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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cops, near-misses, and handjobs on a gripping Fargo

Timothy Olyphant stars in Fargo
Timothy Olyphant stars in Fargo
Photo: Elizabeth Morris/FX
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I spent a lot of time in last week’s reviewing trying to pin down why the first two episodes of this season of Fargo didn’t land for me, but this week’s episode (which I liked quite a bit) confirms at least one of the show’s major problems: Hawley’s increasing inability to bring focus to a complex, interweaving narrative. “Raddoppiarlo” (which means “double” in Italian, near as I can figure it) isn’t a triumph, but it’s considerably more engaging to watch, creating the sense of rising, idiosyncratic tension that Fargo seasons have come to rely on. Whereas the two episode premiere often seemed to get bogged down in its own whimsy, this hour (and 3 minutes, without commercials) is coherent and more direct. There’s still the indulgence in rambling and slow burn that we’ve come to expect, but for a wonder, some of those slow burns actual result in suspense. It’s even possible to walk away with the faith that there’s a real plot here, and not just a collection of incidents that might, eventually, at some point, collect into a story.

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We pick up a bit earlier than we left off, giving us some backstory on just what brought Dick “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant) to his aggressive assault on the Smutnys’ front door. Dick (“They call me ‘Deafy’ on account I hear what I want to hear.”) is on the hunt for the two prison escapees we met last week, Zelmare and Swanee, and he makes the entirely reasonable assumption that the women are hold up at Zelmare’s sister’s place. Before we get to that door kicking, though, we get a little explanation from Dick about his personal beliefs—he’s a Mormon, so he doesn’t have much fondness for swearing, drinking hot or cold caffeinated beverages, or, if I’m understanding his monologue correctly, Black folks.

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That faith-justified racism doesn’t really come into play here; while the episode tries to get a little more into what it was like to be Black in 1950, it still feels like it’s pulling punches. Dick is brusque with Dibrell and Ethelrida while questioning them about Zelmare’s whereabouts, and his men do some damage to the place, but the behavior doesn’t feel especially targeted or based on prejudice. Hell, Dick is entirely correct in his assumptions: Zelmare and Swanee are, in fact, holed up at the Smutnys. Ethelrida spends a few awkward minutes watching them lurk out in the hall while Dick asks his questions. Maybe this is building to something, and, as I think I said last week, it’s good that the show isn’t immediately falling into cliches about bigotry. At the same time, if you’re going to set up that Dick’s religion has him believing that God made a certain race of people Black so they would be unattractive to his people, it should probably come up in the conversation.

Putting that aside, it’s a pure joy to see Olyphant in the role. In many ways, it’s just a variation on his Raylan Givens routine, but that is an excellent routine, and Dick has enough to distinguish him to keep him from feeling like a retread. The Mormonism might end up being meaningful, or it might just be a quirk, but regardless, he brings considerable energy to his scenes, kicking off the episode on the right note. There’s a familiarity to many of the hour’s better sequences, but that familiarity helps add to the humor and the suspense. We know bad shit is coming. We just don’t know when.

In broad strokes, “Raddoppiarlo” is about setting up the necessary tensions for the gang war that’s sure to come. On the Faddas’ side, Josto and his brother Gaetano are still fighting for control, with Gaetano deciding to take matters into his own hands while Josto keeps fixating on Doctor Harvard, the man who disrespected his father and who Josto’s people failed to kill in the previous episode. I’m still not sold on Gaetano; not sure why, exactly, but the performance feels mannered. Part of the reason Josto is supposed to be threatened by him is that he’s the more “authentic” brother, with stronger connections to their Italian roots and a war record. But right now, the guy just comes across as a cartoon, and a pretty uninteresting cartoon at that.

