The cat has nine lives!
The cat in this scenario, of course, is Nikki Swango. I think it’s safe to say the majority of Fargo’s audience breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed that she was still alive. The entire episode seemed to be foreshadowing her death, but it seemed far too obvious for Hawley & Co. to go there; it was so obvious, in fact, that I was totally stunned when it appeared that Yuri and Meemo really were killing her. In turn, this led to me cheering when she crawled out from the obscurity of her car and climbed inside, but then the tension returned with half an expectation that Ray would find her dead in the tub, having succumbed to internal injuries.
In other words, the last ten minutes of this episode were a complete emotional rollercoaster.
But the fact that Nikki was able to crawl away from that situation at all raises a few questions about the nature of the beating she received in the first place. If the intention was to kill her, that would have been an exceedingly stupid move on the part of Varga’s henchmen. There are already cops snooping around, and killing Ray’s girlfriend, whom he was just fired over, in a Stussy parking lot would certainly raise a few questions. This would be a complication Varga can’t afford (even with his allegedly enormous wealth). It also seems unlikely that two contract killers wouldn’t realize they left someone alive.
So if the purpose was not Nikki’s death, then it was yet another instance of Varga establishing his dominance over those around him. In that way, it echoes the earlier scene with Sy, where the same two goons forced him to drink from ‘cookware’ the wolf had ‘fornicated’ with. Michael Stuhlbarg is so fantastic as Sy that he is able to make the scene equal parts hilarity, horror, and emasculation, even as he explains why Winnie had been questioning him. But the reality is, Varga doesn’t like Sy, and he doesn’t really care all that much about why Winnie was there at all. This move is about dominating a man Varga considers to be competition, and it works, because Sy immediately goes running to Emmit.
Whether it’s putting his schvantz vicariously into Sy’s mouth, or beating Nikki to a pulp, Varga is all about domination. The very last shot of the episode is presumably him wearing a wolf mask, but even after what happened in “The House of Special Purpose,” there’s still a bit farther to go before Hawley can sell this guy as being the true threat they want him to be. Aside from one old lawyer’s concrete swandive and some questionable business practices, Varga is mostly eccentric bark and little bite at this point. He’s ominous, sure, but as a villain we need to see more for him to rise to the level of Hanzee or Malvo from previous seasons.
On the other hand, something which does not appear to be just for show is Nikki’s relationship with Ray. Prior to this episode, I would have told you she was faking her end of it, using Ray for whatever bizarre schemes she came up with, bridge-related or otherwise. But that no longer seems to be the case. In one instance, in the bridal shop, the two embrace and their noses touch, with the camera angle clearly being chosen to depict their bodies as forming a heart.
Even before that, Ray’s botched proposal is adorable, perhaps the most romantic Fargo has ever been. Any other show would use the fact that both of them are dressed up as other people (Nikki in her underwear and a wig, Ray dressed as Emmit) to undercut the sincerity of the moment, or play it as inauthentic. But Fargo is so damn great that it is able to use this instead to heighten the absurdity of their relationship into something more meaningful. That’s great writing. It also makes Ray’s discovery of her in his bathtub powerful in a different way; we want Ray to avenge her injuries, even if it’ll probably be Sy that pays the price here.
Other random notes:
-The title of the episode refers to the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov family, and I cannot make heads or tails of why this was chosen. A case could be made about all the collateral damage that happens, from Nikki’s beating to Emmit’s marriage getting torched, but that seems a little thin. It is likely tied to the greater thematic patchwork of Russian references that has been developing over the course of the season, and hopefully later on its meaning will become apparent.
-Emmit calls Nikki “Delilah” at one point, although “Lady Macbeth” would perhaps be more accurate, even if zero percent of their schemes are successful. It’s interesting to note that without her or Sy, Ray and Emmit would probably get along much better. The people supposedly looking out for their interests are the wedges driving them further apart.
-Moe is a frustrating, two dimensional character that this show does over and over again. Future seasons would be wise to ditch the “police chief who exists to be an obstacle” archetype.
-I wish they continued the Prokofiev leitmotifs throughout this installment. Emmit’s “Hall of the Mountain King”-style theme is fun, but the bird motif was more apt. This episode was also the first time I could recall hearing sleigh bells all season. I hope they return to using them more in the future.
What did you guys think?