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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Fargo: “Buridan’s Ass”

Oliver Platt (FX)
Oliver Platt (FX)
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Todd: For the first half of its season, Fargo was interested in hints about the nature of its fictional universe and seemingly obsessed with balance. Actions had equal and opposite reactions, and when, say, Molly trespassed on Lester’s property without obtaining the proper paperwork, she was not rewarded with the murder weapon she sought. (We find out tonight that Lester apparently hid it behind the fish poster on the wall.) In “Buridan’s Ass,” the balance begins to break down. Whatever God this universe has reacts in apparent fury to Stavros’ decision to not give over his money, sending a fall of fish from the sky that results in the deaths of Stavros’ son and bodyguard. Molly races into a whiteout after Malvo, only to be shot by Gus for her troubles. And Chumph, though a venal idiot, is killed thanks to Malvo’s careful machinations.

Let’s start with Chumph, because here’s a thing: I can’t believe this show made me feel so much for the character I had the least affection for in his last moments. He was clearly marked from death from the first moment he appeared onscreen, but Glenn Howerton’s performance made him the kind of guy you might want to see die. At the time, I was holding that against Howerton, but as “Buridan’s Ass” went on, I realized that this was all by design. This is an episode that continues “The Six Ungraspables’” gradual deepening and strengthening of the show’s supporting cast. It’s an episode where even characters who seemed like one-off jokes—Stavros’ son, say, or Lester’s brother—get to have big, important moments that remind us that even though they might be goofy or weird, they’re still human beings who feel pain and desire and sorrow, just the same as Molly or Gus, our more easily likable characters, might.


The end of Chumph is particularly gut-wrenching in this regard, because “Buridan’s Ass” lets you see it coming from a long ways off. (In fact, outside of that shower of fish, “Buridan’s Ass” is so good because it lets you in on the tragedy several minutes before it happens in almost every instance.) The second Chumph wakes up to find himself duct-taped to an exercise machine, we know he’s being set up by Malvo in some way, and then every additional step our villain takes makes what will happen all the more clear. The gun gets place in Chumph’s hand, empty of bullets. The long string leading from the rifle in the window somewhere suggests a trap is at hand. And once Malvo starts firing across the street to get the cops to come, you know, and the rest is just agony.

What I like about this is how it plays up something that occurs in life but all too rarely in fiction, particularly TV fiction, which is too often fond of the big, shocking moment: Most of the bad things that happen to us in our lives are slow-motion car wrecks we can see coming from a long ways off but are powerless to stop. The second Molly charges off into that whiteout and leaves Gus behind, we know that something terrible is happening to one of them, and when Gus raises his gun and fires impulsively, we know the person down and out (but not dead, please… she can’t be dead) has to be Molly, before the show drags out the confirmation of this fact for ages and ages. It’s impressively hard to watch, and it’s the next to last act break. Which is its own kind of gutsy, because then we don’t check back in on Molly again.

I could probably just do a paragraph about how much I love this show now, but I want to ask both you, Zack, and the commenters about the parable of Buridan’s ass, which gives the episode its title. In the story, named for French philosopher Jean Buridan (who was a big believer in moral determinism), a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty is confronted with a pile of hay and a trough of water, which are equidistant from it. Because it’s caught in the middle between the two options, the donkey never makes up its mind, and it dies. My question to all of you: Who’s supposed to be Buridan’s ass in this scenario? One of the characters? The audience? Or is it just the sort of thing that applies to the show in general?


Ahem. To answer your question: I don’t really know, and I’d be surprised if we’re supposed to make an easy, direct correlation between Character A (or us) and the show. That’d probably be too easy. But it is interesting the way the episode keeps showing us characters in seemingly intractable situations (like that ass trapped between two perfectly balanced needs), and then watching them make their choice. Those choices are always driven by something higher than simple expediency: Gus fires the gun partly in terror and partly because he desperately wants to do a good job and redeem himself for the mistake he made at the start of the season, Stavros wants to do right by God and save his son, and Lester wants to avoid going to jail and get revenge on the brother who abandoned him.


