not in our stars, but in ourselves
Aw, geez. Things are gettin’ real bad there, hon. For the Gerhardts, for the Kansas City people, for the Solversons, for the Blomquists, and for anyone with the bad luck to be in their way: shit is getting real. In season one, when old Lou Solverson reflects back on the massacre he saw at Sioux Falls, he presented it as an unimaginable, almost impossible confluence of murder and horror. Noah Hawley and his writers have, to their credit, found a way to show that murder and horror ramping up in a way that feels all too possible – by finding ways to tie in notions of American exceptionalism, the truth behind Midwestern politeness, and the far more universal concept of family politics to all this carnage.
While the Kansas City people are taking a breather on a hunting trip, Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell – in an astonishing piece of acting and inhabitation that never feels like caricature, only like a character) is giving a speech to some of the fine people of Minnesota. In his speech, he talks about how gosh-darn great it is to be American, and how what some might see as a crisis is really an opportunity: back when he was a lifeguard, for instance, other people might have worried about someone drowning, but he was excited by the chance to save someone’s life. I think this speech is invented for the show, but with enough real elements from Reagan’s actual speeches that it feels plausible. Blue-sky thinking, lots of soothing platitudes with precious little policy, that kind of thing. (It is happening again.) Meanwhile, Kansas City’s hunting party is massacred by Gerhardts. As Reagan goes on and on about how things will turn out just fine, we see people on both sides mowed down by relentless gunfire. When Reagan arrives at the stirring conclusion – invoking the Puritans landing on Massachusetts’s verdant shores, and their beautiful dream of founding “a city on a hill” – we jump back to the massacre, where Hanzee has just made himself known. How? He’s slashed the throat of one of the Kitchen brothers and knocked the other one unconscious. Joe Bulo – the Puritan who thought he’d go ahead and settle his own city on a hill up here in North Dakota – suddenly finds himself alone among hostile natives. Reagan’s audience applauds thunderously; Hanzee stares down Joe before (off-screen) decapitating him and leaving the head with the surviving Kitchen brother.
That, friends, is some great goddamn television. And it makes it clear that this is going to be a brutal war. Bulo was the head of the Kansas City contingent that the syndicate (or whatever it is) sent to take over the Gerhardts’ territory – but it’s a given that he was probably pretty mid-level, and that there are any number of other generals and soldiers that Kansas City can – and will – send up to finish this once and for all.
After the battle, Hanzee places Rye’s belt buckle in front of Floyd while she sits at the kitchen table. She realizes that this means her youngest is dead, and asks how it happened. Unfortunately, Dodd is also at the table, and he takes Hanzee’s basic germ of truth – and spins it into a justification for continuing the war. Hanzee says it was a butcher down in Luverne, Minnesota; Dodd jumps in to say that it’s “the Butcher of Luverne” – someone with ties to Kansas City. By presenting this as a preemptive strike by Kansas City against the Gerhardts, before there was even real talk of a war, Dodd convinces his mother to authorize “the Butcher’s” death: “No mercy.” Bear smells something funny, however, and he asks Hanzee what really happened. Dodd interferes there, too, but it brings up a valid point: what’s Hanzee’s end game? In a season that has made so much of what it means to be American, and that has prominently featured a thoughtful (and lethal) Native American hitman, it will be interesting to see what Hanzee ends up doing. All these people jockeying for what they think they deserve, what they take to be their piece of the pie – and he’s one of the people whose own land and ancestors have been taken away for centuries. At this point, it’s just a curious thematic element, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, somehow, those themes worked their way into Hanzee’s actions down the road; and, needless to say, I would go a very long way to make sure I wasn’t on Hanzee’s bad side.
Plenty of other things happen in “Magi,” but there’s another thematically charged discussion that happens before one of the episode’s other big set pieces. Ed is trying to go about his day as usual, despite Peggy’s suggestion that they up and run to California. He wants to go to work, figure out a way to buy the shop, have a couple of kids, and live the American dream promised to him by Reagan and other simpletons. At work, he’s more troubled than he might usually be by the shop’s “morose” cashier, Noreen (Emily Haine), and her philosophical readings. She’s into Camus, and – as she summarizes it – nothing really matters* because we’re all going to die someday anyway. Ed tries to argue in favor of the American dream: his grandfather lived a rich, full life, and made it to the ripe old age of 96 – which is when he died, Noreen interjects. Everyone dies. Why get upset about it? Of course, philosophy is fine and dandy, but a theoretical acceptance of your own mortality is quite different from being faced with a gunman entering your butcher shop. That gunman is Charlie, Bear’s disabled son, and he’s finding his family’s line of work much harder than he fancied. He arrives in Luverne with a sort of handler, who instructs him to get Ed and to leave no survivors. Alas, Charlie thinks Noreen is pretty, and she seems to think he’s cute, and so he’s mightily conflicted about carrying out this hit on the so-called “Butcher of Luverne.” He tries – and sets off a grease fire with a bad shot. Noreen goes from a wiseacre high school intellectual to a frightened girl in about one second flat, especially when the other henchman comes bursting in through the back door. Ed, for his part, seems curiously reluctant to fight back – but then he sees his dream literally go up in flames. There was an interview in Vulture with Jesse Plemons, and he said that he was told to think of Ed as a cow: basically docile, but not someone you’d want to mess with if he gets angry. He’s angry now. He takes a meat cleaver to the henchman’s head. What the hell does it matter any more? Absurdism! Take that, American dream.
*There are Coen Brothers references all over Fargo, but I can’t help wondering if Noreen’s teenage-girl reading of Camus – whose absurdism and existentialism share some of their roots with nihilism – isn’t a sly nod to the nihilists in The Big Lebowski. “It’s not fair! His girlfriend cut off her toe!” “Fair?! WHO’S THE FUCKING NIHILIST HERE????”