Why did Hank leave the Blumquist house without checking on Peggy? “Rhinoceros” is a crackerjack hour of television, holding over the level of tension from last week’s episode while upping the ante considerably, as nearly every character finds him or herself facing down a life-or-death situation. We’re past the halfway mark in the season’s run (I know, right?), which makes this an ideal time to start turning the screws. And boy, were some screws turned here. Little is resolved, but confrontations which have been building from the start are finally starting to boil, and there’s a live-wire feeling that just about anything could happen at any time. Everyone is standing over an open grave, waiting for a push.

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Which makes me feel more than a little miserly for not being able to get past a small, but crucial, point: why did Hank, after waking up on the Blumquist porch, answer his radio and head immediately into town? Dodd sent half of his men to the police station, but his truck is still parked in the driveway as far as we know, and Hank has no idea what happened with Peggy while he was unconscious. Sure, it’s theoretically possible that we’re missing a scene here, that the script (credited to Hawley) just assumes we’ll know that Hank would’ve knocked on the door, and that Peggy would’ve come up with some story to get rid of him, but that’s a pretty big assumption.

I’m not usually one to fixate on plot logic, but this bothered me considerably, threatening to, if not derail, at least destabilize an otherwise thrilling entry. Because it’s obvious from a narrative perspective why Hank left the house and Peggy behind. We need Peggy and Ed to be isolated from the cops again, because if they’re both in protective custody, story options become limited. Peggy needs to get to her seminar in Sioux Falls (or try to), because that’s where the massacre that the whole season is building towards happens. And Ed needs to be with her, because the two of them are more interesting (and dangerous) as a pair. You need Hank to leave so Ed can get back home next episode and find his wife sitting on top of two bodies and an electrified Dodd. It makes perfect sense in terms of mechanics (especially considering that Hank’s arrival on the road is what gives Ed a chance to run off), but it leaves Hank looking like a fool.

And Hank isn’t a fool. This has been established. He may not be the fastest thinker, but he’s thoughtful and patient, two traits that are far more important. Having one of the show’s most decent figures up and abandon a woman to the predations of a group of murderous goons seems more than a little out of character, especially considering the patient way he dealt with Peggy earlier in the episode. The more I think about, the more I hope it’s intentional. Or at least defensible. Intent is always tricky to judge, especially in a show like this, but it’s possible that Hank’s behavior wasn’t an authorial oversight, or a bit of sloppy plotting to get people where they needed to be. It might even be thematically relevant.

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This whole season, I’ve been puzzling as to why Peggy decided it was necessary to drive all the way home with Rye’s body lying unconscious on the hood of her car. There was no obvious explanation. Sure, it would’ve raised some questions about her driving skills, but it was dark, and the roads were slick, and surely the normal response would’ve been to try and get some help.

Hank finally asks Peggy this question point blank (funny how after all that work, everyone seems to know the Blumquists’ big secret), and she gives him a speech that feels critical to the episode, and to the season as a whole. “You say it like these things happen in a vacuum, like it’s a test. A or B,” she tells Hank, and then explains, in a way that’s not exactly a confession, how hitting Rye with a car could look like an opportunity for escape. She’s trapped in the life she and Ed have now, trapped in the house Ed grew up in, trapped in Ed’s vision of their future together. A situation that would force them to change, that would give her an undeniable reason to get out them both of town, must have seemed like a godsend, whatever the cost.

That’s fascinating characterization. It confirms what we already know and clarifies what was previously only a suspicion. And it makes Peggy a little more sympathetic, even if she’s essentially admitting she was willing to sacrifice a human life to get what she needs. But what seems especially relevant to the episode as a whole is that comment about decision making, and how easy it is to blame people for making a bad choice in a crisis. Peggy is right: these things don’t happen in a vacuum, and if they are a test, they’re hardly a fair one. Difficult decisions rarely find us at our best, and while that can be difficult to dramatize, that doesn’t make it any less true.

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So: maybe Hank isn’t operating at peak efficiency after getting knocked unconscious. He’s not obviously confused (he even gets a good one-liner off over the radio), but there’s something a bit off in his behavior, and he even admits to Lou that he’s seeing double. It could be a concussion, or something less serious, but whatever it is, he’s not making his decisions in a vacuum, just like Dodd isn’t when he accidentally shoots one of his men before (perhaps fatally) underestimating Peggy. In Dodd’s case, the mistakes are more obvious, especially considering his views on women. He doesn’t think his mother is capable of running the business, and he doesn’t think Peggy is a serious threat, and he pays for that last mistake, although we’ll have to wait until next week to find out how much.

