not in our stars, but in ourselves
Sometimes, there’s a man. So says The Stranger in The Big Lebowski; so says Mike Milligan in this week’s episode of Fargo. Indeed, the Coen Brothers references came thick and fast: Mike refers to Floyd as “the mater familias” in just the same cadence as Ulysses Everett McGill self-identifying as “the pater familias” in O Brother, Where Art Thou; Simone listens to “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” – the musical accompaniment to The Dude’s wild dance-sequence dream in Lebowski – while she does coke; Hank says he’ll cut off his toe if something false is true – another Lebowski; one of the henchmen in the Gerhardt vs. Kansas City war gets dunked into a toilet – again, a Lebowski nod; Hank mentions his wife dying up in Brainerd, the location of much of the action in the movie version of Fargo; and, in one of the episode’s big set pieces, there’s a lengthy visual and musical allusion to Miller’s Crossing. There were probably others, too, that I didn’t pick up on. Despite all these references and winks and nods, “Did You Do This” didn’t trip over any of them as it barrels towards the season’s climax in Sioux Falls. I guess I disagree with some of the other critics out there on that point, but as you all know, I am occasionally a contrarian.
The war is destabilizing both sides, and creating situations for unlikely leaders to step up. On the Kansas City side, we have Mike. He’s been left by the syndicate to neutralize the Gerhardts, but the Gerhardts have resorted to guerrilla-style tactics to kill off Kansas City operatives. Kansas City is on the defensive, and they don’t like that. Mike’s boss (Adam Arkin) tells him he has two days to shut down the Gerhardts, or else he’s sending “the Undertaker.” He also throws in some not-so-casual racism: Mike has the job because he’s supposedly “not like the other darkies,” because he’s supposed to be smart and capable, but here he is, letting the bodies pile up. Mike listens, and responds politely, and thanks his boss for the opportunity. It becomes clear later that Mike is planning something, however. Simone goes to his hotel room to tear into him for murdering her grandfather instead of Dodd, and Mike muses aloud that it doesn’t really matter which of them he killed. They’re both his oppressor. Who cares which one he gunned down? He then talks about Camus, and about revolution in astronomical and in political terms. He’s about to do away with her when Lou and Ben Schmidt break down the door to save her life. (Briefly, anyway.) Some time later – maybe two days, maybe less – the Undertaker arrives. As we know by now, Mike can talk his way out of nearly any situation, but he doesn’t bother. He and the remaining Kitchen brother kill the Undertaker and the Undertaker’s two (Vietnamese?) bodyguards. Is Mike making a power play? Is he deliberately trying to take down the syndicate from the inside? Is he just lashing out because he’s desperate? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a combination of the first two – but most people end up desperate in Coen Brothers universes, so that could factor in, too.
As for the Gerhardts, Otto is dead, Dodd is missing, and Floyd is taken to police headquarters. This leaves Bear as the de facto head of the family. He finds Simone at Mike’s hotel, confirming his suspicions that she’s been literally and figuratively sleeping with the enemy. (He even tells her about the postwar French practice of rounding up women in Vichy, who were known or suspected of having slept with Nazi officers, and how their heads were shaved before they were run out of town.) Simone argues that her father has always been a brute and a bully, and she’s been a victim. She’s not wrong, of course. Her dalliance with Mike, ill-advised as it was, seems to have been her desperate (there’s that word again) attempt to claim some kind of agency over her own life, since she’s on nearly the lowest possible rung of the totem pole as is: the daughter of the eldest son, the daughter who knows she’s resented and not taken seriously. It’s too late, though. Simone realizes that Bear isn’t driving her home – he’s driving her to an isolated place in the woods, where he’s going to shoot her. She begs and pleads, saying she’ll do what the Vichy women did and just leave. While we don’t see her get shot, we do see Bear trudging back to his truck alone, breaking his cast by slamming his left fist against the hood of his car in an apparent frenzy of grief and rage. I’ve read a few reviews of “Did You Do This,” and they all seem to view Bear’s probable murder of Simone as revenge against Dodd. If it weren’t for Dodd, they say, Charlie wouldn’t be in jail, and Bear is just taking out his anger on the next of kin. I don’t buy that for a minute. Everything we’ve seen of Bear has indicated that he doesn’t live by the same kind of death-before-dishonor code as his idiot brother. He was against the war. He was against Charlie getting involved in the family business. Bear has shown that he’s loyal, loving, and strong-willed, time and again. If he did in fact shoot Simone, he most likely did it out of mercy. If he doesn’t kill her – quickly, privately, as humanely as possible – what will happen? Mike will probably get her. Or Hanzee. Or the police. Floyd points out that Simone is just as hot-headed as her father, and she’d definitely run into more trouble than she could handle if left to her own devices. Bear doesn’t like that he has to kill her, but he doesn’t see any other way. That’s my read of the situation, anyway; next week may prove me totally wrong.
