Well, the Sioux Falls Massacre certainly lived up to its name. After a season full of dropped bodies, the climax of “The Castle” still manages to be shocking in its brutality. Multiple police officers are murdered, pretty much the entire Gerhardt family is put down, and, perhaps most upsetting of all, Hank gets gutshot. It’s a mess. People make decisions without considering the consequences, trusting faulty information and their own gut instincts to drive them forward, and the result is a bizarre blood bath which never needed to happen.

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The pointlessness that runs throughout “The Castle” is thrilling to behold, and the episode’s introduction—framing the story as a chapter from The HISTORY of TRUE CRIME in the Mid West, with occasional helpful narration from a guest starring Martin Freeman—helps to underline the absurdity. The artificiality of the device, and the way the narrator helpfully points out all the unknown factors (when it comes to Hanzee, we can really only just speculate), is lightly comedic, and reminds us that the events unfolding all happened in the past, a fact which is especially important given one of the season’s biggest themes. We’ve been watching some of these characters for weeks now, and we knew a reckoning was coming. But even knowing that, and even hearing the various causes pushed into play, doesn’t make us ready for the effect. Even explained with exquisite British courtesy, a massacre is still a massacre, and nonsense remains nonsense.

Like, for example, the local police, led by Captain Cheney—the biggest prick in a season that hasn’t hurt for lack of ‘em. Cheney is barely around for the hour, but he makes the most of the limited time available to him, turning on Lou with the speed and vehemence of a man who thinks questions are like assholes: they all stink. Without Cheney’s determination to use the Blumquists for an ill-advised sting operation, none of what follows would’ve happened. His plan is stupid and short-sighted, and it puts poor Ed at risk for no good reason, but because it’s his plan, it’s the law, and anyone who says otherwise can go hang. (Quite literally; in a particularly bizarre moment, Cheney threatens Lou with a “South Dakota necktie, which I’m fairly certain is slang for a lynching.)

Much like the aggressively racist assholes Hanzee ran into last week, Cheney’s behavior (and the behavior of a handful of the other officers) is a bit much, forcing a crisis through borderline criminal arrogance rather than having that crisis develop naturally thanks to understandable, if misguided, behavior on both sides. Yet it feels appropriate, because everything in “The Castle” is heightened, a war zone waiting for a war, and people like Cheney always find themselves at the heart of a place like that; the captain’s biggest mistake (and arguably his only even remotely redeeming quality) is that he puts himself directly in the crosshairs, unlike thousands of Cheneys before and since.

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The Vietnam War has been referenced in earlier episodes, and surely the fallout at the Sioux Falls Motor Motel has some resonance with that particular mess of a catastrophe, but the sequence works as well as it does because it’s not limited to a single, reductive point of comparison. It’s an exciting action scene, no question, and it serves as a climax for the rest of the season without actively explaining anything. All the bad omens and weird events have been building to this, and yet this horror doesn’t justify the horrors which came before. It concludes some storylines but not others, and it fails to provide the narrative catharsis of a truly tragic conclusion. The Gerhardts go out in a blaze, but there’s no glory to it. Floyd is stabbed by one of her most trusted men, but the two of them hadn’t spent much time talking before. Bear’s enraged charge at Lou isn’t two lifelong enemies facing off. Sure, they didn’t much like each other, but it’s not Lou’s fault that Floyd is dead, or that Dodd isn’t at the motel, and Bear probably realizes it. He doesn’t care, because he wants something to hit. (Also, Lou shot him, so that didn’t improve his mood.)

What I’m getting at here is how well this episode delivers on the promises it’s been making from the start without sacrificing its interest in absurdity. Peggy’s decision to drive home with Rye on her car; Ed killing Rye and then grinding up the corpse; both of them refusing to accept Lou’s help—these events pushed the Gerhardts into war with Kansas City, but that war was coming regardless, and there’s no easy way to chart out the steps that brought us from the initial event until now. Which isn’t to say that the season has been confusing or sloppy, but rather that Hawley has, beneath all the artifice he delights in putting on (and which makes the show such a pleasure to watch), a good grasp on the vagaries of human behavior. Everything here makes sense, more or less, but it’s also bizarre and loopy and easily preventably, and it cost people their lives.

