There’s a scene three quarters of the way through “The Gift Of The Magi” that sums up Fargo’s peculiar strengths and weaknesses. Lou is in a men’s room with presidential candidate Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell), and the two men get to talking about the state of the world. Lou flat out says (after some stammering) that he’s worried the awfulness of everything has manifested itself in his wife as a cancer, and it’s the sort of overly direct, overly metaphorical kind of dialogue writing that’s hard not to cringe at. Patrick Wilson does his best to sell the line, but I’m not convinced that Lou would be this open with someone he barely knows, or that he’d think of his wife’s sickness in such oddly contrived terms.

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But then Reagan does his best to console him, telling him that there’s no problem an American can’t solve, and when Lou says, “How?” the soon-to-be president smiles half shrugs, and walks away. It’s a perfect encapsulation both of Reagan’s charm and the limitations of his shtick: reassurance without content, confidence without justification. Lou’s question may have been overly contrived, but it leads to a moment that feels like the core of the season: the misguided notion that just believing in something hard enough will be enough to fix everything. Fargo can be heavy-handed in getting some of its points across, but that heavy-handedness often leads to sublime absurdity.

“The Gift Of The Magi” is dominated by two intensely violent set-pieces. In the first, Joe Bulo and a squad of his men are massacred by Hanzee and a team of Gerhardt men while taking a local commissioner out deer-hunting. It’s a thrilling, unexpected sequence, especially given Joe’s importance up until now; we even lose one of the Kitchen brothers in the ruckus. The attack is motivated by Hanzee bringing the belt buckle back to the Gerhardts. With Dodd’s guidance, Hanzee convinces Floyd that Ed Blomquist is actually a fearsome hitman known as “the Butcher of Luverne,” and that Rye’s death came at the orders of the Kansas City mafia.

It’s a shame to see Joe go, but it’s also a smart move story-wise, because it creates a growing sense of chaos for everyone involved. Joe and Mike were, in their highly criminal way, something like a voice of reason; they represented a larger organization which ultimately wants stability in the region, if only to protect its interests. But now war has broken out, and the man in charge is a head in a box. (Mike doesn’t seem too happy about it, either, menacing Simone with some borderline sexual assault.) Joe is caught off guard by the suddenness of the attack, in part because this isn’t the way things are done. The sudden violence informs him (however briefly) that he’s wrong, and it also raises the tension for the rest of the series. The Gerhardts want a war, and, well, war’s gonna find them. Given that they’re facing down an enemy with far more resources and connections than they have access to, this isn’t going to go well for anyone.

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Hell, they can’t even take out a simple butcher. The attempted hit on Ed is the episode’s other big set-piece, and it’s a doozy; an almost literally hellish conflagration of slapstick destruction that leaves one man dead, and another man’s dreams in ruins. The build-up is fantastic. Ed gets into a conversation with Noreen at the butcher shop, and it turns out, Noreen’s been reading Camus. It also turns out she has a certain philosophical interest in the concept of suicide, and the dark comedy of their exchange—Noreen questioning the point of life while Ed sputters about how you have to “try”—has the perfect punchline in the sight of Virgil and Charlie driving up outside. You can debate the emptiness of existence all you want, but when someone shows up with a gun, the conversation changes.

This is especially true for poor Charlie, who’s eager to contribute to the family business, and completely unprepared for what that actually entails. (He’s no Michael Corleone.) It’s a little heartbreaking to see him in the shop waiting for Ed, while Noreen cheerfully flirts with him, Virgil’s “No witnesses” comment clearly ringing in his ears. Heartbreaking and tense as hell, because while it would be a huge surprise (and a waste) for Ed to die now, there’s nothing protecting Noreen beyond her fundamental innocence. Shows love to kill nice, innocent young people on occasion, just to remind us that they can. Noreen gets through everything relatively unscathed, and even Charlie survives (so far) the ultimate showdown, which is softer than I was expecting. But that softness doesn’t rob the earlier scene of its tension, and it doesn’t make the final showdown any less explosive.

