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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Fargo: “The Six Ungraspables”

Allison Tolman (FX)
Allison Tolman (FX)
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Zack: After last week’s moderate plot stall, “The Six Ungraspables” (the title is a reference to a Zen koan, referring to the five senses and the mind) move things forward on nearly every front, with Malvo’s blackmail plot reaching its next stage, Gus digging himself in deeper, Lester’s hand injury finally coming to light, and Molly almost but not quite pulling everything together. Hell, even Bill seems to be coming around. There are no major catastrophes this week, and a few minor cul-de-sacs, but on the whole, events are clearly shifting toward the second half of the story. The threats are becoming more clear. Also, things are getting a lot weirder.

I’m sure there’s a better word for that (hi, professional reviewer person here, just gonna throw “weird” at you and move on), but “weird” was what kept coming to mind throughout the hour, and not in a bad way. The episode begins with another flashback, this time showing how Lester purchased the shotgun that Malvo would eventually use to take the police chief’s life. Plot-wise, there’s little new information to glean from any of this; we see once again that Lester is a passive fella who was probably always harboring some darker urges, and that his wife wasn’t the supportive sort. But the way the sequence is constructed, with the long pauses and close-ups on objects while action takes place out of the frame, gives it a dreamy, unsettling quality. Lester’s dickering with the salesman who convinces him to buy the gun is half-funny, half-odd in a way I’m not sure necessarily means something, but it establishes a tone that lasts through the rest of the hour.


This oddness can be seen most clearly in the introduction of Gus’ neighbor from across the alley. This is presumably the husband of the lady who was so intent on showing off her underwear in the second episode, although that woman is never really discussed. Instead, the man invites himself over to Gus’s kitchen, and the two men engage in a philosophical discussion about what it means to try and do good in the world.

Part of what I’m enjoying about this show is its willingness to directly engage ideas that other series would leave as subtext. The latter approach can work very well, but it’s refreshing to see someone like Gus stuck on a problem that’s at once abstract and immediately practical, and have that discussion framed explicitly on both levels. Plus, it means we get a parable, and I’m a sucker for parables. I’m especially a sucker for parables which suggest obvious answers, but which are then immediately contradicted by another character, as in this case. The neighbor is saying, “Only a fool thinks he can solve world’s problems.” And Gus’s response is the response we want all our heroes to have: “Yeah, but you gotta try, doncha?”

Contrast that with a similarly philosophical chat between Malvo and Stavros. This conversation is less a discussion between equals, and more another example of Malvo manipulating someone else to commit violence; I could be wrong, but it sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to convince Stavros to take arms against his blackmailer. (Which explains why he didn’t just bump off Don earlier.) This makes sense—Malvo hasn’t ever come off as someone solely interested in money—but even more interesting, and disturbing, is the anecdote he tells about the woman and the Rottweiler. It’s a nasty little speech, with an undercurrent of violence and misogyny that makes Malvo’s worldview just that much clearer. There are plenty of dark dramas that deal with men (and cultures) that hate women, but it’s fascinating to watch a show let that disdain bubble to the surface without relying on more explicit sexual violence.

But maybe the weirdest scene for me was Malvo showing up outside of Gus’ apartment with a single walkie-talkie, having somehow known that he could eavesdrop in on Greta’s conversation with her friend. How would he know this? And how much does he know? Between that, and his conversation between Malvo and the neighbor that plays like a confrontation between two opposing moral forces, it’s clear that the show is maybe not that interested in absolute realism. So far, it’s mostly landing in the sweet spot between completely crazy and unblinking sanity, and that makes for memorable, and frequently haunting, television.


