As Hank Larsson gropes his way toward a working theory on the Waffle Hut killings, he muses, “Was this judge just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or was this whole mess about her?” The straightforward answer to Hank’s question is that Rye Gerhardt did indeed visit the diner that night to intimidate the judge, and when that failed, he shot her. But we also know that any straightforward answer to this mystery will be woefully incomplete. The gentle comedy of Hank’s remark lies in his idea that “this whole mess” could be about one person. Instead, it is an ever-widening puddle of blood that seeps into a power struggle in the Gerhardt crime family, an insistent threat from Kansas City, and the whims of a flighty hairdresser (with her dutiful husband along for the ride).
This storytelling structure is the show’s most meaningful connection to the film that inspired it. Like the Coen brothers, Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley revels in sprawling tales where each character sees themselves as a rational center amid a swirl of chaos. The dialogue in “Before The Law” is pervaded with a dread of society’s unraveling—an unraveling that never includes the speaker him or herself. “I mean, first Watergate, and now this?” says a woman at Peggy’s salon in reference to the triple murder, “What’s the world coming to?”
Later, Kansas City operative Mike Milligan subtly threatens Hank with a speech that commends the sheriff’s restraint. “Isn’t that a minor miracle?” Milligan says. “The state of the world today, the level of conflict and misunderstanding—that two men could stand on a lonely road in winter and talk, calmly and rationally, while all around them, people were losing their mind?” It’s good that you didn’t press the issue any further than you did, he implies, or else we all would have been shunted into the inferno. Of course, when he uses the image of crumbling society as a looming specter to advance his own agenda, Milligan essentially becomes part of the degeneracy himself, but this irony is not lost on him.
He appears to rather enjoy it, in fact. In another scene, Milligan recites from memory a letter that he supposedly wrote to General Electric to complain about the automated coffee maker he purchased (at Sears, he notes more than once). The poor quality of the machine “forces me to ask the question, ‘Is this why our once-great nation is going down the crapper?’” Milligan says. As he poses that rhetorical thought-starter, he yanks the typewriter platen back and forth, tightening its grip on the hapless salesman’s necktie.
Yet this physical assault is mere punctuation for the greater terror of Milligan’s words, which drive home the salesman’s isolation by painting a picture of a broken world—one where nobody is going to help some poor schmuck who got a little too chatty at the local watering hole. Milligan’s effective message: It’s hell out there, so in here, it’s just you and me.
Joe Bulo and Milligan paint a rather different picture to Floyd Gerhardt, at least as she tells it. “‘The world’s becoming more corporate’ was their pitch to me,” she tells her sons, with Bulo urging the Gerhardts to fall in line with the tidy new order. In Milligan’s other encounters, he argues that the chaos is global and rationality is local, but here Bulo flips the script, with suit-and-tie sensibility cast as the encroaching norm. Yet the underlying threat is basically the same, which just goes to show that the specifics of the story are less important than how the narrative is applied.
Floyd understands this. She pivots shrewdly from the Kansas City shakedown to her standoff with Dodd, who insists on control of the family’s operations. “I’m oldest. I’m boss. End of story,” he declares, because this is the simple destiny he’s anticipated all his life. Floyd spins a more elaborate yarn, a cross-generational arc of an empire built “from a shoeshine box.” Dodd resists at first—“Ma, I know the story”—but even if he doesn’t buy into her angle, he doesn’t have the intellect to argue with her. Thus he slowly succumbs, outwardly at least, as Floyd casts herself as the only one with enough hard-won wisdom and sense to guide the family through their troubles.
Seating himself at the opposite head of the table, Dodd variously fidgets, pouts, snarls, and puts on a smug smile while Floyd makes her case. He hardly looks the part of the patriarch—instead he gives the impression of an overgrown boy who’s too eager to become a man.
But he isn’t a complete fool. He’s not wrong to bristle with doubt when his mother promises that “as soon as this crisis is over, I’ll hand you your legacy, and I’ll turn my thoughts to the grave.” First, Floyd Gerhardt doesn’t strike anyone as a woman who gently gives herself over to death. More perniciously, though, there’s the indefinite matter of “this crisis.” If the world is going to hell, as everybody seems to believe, perhaps crisis is now the permanent status quo. And in that case, the only way for Dodd’s story to end is for his mother to end.
For all the people in this episode who claim to be one of the last holdouts for common sense, Ed Blumquist might have the strongest case—not that he explicitly makes it. Instead, his devotion to normalcy emerges through his determined (and, he suspects, futile) effort to restore his life to a predictable, straight-ahead path. It’s irresistible to root for Ed, who believes in his homespun sense of duty while his wife uses it as a mere camouflage. “Gotta keep up appearances!” she chirps with a playful slap on his shoulder as he frets over how he’s going to cover up a grisly murder. She has assumed her new role as a fugitive with perky gusto.