Still, his orders do lead to one of the episode’s stronger scenes. When Gaetano decides it’s time to take action, he recruits one of the Faddas’ men to go after Loy’s older son, Lemuel. Rabbi Milligan gets roped in, but Rabbi (who is quietly proving himself to be one of the smarter, more decent characters on the show) refuses to do the job, arguing that it will just make everything worse. There’s a scuffle, shots are fired—no one is killed, but now Rabbi is going to inevitably end up on Gaetano’s bad side, and the Cannons are on edge, especially after Zelmare and Swanee rob one of their money drops.

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While Gaetano is throwing gas on the fire, Josto is obsessing over Doctor Harvard, spying on him—which puts him in a good spot to have another encounter with Oraetta, just leaving the hospital after successfully talking herself into a new job. It’s a funny, odd scene, as Oraetta once again inserts herself into a situation that has nothing to do with her; she accuses Josto of stalking her, he doesn’t remember who she is, she offers him drugs and then gives him a handjob while singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As discussed last week, Oraetta is this season’s wild card figure, and this is more or less text book wild card behavior. There’s still no real clear sense of her intentions from moment to moment beyond being surprising, but it’s working so far, at least, and her presence is sure to throw some plans out of whack as things move ahead. (Heck, the apple pie she made last week partially derails a robbery, but we’ll get to that in a sec.)

On the Cannon side of things, there’s not much movement. Doctor Senator delivers a monologue about being used for his skin color in World War II; it’s a good monologue, well-delivered by Glynn Turman. Later, Loy exploits a grifter to give his son a quick, and moderately confusing, lesson in how money works—how it changes our plans when we see the potential for lots of it, and how seeing can translate into owning (or the perception of ownership) if we want something intensely enough. Lemuel is apparently unimpressed (or impressed for the wrong reasons); he’s not much interested in his father’s business, and gets even less interested when the Faddas start taking potshots at him.

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I’m still not sure what to think about Loy. Chris Rock doesn’t really have the gravitas or menace you’d expect for this kind of role, and so far, his performance hasn’t been convincing as much more than a stunt. Hopefully we’ll get more focus on him in the weeks to come, as right now, the Faddas feel more fully realized, if only because there have been so many movies and shows about Italian crime families that it’s easy to fill in the blanks. A Black crime syndicate in 1950 Missouri is a fascinating concept, but so far at least, the show seems ill-equipped to actually deliver on that promise. At its worst, there’s a sense that the whole thing is just a lot of play-acting and pretend; as artificial as Fargo always is, there needs to be some impression of authenticity to make it more than just a goofy indulgence in set design and music cues. If past seasons hold true, there’s going to be tragedy coming for a lot of these characters, and, a few exceptions aside, it’s hard to imagine that mattering much.

One last bit: remember the ipecac apple pie? It sits on the Smutnys’ kitchen table for a day before Swanee scarfs down half of it. Bad enough for her; worse, she does it before she and Zelmare raid a Cannon money house. The robbery gets messy, both literally (Swanee farts and pukes her way through it) and figuratively (some folks get shot), and Loy and the others struggle to grasp what it all means. But of course, this is Fargo, so who the hell knows? All I got is, I enjoyed watching most of this more than I enjoyed last week’s episodes, and I’ve gone from bored to interested in finding out what happens next.

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Stray observations

  • This is either a nitpick or a nothing, but Swanee’s reaction to ipecac doesn’t square with what I know about the stuff. It’s an emetic, not a laxative, even when taken in high doses (and while I know she hate a fair bit of pie, it’s not like she swallowed a whole bottle). Bodies are different, but the farting and need to shit just feels like wanting to double down on the awkward gross comedy without actually knowing how things work. But, like I said, it’s a nitpick, and I could be wrong here. (Random fun fact: when I was a kid, I accidentally took one of my dad’s blood pressure pills, and my folks had to drive me over to a neighbor’s so I could drink half a bottle of ipecac. It was not fun!)
  • Glad we got to spend a little more time with Rabbi Milligan.
  • I don’t always catch Fargo’s nods to other Coen brothers movies, but “Girl, you got a panty on your head” was a cute reference to Raising Arizona.
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