Which is why the UFO is entirely fitting. It’s the nonsense given a physical presence, like some cold, unknowable god observing us from afar. There’s certainly stuff to unpack symbolically, but what struck me most powerfully in the moment is how inevitable it felt, how of a piece with everything that came before. The ship has no impact on events, beyond distracting Bear long enough to save Lou’s life. It offers no information, no explanation for itself or anything around it; it spares no one, and gives nothing but light, confusion, and mystery. It is, in short, just another part of the whole damn mess, and while it’s possible aliens could show up in the season finale and muck all this up, as of right now, I think Hawley has earned the device.

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This is, after all, a world where a girl can find her mother collapsed in the kitchen, ice water pooling on the floor beside her. (The scene is put together heartbreakingly well; we hear the glass shattering in the other room just as Noreen tells Molly to go see her mom. All the worst moments happen when we’re not there to see them.) A world where people die and keep dying for reasons that have been buried in the ground for over a century. Where the main instigator of all of this is a man whose motives remain in question. Why wouldn’t it also be a world with unidentified flying objects? At least if some grand intergalactic conspiracy was at work, there might be someone in charge somewhere. The counterpoint being that since the UFO is so palpably absurd we know it’s a device; and because we know it’s a device, we know it’s fake; which leaves us with all of the mess, and none of the reason.

It’s fitting, too, that Ed and Peggy manage to duck their way out of another scrape. Lou does his best to protect them early on, but it’s Peggy who does the actualizing here, knocking Schmidt out with a gun butt and then fleeing the scene with her husband. Whatever switch needed to be turned on in the lady’s brain has finally found its way home, and she’s on a mission. When Ed stops to gawk at the UFO, she tells him to get a move on: “It’s just a flying saucer, Ed. We gotta go.” She’s being, not thinking, and it remains to be seen if that (with maybe Lou’s help) will be enough to save them both from Hanzee.

The Blumquists may still die next week, but having them waltz through the massacre they helped to create is perhaps karmically unfair, but dramatically sound. This, in essence, is the self-help philosophy at its most pure: following the voice in your head to the exclusion of all other sounds, embracing selfishness and self-focus so that it becomes a mantra, ignoring the fallout of your behavior by always keeping your face fixed forward. America had a long dark night of the soul in the ‘70s. It took a look at itself, decided it wasn’t too keen on what it saw, and, like Peggy and Ed, turned its back on the wreckage with a smile.

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Stray observations

  • I love the idea that Hanzee is turning on the Blumquists because they saw his vulnerable side. I’m less sure about having the narrator spell that out for us, but hey, it got the job done. (Besides, Hanzee’s relative silence makes him easily the most obscure character of the season. After showing us plenty of talkative, even witty, killers, it’s a smart change of pace to have one guy do the job without having to lay down a thesis every time.)
  • It’s very satisfying to type “Cheney is a jackass.” Try it at home!
  • Goodbye, Floyd and Bear. Floyd’s exist is maybe the most heartbreaking of the lot, if only because her story—taking over a crime family after her husband is rendered incapacitated—never got as much screentime as I was expecting it to. It’s a plot that could’ve filled an entire miniseries on its own, but here mostly happened in glimpses.
  • Hank isn’t looking too healthy either. Ted Danson’s reserved performance has been a highlight in a season full of actors working at the top of their game; it’s not a surprising turn, nor a particularly showy one, but he gave the character the necessary gravitas while still allowing some room for the unknowable. It was possible to trust Hank as a voice of reason while at the same time not be completely shocked that he has a room full of alien writing in his home. That’s a broad range, and if this is the end of him, I’ll be sorry to see him go.
  • Mike survives the encounter by arriving in time to see all of his enemies dead. So things are looking up for him.

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