A palindrome is a phrase that reads the same forwards and backwards: “Madam I’m Adam,” or something like that. Fargo’s second season does not read the same forwards and backwards, because I’m not even sure that’s a thing a TV show could do, leastways across ten whole episodes. It would have be frustratingly literal, for one thing. And it would provide a sort of pointless closure that doesn’t make for great narrative—no ambiguity, no change, just everyone stuck in the same limbo where they began, whether they realize or not.
There has been considerable change over these past few weeks, and the final episode finds everyone, if not in a definitive place, at least in one that makes sense for them as an ending. Ed dies, Hanzee gets a new face and a new identity; Peggy heads off to jail; Mike finds out that success in the modern crime syndicate doesn’t have quite the same kick as it did in the old days. And yet the more things change, the more some things stay the same. We know Betsy is going to die (she wasn’t getting the placebo pills, but the pills she did get were killing her), but she isn’t dead yet; Hank survives, and we learn the truth about the letters in his study, but that truth doesn’t change our understanding of him; Lou, though troubled by his time in Vietnam, remains as decent as ever.
It is, then, a modern ending. If anything, even more so than the previous season finale, which ended the twin crises of Lorne Malvo and Lester Nygaard pretty definitively. As much as Lorne’s end might have felt like an anticlimax, but it was still a natural, decisive conclusion to the story of Good People versus Bad People. But here? There are some good people, and there are some bad people, but the war is never exactly between them. Instead, we get a mash-up of motivations and needs and dreams that ends with a massive body count, a series of lies and missed meetings that refuses to offer anyone anything beyond the simplest, and most brutal, of conclusions.
Even Ed and Peggy don’t get the showdown with Hanzee that last episode seemed to be building towards. He stalks them, shoots (and ultimately kills) Ed, but then flees when Lou opens fire on him. An armed murderer tracking a pair of hapless, desperate fools seems like the foundation for some great suspense sequences; instead, we get Ed, back in the freezer where he probably feels at least somewhat at home, trying to explain to Peggy why there marriage isn’t working out. “Palindrome” is full of these left turns, diversions from expectations which offer, in the place of more direct truths, intimations of a grander design. Or lack thereof, if you’re going off that fella Camus.
Of everyone, Mike gets the clearest ending. (Outside of the dead folks. The episode opens with a montage of Gerhardt corpses, including poor Simone.) After emerging from the Gerhardt/Kansas City war triumphant, Mike spends some time gloating as a new king, showing his beneficence to one of the Gerhardt’s hired help before letting the surviving Kitchen brother loose on the other. It’s a scene that encompasses Mike’s almost whimsical malevolence, his penchant for out of left field quotes, his idiosyncratic approach to mob enforcement. The villainy is obvious, but it’s villainy with personality, with panache. It’s the personal touch that we’ve come to expect from a man who recites part of “Jabberwocky” before taking aim at his foes.
All of which makes his final fate both funnier and weirdly… well, “sad” is probably going a bit far, but touching? Melancholic? Having succeeded against all odds, Mike finds himself promoted; and in the new organization, promotion means a shitty office in an ugly building. It means golf and quarterly income reports and maximizing profits. It means, in short, the gray dull life of a businessman, with no kingdom to rule over, and no place for acts of either cruelty or kindness. In the future, the criminal will be corporate and vice versa, and while that may mean fewer bodies on the ground, it’s probably not great for America’s overall health as a nation. Men like Lou and Hank can’t get to the people in those office buildings. And men like Mike lose what little soul they have left for health insurance and a 401k.
I’m not sure what all of this is about; I suspect it’s not about any one specific idea at all. Some what happens in “Palindrome” seems like Hawley and director Adam Arkin (who makes his final appearance here as Mike’s new boss) being playful, and some of it seems like it’s going somewhere, and to be completely honest, I’m not the kind of person who wants to always know the difference between the two. I have some ideas, which I’ll share, but when it comes to something working or not working, I tend to go on the feel of it first, and then try to explain myself after. This one is mostly a matter of feeling.
Scenes can be playful and have meaning behind them, ideally, and that’s the case with Peggy’s struggles in the meat locker against the unseen (and ultimately imaginary) Hanzee. It’s a smart sequence that plays initially stupid, as Peggy explicitly draws a connection between her and Ed’s position, and the movie she was watching the day before when Dodd got loose in the cabin. Again, she turns the situation into a clearcut struggle between good and evil, forcing the narrative to form a coherent shape, only here, her efforts are so misguided as to become delusional. She imagines the meatlocker full of smoke, believes Hanzee is outside trying to smoke them out, and makes herself the hero of a movie, bravely opening the door to face the evil head on.
Only it turns out it’s Lou and Ben on the other side, as much as Peggy seems to wish otherwise. Having Peggy’s hallucination play out without any clear indication that it is a hallucination is an unexpected choice, and turns a moment that seems overly obvious—we get the parallel, Peg, we don’t need it pointed out—into something much more tragic. Peggy wants to be the heroine in an epic story, she wants everything that’s happened to her to have some meaning beyond itself, but nothing quite adds up. Hanzee is gone, the cops are going to arrest her, and Ed is dead; worse, with his final breath, he basically asked for a divorce. No part of her life is working anymore, and while you can hate her for, as Ed puts it, trying to fix what isn’t broken, she just seems so damn desperate. The closest analog I can think of, at least from a Coen brothers movie, is Frances McDormand’s character in Burn After Reading, but that lady was a cartoon monster, and she won. Peggy isn’t, and she loses.
