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‘Fargo’ Season 3, Episode 8: “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”

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“There’s gonna be a reckoning one day, brother. All souls are called to account for their actions. In the end, we all get what we deserve.” Bear Gerhardt said those words to Dodd in the previous season of Fargo, and for me, I’m not sure any other line in the history of the show comes as close to describing the morality of its universe. Every villain in the series has suffered some form of punishment for their misdeeds, whether by death (Malvo, Lester, the Gerhardts, eventually Hanzee), bureaucracy (Mike Milligan), or loss of a partner (Wrench, the surviving Kitchen brother). So there is a certain sense of justice woven into the Fargoverse, and now, with the reappearance of Paul Marrane (Ray Wise) in “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”, we get a sense that there is some type of active, divine agency in this world.

In spite of that, though, the God of Fargo seems to be a distant one, content to allow those who serve Him, like Marrane, to occasionally provide a very literal deus ex machina. Without that distance, the show wouldn’t be very entertaining, after all; the central theme across every iteration has always had to do with an abrupt injection of abject cruelty or evil into a peaceful small-town setting.

Strange as the topic is to even analyze, if the Lord of Fargo (Fargod?) were active and benevolent, the two pairs of bystanders who are executed in this episode would have been spared. Instead, it’s the audience who is spared viewing their final horrifying moments, with the camera jarringly cutting away before Meemo runs the couple off the road, or before Yuri takes vengeance on the father and son who ruined his favorite scary hat. Although the implication of what happens here might be worse, it’s hard to say. This abrupt cut away is the only reason neither of these killings feel tired, however. Each of the murders falls in line with notes Fargo has played numerous times already, but by leaving the brutality to our imaginations, both scenes are allowed a certain fresh horror.

So those who do bad are punished, but those who do good are not necessarily protected. This idea seems in line with everything that’s happened in the show thus far, as well as the theological mishmash of ideas Marrane discusses with Nikki. But if this is indeed the case, then it places the kindness with which Marrane treats Nikki and Wrench in a strange light. In the first season, we saw Wrench murder numerous people, and in one of Nikki’s first scenes, she conspired with Ray to drop an air conditioner on a man’s head. Has the loss they’ve suffered already served as their punishment? Perhaps. The fact that they’ve both lost a partner certainly makes them a perfect pair to end up cuffed together in the back of that prison transport.

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It might also be that Marrane detects a certain goodness in Nikki, and that is why she has been chosen to apparently combat the machinations of Varga, his henchmen, and a half-witting Emmit. Consider the difference between his reception of Nikki, and the terrifying vision of the angry innocent dead he grants to Yuri. Perhaps her circumstances have afforded her some forgiveness, as well. After all, if Marrane is indeed the Wandering Jew, who taunted Christ on the cross and was cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming, then he also must have been somewhat forgiven. It doesn’t seem like a guy with sinner status would also be playing a divine agent, so Marrane must have improved his standing with the Fargo God.

This seems especially likely now that we have definite confirmation that Nikki wasn’t scamming Ray. The tender way she handles the kitten she believes to be his reincarnation was heartbreaking, and yet another moment of incredible heft from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. This is the only closure Nikki will be afforded, the last moment she gets with the man she loved.
At the beginning of the season, Nikki seemed to be the dark horse of the installment, but at some point she became the main character. Which was a wise decision by Hawley & co, who couldn’t have picked a finer actor to capture all the tiny, surprising nuances Nikki contains. She’s so alive and fierce, but at the same time there’s a through line of genuine pain within her. The acceptance with which she greets each unfairness inflicted upon her is shattering.

(It’s also interesting to note that Nikki is at the center of both Coen references this week: the bowling alley itself is an obvious allusion to The Big Lebowski, with Ray Wise filling in for Sam Elliott, and the Ray-cat was a painful reminder of Inside Llewyn Davis.)

Michael Stuhlbarg also got another great showcase, proving that, out of everyone who’s ever been on the show, he has the best grasp on Fargo’s offbeat black comedy. The entire scene with Sy puking is hilarious and concerning when it should only be concerning, and I’m not sure anyone else in the cast could have pulled that off. Sy is dumb for drinking anything Varga put in front of him, considering the previous history they have with beverages, but such weak-willed stupidity is hardly out of character. If that’s the last we see of Sy, he’ll be missed. (But it’s almost certainly not.)

It is no coincidence, however, when the three month time skip reveal pans over to Emmit at his bedside, dressed in red. Until that moment, the color palette of Emmit’s costuming had always been subdued browns or blues, so this change not only helps signify that time has gone by, but also that this character is having an “out, damned spot!” moment. He is guilty enough without whoever is planting reminders of Ray around him (almost certainly Nikki), but this does seem to accelerate his decline. His new willingness to cooperate with Gloria will bring about the final act of the season, while also calling back to mind the Peter and the Wolf theme from episode four. Peter isn’t able to take down the wolf without the help of the bird and the cat, remember.

Other random notes:

-Red was also the only prominent color in the opening sequence of the episode, especially when Nikki and Wrench killed DJ Quall’s baby-faced contract killer.

-On Sunday, on The Leftovers, Carrie Coon gave what might have been the most powerful performance in the history of television. As I say, week after week, Fargo still has not given her much to do, and this breaks my heart almost as much as anything to do with Nora Durst.

-Mary Elizabeth Winstead did an interview with Variety that was enlightening about her process, her opinion of Nikki, and some thoughts on the bowling alley scene. It’s definitely worth checking out.

-Between the theo-philosphical Ray Wise scenes in the bowling alley, the revelations with Emmit, and that pulse-pounding 15 minute chase in the woods, this might be my single favorite episode of the show thus far. It’s a shame I didn’t have more to write about that intro sequence, though. Aside from how well-shot it was, and how I was standing in front of my TV biting my nails for its entirety, I don’t ultimately have a lot to say about it. Good thing it speaks pretty well for its self.

What did you guys think?

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Joseph Rejent
Joe is secretly a space lizard who's been controlling your minds with fluoride for like, decades. Just don't ask if you should call him "Joe, Joseph, or Joey" because he'll probably say something awkward like, "uhh... both?" And then everyone will be uncomfortable.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Would love to somehow see the Widow Farb(?) Ultimately steal Varga’s fortunes out from under him

  2. Hey man, I just wanted to say that this was a great post. I needed some closure with the show this season and nobody I know watches it. As per the usual, it was well done, and the acting was topnotch. You’re right about Carrie; I was expecting something more to transpire with that character and it never did. Maybe because they’ve focused on cops so much in the past? IDK. But M.E. Winstead was remarkable. I’ve only seen her as an adolescent in distress (Scott Pilgrim, Death Proof, Die Hard, etc.) So I was completely taken aback by this coming-out-party of sorts for her. I definitely hope this opens up more roles for her as a mature woman who gets shit done. But yeah, the last half of that episode was a total mind-fuck. Not only with the realization of Wrench, but then the Lebowski-esque bowling alley scene, and everything therein was just so out there. They kind of played around with that last season too, showing the UFO and whatnot, but this season definitely gives you a lot to think about. Anyway, thanks for a solid post!

    • Thanks for a solid comment! The supernatural does always seem to be at the fringes of this show. The UFO’s are one example, but there’s also the “fishnado” from the first season and the technology ignoring Gloria this season. In the past, I felt it had a strong thematic resonance with the abrupt intrusion of violence and exterior evils into a “small-town world,” but here… We have yet to see what these supernatural elements will actually amount to.

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