Todd: First things first: I suspect Malvo knows about how he can spy on Greta thanks to overhearing her on the radio back in the first episode, when he told Gus to go back home to his kid. That said, I agree it’s kind of a leap for him to assume he can pick up a walkie-talkie, hop on her frequency, and be ready to overhear enough to somehow get any sort of leverage over her dad. Then again, Malvo’s a twisted son of a bitch, one whose perversities seem to get worse with every episode, so I might be underestimating him. I can’t say I enjoyed Malvo’s little speech about the Rottweiler—though the show doesn’t want us to, which is key—but I think it helps underline why the show is positioning him and Molly as polar opposites. She’s the one who can catch him, because she’s the one he won’t see coming. To Malvo, women are useful tools to use when he needs to blackmail or corner a man. But Malvo doesn’t yet realize which TV show he’s in.

When you e-mailed me about this episode to say it was “weird”—but in a good way, you thought—I got a bit concerned, because I was picturing, like, Molly dropping acid to try and catch the killer in her own hallucinations. Which would have been interesting but probably not quite what I signed up for. Instead, “The Six Ungraspables” was hands down my favorite episode of the series so far, and made me feel a little bad about having given so many high grades for it, even though I’m vastly enjoying it. I’ve blown out the curve! I liked it for many of the same reasons you did: Its willingness to play around with making the subtext text, its gutsiness about moving the plot forward as quickly as it is, the parable. But as it wound around to its conclusion, I realized just how thoroughly enjoyable I had found it.


Enjoying something is a weird thing to talk about in an episodic television review, where we’re meant to be teasing out all of the themes and things that the episode left deeply buried. But Noah Hawley is always so careful to pepper the weightier moments with little sidebars and bits of humor. There were several times I laughed in this episode—even in the most tragic moments—and the series has gotten inordinately good at making me interested in what Malvo is up to while still wanting to see him brought down for his crimes (both against the state and against humanity in general). I’m even more or less interested in what Lester is up to, even if of the four central characters, he’s the one with the least going for him right now. The metaphor of the wound that marks his crimes when he’s told a fairly convincing story is an obvious one, but it’s been great to watch as his whole body seems to constantly be confessing to the crime that his mouth can’t speak. (Tellingly, nobody has pieced together that he’s the one who killed his wife.)

No, what made me realize how much I was enjoying this is that quiet little scene between Molly and Ida, where she visits the chief’s widow and meets her newborn daughter, Bernadette. It’s such a perfect, tiny moment in these women’s lives, and it’s not tinged with the kind of jealousy a lesser show would hang over the whole relationship. (You know the kind I’m referring to, where Ida is always suspicious that Molly had a crush on her husband or something.) It’s, instead, just suffused with grief but also just the right amount of rueful humor, and director Colin Bucksey films it with muted colors and tones. Molly and Ida shared a connection through this man, and even if their friendship continues for decades to come, his ghost will always be there—sometimes literally, in the form of Bernadette, a child who will surely resemble him at least a little bit.


Fargo is a plot-driven show, to be sure, but it’s good for the show to remind us every so often of what the stakes are for the characters, and “The Six Ungraspables” did a wonderful job of that.

Zack: I loved that scene with Ida and Molly so much. Just the straightforward, uncluttered decency of it helped to balance out everything else. The show hasn’t focused much on the death of the police chief, but the way its handled the aftermath of that death has really impressed me; it makes a horrifying event into something which is, while still tragic and upsetting, also just a basic part of the job. I like stories that find time to remind us that life goes on, even while plot is still running wild in the foreground. It makes everything seem a little more human, and a little less like a machine.


Good catch on Malvo overhearing Greta; while that still leaves him with improbably acute observational skills, I’m much more willing to accept those than I am to accept some sort of demon-powered psychic abilities. I love how much the episode has instilled him with menace by now. We know what he’s capable of, and while he hasn’t killed anyone since the first episode, a clear threat lingers in the air of every scene he’s in. The sequence in Don’s apartment was a fun example of that. The trainer’s babbling on about what he’s going to do with his share of the blackmail money, answering each of Malvo’s questions and providing the other man with the necessary tools to trap him in the pantry, without realizing what’s going on until it’s too late. I spent the whole time expected Malvo to drive a drillbit through Don’s forehead, so I was pleasantly surprised when he just locked him away instead.