These are choices that ass couldn’t make, because the ass doesn’t have desires that transcend biological need. And yet while Gus, Stavros, and Lester are all still alive at the end of the episode, only one of them is in a position to be happy about that. This is a dark hour of TV, the darkest the show has done yet, and one of the things that makes it so dark is that pretty much anyone who tries to do the right thing in a situation (even if that “right” thing is hasty or self-defeating) is punished for it and brutally so. Gus shoots and injures someone he cares about, not because he’s hiding anything or because he wants to hurt her, but because he’s trying to be a cop. Stavros returns the money to where he found it, and almost immediately, his son (and his bodyguard) die deaths so cosmically absurd that even the most virulent atheist would be forced to ask themselves some hard questions. The cause and effect chains are skewed—it’s like edging out over thin ice, and having the slightest movement create huge, gaping cracks in the frozen surface beneath your feet. Judging by these two alone, the episode seems to be suggesting that Buridan’s ass maybe had the right idea; dead or not, at least its inaction didn’t hurt anyone else.

And yet there’s Lester, getting proactive and, at least so far, not being hurt in the slightest by it. As you noted, Todd, the confrontation between him and Chas made me like Chas more than I was expecting (it’s not like the guy was hateful before now, but seeing him recognize Lester for what he is helped to clarify the character considerably), and it brought out a side of Lester we haven’t seen since he murdered his wife; there’s no sudden act of violence here, but his careful, and disturbingly thorough plot against his brother’s family reveals a depth of malice that Martin Freeman’s surface-level affability usually keeps hidden. It’s possible to watch the first episode up till Pearl’s murder and feel some sympathy for the guy, but watching him plant a handgun (unloaded, at least) in his nephew’s backpack puts that meekness in a different context. There’s that shot of him looking at his brother’s family photo, and the expression on his face almost seems to suggest regret—but then it turns out he’s just realizing there are other angles he can exploit.


It’s almost like we’re watching the origin story of a new Malvo: Someone who’s realizing how easy it can be to manipulate people, provided you aren’t manipulating them to make their lives better. While I’m sure Lester will get some sort of comeuppance by the end of the run, watching him first escape police custody at the hospital, sneak home, sneak into his brother’s house, plant all the necessary evidence, and then sneak back into the hospital without anyone ever being suspicious, is both fun and weirdly frustrating. Gus and Molly keep suffering setbacks, each more frustrating than the last, and both them are deserving of some kind of break. Stavros is at least trying to do what’s right (although really right would’ve been turning the money over to the cops, and thus putting his own neck on the line), and his life is worse than ever. But Lester is winning. And he’s winning not by owning up to his crimes, but by trying once again to push them on someone else.

That’s a bleak outlook, but then, this is a bleak episode. It’s the sort of “abandon all hope” moment that a narrative like this needs to turn the screws as tightly as possible, and I have no doubt that things will improve for our heroes in the weeks ahead. The thoroughness of this still stings, hitting in places which, like you said, I wasn’t expecting to care. Stavros’s son was sweet enough that I knew his death would be bad (didn’t know for sure it was coming, but then, you don’t mention the plagues of Egypt with a firstborn bopping around and not have certain expectations), but Chumph? That was brutal.


It was brutal with a point, though. Duct-taped to that treadmill, Chumph resembled Buridan’s ass—frozen, and incapable of saving himself.  But it isn’t an inability to decide between needs that put him there: It’s Malvo, quite literally. Maybe that’s what the title is really getting at. Malvo’s brutal, misanthropic, and so far disturbingly effective worldview reduces humanity to its barest impulses; kill or be killed, take what you want, fuck anyone who gets in your way. Broken down to that point, people are little better than animals, incapable of imagining anything greater than themselves. There’s a price to aspirations, as both Gus and Stavros have discovered; any time you care about anything outside of yourself, you’re going to someday be hurt. But the alternative is, in the long run, going to look a lot like poor Chumph in the end, screaming for anyone to listen to him, but without anyone left who’ll listen.

Todd: For lack of a better way to say it, I love the use of weather in this episode. I once read (and I wish I could remember where) that the American impulse toward apocalyptic thought stems from early settlers who came to a new land and were able to see giant storms rolling toward them across flat, open spaces or descending from the mountaintops. Even today when driving down the highway toward giant thunderheads or blinding rain, it’s possible to lose oneself in that kind of awe and terror at the endless, horrific possibilities that nature throws at us. I thought of that just a bit during the final sequences of tonight’s episode, as the storm that’s long been predicted for the area settles in over everything and essentially erases it. On a technical level, it looked sort of ridiculous at times—I’m not sure the world needed CGI snowflakes—but on a primal level, it was perfect. I remember the ways that these sorts of storms just swallowed everything and how hard it could be to find the path forward when the snow blotted everything out.


