I’ve written before about how Varga is more or less filling the same role that Malvo did in Fargo’s first season—the preternaturally assured villain one step ahead of nearly everyone—and while that’s certainly true in the broader sense, it does a disservice to the character (and to the season) to leave it at that. Varga’s evil manifests itself in different ways, and not just because of David Thewlis’s distinctly unsettled performance. There are details here which seem more than a little relevant to this American life, especially in recent months: the Russian connections, certain ugly slurs, and, perhaps most effectively, the way he uses anecdotes and monologues to obscure truth and push forward his way of thinking. In retrospect, little of what he says makes much sense. It’s more the way he says it, and the way he guides conversations by pushing buttons people aren’t even aware they have.
It’s an approach that’s been working wonders on Emmit, and in “The Lord Of No Mercy,” we find the parking lot king finally crossing a point of no return. I’ve been critical of this season’s familiarity and thin characterization, so I’d say some praise is in order here: I wasn’t expecting Ray to die this week, and I especially wasn’t expecting Emmit to be the one to (accidentally) kill him. Even more importantly, the murder comes across as a legitimate accident. After finding out about Maurice and Ennis Stussy from Gloria and Winnie, Emmit comes to Ray’s apartment with the intention of putting an end to the feud once and for all. He brings the framed stamp with him, but when he offers it to his brother, Ray (who, it must be said, is still freaked out about his girlfriend getting beaten up) is suspicious. A brief back-and-forth ensues, with the framed stamp ultimately flipping up and smashing into Ray’s face. A chunk of glass lodges in his throat, and he bleeds out on his own miserable carpet.
The scene reminds me of a similarly unexpected moment of violence in one of my favorite crime dramas (which I’ll spoil in Stray Observations), but it still comes as a shock here. The past few episodes have done a decent job of humanizing Ray; he’s a loser and a criminal, but not a hateful one, and while it seemed inevitable he’d suffer some sort of comeuppance for his misdeeds, the gory slapstick that ends his life is at once absurd and oddly tragic. The Stussy brothers’ relationship was, to my mind, one of the weaker elements of the season, a bond established by a few token conversations and the stunt casting of a single actor in a dual role, but their final conversation has some real sadness behind it. The break between them was not something that could ever really be healed, but the idea that both men, on some level, really did want peace makes Ray’s death more than just a punchline.
It doesn’t hurt that Emmit takes the lead in their last scene together, trying to explain his frustration at being pushed into a corner after all the goodwill he’s shown his brother over the years. Of the two men, Emmit has been the most passive, letting Sy take point in the on-going fraternal struggles and slowly but inexorably allowing Varga to take the upper hand in the Stussy organization. Here, we get a glimpse into what drives him, and it’s really just that desire to be well-liked in his community, to be appreciated by everyone—it’s decency, sure, but his morality is driven less by the need to be good than it is by the need to be nice. Men like that are vulnerable to the promises of con-men, and that vulnerability, plus the terror of losing everything, is all the explanation we need for why he calls Varga to deal with Ray’s death.
But enough of the armchair psychology, how does this work for the structure of the season as a whole? Obviously we don’t know exactly how this will play out, but putting a big, shocking death just over the halfway point is a smart move, and the sort of choice the story desperately needed at this point. This season has been interesting, full of curious and delightful detours and lots of (unpleasantly relevant) character detail (this is me acknowledging that yes, I recognize Varga seems to have stepped into 2010 straight out of 2016-17), but it’s been lacking in narrative drive and suspense. The confrontation between Nikki, Sy, and Yuria at the end of last week’s episode helped to tighten the screws a bit, and even before Ray’s demise tonight, things felt considerably tenser.
Honestly, there’s been danger in the air ever since Yuria and Meemo threw that guy off the parking garage, but whereas that death was played largely for laughs, Nikki’s beating wasn’t. Her and Ray’s determination to get some sort of payback for what happened feels like both an inevitable choice on their part, and a horribly misguided one, which is why Ray’s death at the hands of his own brother is such a clever bit of trickery. The situation was of course going to turn homicidal eventually, but while I’m not sure we needed to wait quite this long before the real unpleasantness began, I do appreciate how difficult it was to predict the first major corpse in advance.
Oh sure, Ray has had a target on him since the start, and there’s karmic balance in him going out the way he does. This whole time, he and Nikki have been the ones refusing to let go, to let the past be the past, and while Nikki was certainly the more ambitious of the two, Ray’s inability to accept his brother’s success is the real raw wound here, and you could make a case that his abrupt exit is no less than he deserves. And yet it doesn’t feel like justice, poetic or otherwise. It plays out ugly and stupid and sad. While Ray may have brought his own death upon himself, there’s no grand design here. Just clumsiness and bad luck at the worst possible moment, and the effect is to toss the last four episodes of the season straight up into the air (this is a good thing)(well, depending on how they land it is).
Bad luck is a boon to Varga. He swoops in at the end with a new version of events already prepared—pinning the crime on Nikki and creating a story of long term abuse out of whole cloth—but there’s nothing new about his behavior. I’m so used to villains who spout odd but eerily relevant monologues that it wasn’t until the last couple of episodes that Varga’s true talent became evident. He is not a Hannibal Lecter type, hiding in plain sight and observing events with cold, slightly amused contempt; his speeches aren’t ironic commentary on current events. He muddles. He obfuscates. He’s the First High Priest of the Church of Fake News.
Observe his speech near the beginning of the episode, telling three stories in rapid succession: a failing bank, the sandwich that started World War I, and a faked moon-landing. “Perception becomes reality,” he argues. That’s not, in fact, true, but that’s not the point; perception doesn’t change reality, but it does define our reactions to it (whether or not there’s a difference is for the philosophers, I guess). Varga’s tale spinning is less about conveying information than it is about devaluing his listeners’ faith in their own understanding of events. It’s as though someone read Don Delillo’s White Noise and decided to weaponize the concept. The more nonsense (or near nonsense, or trivia, or incidental detail) you can use to clutter up a situation, the more difficult it is for a person’s conscience to guide us through it. And when you’re drowning in minutia, you’ll grasp at anything, especially if, like Emmit, it’s a course you already half wanted to try already.
There’s some hope still. Nikki is clever and, for now at least, not dead, although Varga certainly has plans for her. And Gloria is, if nothing else, entirely immune to Varga’s charms. They have their first scene together this week, and the one time Varga tries to throw her off the track (when she explains the name connection between Emmit and Ennis Stussy, Varga mentions there were “24 Hitlers” in Germany before the second world war), she sees right through him. The episode ends with her deciding to head back to Ray’s after trying, and failing, to make contact with him earlier. That means she’s heading directly into a crime scene without realizing it yet. So there’s hope she might stop this before it gets much further out of hand. Then again, given the way of the world these days, there’s just as much chance that even a straight-shooter like herself will get lost in the storm.
- Effective opening this week, with a slow reveal showing Ray sitting in his front hall, processing the attack on Nikki. (McGregor does excellent work as both brothers in the episode, which is yet another reason to be sad to see Ray go.)
- Varga has big plans for the future. Sy’s not on board. Seems like there’s a good chance Sy won’t be with the Stussy company much longer. (And an equally good chance that Emmit, not Varga, will be the one to boot him out.)
- Seems fitting that a man who spends his days spouting shit would have such a rotten, bleeding, and hideous mouth.
- Varga’s unable to find any information about Gloria online. Which fits: given the way the Internet spreads false information, of course the only person qualified to stand up for the truth would stay off of it.
- “I didn’t mean to-” “No one ever does.”
- The movie Ray’s death reminded me of: The Grifters.