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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The talks break down and violence abounds on Fargo

Glynn Turman as Doctor Senator
Glynn Turman as Doctor Senator
Photo: Elizabeth Morris/FX
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It’s a problem of pacing, I think, but it’s one that’s hard to pin down. This season of Fargo has picked up some steam, and this week’s episode ends with a dramatic death, always a good way to get our attention. But while “The Birthplace Of Civilization” has its share of strong scenes and striking visuals, there’s an airiness to it, an emptiness, that keeps preventing those individual scenes from connecting together in any but the most intellectual way. This week’s theme is a bit more clearly stated than usual, and it’s not bad, and there are some moments of suspense. But every time it seems like momentum is being built, every time it seems like the series might shift into a higher gear, there’s a hitch or some character beat that doesn’t quite land to keep it from making that transition.

Take the scene where Gaetano takes revenge on the teenager who laughs at him for slipping in the ice. It has all the hallmarks of Fargo’s approach to violence: a long, slow burn, a monologue that delays the inevitable even as it underlines said inevitability (in this case, Gaetano talking about how Italy is tougher than America), then the sudden, almost comic brutality of murder. I don’t know if any of this is done poorly, apart from my ongoing problems with Salvatore Esposito’s performance. But I’m also not sure it’s that necessary a scene. We know who Gaetano is at this point, we know he’s an angry fella, and we know that he holds America in contempt. We know he’s capable of violence. I guess this shows us he’s capable of committing the violence himself, and not just ordering it, but having him take his aggression out on some random folks we’ve never met before feels like a waste.

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The issue isn’t that the sequence is explicitly bad. It’s fine. But it’s not so great that it absolutely needs to be in the episode, and putting it in context with everything else, it mostly comes across as a distraction. There are a lot of characters in this season of Fargo, and it seems like every damn one of them has their own plotline to follow. It’s not confusing, as none of the individual plotlines are all that complex (the characters may be quirky, but their goals are all pretty clear, outside of the wild card that is Oraetta Mayflower), but it leads to a diffusion of focus that makes it hard to care that much about any individual one of them. There are characters I’m more interested in, but everything gets diluted by the amount of time we have to spend checking in all over, so that none of it comes across as absolutely vital.

Still, some parts do stand out. Last week, I complained that Odis Weff’s nervous tics were one bit of random oddness too many; this week, I’m proven completely wrong when we get an explanation for why the guy acts like he does. Two explanations, actually. In the first, when Odis and his men come to arrest several members of Loy’s organization (as part of a two-pronged attack ordered by Josto in the previous episode; the other prong has the cops raiding a night club where Lemuel and Leon are watching some excellent jazz, arresting them both), Loy gives a monologue about how Odis was a minesweeper during the war—and he was good at his job too, until one day it proved too much for him and he just lay down in the grass, lying that the work was done and letting a superior officer get blown to smithereens.

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That’s pretty good; Rock delivers the monologue well enough (his performance this week felt a bit more on point than usual, maybe because he spent a lot of the hour being angry and threatening people), and it transforms Odis’ twitchiness from a showy piece of writing and performance into something more complex and tragic. Then later in the episode, Deafy stops by Odis’s apartment, and we learn the real reason Odis laid down in the grass: he’d just gotten a letter from home telling him that his fiancée had been raped and murdered. So now a guy who looked to be kind of a joke is someone worthy of our sympathy—which explains why Jack Huston was in the role.

It works, and I should’ve waited before I made my criticism last week (thankfully, I will never make that mistake again)(sarcasm!), but I’m not sure if this structure is the most effective way to handle the set-up and the pay off. Loy’s monologue gives us enough context for make Odis more interesting on its own; finding out ten minutes later that his backstory is even sadder seems like a waste, when it’s something that could’ve been held till later in the season. At its best, Fargo’s episodes have a kind of offbeat internal logic that allows us to think something deeper is going on, but while this season is clearly telling a story, it’s telling it in a way that feels inefficient and self-defeating, forcing us to work harder to grab onto the compelling bits and disregard the rest.

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The main events this week are the aforementioned police strikes against Loy and his people; Loy taking over the funeral home and getting Zelmare and Swanee’s location from the terrified Smutnys; Deafy getting said location from an equally frightened Ethelrida; Zelmare and Swanee going off with the Cannons; and, the big event, Calamita shooting and killing Doctor Senator while Gaetano watches on, smirking. I’m sorry to see Doctor Senator go, as Glynn Turman is always a pleasure to have around, but it was about time Loy lost someone important to him, and given that the scene prior to Dr. Senator’s death is yet another scene where intense men trade threatening monologues, somebody had to die or else it would’ve just been silly.

We even get a bit of a theme this week, courtesy of Zelmare and Swanee explaining to Ethelrida why they’re “outlaws” and not “criminals.” A criminal, you see, is someone who inherently respects the institutions of civilization even as they violate their laws—sort of an “honoring in the breach” kind of thing, their illegal behavior designed with the end goal in mind of going straight and taking their place alongside other upstanding citizens. Outlaws, on the other hand, reject all of this, taking what they want to survive and living outside of normal conventions and rules.

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That last is what Zelmare and Swanee aspire to, although we see the limits of such aspirations. It’s also a good way of explaining the problems with Loy trying to go to war against the Faddas. Josto and his men are criminals; Loy and his men are outlaws who want to believe they are criminals as well. Zelmare and Swanee can’t allow themselves this luxury, and I won’t be completely surprised if Loy gets a hard lesson in the same before the season is out. Presumably most of these people are going to die before the end. Some of those deaths will be ironic—the possibility of Josto getting strangled or otherwise ended by Oraetta seems likely (maybe too likely)—but Loy’s fate is almost certainly going to be tied up in his ambitions. It’s good to have that underlined at this point in the season, but I wish I had confidence that the show would be able to deliver on that promise.

Stray observations

  • I don’t think Loy’s confrontation with his wife over their children quite works. It gives Rock a chance to be angry, which is fine, but we’ve seen so little of his wife that there’s no weight to it. Like the Gaetano scene, it feels like something we’ve seen a thousand times before (Wife Upset Over Husband’s Criminal Activity), without enough specificity to make it fresh.
  • Ethelrida writes a letter to Dr. Harvard, pretending to be a nurse who’s worked with Oraetta in the past and informing him of her crimes. I don’t know if she sends it. This is also an Oraetta-light week; we just get a brief glimpse of her at work, banging her head against the wall as a patient groans.
  • Rabbi Milligan is determined to protect Loy’s young son in the chaos to come. I wouldn’t have made the connection between him and Mike Milligan from Fargo’s second season, but it’s a clever nod.
  • “Why would I fight for a country that wants me dead?” -Loy
  • “Here in America, respect is earned.” -Doctor Senator, on his way out.
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