not in our stars, but in ourselves
We were neck deep in the Big Muddy —
The big fool said to push on.
– Pete Seeger
This isn’t ‘Nam, Smokey. There are RULES.
– Walter Sobchak
You know how film historians write about 1939 as Hollywood’s annus mirabilis? Someday, assuming we don’t vaporize ourselves in World War III before it can happen, television historians will probably write about 2015 as television’s very own annus mirabilis. Nevertheless, I think Fargo‘s second season will stand head and shoulders above most other shows (or movies, or literature, or anything else) for a good, long time. “The Castle” solidifies its legacy: this was an hour-long masterpiece, enriching all the previous hours that came before it, and setting the final collision in motion in such a way that it will be absolutely impossible to look away.
In short: we got our massacre. The Lou Solverson of 2006 wasn’t kidding when he said that all the bodies could have been stacked high enough to reach the second story of a house (or of a Motor Motel). What could have been just a thrilling set piece, an action sequence with lots of gunfire and not much substance, was instead a meticulously choreographed work of suspense and tragedy. Noah Hawley said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, referring to how he’s humanized Mike and Hanzee – two characters who, on a lesser show, would simply be Othered killing machines – “Those moments are hopefully unexpected and make it hard to know who to root for, which makes the violence that’s an inevitable part of this brand less entertaining and more challenging for the audience. I don’t think violence should ever be fun.” (One suspects that Hawley and Tarantino might butt heads if they were ever to collaborate on something.) This violence takes a physical toll as well as an emotional one – and, amazingly, even though it’s set in motion by Hanzee, it’s still possible to hope he makes it out okay.
A couple of weeks ago, when Floyd and Bear return home to a phone call from Hanzee, they were told that he had found Dodd. Now we see the other side: Hanzee deliberately wanted Bear and the other Gerhardt enforcers to come out to Sioux Falls. It seems that he didn’t want Floyd to come, at least not specifically, but she’s coming anyway. Of course, Dodd is dead. Hanzee killed him. But he’s found a handy way to dispatch of the remaining Gerhardts: Ed and Peggy are being guarded by a couple of dozen police officers at the Motor Motel in Sioux Falls. All Hanzee has to do is tell Bear and his men which room Dodd is being kept in, and which room the Butcher of Luverne is being kept in, and he can just let them all off each other. I call it the Furiosa Maneuver: just as Fury Road‘s Imperator allowed Immortan Joe’s War Boys to accompany her long enough for them and the Buzzards to neutralize each other, buying her enough time to get far ahead of the rest of Joe’s forces, so does Hanzee get rid of both his problems – the law and the Gerhardts – in one bloodbath. Is it the most noble thing to do? Well, perhaps not, but Hanzee wasn’t kidding when he said he was tired of this life. He may still have to navigate a horrible world full of racism and hostility if he’s on his own – but at least he won’t be treated like the Gerhardts’ own personal guard dog. Probably for this reason more than any personal animosity, he stabs Floyd in the stomach once it becomes clear to the rest of the Gerhardts that they’ve been set up. She looks shocked, betrayed, destroyed – but Hanzee looks almost blank. It’s like Mamoulian’s direction to Garbo for the last shot of Queen Christina: think of nothing. Surely she wasn’t thinking of nothing, nor was Hanzee, but that blankness is a screen on which we can read any number of hopes, fears, desires, etc., while they stare directly into the face of an extremely uncertain future. In case I haven’t specifically praised Zahn McClarnon’s performance, please allow me to do so now. It’s not easy to depict “stillness” in an interesting way – as Hawley wanted McClarnon to do – but he does it. He is, as Hawley describes, an avenging angel instead of a mere assassin – and one for whom I, personally, am rooting.
That’s one of the amazing things about this season. During season one, it was pretty clear who was deserving of your sympathy, and who wasn’t. Molly, Gus, and Lou are all on the right side of the law, and they’re the ones you want to triumph. Malvo is almost purely evil, as much fun as he is, so it’s easy to hope he loses. Lester is understandable up to a point, but he allows himself to absorb more and more evil as his mistakes compound themselves further – so it’s even easier to hope for him to meet some sort of justice. In season two, however, there are people on the “good” and the “bad” sides to cheer for. We want Lou to succeed. We want Hank to succeed. We want some sort of miracle recovery for Betsy (although it seems pretty clear from this episode that her number is up – in a horribly tragic little domestic scene, where Molly finds her mother unconscious on the kitchen floor). That all makes sense. But if you’re watching Fargo and you’re not wishing for a better life for Hanzee and for Mike; if you’re not desperate to see Floyd and Bear save what’s left of their family and let it remain an actual family, instead of a crime syndicate; well, then, I don’t know what to tell you. These criminals – murderers, even – are all tremendously sympathetic. They’re not committing atrocities because they want to watch the world burn – seemingly Malvo’s motivation – but because they’ve been dealt a terrible hand, and they’re trying to get ahead somehow. Again: it’s not noble or honorable, per se, but it’s impossible not to see how much better these people are than the world in which they find themselves. Hanzee the Indian, in a country that’s worked for centuries to drive him out of his own land. Mike the black guy, in a country that stole his ancestors from their homes and then treated him and his worse than animals for all the time he’s been here. Floyd the matriarch, condemned to be considered weaker and easier to break by virtue of her womanhood alone – even though she’s the smartest person in any room full of Gerhardts. And Bear the middle child, a devoted family man who just wants some snacks and some peace and quiet. The would-be “bad guys” are all tragic figures in their own way, and I’ve been shocked by how affected I am each week.
“The Castle” is more than just high drama, though. We finally get to see a huge UFO, hovering just above the motel, shining bright lights on the few survivors of the massacre. What the hell does it mean? I don’t know that it matters, and I suspect that’s the point. This season has been all about absurdism: the absurdity of trying to make plans and decisions, of trying to control your fate and the fate of those around you, when the universe is ultimately indifferent to anything you attempt. You’ll die anyway, so why bother? (The “why bother” is supplied by people like Lou, Betsy, Hank, Molly, and Gus: you should bother specifically because the world is so randomly cruel, because it could all end tomorrow, so it’s best to love and be loved while you can.) But anyway, in a season that’s been sticking close to absurdity as its defining thesis, why not include a real, honest-to-Xenu UFO? It’s only slightly stranger than real life. (And it allows Lou to shoot Bear, thus saving his own life, as well as allow Peggy and Ed to escape a momentarily blinded Hanzee. Deus ex saucera, or something.)
The massacre at Sioux Falls also provides a tidy parable of the extremely un-tidy Vietnam War – of which Lou and Hanzee are veterans – whereby the fight is such a mess, so dirty, so dehumanizing, that it’s hard to know which side to support. Over the credits, a cover version of “Run Through the Jungle” plays; fans of The Big Lebowski will recall its use when the Vietnam War-fetishizing Walter attempts to carry out a bait-and-switch; whether or not you remember that, you probably know that it’s heavily associated with Vietnam-era rock and roll. Neither the writers nor director Adam Arkin belabor the comparison, but the point is that they’re increasingly deep in the Big Muddy – and the big fool always says to push on.