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Unlike Joe’s death, the final assault on the butcher shop doesn’t come as a surprise. While Charlie is unable to go through with the shooting his first time in, he’s not alone; and while we don’t know much about Virgil, if he’s Dodd’s man, it’s clear he’s not going to let a job slide just because some kid has a soft heart. Charlie tries to reach out to his dad back at home, sending him a message that he wants to go back to school, but he still goes along with Virgil back into the shop, and still does his best to shoot Ed. The result: some chaos, some fighting, and Ed nearly getting choked to death before finding it in himself to fight back. He even takes Virgil out with meat cleaver, which, given the post-traumatic stress he’s been experiencing over Rye’s death, is probably not going to sit well. It’s brutal, well-composed sequence that conveys the confusion of the situation without ever being confusing to watch.

The episode’s title is a classic O. Henry short story about a married couple who make sacrifices to give each other gifts for Christmas, only to find those sacrifices rendered the gifts unusable. In the show’s interpretation, the Blomquists’ are hit with something a bit harder than dramatic irony. Early in the hour, Ed refuses to listen to Peggy’s plan to leave town, only to change his mind after Virgil and Charlie attack; but his decision comes too late, as the episode’s final shot has the flashing lights arriving on their doorstep before they have time to flee. Meanwhile, Peggy makes her own doomed sacrifice, first packing a bag and picking up the car from the garage so she can leave town, but then changing her mind, and selling the car to try and make up the money Ed needs to buy the shop.

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As ever, she and Ed’s sort of but not quite right behavior remains one of the show’s most compelling elements, and Kirsten Dunst does some of her best acting on the series to date, first as she sits silently in the car, working up the nerve to go back; and then, as she rides the bus back home, confident (maybe) that she’s done the right thing. It’s still difficult to tell what brought these two together, but occasional hints suggest some deeper psychology holding Peggy back. Their basement is full of stacked magazines; not just a collection, but an actual hoard, which helps put in context that scene near the start of the show when Ed couldn’t find a seat at the kitchen table thanks to all the stuff lying around. Maybe Peggy’s a hoarder, maybe she’s someone who can’t let go, and it could be that Ed is just the biggest, most socially acceptable evidence of that tendency. Giving up her dreams of escape to give her husband what he wants is a lovely gesture, but things have gone to far for such simple fixes, and it might be that she’s motivated as much by an inability to let anything go than by an understanding of his needs.

Regardless, “The Gift Of The Magi” shakes up the status quo in a way that will surely have a major impact in the weeks ahead. After a brief holding pattern, war has officially broken out, and the Blomquists aren’t going to be able to keep themselves above the fray any longer. Betsy’s taking her pills but feeling worse, and Lou isn’t dealing well with his wife’s illness; and while that’s a small point in sea of blood, it still feels like a part of everything else. Like the UFO drawing that Molly made, everything’s askew and refuses to be easily reconciled. People are making life or death decisions with the wrong information, and voices of reason are sidelined or removed from the picture entirely. It’s not hard to believe that even a conspiracy nut like Karl would find Reagan’s vision of a “shining city on a hill” worth looking up to.

Stray observations

  • The scene with Hanzee bringing in the belt buckle is curious, because it seems to undermine Floyd’s decision at the end of last week’s episode to go to war. Is this just making her more aggressive than she otherwise would have been? (Or am I getting the timeline confused; is the scene at the dinner table supposed to have happened before Floyd declared war?)
  • I’m not sure if this is the first time it’s come up, but the woman at the salon who keeps pushing Peggy to leave Ed is named Constance. She sits next to Betsy at one of the Reagan speeches.
  • Speaking of Reagan, Bruce Campbell does some fine, understated work in the part. He gets a bit of the Reagan wheeze in his voice, but he doesn’t push it, and the result feels more like a character than an impression.
  • Karl: “If you get the chance, ask him if it’s true that Joan Crawford had crabs.” Lou: “Yeah, I’m not gonna do that.”
  • Bear is turning out to be the reasonable Gerhardt brother, isn’t he. (Apologizes for misidentifying him last week.) He’s still supporting Floyd, but he also suspects Hanzee and Dodd’s story about the “Butcher of Luverne,” even going so far as to ask Hanzee to come clean.
  • The scene of Ed remembering Rye in the garage has a very Lynchian feel, especially the shots of Rye superimposed over Ed’s head. It’s garrish and corny and nightmarish all at once.
  • “That’s the feminine side, Ma.” -Dodd.
  • Reagan talks with Lou about his war history, and then rambles about his work on a World War II movie. The fact that this sort of bullshittery is somehow charming was a key part of the man’s appeal.

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