You want to believe things used to be better. It’s something fundamental to the human experience; you want to believe the life you used to have, when you were younger and the world made sense, was better than what you have now, all tied up and bent and doused in so many damn shades of gray. They call it “nostalgia,” but nostalgia’s too nice, too neat. I’m not sure if an appropriate word exists for the process, but if there is, it sounds closer to drowning.
“Fear And Trembling” has some important characters making some big decisions, and nearly all of those decisions are for the worst. Some of those decisions seem more justified than others, but there’s an irrationality at work as well, and that irrationality comes from a mistaken belief in the sanctity of what used to be; of mistaking memory for philosophy. Floyd Gerhardt, whose intelligence and steel are only beginning to show, tries to work things out with Kansas City, but when her offer is rejected, she clings to her frozen husband and makes the only decision that she thinks she can. Of course it’s war. The Gerhardts have fought too long, and too hard, for their place in the world to sell it.
It’s a decision that Dodd will surely appreciate, but then, Dodd is in some way responsible for what happens. He has a simple view of how the world works, and it’s a view which, at worst, threatens to turn him into a simplistic villain; he beats up his daughter, he murders idiots, and, early in this episode, he takes Bear’s son Charlie with him when he assaults a couple of Kansas City men at a donut shop. Charlie wants to be part of the family business, and while Bear keeps pushing him back, Dodd is inviting him in. To Dodd, this is the only business that matters.
The natural impulse, then, is to mark Dodd down as one of the bad guys. And he is a bad guy, no question. But then there’s the episode’s cold open, which has a young Dodd helping his old man take out some competition in a movie theater. For Dodd, war has always been the way of it. He stabbed a man in the back before he was old enough to shave. This pairs nicely with a later scene of grown-up Dodd and Floyd in a car riding home from the Kansas City meeting. We’ve seen Dodd argue with his mother, but here, he leans on her until she cups her hand against his face. He’s a bastard, but he’s also trying to fill his father’s shoes, and he loves his mother; he’s going to get himself killed eventually, and you can tell his mother knows it.
That’s part of what’s making this season of Fargo so gratifying, I think. I’m not sure if the UFO sightings will pay off as anything more than “The world just feels so weird right now!”, and sometimes the references to Vietnam and Nixon are a bit heavy-handed. But there’s an effort to give every character his or her dignity that helps to invest all their behavior with greater resonance. Some of these folks are brighter than others, and a few of them aren’t particularly likable, but the villainous archetypes that dominated last season—the Devil (Lorne Malvo) and the sniveling sociopath (Lester Nygaard)—are absent. The closest we have to a Malvo this year is Mike Milligan, and even he seems vulnerable at times. No one seems above the world they live in; every hero and villain is trapped in some way by their own perspective.
This hits hardest for me with Ed and Peggy Blomquist. They remain the odd man (and woman) out, and their first scene together this week is a study in dysfunctional relationships. It starts off almost like a joke, with Ed thrusting into his wife before saying, “That one stuck for sure.” Because he wants a kid; but Peggy, who retreats to the bathroom to “pee,” doesn’t, so she’s still taking her birth control without Ed’s knowledge. Things get worse from there, as Ed decides that he doesn’t think they can afford Peggy’s Lifespring seminar, because he’s looking to buy the butcher shop. Peggy tries to argue, but the gulf between them is too vast for effective communication.
There’s a familiarity to all of this—Ed wants a home life, presumably the same life he had as a kid, while Peggy is struggling to escape and be something more—but the details are heartbreaking. There’s something inherently comical about the two of them, Ed with his big open face, Peggy all invested in self-actualization courses, but the comedy doesn’t take away the tragedy. It’s almost as though we’re coming in late to a three act play. We missed the courtship and whatever bad thinking brought these two together in the first place, but we’re here for the collapse. These are two people whose plans for the future are fundamentally incompatible, and the way they stay together, the way they seem to legitimately care for one another in spite of that incompatibility, just makes things worse. Even without a ground up corpse, it won’t end well for these two; the biggest question right now is what’s keeping Peggy from bolting.