Ed spends an entire day trying to clean up Rye Gerhardt’s blood, but on Fargo, blood refuses to be contained. When Ed raises the cleaver to sever Rye’s dead hand, he does so with an air of finality, as if he might actually manage to cut short this bizarre and upsetting sidetrack to his life’s story. Then Lou Solverson knocks at the butcher’s front door, distracting Ed just enough to make his aim less than true. Rather than cutting off the hand at its root, the cleaver scatters Rye’s fingers, and one rolls under the door. It’s as if Ed has severed the heads of a hydra only to watch in horror as his troubles multiply. Sure, Lou departs without growing suspicious. Ed gains an ineffable awareness, however, that this isn’t the final chapter of his personal true-crime saga.
Peggy Blumquist also sees how her life threatens to spiral—after inviting the loss of control over her narrative, she now fears the unforeseeable side effects. As mentioned above, Peggy retreats to Ed’s ho-hum story whenever she wants to cover her tracks, to clumsy effect. When her boss at the salon reminds her about the self-actualization seminar they’d planned to attend, Peggy begs off by saying that she and Ed are saving money: “We got a plan, you know?”
Peggy’s boss is an appealingly disruptive figure. She’s a foil for Peggy in a way that Ed can’t be, particularly when she confronts Peggy in their last scene together. Having discovered Peggy’s inexplicable theft of toilet paper, she’s “not even mad”—instead, her interest is piqued. She presses Peggy, delighted that she may have discovered a kindred spirit who also savors the thrill of transgression: “Maybe that’s what you like, huh? Breaking the rules?” Peggy honestly doesn’t know how to respond. Even she isn’t sure why she does the things she does. You can see her posing her boss’ question to herself and coming up short of a clear answer. Routines, not rules, are Peggy’s bête noire. As such, she was struck by the urge to give herself a new direction, with a blissful disregard for the consequences. But the consequences are finding her.
Peggy’s boss is never named in this episode as far as I can tell, which on some level makes her come off as more of a force than a human being. That’s a familiar motif for Fargo, which in both seasons has cast the law-enforcement officers of the Solverson clan as unrelenting forces of resolution. They are driven to bring stories to a close—even young Molly cannot have satisfaction at the breakfast table until her grandfather wraps up his oyster anecdote. That same compulsion prompts Lou to insert himself back into the Waffle Hut case. It’s no longer a “local matter,” he informs his superior officer on the phone, as he detects the tendrils of the triple homicide extending through Lucerne and outward to parts unknown.
Lou returns to the Waffle Hut in part because he’s troubled by one particular image: the face of Henry Blanton, the dead diner cook. As Lou tells Hank, the sight revived an indelible memory from his tour of duty in Vietnam, a fellow sailor who was shot with a bullet that went straight through his own cigar. The expression on the sailors face was the same as that of the dead cook—“bafflement,” Lou says. The sailor and the cook were baffled, perhaps, that life and death could be so capricious, and Lou shares their consternation.
Hank offers that he, too, has been struck by old war stories in the course of his police work, but his remembrance is calmer—less troubled, more matter-of-fact than Lou’s. Hank is sensitive enough to feel that difference, and he obliquely suggests a reason for it. “After WW2, we went six years without a murder here. These days, well—sometimes wonder if you boys didn’t bring that war home with you.” For Americans, World War II came to a clear conclusion. We won. In Vietnam, though, we neither won nor lost. The war simply ran out of momentum, fading away in a muddle of regret and pain. That’s not how the Solversons tie up a narrative, and as Hank suggests, it’s not how societies do, either. At the root of the nation’s chaos, he sees a generation of Dodd Gerhardts, angrily demanding what they’ve been denied: the next chapter to their story.
The last shot of the episode is a striking one, as the camera pulls smoothly back from the butcher shop with reflections of green light shining off the building. The motion of the shot echoes the graceful swoop of the UFO that Rye Gerhardt witnessed in the season premiere. We now glimpse events from the visitors’ point of view. The voiceover and music come from “The Eve Of War,” a track on the 1978 concept album Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds. The suggestion of an otherworldly complication to this already Byzantine conflict is unmistakable.
In terms of plot, I have no guess as to where Fargo is going with this alien business. (FX sends advance screeners, but I never watch ahead of the episode I’m reviewing.) The immediate effect, though, is to complement the characters’ individual eye-of-the-hurricane perspectives with another vantage point that hovers above the storm. The ominous narration suggests that this final image is the view of not just a mere observer but rather an active participant in the burgeoning disarray. None of the characters can see the whole reality of the Waffle Hut through the haze of their earthbound vantage points. The alien presence has no such encumbrance. The question is, how will it judge the mortals on the ground?
- So, which Gerhardt son is which lobster claw? (That is, if you want anything to do with this facacta metaphor.) No matter the answer, this exchange is when it became clear that Mike Milligan was going to be a marvelous addition to this show.
- “Never trust anything came from the sea,” the butcher says. “We came from the sea,” says his young employee Noreen. She doesn’t exactly contradict her employer’s point.
- I was wondering how much of Jesse Plemons’ weight gain was real and how much was prosthetic. The fireplace scene pretty much settles that question.
- When Peggy’s friend from the salon drives away, the camera pulls back in a motion that’s not quite the same as the alien-ship pullback that closes the episode, but it has some of the same unsettling velocity and smoothness, which gives the salon-boss a touch of alien intrigue. I’m eager to see how this character develops.