has pushed him to find meaning beyond the stars.
As we head into the final three episodes, the seeds of the Massacre at Sioux Falls are firmly sown. Ed and Peggy are on the run with Dodd in the trunk and Hanzee not far behind. Throw Mike Milligan into the mix, and I think we have the makings of something truly terrible.
I cannot wait.