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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tensions flare and dread rises on a creepy Fargo

Chris Rock as Loy Cannon
Chris Rock as Loy Cannon
Photo: Elizabeth Morris/FX
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One thing that’s always balanced out Fargo’s more self-conscious quirks is the show’s ability to balance oddball whimsy with dread. That dread has been sorely missing this season, but it arrived in “The Pretend War” with considerable force, starting with Ethelrida’s vision of a creepy disfigured man on the stairs, and running through an episode which is mostly about establishing all the horrible things that may or may not happen in the weeks ahead. I’m not going call this a “table setting” episode, because arguably most of Fargo’s episodes fall into that category, to the point where it’s a fairly useless distinction. But in terms of both escalating conflicts and finding ways to remind us of what’s at stake in all of this, “War” does a good job at turning the old screw.

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Start with the creepy opener. It’s possible (it’s always possible) that I missed some set up, and there is an explicit explanation for both Ethelrida’s apparent waking nightmare, and the out-of-focus figure who rises out of the tub in Zelmare’s hotel room—if I did miss this, apologies, and I look forward to several comments informing me of said fact. As is, all I can say is that both sequences are well done, intensely unsettling, and inexplicable in a way that legitimately surprised me; so much of this season of Fargo already feels a bit overly-familiar that I appreciate any attempt to shake things up. The show has dabbled in the surreal before, of course, and this will presumably end up the same as the UFO sighting and other such oddities of the past, but it feels pointed here, a potent omen of doom (or Death himself).

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Starting with such a nightmare (awake or otherwise) sets a definite tone, and while not every scene in the episode is quite so intense, most of them serve to remind the audience that this is a show where bad things often happen, and they almost always happen in ways we don’t expect, and sometimes to people we actually like. That may seem like an obvious point, but I hadn’t realized how much I was missing that foreboding vibe in earlier entries. It’s what gives all the writerly tics and self-conscious artifice its kick—the contrast between absurdity and horrific consequences is more or less the fuel this particular engine runs on, and it’s gratifying to find there’s still some juice left in the tank.

The botched hit on Lemuel and Zelmare and Swanee’s robbery last week has Loy and the rest of the Cannons on edge. So they decide to fight back, robbing a shipment of guns from Calamita and another Fadda stooge. It’s a gorgeous set-piece, with Calamita and the stooge driving a truck loaded with oranges into a fiery trap on the highway; the Cannon men force them out of the truck, sending one to die in the flames (actually, I don’t know if he died, but he didn’t look well) before branding Calamita on the cheek with a molten gun stock. I’m not sure how the timing on all of this works—for one thing, it seems odd that Loy would send his men out for the job and then go try and coerce Rabbi Milligan into getting his son out of the Fadda house. I guess the idea is that the robbery is just balancing the books after the earlier two attacks?

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Regardless, it looks cool, and the quick view of Hell suggests everything is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Tensions heighten between Josto and his brother after Rabbi tells Josto about the failed hit; for once, Josto seems to get the upper hand on his brother, busting into a meeting, shooting a gun a bunch, and forcing him to stand down by shoving said gun into his crotch. The way things stand, it’s hard to imagine the two of them managing to achieve any kind of peace between them, although I suppose it’s always possible that Loy’s machinations could give them a common enemy to take on. Josto orders Odis to put police pressure on the Cannons to try and get them to ease off his organization, and sends Ebal Violante (the older fella who’s had a couple of sit downs with Doctor Senator in the diner) to New York. The more we see of Josto, the more I’m enjoying how the character riffs on mafia hotheads of the past; you’d think his insecurity and quick temper would make him into a monster, but so far he’s preferable to Gaetano, even with the occasional acts of over-compensation.

Speaking of Odis, he’s having a tough time trying to get Deafy off his back; bribing an informant to sell the idea that Zelmare and Swanee have run off to Chicago certainly doesn’t work. I haven’t mentioned Odis much yet, but the character is one of the weaker elements of the season so far—Jack Huston is a fine actor, but Odis’ OCD behavior is just one odd element too many in a show that has never hurt for lack of odd elements. The actual mental illness is certainly not off limits for fictional representation, but the way it’s used here just feels arbitrary, as though the writers decided it would be interesting to do, and “interesting” was good enough. There’s a decent chance it will pay off at some point—if nothing else, the way other characters always react whenever he has to knock on a door multiple times before leaving suggests that it’s a behavior the audience is supposed to remember. But for right now, he doesn’t come across as believable or all that interesting, which is a bit of a drag.

