Todd: “God is real,” says young Stavros in the opening of tonight’s episode, after discovering the cache of cash buried in the snow by the kidnappers in the movie that gives this series its name (and to which it turns out to be a sequel). And in that line, he takes the series into an entirely new metaphysical realm. God may not be real in the universe of Fargo, but the writer is, and that’s good enough.
Last year, on the eve of the debut of the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad, I wrote about the “clockwork universe” problem on television and how Breaking Bad had mostly circumvented it. To very briefly repeat myself, a clockwork universe is a world where there are no missing parts, where every single little gear fits together perfectly so we can admire the beauty of the writer or director’s design. Done well, there’s a kind of thrill to the moment when the mechanisms lock into place, to the scene where we suddenly realize just what the artist has been up to from the first. This tends to work a little better in genre fiction than elsewhere, but it can be incredibly effective in just about any arena. For instance, I think The Shawshank Redemption is primarily a clockwork universe tale, and it’s all the better for the way we realize all of the pieces are meant to be adding up to its conclusion. But clockwork is harder to make work on television, where the stories can run for years and years and years. In 10 episodes, however, I suspect a clockwork universe could work very well, and “Eating The Blame” begins tipping its hand in subtle ways throughout.
There are moments this episode where the feel of Noah Hawley’s finger deftly nudging the characters around just a bit is apparent. Some of these are moments where the characters themselves take the initiative—as our two hitmen battling each other to end up in the drunk tank with Lester proves. Others suggest more that good will be rewarded, eventually, as Malvo ends up in exactly the wrong place when he lurks at the scene of the killing of Stavros’ dog in time for Gus (working animal control again) to spot him and arrest him. And others are simply there because it’s kind of cool. When we first saw that ice scraper on Stavros’ wall, I recognized it as a nod to the film but thought it was just sort of a cool, weird homage. But when a commenter pointed out last week that it probably meant Stavros had found the money, my heart sank just a bit. I didn’t want this to turn back into the story of Fargo the film, not when it had successfully differentiated itself.
Yet this episode plays this less as a major epiphany and more as a confirmation for Stavros that he’s right. The universe he occupies has rules, and so long as he more or less follows them, he will be rewarded (though perhaps never again so blatantly as a case full of money in the snow). And, on the flipside of this, Malvo realizes that there are rules as well, so he can blatantly flaunt them. In this episode, he visits another of the 10 plagues upon Stavros and does the bit where the devil hides himself as an angel by impersonating a minister to escape police custody. We talked a bit last week about how Molly and Malvo work as rough mirrors for each other. Well, Stavros and Malvo do as well. They’re the two characters who realize they’re in the middle of a chess match between forces beyond their control.
I’ve always thought the reason clockwork plots work so well in genre fiction is because the major genres—crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror—have so many of their roots in medieval religious mystery plays, where God’s will held sway at the end. And, indeed, what’s reassuring about the hint of divine influence in this episode is the suggestion that good will be rewarded. Eventually. Just not right now. Because if this episode does one other thing, it’s play around with another serialized television trope: It forces us to ask when the climax can happen.
Zack: Interesting that you read Gus catching Malvo has an example of “good being rewarded”; watching the scene the first time, I had a sinking sensation in my chest as I realized that there was no way in hell that Malvo was going to spend the rest of the run behind bars. That meant Gus was going to think he had the answer to all their problems, only to be humiliated once again—which is pretty much how it worked out. To me, it read less as Gus tripping over a lucky break after confessing his sins last week, and more a way to underline that the goodness we want in our lives is never going to come easy. Finding Malvo on the street was a matter of luck, not solid police work or deductive reasoning, and by arresting him, Gus jumped the gun considerably.
What I like about that particular storyline, in addition to the pleasure of Malvo’s impersonation of “meekness” (an impersonation which stops just shy of being completely convincing, as though Malvo has such contempt for the officers he’s hoodwinking that he can’t be bothered to bring out his A-game), is how it cuts off the most obvious way forward for our heroes. With a bad guy like Malvo, it seems that just getting the cuffs on him should be enough, but it isn’t—he’s a smart enough adversary to have planned ahead, and that raises the stakes for our heroes without being a cheat. The climax—which is presumably going to be some kind of a confrontation between Molly and Malvo (with Gus as back-up and Lester serving as a wild card)—probably won’t happen till the end of the season, and plenty of other shows have tripped up in an effort to sustain a serialized story without making the stalls too obvious. Malvo’s trip to jail didn’t play like a stall to me. It underlined the theme (established last week) that there’s no shortcut to good work. If Gus wants to capture this particular predator, he can’t just trust to coincidence, and he also can’t rush in without thinking.
