Zack: It’s in the natural tendency of audiences to sympathize with a protagonist. This makes sense; after all, we see ourselves as the protagonists of our own lives, and when someone is the central focus of a narrative, there’s an automatic transference between the audience and the character on-screen (or on page). Part of the pleasure of watching shows is in getting to lose ourselves in stories that are not our own, but stories we can pretend, however briefly, belong to us.
I’m not sure if Lester is the central protagonist of Fargo. I want to say Molly is, because she’s clearly the hero, and because empathizing with her is a lot less painful and ugly. But Lester is definitely a focus, and in his screen-time, we’ve been encouraged to try to see the world through his eyes, which is where that reflexive sympathy pops up. Much of what makes “A Fox, A Rabbit, And A Cabbage” so effective is how easily the episode slips us back into Lester’s shoes; we get the cold open from Malvo’s perspective, but then we’re back to the bar, and Lester intrudes on Malvo’s space. Things go out of control, and Lester tries to stand up for himself, and once again, his efforts at “manliness” end with a body count.
Lester bops Malvo upside the head with his salesman award, and then he runs. He spends the rest of the hour running, although sometimes only in spirit, and the hour gets a terrific amount of tension out of all the empty, shadowy space around him. We know Malvo can move easily in those shadows, after all, and while none of this excuses Lester’s actions (brutally murdering his wife, framing his brother for the crime), for a while, it’s possible to feel some of the worry his feeling, to relate to him not as a psychotic creep, but as someone afraid of a very real and very dangerous monster. He’s not a nice man, but for most of the hour, we’re encouraged to see him as someone in danger and to even care (on a basic level) that he escapes that danger.
And then he sends his sweet, loving, supportive wife to her death. No, he doesn’t just send her: he fucking giftwraps her, all to save his own skin.
It’s a loathsome, utterly despicable act, made worse by the fact that this episode is the first time we really get a chance to know poor Linda (Susan Park), an incredibly nice lady whose only real crime is in being a terrible judge of character. This fits pretty neatly on both a story level and a meta level, because while the audience has most likely turned on Lester long before now, there’s still that urge to see him as the put-upon dweeb we met in the first episode, the emasculated loser with the nagging, hateful wife. Just like Linda, there was a time when we just saw the quiet politeness and assumed it represented inner decency and warmth. But it didn’t. Lester’s problem was never the woman he was married to. Lester’s problem has always been, and always will be, Lester.
“A Fox, A Rabbit, And A Cabbage” is yet another example at how expert this series has been at generating tension; there were several scenes throughout where I found myself nearly unable to breathe. But it also works to set the stage for next week’s finale (wow, I just made myself sad), and clarify how all the various pieces fit. Which sounds like it could be tedious, but the suspense that kicks in during the scene between Malvo and Lester in the elevator (“Lester, is this what you want?”) and doesn’t really give up until the end makes every moment feel vitally important. Even Molly’s small (but necessary) win, the acknowledgement from Budge and Pepper that finally someone apart from Gus and her dad recognizes the value of her work, serves as a reminder that we’re almost done here.
Then there’s the cold open, which isn’t directly connected to the over-arching plot (it’s necessary to explain how Malvo is in Vegas, and to give him a reason to want Lester dead, but the details aren’t technically important), but shows once again the lengths Malvo will go to to do a job, as well as the fundamental contempt he has for anyone who isn’t him. It also works as a neat little mystery in its own right. Typically I’d complain about a series bringing Stephen Root in to kill him so abruptly, but those elevator deaths are the perfect capper to Malvo’s brief tenure as a dentist, turning the episode’s first five or so minutes into a shaggy dog story that doesn’t mean much but tells you everything. This is a bad guy with survival skills so acute that he’s willing to throw away months of work at the first sign of trouble. Molly has her job cut out for her.
Todd: Full disclosure: I watched this episode in a packed movie theater screening at the Austin Television Festival, where everybody was really into it, so I’m happy to hear that it plays even when watched without a bunch of people. (I guess I just assume you’re not renting out movie theaters to show these screeners to people, Zack. FX publicity might have something to say about it if you are.) What was amazing was to hear the response in the room not just to the positive moments—Molly’s victory prompted a spontaneous round of applause—or to the laugh lines but also to that final section of the episode, in which Lester puts Linda in that parka and sends her into the room where she will die. The audience groaned and gasped and let out muted expressions of shock. It was about as disgusted as I’ve ever heard a large group of people, and I couldn’t help but laugh just a little at how thoroughly we were all in the palm of Noah Hawley’s hand.
What was even more interesting was talking this episode out with a few people who hadn’t always been the series’ biggest proponents. I’m not saying they were as on board the show as you and I are, Zack, but it seemed to me like this episode struck them as much more enticing than some of the previous “Lester does something despicable” episodes. And I think that has everything to do with the fact that Molly gets a chance to win. She’s been kept down so long that it could start to seem like she was a punching bag for the show’s universe. I’ll admit that I found the idea that the show was truly on Lester’s side hard to cotton to—he seemed so self-evidently awful—but by having him do what he does to Linda and giving Molly that tiny victory, the show is setting us up for a world where I can’t imagine Lester not getting his comeuppance, even if everybody else on the show gives up their lives to make this happen. (Please don’t do this, Noah Hawley.)