Unfortunately, the two have more to worry about than Ed finding out Peggy sent the check to Lifespring against his wishes (which causes his check to the butcher store owner to bounce, which then threatens his plans for the future). Over the course of the hour, Hahnzee outdoes the cops and the Kansas City mob by following Rye’s trail bit by bit, until he ends up at the Blomquist’s house, looking through their garage and finding Rye’s belt buckle unmelted in the fireplace. This, then, is the turn, the moment when Ed and Peggy’s situation goes from nightmarish but contained to slowly growing clusterfuck. We’re not sure what Hahnzee is going to do with this new information, but whatever choice he makes, the Blomquists will suffer for it.
What’s especially sad is that they could get out—if not clean, then at least with their lives intact. Fargo has never been ashamed of using echoes of other Coen Brothers movies to make a point (the shot down the hotel hallway leading to the meet with Kansas City had a nice Barton Fink feel), and tonight gives us a new one. Lou, finding out about Hahnzee’s interest in the Blomquists from his old friends Sonny and Carl (and taking a good, long look at the Blomquist’s damaged car himself), tracks down the couple and offers them help. The offer comes with a speech about his time in Vietnam, and while the particulars don’t match up exactly, this is all very similar to Tommy Lee Jones’ attempts to sway Kelly Macdonald in No Country For Old Men.
Lou doesn’t have Sheriff Ed’s age or weariness, but he shares with the other man a growing moral confusion at the horrible state of the world, a confusion that can only be enhanced by watching his wife struggle (and lose) her battle with cancer. Lou’s line in the final scene about how the world used to know what was good and what was evil, matches some of the same malaise that Ed struggled with, which doesn’t bode well at all for the Blomquists. They turn down his offer, because they’re locked into their own needs. And there’s something up with Peggy, although I still can’t be sure just what that is.
Yet as sincerely troubled as he is, there’s something a little shallow about Lou’s despair over the modern world—not in the feeling behind it, but in his understanding of the way things used to be. As reliable as Lou’s moral compass is, he’s as much in thrall to that lure of the past as anyone else. This season opened with a reminder of the horrors of our history, and the way America repurposes those horrors into clean narratives of heroes, villains, and last minute triumphs. Lou’s despair is justifiable and well-meaning, but it’s also the sort of narrow thinking that allowed Reagan to rise to power; there was a need to believe in America the Good again, and the former governor and movie star was an expert at selling just that. As with a lot of the thematic material this season, I’m not quite sure yet how this ties into the main plot, but I’m willing to wait and see.
Betsy’s visit to the doctor was brutal, and the real pill/placebo dichotomy is one that I suspect will have further resonance down the line. There’s something about Lou’s, “I think you got the real pill” that sums up a whole lot of thinking, good and bad; the need to be positive in the face of misery, which then translates to believing that positivity in and of itself can somehow solve complex, and ugly, problems. Again, it’s Reagan and his “Good Vs. Evil” narratives. Lou needs to have faith in chance being not so random (and there’s slim promise that even a real pill would be enough to save Betsy); Peggy needs to believe that she can remake herself; Ed needs to believe that his troubled wife really does want the same things he wants; and the Gerhardts want to believe that guts and determination will be enough to face off against a more powerful organization. All of it’s just belief in the face of contrary evidence, and the worse things look, the greater one’s need to keep the faith that got you here.
- The make-up and effects work used on Michael Hogan in the episode’s first scene was impressive. That stuff can look absurd so easily, but it played well here.
- “No, it’s not a war on you. It’s a war against your body.” Besty: the human Vietnam.
- The name of the test drug? “Xanadu,” in case the whole thing didn’t sound enough like a fantasy.
- Mike Milligan is not a huge fan of getting a surprise finger up his butt.
- “Well, if you mean you talked, and then I also talked, then I guess.” -Peggy
- Peggy’s boss at the salon is just really, really eager to break up this marriage.
- “You still think it’s Tuesday. You have no idea what’s coming.” -Lou
- Ed’s one of the only adult men on the show to have not served in Vietnam. He’s going to snap, isn’t he? At some point, he’s going to snap.