Pivoting off that (and your mention of the clockwork universe) is the reveal of the source of Stavros’ money. I’m impressed that this bit works as well as it does. In the film, the whole point of the scene was that all that bloodshed and horror was spent to earn something that ultimately proved meaningless, a bag of money that was lost and forgotten in the middle of a seemingly endless wasteland of snow. To have someone actually find that money would, at first blush, seem to betray the original intent, or at the very least, underline the bleak humor of that little red ice scraper sticking up in the middle of all that anonymous white. Yet I found it effective largely because of what it tells us about Stavros. Devoutly religious characters in fiction tend to be either saintly idiots or delusional hypocrites, but the show has managed the neat trick of giving Stavros something close to actual proof of divine intervention, while still allowing the audience the luxury of interpreting that “proof” in a different way.
To put it another way, I’m not sure I read Stavros’ discovery of the money as being absolute evidence of God in the context of the narrative (in that I know where the money came from), but I do think it makes Stavros’s own faith into something more than just cant or a shallow attempt to cover his ass. Gus stumbling on Malvo can still be a coincidence, but it would be difficult for anyone to shrug off a desperate plea for help that gets answered so immediately and so thoroughly.
Yet Providence or not, that bag of money is still a kind of shortcut, and as Gus learned to his chagrin, shortcuts leave you vulnerable. In order for Stavros to justify using the money he found, he has to believe that it was intended for him, and that belief puts him in a position to interpret exceptional misfortune in the same light as he’d interpret exceptional good luck. Malvo has managed to pinpoint that weakness and exploit it. The blackmail storyline right now is more compelling to me as a series of interesting (and often pretty amusing) ideas than anything with emotional weight, but I like how the reveal of the source of Stavros’s money pulls the show directly into the Coen Brothers’ universe while at the same time playing up one of their regular themes: The easy choice, no matter how justifiably and seemingly victimless, is always the one that screws you over in the end.
Todd: I think I like this episode more than you—perhaps just because it plays into one of my favorite theories of narrative—and I think that’s because we’re starting to get a better glimpse of the whole picture. Until now, we’ve had puzzle pieces, but they’re starting to click together in a really satisfying way. I’m not often a huge fan of stories that feel super “designed,” but there’s a certain satisfaction to realizing that this piece goes here and that piece goes there. And I also like how Hawley is always careful to let his characters take control of their own destinies as much as they possibly can. Lester was smart enough to grab a taser last week, and he’s “rewarded” for his forward-thinking this week. Similarly, the moment when he punches the police officer to get taken to the place he assumes he’ll be safe forces us to admire him, just a little bit. I always like when characters are backed into corners and come up with clever solutions to their problems. It suggests they’re formidable and worth paying attention to, and the show is letting Lester discover his own formidability in real time.
But I also brought up the idea of when the climax can arrive, because if I have an issue with this episode, it’s that the show essentially has to sideline Molly almost entirely to get the story going in the direction it needs to. I get how she’s more or less sidelined herself by being a little too over-eager, but it’s also the one thing that feels like a blatant stall here. Yeah, it’s interesting to see Bill doubling down on his certainty (which plays in to the show’s central idea of the way that we double down on big mistakes), but it also sidelines one of the show’s most potent characters in favor of sitting around and contemplating why we see more shades of green than any other color with Gus. (it’s because we were monkeys, see?) I get that a serialized drama has to do this from time to time—it’s the whole reason Malvo went to Duluth, since if he’d stayed in Bemidji, the story would have ended too quickly—but the trick of this sort of story is knowing when to push things forward and knowing when to hold back. “Eating The Blame” had enough really great story curlicues that I’m not too worried. But it also felt in some ways like the show stylishly running in place.
That’s fine, so far as these things go. As I said, I think it’s great that this episode found ways to incorporate the larger picture in interesting fashion, and there were lots of great moments of the characters outthinking each other. It can just be a chore to get too many episodes like these in a row. (I have no particular fears Fargo will subject us to this.) But I am heartened by the thought of Gus getting Malvo in cuffs this early. Yeah, it’s another example of overeagerness doing in a cop who doesn’t yet know better, but it’s also a sign, to me, that Gus is on the right path, even if he’s not quite aware of it yet. It felt, to me, like a nod from Noah Hawley that he knows the story he’s telling, and he knows how to draw everything together, so long as we’ll have a little faith—if not in God, then at least in the writer.
