I’m starting to get an idea of where this season may end up. I’m not going to share my predictions—for one, I’m a reviewer, not a fortune teller, and for another, I am absolutely terrible at guessing this sort of thing, and I don’t like embarrassing myself in print any more than I already do. But I mention it because, while it still suffers from some of the sluggishness that’s been dragging down the season as a whole, “The House Of Special Purposes” takes steps toward bringing the larger thematic concerns of the tale of the Stussys and Gloria Burgle into clearer focus.

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Things start off with a bang (ha ha, kill me) when Stella, Emmit’s wife, finds a package addressed to her husband on their doorstep. She opens the envelope and finds a blackmail note and a DVD inside; on the disc is an apparent sex tape of Emmit aggressively screwing a red-haired woman who repeatedly says his name, just in case there was any confusion. Stella accepts the video at face value and leaves her husband, taking their children and her mother with her.

This is, of course, another step in the ongoing Emmit and Ray feud. Having realized that a mustache-less Ray in a wig looks a fair bit like his brother (if you can hide his gut), Nikki comes up with the bold idea of faking “proof” of Emmit’s infidelity. Because neither she nor Ray are actually very good at this whole “feud” thing, the blackmail goes awry, but the introduction of a phony sex tape is the first part of the episode’s (and the season’s) larger concerns about the value of truth in a world where people’s actions are driven by what they believe, regardless of whether or not it’s true.

Emmit did not cheat on his wife. I mean, so far as we know; he seems utterly sincere (and absolutely devastated) when he proclaims his innocence to Sy later in the hour, and the tape Stella watched is a fake, a fraud, a phony. And yet the result, at least so far, makes that fact almost irrelevant. While the sequence is played mostly for laughs, Stella’s refusal to hear Emmit’s side of the story suggests that, whatever evidence he might be able to provide to the contrary, she is already convinced. Maybe Emmit was a more distant husband than he realized, or maybe some insecurity on Stella’s part made her vulnerable to deception. Or maybe that’s just how all relationships work, no matter how much we might want to pretend otherwise: both sides always keeping an ear cocked and an eye open for the absolute worst.

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That idea—of truth and what we believe to be true—is hardly a new one, but it doesn’t really have to be new; and intentionally or not, there’s certainly a resonance these days in reality being a vulnerable, hard-won concept. A shared concept, even, which is what makes someone like Varga so dangerous. Unlike most every other character on the show this season, he seems to grasp the unsettling idea that a strong enough will can shape the narrative of life to suit its own purposes. Last week, he convinced Emmit to sign partnership papers by conjuring a rabid mob of the poor and destitute swarming the Stussy door. This week, he goes all out on Sy, assaulting the man in his (now Varga’s) office with wife insults and genitals on a coffee cup, and suggesting to Emmit that his second-in-command may be plotting betrayal.

The latter is absurd, of course. Sy is by far the most loyal person in Emmit’s life, even more loyal than his wife, and while his efforts to push Ray and Nikki back have been clumsy, he’s clearly had Emmit’s interests in mind throughout. But while Emmit gradually falls under Varga’s sway, Sy has been scrambling to find an escape route for his boss, including taking a meeting with a potential buyer for the Stussy empire (the widow Goldfarb, played by the always welcome Mary McDonnell). That makes him a target for Varga, who undoubtedly wants to be the only voice whispering into Emmit’s ear.

The only real forward movement we get this week comes courtesy of Ray and Nikki. In a quick flashback after the opening scene, we see Ray picking the most awkward moment in the world to propose to his parolee girlfriend; and Nikki, delighted, accepts. Again, the fact that so far as we can tell she sincerely cares for Ray helps to make them both likable in spite of their occasional efforts at fraud, larceny, blackmail, and murder. It is oddly sweet to see them shopping for tuxedos, a sweetness that lends some much-needed tension to both Ray’s conversation with Gloria and Winnie at the police station and Nikki’s meeting with Sy (and others) outside of town. While I realize deep down that these two will almost certainly have to pay for their crimes, I find myself invested in their fates.

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That investment makes the final scene of the episode surprisingly painful to watch. Sy, with the shackles formerly taken off, makes one last pitch to get rid of Nikki and Ray: $40,000, plus the $10,000 they already stole. This is considerably less than the amount Nikki believes Emmit owes his brother, but it’s a relief to find out that “shackles off” for Sy means a flat dollar amount and not, y’know, murder. (It’s possible that Sy was planning something horrible if Nikki said no, but his reaction to what happens next doesn’t seem to be that of a man capable of serious violence.) Then Varga’s henchmen show up, and Yuria proceeds to beat the shit out of Nikki while Sy watches in horror.

This isn’t the first act of violence on the show, but it’s the first since Ennis’ offscreen death that’s played for actual horror. Nikki manages to get herself home in time for Ray to find her curled up in the bathtub after he himself got sent home by the cops. (Again, that whole thing about “truth”: While Gloria has pretty much the whole thing figured out, her chief, who is terrible, refuses to believe anything she says, using a story about balloons to shrug the whole thing off as coincidence.) Hard to say what happens next, but I doubt Ray will be open to negotiations anymore, especially not after Sy abandoned Nikki to her fate.

So, the thematic stuff is interesting; it really is. And I’ll freely admit, there was probably more going on with the narration last week than I was prepared to engage with. But I’m not convinced that interesting themes and nods to Russian history make up for a lack of effect from the actual story. Last season worked as well as it did because it combined a mess of intriguing ideas with a strong, twisty plot about compelling characters. This season feels like it’s trying to push more of the former in order to make up for a lack in the latter. Whether that works is a matter of personal taste. Speaking for myself, I can enjoy pulling at a few threads while still being frustrated with a tale that has yet to entirely engage me.

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Stray observations

  • The nice thing about this whole “the nature of truth” theme is that it helps put that cold open at the start of the season into better perspective. The innocent man who’d been taken into custody by the government for a murder he didn’t commit? His innocence mattered less than the power of the system that could arrest him.
  • Last week, when Ray impersonated his brother, the banker warned him that a withdrawal of $10,000 could cause problems. This week, we find out what those problems are: An IRS agent arrives at Emmit’s office, wanting to “kick the tires” and make sure everything’s on the up and up. (Varga already has phony books prepared to cover his tracks, which goes back to the “truth” idea. It’s admittedly a broad enough theme to cover a lot of story turns, but it’s something, anyway.)
  • “I’m not sure we can trust the Jew.” Varga uses anti-Semitism to make his point to Emmit. It’s doubtful that he truly believes what he says, but that doesn’t matter much.
  • Varga: “A chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg.” (Like all great con men, Varga uses the pretense that there is no one actual “reality”—it’s all a matter of perspective—to make it easier to bend others to his will.)
  • “You don’t have to like the truth for it to be true.” “You sure?”
  • “It never happened!” “That doesn’t make it any less of a fact.”

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