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More successful are developments on the “Oraetta’s pretty goddamn evil, isn’t she?” front. We see her and Josto engaging in some erotic asphyxiation (this is such an obvious Chekov’s gun moment that I really hope Josto doesn’t end up choked to death later), and then Ethelrida drops by to try and pick up some extra money apartment cleaning. In a decision indicating Oraetta is either a pretty bad criminal mastermind, or else so deeply racist she legitimately thinks Ethelrida will heed her instructions to the letter, the older woman agrees to the arrangement, with the stipulation that Ethelrida not open one particular unlocked door. But, wouldn’t you know it, Ethelrida is curious and maybe a bit suspicious; so the door gets opened, and we see how deep Oraetta’s rabbit hole goes.

All of this feels a bit too easy (why isn’t that door locked? Is the idea that Oraetta unlocked it to get drugs for her and Josto, and then just forgot to relock before she left for work?), but the scene of Ethelrida poking around and getting more than she bargained for is great, right up to the cat who almost ruins everything by knocking a glass bottle off a shelf. Oraetta has a lot of drugs, many of them dangerous, but she also has a shoebox full of clipped obituaries, and jewelry boxes and shelves full of pilfered goods from the people she’s killed, including a wrist bracelet with a victim’s name on it. It was obvious from the first episode that Oraetta was a bad one, and the discovery does feel like it could’ve been framed better to be more shocking; as is, the volume is impressive, but it doesn’t quite register as much as it probably should have. But it’s good to have Oraetta’s villainy more out in the open, and doing it relatively early on makes it much harder to predict where all of this is going.

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The episode ends with Zelmare bringing her brother-in-law some of the money from the robbery. She tried to wash the puke off it in the hotel room rub, but it still smells; yet the gesture is a sweet one, as is the conversation between Zelmare and Thurman. This feels like some much needed character development for Zelmare, who is almost certainly going to be in big trouble soon—she and Swanee came off as aggressors for a while, and hearing her express concern for her sister’s family, as well as treat Thurman with a kind of teasing affection, will make it all the more upsetting if she and Swanee run into violent ends.

It also leads to a pretty sharp bit of irony: Zelmare gives Thurman the money because she knows the Smutnys are in debt; unfortunately, they’re in debt to the Cannons, so Thurman just lugs the bag of vomit-stained cash to Loy’s house. Thurman’s behavior afterward strikes me as excessively stupid (he comes home all happy and announces they need to celebrate because he just paid off the debt; did he think Dibrell wasn’t going to immediately figure out something was up?), but the way an act of generosity backfires feels very fitting for this show. The one major complaint I have so far this season is how artificial everything seems; while Fargo the TV show always comes across as a step removed, it felt like last season, however clumsily, Hawley was at least trying to find something new to say. This season, it’s back to riffing on familiar tropes, with too many characters that come across as the idea of something rather than actual people worth caring about. But there have been a few scattered moments of humanity, and I’m crossing my fingers we’ll see more of those before the blood starts to flow in earnest.

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Stray observations

  • It basically works—the sudden lines of fire are frightening enough that you can believe the driver would stop the truck—but it’s pretty funny that after Cannon’s men steal the truck, they just… drive it through the flames and go about their day.
  • Okay, I think we’re about good on people making speeches that serve as subtle threats, let’s try a new approach for a bit.
  • “Goodness. Your mind’s a clutter of grievance.” How long before Oraetta decides Josto is too sad to survive and takes matters into her own hands, do you think.
  • “If a man’s pud needed a tug, would this be the place for said tugging?” -Deafy (If nothing else, I’m grateful for this season of Fargo for bringing Timothy Olyphant back to TV to do shit like this.)
  • “I gotta tell you, I can’t remember the last time a white man tried to make my life easier.” -Loy to Thurman.
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