The shot that Gus takes struck me for all of the reasons you listed but also because it seemed almost an impossible attempt to fight back against a world intent on swallowing him in its uncertainty. What is the way forward? Molly always seems to know intuitively—or, rather, she’s really good at simply charging ahead—but Gus is far more circumspect in this regard. And yet not having a plan becomes almost worse than having one. As you noted, the only characters who are rewarded in this episode are Malvo and Lester, who have the most complicated, carefully executed plans. Gus, who stands back and simply fires into the unknown because he doesn’t know what else to do, is punished. Maybe what “Buridan’s Ass” is trying to suggest is that the weight of the world hangs less on those who do good and those who do evil than it does on people who have the courage to execute a plan—even if it’s a potentially harmful one—versus people who are too scared to move forward. It’s all right there in Lester’s smile.

Zack: It also doesn’t hurt that both Lester and Malvo’s plans are based around the concept of breaking down coherent systems, the former to protect himself, the latter just for the fuck of it; embracing entropy is always easier than trying to build something new, or even  just hold on to what you already have. What fascinates me is how Lester’s apparent gift for playing Iago is something that was first suggested at the start of the series; in episode one, after killing his wife, he immediately worked out a scheme to invite Malvo to his house, shoot him, and blame him for the murder. It wasn’t a perfect plan, and it fell apart both through coincidence (the arrival of the police chief) and because Malvo is just better at this game, but the seeds were there from the start. There are some definite shades of Walter White there, although we’ve yet to see any of Walt’s sputtering rage yet.


What I’m curious about for next week (apart from MOLLY NOT BEING DEAD) is what happens next with Gus and Stavros. Lester and Malvo both have a pretty definite direction in their lives; they’ve found their respective gods and they’re sticking to ‘em. But Gus just failed again as a police officer, and Stavros lost the most important person in his life, and neither event is the sort of thing that you can just walk away from. (Stavros especially. Does he turn on God now?) That makes for powerful television this week, but it leaves some potentially awkward pieces to pull together in the weeks to come. This isn’t a complaint; sometimes the best art comes from awkwardness. But it is a sign of how much I’ve been enjoying the series, and how the closer we get to the end, the more nervous I get that everything will hold together. So far, so good.

Todd’s grade: A
Zack’s grade: A

Stray observations:

  • It is here we pay our respects to Mr. Numbers, who fell to the machinations of Malvo in the middle of the storm. He’s the one wrinkle in my “having a plan usually works out for those who have said plan” theory. Adam Goldberg isn’t always my favorite actor, but I liked him here, and it will be interesting to see how Mr. Wrench tries to find revenge. [TV]
  • Speaking of which, that opening scene in the actual Fargo is like no Fargo I’ve ever known. But I liked the shot of the fish foreshadowing the fall of fish later. [TV]
  • This week in Great Moments From Allison Tolman, we get the little thing she does with her hair after talking with Gus. It was pretty obvious he was crushing on her, but now it looks like she likes him as well, and it’s just so damn adorable you could just die. (But not Molly. MOLLY DOES NOT DIE.) [ZH]
  • I wish I knew more about the probability of showers of fish falling from the sky. I know I say that every week, but it seems really important after this episode. [ZH]
  • Stavros burying the case again is making me feel pretty good about my “the case will be the element linking seasons of this show” theory. [TV]
  • Real talk: apart from being very much invested in Molly’s fate, I’m just not sure how the show works without her at the center. She’s the only major female character, and the only person who seems capable of taking down Malvo and Lester; the only other person around with even the potential to fill her shoes is Gus, and one of the major points of the episode is that, likable and decent as he is, he’s just not a great police officer. Shooting a woman he likes and respects isn’t going to transform him into one, either. So I’m keeping hope alive that Molly will show up next week, injured but breathing. If not… well, it’ll be interesting, that’s for sure. [ZH]
  • Your Coen Brothers movie of the week: This episode’s wintry landscape put me in mind of last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, which has ticked up in my estimation more and more ever since I first saw it (and I loved it upon viewing it that first time). It’s about a lot of things, and I know it’s divisive in some circles for not having even the barest semblance of a traditional narrative. But I love it for how evocative it is both of a particular time—early ‘60s New York in wintertime—and a particular state of mind—becoming convinced you’re not the person you always thought you were. [TV]

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