What of Hanzee, then? Betsy, slowly dying at the Solverson house (and I mean slowly; she’s still alive at the end), has a Raising Arizona-esque dream about the future. That allows us a quick cameo of grown up Molly and her family, and an older Lou, but something dark hangs over the dream, a glimpse of Hanzee standing over an open flame—the same vision Peggy has while she and Ed are trapped in the freezer. That vision threatens Betsy’s dream of a perfect future, and it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it. Everything she sees happens after last season, so… okay, we’re getting into speculative territory at this point. It’s just a damn creepy dream, and Hanzee over the flames looks enough like Bob from Twin Peaks to give me the willies.
As for the actual Hanzee, he escapes, and meets a stranger from… Okay, I’m not actually sure. Did Kansas City pay Hanzee to destroy the Gerhardts from within? Or is it some other organization that used him? Kansas City makes more sense, even if Hanzee does explicitly threaten them. But either way, the important point is that he gets a new name—Moses Tripoli—and the promise of a completely new face. He theorizes he might start his own crime family, and, well, here’s where we do some speculation again. Hanzee is wearing a sailor’s peacot and a black wool hat, which makes him look more than a little like Lorne Malvo. But the name “Tripoli” has a different connection to season one; it’s the name of the head of the Fargo mob who just happened to have a deaf hitman and his interpreter in his employ. And hey, when Hanzee gets the package with his new identity in it, he’s watching two boys, one of whom is deaf, play catch. A couple of bullies show up, and Hanzee wades in with his knife. “Kill and be killed,” as his motto goes.
So is that a connection? Is that another twisted line that connections season two to season one? And does it matter? It’s a sly joke if it is, to have Hanzee, the relentless assassin, transform himself into some easily murdered old white dude; we want him to be Lorne Malvo, because as implausible that is, it would be more exciting. It would let us believe in the infallibility of the perfect killer. Instead, he’s doomed to be a bit player in another story, and no one will know what he was before then.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds here, to fixate on these strange rhymes, but I want some larger impression to leave with. For me, it comes from two places: Lou and Peggy’s conversation in the car on their way back from the massacre, and Hank’s explanation of what was really going on in his study. In the former, Lou tells a story about the last days of Vietnam, and the chaos of them, and how people fought to get out. He talks about a chopper pilot who went to extraordinary lengths to save his family. For Lou, it’s a way to explain what he thought of Ed, and how, for him, being the man of the family is about protecting your own, doing everything you can for them even to the last, and how that’s a “privilege.”
Peggy’s own comments are more complicated and less eloquent. I wasn’t sure what to make of them, at first; I’m still not, not exactly. In the darkest intrepretation, Peggy is a moron who makes up problems and gets people killed because of them, and because her efforts are aimed at rising above her status as a housewife, the whole thing comes perilously close to a misguided screed against feminism, against a woman not accepting her “place.” After all, arguably the most wholesome character in the entire show, Betsy, is the epitome of the strong, suffering housewife. She loves her daughter, she loves her husband, and even with the cancer, she does everything she can for both. Which makes Peggy, with her aspirations and her bullshit seminars and her grotesque acts of vehicular assault, all the more suspicious.
And yet, weirdly enough, Hank’s vision of a universal language made me look in a different direction. To him, the majority of the world’s problems come about from people not being able to communicate clearly with one another. So he thought (and this was after his wife’s death, which is probably the best time for a man to take up a non-life-threatening obsessive hobby) that he could create a better kind of writing, something that would express ideas with pictures instead of words.
It’s a charming idea; almost certainly doomed to failure, and hopelessly naive, but sweet and decent and charming. If Hank had succeeded, maybe they could’ve avoided some of the mess he and Lou found themselves in this season. Or maybe not. But what I keep coming back to is the way Peggy struggled to say her mind in the car, and the way Lou ultimately dismissed her. He’s right, people are dead, but I don’t think that invalidate what she’s trying to say. As demented as Peggy could be, as disastrous as her actions were, they were coming from a place of legitimate, agonized frustration. If she could’ve found some way to say what she meant without resorting to gurus or self-help or murder, maybe she could’ve saved herself. If she had had the right language, maybe they all could’ve been saved.
Or maybe not. Maybe sometimes, there are no words. Just consequences.
- I don’t have access to season one (that “Tripoli” theorizing was just some lucky Googling), so I don’t know for sure: do we have any info on when Betsy actually died?
- Another random Coen reference: while fleeing, Ed and Peggy wave down a driver who Hanzee immediately shoots. It’s a bit like what happens when Ed is running from Chigurh in No Country For Old Men.
- “Peg, I don’t think we’re gonna make it.” -Ed
- Shout-out to the whole cast, because this was just an immensely satisfying season for acting work. Ted Danson and Kirsten Dunst were my favorites, but there were no real duds in the bunch.
- “Camus says knowing we’re gonna die makes life absurd.” “Well, I don’t know who that is, but I’m guessing he doesn’t have a six year-old girl.” This exchange between Noreen and Betsy is telling because it seems like an easy enough dismissal—ha ha, French philosophers are so pretentious, they don’t know what real life is like—and yet Betsy is still dying of cancer, and worse, she’s suffering because the damn pills she’s taking to fight the disease are killing her instead. Having something to believe in, having a purpose, doesn’t make life any less absurd. It just gives you something to hold onto while the world laughs.