I don’t want to skip over the beautiful moment between Betsy and Karl, because it was a brief moment of tenderness and peace in a chaotic world. She knows she’s not long for this world, and she tells Karl to let Lou know it’s okay for him to remarry (as long as he doesn’t marry Rhonda Knudsen, with her shrimpy little close-set eyes). She also reveals that Lou was originally going to marry her older sister, Lenore, but then he went off to war and Lenore didn’t wait for him. Karl is struck dumb by Betsy’s honesty and strength – as most of us probably would be – but Betsy refuses to stop for self-pity or anyone else’s pity. It’s lovely, in a very sad way, to see someone who knows all too well that her death is imminent, among all the rest of these poor souls who are surprised by the Grim Reaper. If anyone can bear her death sentence with dignity and grace, it’s Betsy Solverson. She’s the bravest of anyone on this show, and it really is horrible to think that she’s one of the many who won’t make it out of 1979 alive.
While I don’t think any of this episode was uninteresting, I personally found two conversations the most thematically illuminating. First, there’s Lou and Mike. When Lou and Ben show up to rescue Simone, however briefly, Lou tries to reason with Mike. There’s just too much killing, too many bodies, for what reason? Mike asks – almost as if he’s bored by the concept and he’s asking it by rote – if Lou has ever heard of manifest destiny. Sure, Lou says. But then he adds that he’s got two pairs of shoes: one for summer, one for winter. Don’t try to own more than you need or can handle. “Like people?” Mike asks, supremely aware of the razor-sharp edge his question has when he’s the one asking it. Yeah, sure, Lou agrees. Is Lou against capitalism? Mike queries. No, only against greed. If it weren’t for the way things have shaken out, I get the impression that Mike and Lou would be great allies in a different world. They’re both smart, they both see through bullshit, and they both seem to view the American way of acquisition at all costs as highly suspect: Mike because of his race, and Lou because of his experience in Vietnam.
The other interesting conversation – and even though it’s not connected diegetically to the above, it connects thematically – happens outside the interrogation room and then inside. One of the other officers, in discussing how the world seems so out of whack with this turf war going on, says that his father held the same position as he does now – back during Prohibition. He describes it as a similar time of bodies piling up, blood running through the streets, and a visceral sense that the world was haywire. Floyd, for her part, speaks during her interview of the old days, when a mother would be lucky if 2 of her 10 children survived to adulthood – between disease, wild animals, harsh winters, attacks by Indians, and more. All of this, and all of Lou and Mike’s discussion, feeds into the obliteration of the myth that there were ever “good old days.” It’s the myth on which Reagan was elected, and it’s the myth with which many of our would-be commanders-in-chief are trying to swindle us now, but that’s all it is. It’s just a myth. There has always been torture, bloodshed, misery, and hardship accompanying any so-called “progress,” at any point in history. Mike sees this. Lou sees this. One suspects that Bear catches glimpses of this. So – what’s the point? What’s the point of carrying on? Lou knows, and Bear knows, and Betsy knows: love. In a cold, chaotic, horrifying world – which is what it’s always been, and what it will always be – the only thing that helps is love. Aw, geez.