Simone makes her own mistake in calling Mike, trusting him to get revenge on her father without really understanding Mike’s goals, and that “giving Simone what she wants” isn’t one of those goals. Her character remains a little too thinly developed; right now she’s less an individual than a human pinball, bouncing between abusers, and the moment when Floyd tries to offer her advice (and warn her off going against the family) comes tantalizingly close to giving both women something more interesting to do. (Jean Smart is great as Floyd, and she’s risen to the occasion of any scene she’s been given, but I’m hoping she’ll have more to say in future episodes.) Then Mike and his men show up and start shooting the house up, the ultimate fallout of Simone’s betrayal.

Yet there’s still some hope; it’s still possible to do the right thing, even when you’re drunk off your ass and your pants are full of shit. Karl Weathers has been a reliable punchline for most of the season, a familiar type played by a gifted comedic actor, but up until “Rhinoceros,” it’s been unclear what purpose he was meant to serve. Maybe he and Sonny were the Greek chorus types, commenting on the action from the sidelines, but their presence had been largely cursory, and Lou’s friendship with both men wasn’t enough to entirely justify their screen-time.

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But when Ed (who gets brought to the station house at the start of the episode for questioning) calls for a lawyer, Lou calls Karl; and when Bear and his men pull up front demanding Charlie’s release, Karl’s ultimately the one who has to negotiate the peace. Long sections of the episode’s latter half serve as a setpiece for Offerman’s terrific performance, capturing Karl’s endearing mix of bravado and foolishness in a way that makes his confrontation with Bear one of the most legitimately uplifting sequences we’ve had on the show. Bear is far more sensible than his brother, and the fact that he actually listens to reason before ruining his son’s life even more is as unexpected as it is satisfying. Sure, it means we miss out on a tense jail stand-off, but I’d much rather see good sense briefly win out than another rapid fire exchange of bullets and bravado.

Still, it’s unlikely this fragile peace will hold in the weeks ahead. Reason can only carry people so far. Mike’s attack on the Gerhardt homestead will likely lead to further retaliation, and maybe some dead Gerhardts. Whatever Peggy and Ed do with Dodd, it almost certainly won’t be pretty, and, given that Floyd believes the “Butcher” is working for Kansas City, what is she going to do if she loses another son to her enemies? For a brief moment, with Ed in jail and Karl talking sense, it almost seemed possible that everything might turn out okay. It won’t, though. The Jabberwock is coming.

Stray observations

  • I realize I don’t talk enough about the technical aspects of this show, largely because I feel more comfortable focusing on other elements, but the season has been gorgeous to watch from the start. This week especially knocked it out of the park with the split-screen work. It’s a visual trick that’s been with us since the start, but in “Rhinoceros,” it works to build suspense, as several times we’re shown characters doing something on one side of the screen without knowledge of what’s happening on the other side. The whole thing feels very Brian De Palma, but without De Palma’s inherent artificiality.
  • Betsy makes a brief appearance at the police station, explaining to Lou how everything would be much more sensible if the women were in charge. Given Peggy, Floyd, and Simone’s behavior, I’m not sure I agree.
  • “She’s a nice lady-” “Shut up.” Lou is done with being nice to Ed. (Probably right after Ed’s actions endangered a teenager.)
  • Mike reciting “Jabberwocky” (well, most of it) was one of those stylistic flourishes that doesn’t really mean a whole lot, but is cool enough to be pleasurable purely for itself. I suppose it could connect with the idea of muddled information this season; everyone’s resorting to righteous violence in the middle of a world they don’t understand.
  • Karl going outside, and then coming right back in and trying to block the entrance with a bench, was utterly hilarious.
  • “Excuse the obvious death penalty snafu. I’m slightly inebriated.” -Karl
  • “Son, I can fill a steamer trunk with the amount of stupid I think you are, but no, that’s where he went.” -Hank
  • Nice funky version of “Man Of Constant Sorrow” over the end credits. And after that, Karl holds forth about the brotherhood of war, and how it’s absent from civilian life.
  • Thoughts on the episode title? Only cultural connection I can make is the Eugene Ionesco play about a small French town where people turn into rhinos. It’s been read as metaphor for the rise of fascism, and the play ends with only one man still human, unable to change shape even when he tries. Could be nothing more than a joke on Karl’s vision of himself as the world’s last rational man, but I’m open to discussion.

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