But let’s also talk about this episode’s elegance in getting everybody to Bemidji in order for the climactic showdown to have all of the pieces it needs. It reminded me of the brain teaser that gives the episode its title: What will get Budge and Pepper to town? How about Malvo? And what will Gus do if he sees Malvo again? It also allows the show to play around with character combinations it somehow, miraculously, hasn’t gotten to yet, as in that wonderful scene where Lou and Malvo sit in the diner and have a discussion that talks around the fact that Malvo is an evil murderer—perhaps even of the piles of bodies Lou ran into back in Sioux Falls—and at all times, you’re expecting Lou to die, particularly when he spots that photo of Gus and Molly’s wedding on the wall. One of the real advantages of the anthology miniseries format is the way that it suggests the possibility that anything could happen at any moment. On another show, I wouldn’t be as worried in this episode; in this one, the tension ratchets up as far as it can go, thanks to the fact that we know this whole story ends next week (I know, right?).
But the format also lets Hawley drag out the action as much as he wants. Not a lot actually happens in this episode—it’s more or less a piece-moving episode, but it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen because Hawley isn’t afraid to take his time with making sure everybody not only gets to the right place at the right time but is also sort of unnerved by the way that everything is playing out like this. (My favorite moment in this regard: Molly comes in the back door of the diner, just as Malvo exits out the front, right before Budge and Pepper pull up.) The characters on this show had a year to put the events of the first episode behind them, but they were simply unable to do so. Now, the demons are back, and the reckoning can begin.
Zack: Yeah, it surprised me in retrospect to realize that while there are certainly things that happen here (lots of deaths, Malvo coming for Lester, Molly finally getting some recognition), so much of the tension of the episode is made up of waiting—and waiting that more often than not goes unfulfilled. Lester spends a lot of time peeking out windows or staring down hallways, but he doesn’t see Malvo again until the end of the hour; Molly and Gus have near-misses with Malvo, but never come in close enough proximity to him to force a confrontation. The long conversation between Malvo and Lou seems to demand someone end up dead (and considering where the episode falls, that someone would’ve been Lou), and yet it doesn’t. Nothing is really resolved here, and yet that never feels like a cheat.
It helps that we know the finale is coming next week, but there’s also a definite sense of tightening throughout, of people being backed into corners—or, perhaps more apt, of lots of guns being hung on lots of walls, fully loaded and waiting to go off. I’ve mentioned this before in an email to you, I think, and I’m really just agreeing with your earlier comments on the “clockwork universe” idea, but I’m impressed at how well constructed this season has been, and how well Hawley has both subverted and built up our expectations. I don’t need any great answers from next week’s finale, because there aren’t that many mysteries left. I just want to see Malvo stopped, and Lester in the ground, and Molly and Gus together forever.
Todd: I’m sad to see the show end next week, but I remember finishing this screening and being deeply impressed by the episode and deeply moved that this show even fucking exists and is so good. So much TV out there right now feels like weird storytelling miracles that shouldn’t even exist, and I’d put Fargo at the top of that list. There’s no reason for this show to be so involving or so good, but every week, Hawley and his collaborators have quietly built this perfect little universe that they’ve summarily set up to carefully, quietly knock down. Fargo shouldn’t exist, and it shouldn’t be this good. But it does, and even as Lester is being the most despicable little shit who ever lived, I’m grateful we get to see the tale of treachery he set off play out.
Zack’s grade: A
Todd’s grade: A
- An absolutely stunning shot in the teaser, with Malvo, in silhouette, standing in the open elevator door, the blood from the victims painting the wall behind him like the fiery humps of angel wings sticking up out of his back. [TV]
- There’s some fascinating, subtle use of misogyny in this episode to remind us just how ill-prepared Malvo is to deal with Molly. He has a very specific view of the world, and that view doesn’t really allow for a woman like her. [ZH]
- More subtle indications of how the male characters’ default assumptions about women disrupt their ability to think clearly: Budge and Pepper just assume the deputy they’ll be meeting with is a “he.” They’re not malicious guys, but they have a blind spot. Molly, by virtue of existing within that blind spot, is, thus, the only person equipped to solve the case. [TV]
- Any hopes for the finale? I really hope we see Chaz one last time, which is a weird thing to hope, I realize. [TV]
- I would still like to know what happened to Stavros. I mean, I can easily see the show never visiting him again, and that would work just fine. But I’m curious. [ZH]
- I mean, the entire final episode could just be Lou and Greta hanging out, and that would be satisfying. Okay, maybe not entirely so, but the show has done such a good job sketching out even the most minor of supporting characters that I wouldn’t entirely mind, which is impressive. I also just like how easily Lou has swung into grandfather mode and how much he clearly enjoys it. All I am saying is Lou must survive forever. [TV]
- Okay, one thing that makes me nervous about next week: Gus sure seemed driven by the thought of finally catching Malvo, and I have a sense that going all Captain Ahab could seal his fate. That would be sad. [TV]
- In its own way, the casting and summarily quick dispatch of Stephen Root suggests the show’s relationship to the Coen brothers movies it draws so much from: It’s not afraid to pull in an homage here or there, but it’s never going to be beholden to them. [TV]
- I’ve mentioned Walter White a couple of times re: Lester in these reviews, but I was impressed how the show had Lester virtually copying one of Walt’s more loathsome moments. Even better, Lester managed to be more despicable than Heisenberg himself. [ZH]
- Your Coen Brothers Movie Of The Week: Seeing as how Todd already picked Barton Fink, which would’ve been my go-to for this episode (all those creepy hallways), I’ll guess I’ll default to Miller’s Crossing, a gangster crime thriller that tells the story of one man sacrificing his soul to save the life of the man he loves. For a long time this was my favorite Coen Brothers movie, and it might still be; it’s perfectly plotted, gorgeous, and very violent. So hey, that seems appropriate. [ZH]