Zack: Interesting that I come across as not quite loving the episode. I mean, that’s true, but I certainly don’t think it’s a bad hour, or even a mediocre one. My only real reservation is that I’m not quite sure what to make of the blackmail storyline—I agree that it’s fun to see the pieces fitting together, but I’m up in the air as to what the final picture will be. That’s a thrilling feeling (it’s exhilarating to watch something that’s clearly designed without being completely sure what form that design will take); it’s also one that depends a fair amount on how everything turns out. TV’s a journey, not a destination, and I don’t think a terrible ending would destroy the pleasure I’ve gotten from the show thus far, but I guess you could say I’m keeping myself at a slight remove from some of these pieces, however well-executed. I’ve been hurt before, show.
I haven’t said anything about Lester’s arc this week, although I think it’s my favorite we’ve seen from him since the pilot. In particular, I appreciate that he’s resourceful while still not being exactly likable. The fact that he’s bested on all sides is entirely deserved, given what he did; the irony that seemingly everyone interested in trapping him (or worse) is doing so only because they assume he’s responsible in some way for Sam Hess’ death just makes it more entertaining somehow, like it’s a joke only the audience is able to get. (Which isn’t to say Lester is completely guilt-free when it comes to Sam, but not telling a stranger not to murder someone is different than bashing your wife’s head in with a hammer.) His scramble on the ice and quick thinking in getting himself arrested don’t make him someone worth rooting for, but clever protagonists are generally more interesting to watch in a story like this. Lester needs to keep escaping right up until the end, and it’d wear thin pretty fast if every escape was just a matter of dumb luck.
Still, my favorite part of Lester’s story is the part where he doesn’t escape; when the two hitmen show up in the jail cell at the very end of the hour. I liked the cleverness of this, and I liked how it makes the hitmen smart in their own right. But what I really liked was how it connected to Stavros’ story with the money on the side of the road, and how that money ultimately left him vulnerable to Malvo’s predations. If you put yourself outside the normal order, either by sin (murder) or by a convincing yourself that you’re the direct beneficiary of God’s will (which you do to basically justify a sin), you no longer have recourse to the protections of civilization. Lester can’t ask Molly for help because it would put him in the spotlight. Stavros is stuck because the convictions that allowed him to use that money so many years ago have also put him in a position where he has to believe what he’s seeing is more than just blackmail, but actual divine punishment. Both men have alienated themselves from society by their choices, and that makes them vulnerable. You can be smart, and you can pretend your actions are justified by the will of God; you can dodge what’s coming for a very long time indeed. But sooner or later, the choices you’ve made will always come back to you.
Todd’s grade: A-
Zack’s grade: A-
- I can’t decide if the shot of Malvo standing on top of the supermarket grinning like an uncouth god is too much or just perfect. It looked neat, though. [ZH]
- My favorite shot in this sequence was of all of the crickets swarming through the grocery store. I think I’ve had nightmares like that, and the brown bugs against the colorful peppers was a particularly choice moment. [TV]
- Lester’s brother seems a bit confused as to why he hasn’t cleaned up the crime scene detritus in his house, and it makes me think of something key to this show (and maybe life in the Midwest): When are people going to stop seeing what they expect to see from those around them and start seeing who those people actually are? [TV]
- I’m still not sold on Glenn Howerton. The character he plays is underwritten, to be sure, but everyone else on the show seems to be playing a person, no matter how much a cliché; Howerton comes off as a human smirk. [ZH]
- I agree on Howerton, but I would say that I really loved the scene in the pet store where he gets the call from Malvo and can’t quite figure out who it is. His performance made me laugh there. (I also generally dig Howerton, but something about him is just tonally off here in ways I can’t quite figure out, but I think you’ve put your finger on.) [TV]
- Rampant speculation time: I wonder if Lester, either intentionally or by mistake, will be the one to ultimately take Malvo down. Sort of a Gollum-and-the-Ring type scenario. I doubt either of them will be walking away from this. [ZH]
- Your Coen brothers movie of the week: So Barton Fink has absolutely no connections to this episode, so far as I can tell, but given how much I’ve struggled to put my thoughts in order for this review, it seemed appropriate. It’s one of the best movies ever made about the struggles of just getting some goddamn words on paper. [TV]