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Darkness abounds and a dinner goes poorly on Fargo

“I’m not talking about certainty. I’m sayin’ there’s doubt.”

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Fargo

"The Law Of Inevitability"

Season 3 , Episode 7

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One of the challenges of reviewing, at least for me, is trying to figure out the line between “well-written character who is intentionally frustrating and unpleasant to watch” and “character who is frustrating and unpleasant to watch because he is poorly written.” Whatever criticisms I’ve made of this season of Fargo (and between this week and last, things have picked up considerably), nothing in it has been so clumsily done as to be actually painful. But man do I hate Chief Moe Dammik (Shea Whigham), Gloria’s new boss. The guy has been a condescending ass since his first appearance on the show, and time has not softened him whatsoever. In tonight’s episode, he bends a little, but only after someone tries to kill Nikki in lock-up. And even then, he snaps back to not caring the instant an opportunity presents itself.

The thing is, it’s evident that Moe Dammik is supposed to be a dick. (The name alone…) Whigham does a fine job of selling tooth-grinding contempt, and Gloria is so clearly positioned as the hero that anyone who gets in her way is going to get on our bad side. There are ways to make opposition palatable, even noble, but there’s nothing admirable about Chief Moe, intentionally so. This could be a way to demonstrate how monsters like Varga make it through the world unscathed, exploiting the natural tendency of those in power to take the easy answers and push the harder ones aside, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Or, given that both Gloria and Winne run afoul of dismissive pricks this week, it could be a commentary on the challenges women face when they try to assert authority in a system that views them with, at best, paternal contempt.

It could also be that Gloria is such an effective protagonist that she needs someone to keep her from wrapping this up too soon (or at all). Whatever the reason for Chief Moe’s perpetually pissiness, and however well he serves the writers’ needs, the character is a chore to watch, and seeing him try his disgruntled dad routine on someone new this week doesn’t ease the pain much. Gloria and Winnie discover Ray’s body, and Nikki is picked up by the cops soon after, presumably after an anonymous tip from Meemo. Gloria smells a rat, but Moe immediately swallows the version of events Varga pitched last week, with a speed that would border on suspicious if Moe’s bizarre rage at detective work hadn’t already been well-established.

So Moe questions Nikki, and it’s about as painful as you’d expect. Really, the past few weeks haven’t been good ones for Ms. Swango, and “The Law Of Inevitability” wrings an impressive amount of sympathy out of her predicament, especially considering she murdered someone with an air-conditioning unit at the start of the season. But then, her victim was a murderer himself, and while it’s true Nikki pushed Ray to escalate the feud with his brother, there’s a line between “darkly comical extortion” and “brutal beating, framing for murder, and then getting executed in a jail cell by a strung-out DJ Qualls.” It’s a thin line, to be sure, but compared to Varga and his men, Nikki and Ray were small town evil at its most pathetic and relatable. They weren’t predators, just a couple of in-over-their-head dopes with a loose grasp of ethics and a little too much thwarted ambition.

And now Ray’s dead, and, given how the episode ends, Nikki’s chances for survival are slim at best. In Coen brothers’ movies, you get what you pay for, and the cost is nearly always too high; it’s arguable that Nikki has brought all of this, up to and including that deeply unsettling final scene, down on her own head. Yet even if truly deserves her suffering, Winstead and the writing have managed to make her more than just the stock femme fatale Moe dismisses her as in the interrogation room. He writes off her relationship with Ray as just one more way to avoid punishment, but while it’s clear she was using the lesser Stussy to ease her parole restrictions, her feelings for Ray weren’t entirely selfish. The two legitimately cared about each other, and it’s a clear mark in the season’s favor how that feeling was allowed legitimacy even as it was often played for humor.

There’s a growing sense of doom throughout “The Law Of Inevitability,” that marvellous, agonizing feeling that everything is started to fall apart. Terrible for the characters, of course (well, some of the characters), but for the audience, it means shaking off the perfectly fine but not exactly essential vibe that plagued some of those first few episodes and doubling down on the tension. This season has had an undercurrent of horror throughout, and there are some choices in tonight’s episode that bring that undercurrent front and center. Big things, like the fairy tale nightmare scene that ends the hour, and smaller touches, like the shot of Emmit walking to meet Sy and the Widow Goldfarb that makes it look like he’s passing through a hallway in Hell, combine to create a sense of a world spinning off its axis.

Speaking of Emmit, he’s not taking his brother’s death all that well—which isn’t surprising, given the circumstances and timing, but it does make for some awkward dinner conversation. Unlike Varga, he’s not comfortable with acts of mayhem, and his conversation with Winnie (who comes to the restaurant to tell him about Ray’s death) has all the hallmarks of a guilty conscience over-compensating at the worst possible moment. Yet there are also signs he’s trying to convince himself around to Varga’s way of thinking. Which makes sense; his wealth and eagerness to please already made him vulnerable, and inadvertently killing Ray has probably turned a likelihood into an inevitability. His tears notwithstanding, Emmit wants to buy what Varga is selling, an alpha male view of the world in which ends always justify means, and reality remains negotiable.

It’s hard to argue with that desire, honestly. I said earlier that I’m started to get a sense of how this season might end, and while I’ve already been proven wrong in the details, the feeling that this might not turn out okay after all persists. Previous years have had their share of misery, but always before there was a sense of order restoring itself by the end, regardless of the body count; of the sane and the sensible ultimately having the final say. But truth itself is under attack this time around, and no matter how determined or smart Gloria is, I’m not sure it’s going to be enough. That makes for nail-biting, unsettled viewing. Will the wolf be defeated? Or will it feed.

Stray observations

  • Poor Sy. The scene of him sobbing in his house while his wife takes off his coat was as painful in its way as seeing Nikki back in jail. “For Pete’s sake, hon, what’s wrong?” “The world. The world is wrong.” (The fact that it was also kind of funny is the sweet spot for this show: that exact moment when absurdity goes from comedy to despair.)
  • It’s Christmas Eve, by the way. The yuletide season has mostly served as ironic texture and not much else, although the sight of Varga methodically opening the Stussy presents with a switchblade was striking. (Those presents looked unopened during Varga’s conversation with Emmit later on, though.)
  • “Sir, you’re gonna have to leave.” “I just did.” The fact that Yuria can threaten Donny into leaving the station is somehow more disturbing than if he’d actually attacked the other man.
  • “Stella. 25 years. She left last week—sex tape.” Not a ton of laughs this week, but Emmit’s conversation with the Widow Goldfarb made me chuckle.
  • Varga: “How do you feel?” Emmit: “Free.”
  • “Follow the money. That’s all I’ll say.” “‘The money.’ What money?” I honestly don’t know if this will be enough. Given how this episode ends, Nikki could be dead before she ever has that talk with Gloria, and if Yuria does kill her, I’m not sure quoting All The President’s Men will give Gloria the lead she needs to find the truth. Or even that she’d be able to do something if she did find it. That’s the real nightmare here: the terrible thought that even a good person doing their best can’t undo a certain kind of damage. (High marks for topicality, though.)