not in our stars, but in ourselves
In case you were too stunned to register what was happening, this is the speech laid over the ending of Fargo‘s second episode. It comes (as you won’t be surprised to learn, given the orchestral disco music accompanying it) from the 1978 musical version of War of the Worlds, and is adapted from H.G. Wells’s own text:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that human affairs were being watched from the timeless whirls of space. No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even consider the possibility of life on other planets, and yet across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us.
(My boyfriend can attest that I correctly identified this after hearing a few seconds of it. Get on my level.) Now, what the hell does this have to do with these miserable wretches in Minnesota and North Dakota? What’s going on with the UFO that Rye saw before Peggy whacked him with her car, and what’s with the overture to an obscure novelty music based on nineteenth-century sci-fi? Is this all going to turn into some sort of tortured metaphor for Reagan’s so-called “Star Wars”? I just don’t know, and I don’t get the impression that many other critics know yet, either; but I think it’s safe to say that we’re all along for the ride, or alien abduction, as the case may be.
Let’s keep our focus more earthbound for now. The season premiere was full of collisions; this episode was brimming with tension. None of those tensions were resolved, either: they just shift elsewhere. Among the Gerhardts, matriarch Floyd takes a meeting with the Kansas City people, who want to buy out their operation. She can see the benefits of acceding quietly to the takeover, since it would avoid trouble and even make them more money. Her dimwit eldest son, however, opposes the plan. Dodd sees himself as the rightful boss, since his father is incapacitated and his mother is a woman. When Floyd sends everyone else out of the room and lays down the law for Dodd, the faintest hint of light shines on his marble head. He’ll persuade Rye to join his side – his side being all-out gang warfare with the Kansas City people – and overthrow his mother. Since Rye isn’t a viable swing vote anymore, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Dodd committed matricide, and wound up with some of his own family’s blood on his hand before bumbling into death by Kansas City syndicate. Fargo isn’t afraid to employ some horrible shocks, but it allows for the slow, mounting dread of the inevitable, too.
Among the Kansas City people on the scene now, we have Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) and his two apparently mute associates, the Kitchen brothers. Mike speaks with all the affability and shrewd calculation of Barack Obama, a chilling blend. On a hunch, Lou stops by the Waffle Hut again one day on his way to lunch with his wife and daughter. He sees a car with Mike and the Kitchens driving past slowly, and makes a note of the car make and license plates. Later, Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), Lou’s father-in-law and fellow cop, stops the car on a desolate road. He’s able to get all three men’s names, and even their shoe sizes (based on the peculiarity of a man’s shoe up in a tree outside the Waffle Hut). In season one, Gus (Colin Hanks) stops Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) on a bitterly cold night and lets him go when Lorne makes vague threats against his family. Here, there’s a similar sense of danger: Hank is in uniform, he’s definitely armed, and he could theoretically call for backup if these three got out of line. Nevertheless, it’s clear that he’s intimidated by these three – two of whom don’t say a word, the third who speaks eloquently and economically – all the more so when Mike remarks at the end of their exchange, “Isn’t that a minor miracle, the state of the world today, the level of conflict and understanding, that two men could stand on a lonely road in winter and talk calmly and rationally, while all around him, people are losing their mind?” Lorne made it clear to anyone who crossed him that he would destroy all in his path, and those who ignored him did so at their peril; Mike doesn’t need to threaten anyone in order for them to feel threatened. He’s a bit like Brother Mouzone on The Wire: he’s polite, well-spoken, and ready to strike without warning if necessary.
The Blomquists are in their own world of tension and foreboding, trying to clean up after the mess that Peggy brought home on the hood of her car. Ed stays home from work to clean the buckets of blood they spilled; in a clear visual metaphor, when he dumps bleach onto the blood on his garage floor, the blood seems to multiply and spread even farther as he scrubs. Peggy doesn’t help, really, since she’s trying to “keep up appearances” at the beauty salon where she works. She tells her boss that she’s late because her car wouldn’t start, thus giving her (possibly lesbian? we do see her checking out Peggy’s ass at one point) boss an excuse to drive her home. She uses the bathroom while she’s there, washes her hands, and tries to find a towel to dry them. (Ed used them all in the course of cleaning up after Rye, you see.) She opens the cabinets under the sink, and sees dozens of rolls of toilet paper – which Peggy apparently stole from work. Why? Who knows. Boss-lady is plainly thrilled to see that Peggy is “kind of a bad girl,” but Peggy seems uncomfortable with the thought. She’s Lady Macbeth at this point, seeing blood everywhere, seeing reminders of her and her husband’s crime everywhere, and she’s as jumpy as a mad kangaroo. As for Ed, he’s dragged Rye’s body to his butcher shop, and (in a visual nod to the movie and Steve Buscemi in the woodchipper) processes the runt of the Gerhardt clan into ground meat, limb by limb. Naturally, that’s when Lou drops in, curious about the lights being on and desirous of a third of a pound of bacon for his wife for breakfast. Ed isn’t a bad guy – in fact, he seems like a heartbreakingly sweet and docile man at his core – but it’s clear he realizes that he’s doing a very, very bad thing when confronted by a member of law enforcement (who, nevertheless, remains clueless as to Ed’s purpose there.)
This recap is getting awfully long, and that should give you an idea of just how action-packed the episode was. With commercials, it ran for an hour and a half on FX – forcing me to stay up well past my bedtime – but it never lagged or felt like it was padding any of the scenes. It would be easy for a lesser show to include a lot of sappy scenes with Lou crying and mansplaining his feelings about his dying wife, who would remain a cipher, but Fargo just shows us Lou – a man of few words – trying to keep the tide of grief from overwhelming him while he finishes the task at hand and remains a steady, loving husband and father. Betsy, for her part, is bright and feisty and recognizably human (although she’s – gasp – a woman!), even as she wastes away with the cancer inside her. There are layers and layers of emotional depth – just as there are layers and layers of menace and moral/philosophical questions in the arcs described above – that we’re left to see for ourselves. Fargo shows. It doesn’t waste time telling. We see the tragedy barreling towards the Solversons and the Blomquists; we see the carnage about to be unleashed by the eldest Gerhardt son. It’s all inevitable, and impossible to turn away from.
Late bedtime aside, I can’t wait until next Monday night.