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Emmit tries to come clean on a focused Fargo

“A lie’s not a lie if you believe it’s true, do you think that?”

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Fargo

"Aporia"

Season 3 , Episode 9

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“Aporia” opens with a blackly comic murder (Meemo, killing another Stussy to muddy the water), but quickly follows up on last week’s cliffhanger ending, with Gloria and Emmit sitting down in an interrogation room, and the surviving Stussy brother more or less spilling his guts. It’s a good, hell, great scene, and it offers the sort of emotional payoff I’ve been waiting for, clarifying the context of the brothers’ argument in a way that makes everything that much more tragic. The episode has a few scenes like this, of characters either breaking down or facing an unexpected reckoning, and while that’s not hugely surprising in the penultimate episode of the season, that doesn’t make them any less satisfying to watch.

I said last week that it was possible that the final two episodes of the season might tie things together, although I didn’t think that likely; as ever, I enjoy eating my words. I haven’t watched the finale yet, but “Aporia” does a good job of putting everyone where they need to be, and providing clear objectives as we head towards the end. On a surface level, the hour is less ambitious than “Land Of Denial,” sticking largely to straightforward exchanges and narrative and avoiding the strange (and often delightful) tangents that have populated so much of this season. Many of those tangents have been fascinating and memorable in their own right, but unless Fargo is willing to fully commit Hawley’s burgeoning sense of the absurd (as it did in episode three), the split between a more conventional story and digression is as much distracting as it is compelling.

Take Emmit’s terrific confessional. He’s heartbroken, admitting at once to both Ray’s murder (well, manslaughter, but Emmit doesn’t see the difference) and how he fooled his younger brother after their father’s death, a “crime” that exists in that grey area between loved ones—nothing illegal happened, not really, but the sin was there, and both brothers have suffered for it in their ways. This a small, but great, twist on expectations. It was so easy to dismiss Ray’s accusations as delusional, his way of translating his jealousy of his brother’s success into something actionable, blaming Emmit for everything miserable in his whole pathetic life. And yet he had a point all along, and Emmit knew he did. That’s why Emmit gave him money for so many years; but you can’t really pay off guilt. Not forever.

That’s good stuff. It helps make the brothers more complicated and more interesting, and makes Ray’s death even more of a slapstick tragedy. But for it to happen so late in the game means that events that should’ve had more weight—should’ve been sadder and funnier—only gain that weight in retrospect. Emmit certainly shouldn’t’ve confessed earlier, but without that confession, without understanding that the feud wasn’t a cut-and-dry case of extortion, it was just some cartoons poking other cartoons. I appreciate that this reveal was always in the cards, but the timing of everything means that not everything lands quite as it should.

That can be frustrating. But it’s indicative of the ambition that’s as much a strength as a weakness. At the beginning, I was worried that the show was going to repeat itself, leaning into the Minnesota shtick yet again for another darkly funny story about idiots maiming each other and sensible people moving in behind and cleaning up the wreckage. But while there are aspects of this still, the introduction of Varga and his propagandic approach to crime has made for a far more complicated and ambitious collection of episodes than I was initially expecting. There have been some bold and strange choices throughout, and if those choices don’t always sit together comfortably on first viewing, I’m as impressed by the successes as I am frustrated with the misfires. And it’s entirely possible that all of this will play better once we get the whole picture.

Hell, just a single line tonight from Varga helped to reframe the situation. A pair of superfluous Stussy murders helps shift the focus onto a new set of facts, offering Chief Dammik a perfect suspect: a career convict who leaves behind fingerprints, immediately confesses to all four deaths as soon as he’s arrested, and claims to have been molested by a Stussy as a child, thus putting him on the path of misapplied revenge. It’s nonsense, orchestrated by Varga, but it’s nonsense that’s just a little easier to take, a little more what we’ve come to expect, and Dammik takes it all in stride, ordering Gloria to release Emmit on the assumption that his “confession” was just a false memory brought on by grief. So, confused as ever, Emmit is released, to be immediately scooped up by Meemo and Varga, who explains: “The problem is not that there is evil in the world. The problem is that there is good. Because otherwise, who would care.”

