A few weeks back, I brought up Don DeLillo’s White Noise in an attempt to describe what set V.M. Varga apart as a villain: The modern world is full of useless information, and Varga exploits that as a way to overwhelm and manipulate people. This, of course, was a terribly clever reference to make, a sort of scholarly brag—aha, I don’t just watch television, I also read “books”—but what I failed to mention at the time is that I fucking hate White Noise. I’ve read it twice to be sure, and I can’t stand that novel at all. It’s well-written, and its satirical point is well-chosen, and I recognize that it’s one of the great works of the last century. And I despise it.
I mention this now because after watching “Somebody To Love,” it seems clear that a lot of my structural criticisms of this season were misplaced. At the very least, all the disconnection that plagued me for so long—the way characters revealed information at times that seemed too late to be dramatically effective, the weird hiccups and sideways jerks of the narrative, the structure that never entirely coalesced into anything coherent—was on purpose. The very last scene of this climactic entry puts things as clearly as possible, short of a handwritten note delivered to each viewer: The world is a chaotic, random place. Some people look at that and see an opportunity; others see a hotel room painting that needs to be straightened. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
As themes go, that’s a bold one, because it requires a consistent perpetual resistance of many of the reasons we turn to fiction in the first place. For that last conversation between Varga and Gloria (set five years after most of the events of this season) to work, the show needed to make it equally plausible that either of their version of events might work out. What matters isn’t if Varga was right or if Gloria was right. What matters is the perfect tension of the moment, as we sit in the room with them and stare at the clock, and wonder on what side of the line we fall. Do we embrace Varga’s belief that evil is the natural tendency of humankind? Do we favor Gloria’s faith that determination and good sense will win the day? Something in between?
I respect that. The ending is the best part of the episode, maybe the best part of the season as a whole; it gives every odd digression and weird character choice the ring of intentionality and resonance that I’ve been wanting for so long. All of a sudden the rambling, stop-and-start progression of the Stussy feud is less a failed attempt at comic tragedy, and more a way to underline the awkward stupidity of real life. I kept waiting for things to build, but they never really did, and that was the point. Individual scenes of eerie grace were set against flat comedy, and the connective tissue pulling it all together was basically, “Shit happens. What are you going to do about it?”
So yeah, a lot of what I threw at this season could be chalked up to my own prejudices (I watch stories for expressions of character that manifest into narrative, which is just not what this one was about; even Varga and Gloria were more physical versions of ideas than attempts to create people), which means, hey, here’s permission if you really loved this to just ignore me even more than usual. In many ways this season is the apotheosis of something that’s been in the show from the start, and it makes even more sense when viewed in the context of Noah Hawley’s other big series this year, Legion. Neither were as interested in their ensembles as they were in visually striking set pieces, mind-bending surrealism, and moments that lingered long after any larger vision was lost. It’s a colder approach to narrative than I like, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have value, and it’s smart of Hawley to dive into his own obsessions while he has the creative freedom to do so.
It’s just, I’m not sure this is an approach I’m ever going to connect to enough to get much out of it. Those times when the season very intentionally hit on a point—like that marvelous third episode—it clicked for me, managing to be at once rambling and intensely focused in a way that generated effects that are rare for television shows. But those times when it meandered solely to upset our expectations or refuse to follow traditional patterns were harder to watch.
For example, Nikki Swango. Squint and you can say she has an arc: She goes from the manipulative girlfriend of a dim-witted parole officer to an angel of vengeance, ultimately undone by her own need to find straightforward revenge in a complicated scenario. Nothing wrong with that. And yet there’s no real depth to her as a character beyond what Mary Elizabeth Winstead brought to the show. The slow pan over her corpse on the highway, shot in the head by a cop (who she killed) while trying to murder Emmit for Ray’s death… it feels more hollow than haunting. And while I’m largely positive that this is on purpose, I’m not sure the result is something that was worth the time invested to achieve it.
I’m not one for rendering art into some simplified cost vs. reward equation. But I’m also not sure spending 10 episodes full of barely realized caricatures bumping into each other for a few laughs and the occasional shock is something I can get behind, even when the lack of emotional depth is a key element in what the artists involved are trying to achieve. I got into a brief argument on Twitter over the weekend with another critic over whether or not Emmit’s confession last week was something that should’ve hit sooner. He said that, the way he read it, we weren’t really supposed to care about Ray—and in the wake of this episode, I believe he was right.
I’m just not sure where that leaves me. I’m impressed at how well this season makes its case, how it ultimately comes down to the way humans need patterns and story to forge reason from chaos, and how the stories we choose are as much (or more) about who we are as they are about reality. But watching Emmit stumble his way from situation to situation, struggling to rediscover a sense of rightness in the world before finally finding happiness again, only to end up with a bullet in the back of his head (fired by Mr. Wrench, either tying up loose ends or honoring Nikki’s last wish)… I can’t help but feel a little robbed, because I didn’t really care about any of it. I didn’t care what happened to him. I was mildly amused when he died.
I love Larue Dollard’s explanation to Gloria about how Varga’s scheme was largely legal, apart from the fact that he didn’t pay taxes. Nikki and Mr. Wrench’s final play on Varga and his team was satisfying, and satisfaction was in fairly short supply this season. The reveal that the Widow Goldfarb had been working with Varga all along at least managed to justify the casting of Mary McDonnell in the role. Gloria going from the police to the Department Of Homeland Security made sense with what we know of her, and I appreciate the grace notes with her and her son throughout the season. It may be mostly absurd, but some things still have meaning.
And I suppose the intervention of Ray Wise (which didn’t save Nikki forever, but given that she’d killed someone at the start of the season, I guess that was inevitable) suggests that this isn’t total nihilism. Maybe it’s all about the episode title; I’m sure it will play better on the rewatch as well, now that I have clearer sense of what the show is trying to achieve. But something about this will always seem a little too clever to me, a little too removed. I suspect it has something to do with why I watch TV shows, and what I hope to get out of them. I understand that life is often clumsy, inelegant, idiotic, and absurd. I just don’t know how much I enjoy having someone rub my nose in it.
- Nikki included Gloria’s phone number in the package she sent to Larue. The info gets Emmit convicted of tax fraud (he’s sentenced to probation), and is maybe part of the reason Varga goes on the run. It also convinced Gloria to temporarily hold back from quitting the police force. But then she ends up quitting anyway. I guess it’s a “life’s a journey not a destination” kind of thing.
- “He’s a kitten now. Ray. In case you were wondering.” —Nikki
- The classic Fargo music hitting just after Nikki and the state trooper shoot each other makes for some odd cognitive dissonance. The music is richly moving, the situation, less so. I mean, it’s a bit sad, sure. But it’s also a bit empty. I’m not comfortable with the emptiness. I think that’s why I hated White Noise.
- “I’m pretty sure you made that up.” —Gloria