I agree that this episode was immensely enjoyable, although some of that enjoyment was tempered for me by a very deep concern that Gus was about to get shot—which is something else that a professional TV critic is maybe not supposed to talk about. (We don’t care about characters; we just care about the big picture.) But man, I was scared. I think Molly is basically untouchable, at least until the very end; I suspect she and Malvo won’t cross paths until the big showdown, if only because the two of them have been set up so neatly as polar opposites that I can’t imagine them walking away from each other with their conflict unresolved. I’m also assuming this big storm we keep hearing about will be a factor in the end game, which should be fun. But Gus… well, Gus has a daughter, and I’m fairly sure the show won’t kill him off, because that would probably be a little too bleak. But I’m not completely sure, and that’s what had me tense for most of the second half of “The Six Ungraspables.” It’s a good sign when a show can make you worry this much about someone so quickly.


Todd: What’s amazing to me is that I was worried about the rabbi! (I don’t think the show ever confirms if he’s a rabbi, but Gus sure talks to him like he should have wisdom above and beyond your average person of faith.) The show has so easily and readily turned Malvo into this black hole of despair, this force of absolute evil, that it’s easy to fear that he’s going to reach out and consume everything whole. But one thing I noticed while watching this episode is that every time Malvo does something particularly disgusting, we’re given a tiny little moment of mercy or goodness or grace from one of the other characters. And I think that brings everything back to the parable.

To honestly, earnestly confront the wickedness of the world can bring anyone to a point where they feel like they cannot continue. There is so much horror and so much suffering all around us that even those who give everything can feel like they’re merely tossing a drop into an infinite bucket. Yet what I find most moving in real life—as well as in fiction—is the idea of tiny moments of goodness, tiny moments when someone sees that the world is full of shit, yes, but they don’t have to be a part of it. Fargo understands that it doesn’t need to make Molly or Gus an absolute paragon of virtue to stand up to Malvo and all he stands for. They just need to be everyday, garden variety decent people. And that might be enough.


Zack’s grade: A
Todd’s grade: A

Stray observations:

  • I love how the opening sequence trusts us to just get that it’s a flashback without ever saying so. The golden wheat fields and presence of Lester’s wife are answer enough. [TV]
  • Interestingly, Stavros jumps immediately where my mind would go if somebody was visiting the 10 plagues of Egypt on me: the well-being of his firstborn son. But I liked that said firstborn son got a moment to not be as dumb as he’s seemed, what with him figuring out about the crickets and all. But Stavros is too conditioned not to listen to him. [TV]
  • Malvo has very specific ideas when it comes to colors and gender roles. No, he does not want a pink walkie-talkie. [ZH]
  • I imagine that money in the case is going to get lost somewhere again, and I rather love the idea of the case turning into the linking device for whatever the future seasons of this show become. It’s the ultimate symbol of how little any of this matters. (Now go watch the linking device turn out to be the wood chipper.) [TV]
  • “No, sir, this is a severe woman with hard hair.” Dunno why, but this line from Molly (describing the woman from the motel) struck me. [ZH]
  • One tiny quibble: I don’t buy that Lorne would give his name to so many people. [TV]
  • Your Coen Brothers Movie Of The Week: The flashback that opens the episode is scored with a song that could’ve fit easily into the Coens’ 2000 screwball musical, O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s a movie that might be better remembered for its (excellent) soundtrack than its actual content, but it has George Clooney in full goofball mode, one of the Coens’ gentler storylines, and, oh yes, some utterly gorgeous music. It’s just a sweet, hilarious piece of work, and while that doesn’t quite fit in with all the darkness of Fargo the series, it might be not be a bad idea to get a breather before we head for the back half. [ZH]

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