That’s a dark, dark vision. But it provides a counterbalance and maybe even an explanation for Ray Wise’s “wait, is he God?” turn last week. This season could end in utter despair, with Varga triumphant, Gloria lost and alone, and Nikki either dead or in the bad guy’s payroll. I don’t think it will be completely nihilistic (at the very least, the fact that we have one more hour to go after this entry suggests it’ll be a little more complicated than just “happy” or “sad”), but this is the first season of the show where it seems legitimately possible that the villain could triumph entirely, because it presents a world where Varga’s comment is a defensible point of view. Having some supernatural force of goodness appear becomes then less an excuse for a brief, if oddly moving, story cul-de-sac, and more an acknowledgement that, in a reality so out of joint, our heroes need more than just a little luck to survive.

Nikki and Mr. Wrench are making the most of their good fortune, being arguably the first characters in the season to truly throw a—er—to truly upset Varga’s plans. They hijack his command center and grab the Stussy corporation books, which Nikki then holds for ransom, meeting Varga face to face in a hotel lobby where each tries to get the upper hand. It’s a fun, tense conversation, offering both actors a chance to show various shades of arrogance and dismay, and hitting a series of plausible reversals that ends with Nikki as victor, even if she didn’t get the money she demanded. Varga repeatedly offers her a job, which isn’t surprising, but she turns him down after his repeated attempts on her life—again, unsurprising.

As ever when a character I like (Nikki may technically be a murderer, but she’s also competent, determined, and resourceful, and the fact that she’s played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead certainly doesn’t hurt) is doing well in a dangerous situation, I get nervous. I’d say Nikki has been at the center of most of this season’s tensest sequences, if only because I don’t really think Gloria is going to get killed. As we’ve seen, playing games with Varga is dangerous business, and if her main goal here is a quick buck, what remains of the morality of this particular universe might not let her get away clean. But “Aporia” does end with Larue Dollard of the IRS getting a package full of presumably incriminating evidence, so Nikki and Mr. Wrench’s hearts are at least partly in the right place.

Even Gloria gets a win this week, after enduring arguably the worst existential humiliation yet. With Emmit in custody, the truth seems finally within her grasp. But then Chief Moe catches his patsy, and the Widow Goldfarb holds firm on Emmit’s phony alibi, and the world is once more sent off its axis. This is more than a little reminiscent of Deputy Molly Solverson’s frustrated crime-solving back in season one, but here the rot seems more pervasive. Dammik even acts magnanimous when he orders her to cut Emmit loose. When she does so, she gives a brief monologue about her relationship with her ex-husband, a monologue that’s as simple as it is heartbreaking.

“You think the world is something and then it turns out to be something else,” she says. It’s the most broken we’ve seen Gloria, and that, combined with her conversation with Winnie at a bar later, is maybe the most we’ve ever seen her reveal of herself on the show. She admits that all those automatic devices not recognizing her have lead her to believe she doesn’t exist—or else, she’s like that robot from The Planet Wyh, walking around saying “I can help,” but never able to actually accomplish anything. Good women and men on Fargo have often felt stymied in their efforts to do right, but there’s a raw ache to this particular sadness that makes it distinct. Part of that’s Carrie Coon, great as ever; and partly it’s just recognition. It’s a hard world to be decent in, sometimes. Most times, really.

Thankfully, we don’t leave her there. Gloria goes to use the restroom, and when she tries to wash her hands, the automatic faucet works. So does the automatic soap dispenser. I’m not quite sure what changed; maybe it was finally admitting to someone (Emmit, Winnie) just how awful she felt. Varga may very well end the season triumphant. Nikki could die, and the villains could go unpunished. I highly doubt Chief Dammik is going to come to his senses. But at least Gloria was recognized. Someone, or something, sees her. And she persists.

Stray observations

  • David Thewlis is also absolutely terrific in this episode, and in general, his turn as Varga has held this season together even when it threatened to go off the rails. The show has had its share of memorable villains, but Varga is my favorite. That shot of him sitting in the bathroom stall eating spoonful after spoonful of Rocky Road was just tremendous.
  • If penultimate episodes of TV show seasons have taught me anything, it’s to never be confident you’re about ready to finally put this thing to bed.