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Jordan Peele (left), Keegan-Michael Key (FX)
Jordan Peele (left), Keegan-Michael Key (FX)

Fargo: “The Heap”

Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight

Todd: Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting Fargo to go the full Fargo.

“The Heap” is a relatively quiet episode of Fargo. It’s as if the show is spiraling outward from “Buridan’s Ass,” whose gravitational center is so fraught that the characters keep spinning away from it, lest they get sucked back into its maw. “The Heap” builds an impressive sense of dread throughout its first half, to the point that when the camera pans away from Gus on the phone with Molly, planning their first official date, I was convinced it was going to reveal Malvo or some other miscreant about to plug him in the head. But it doesn’t. The theme rises on the soundtrack. Director Scott Winant keeps panning, until we’re being carried past the snowy trees in a move that should be all but synonymous with “time passes” after all of these years of hiding such transitions in these sorts of camera moves. And yet it’s still a shock when the title “One Year Later” pops up on the screen. This isn’t something that’s supposed to happen in episode eight of a TV show—even one that’s designed to end its run in 10 episodes.

And yet there we are. Molly and Gus are married and expecting (and Gus refers to Molly as Greta’s “mom,” in a detail that pleased me far too much, because deep within me lurks the soul of a ‘shipper). Budge and Pepper are still stuck in that file room, debating just what makes it a file room and considering the man who indirectly put them there. Bill and his wife have adopted a Sudanese Lost Boy (in a scene that I’m making sound far more comedic than it is). And Lester is remarried—to Linda, the woman he works with at the insurance office—and accepting an award for salesman of the year in Las Vegas. He takes a chance on trying to hook up with a beautiful woman he sees at the hotel he’s staying at, only to arrive in the same bar as one Lorne Malvo, now with bright blonde hair and Stephen Root sitting at his table. The camera pushes in on Malvo in three-quarter profile from behind, until the screen is made up of a Malvo we can’t quite recognize—because we can’t see his features—and a bunch of negative space. The character has that effect on people.

The structural gambit is so audacious that it’s easy to miss that everything that follows is basically a scene catching us up on what everybody’s been doing in the year since the terrible events that only Molly seems to still focus on. (She’s got her own conspiracy wall, in the best Homeland tradition.) But the more I watched “The Heap,” the more I came to love this structural choice. It’s the necessary corrective to “Buridan’s Ass,” an episode that suggested only the wicked would be rewarded, and the good would be punished for no particular reason. “The Heap,” instead, argues that as life goes on, it returns to a kind of pleasant decency that you can just about hum. Most of the people in this universe are fundamentally good on some level. When Bill makes a mistake, for instance, it’s not because he’s a bad man—he adopted that Sudanese kid, after all—but because he’s blinded by his own biases in ways he won’t quite admit. “The Heap” gives them a new status quo that results in a new resolution to close up the loose ends of a year ago.

It also gives the wounds of the earlier episodes more and more time to fester. There’s a real pain in this episode when Molly, lying in bed next to her husband, says, quietly, that they’re doin’ good, because she’s trying to reassure herself of everything she chose to overlook in the name of letting something like closure settle over the deaths of Vern, Pearl, and Sam Hess. (The time jump also gives her more to lose, in the form of a husband, stepdaughter, and unborn child. This is true for most of the characters, actually.) The question that the episode raises is first suggested by the signs of Pearl’s that Lester throws out, then later said point-blank by Bill as he welcomes his new son into his life: The universe will work things out. Things happen for a reason. But that’s hard to cotton with an injustice you know in your bones was perpetrated, and because Molly is the kind of person who will never let this go, we know that “The Heap” is a respite meant to steel us for whatever blood rains down around these characters next. But it’s a stylish, audacious one that gives me complete faith Noah Hawley knows where he’s going with this.

Zack: I can only think of a handful of story twists that shake up a narrative at a fundamental level. There’s a sudden, shocking death of a major character; there’s a reveal of a motivation that undermines everything we’ve assumed thus far; and there’s a time jump. I’m sure there are more, but to me, the death and the time jump involve the biggest level of risk, because both events can unsettle an established status quo—and while shaking up the status quo is often a necessary and useful thing, it’s got a tightrope-without-a-net feel that can be both thrilling and dangerous. The greater the change, the more important it is that the change is ultimately revealed to be integral to the fabric of the story itself. You can score easy points by shooting a beloved protagonist in the head, but surprise fades. If there’s no justification for what just happened, the writer starts to look like a manipulator, betraying the audience’s trust for no more than a cheap thrill.

One of the reasons I was worried back when Molly got shot (God, we were all so young then!) is that I couldn’t figure out a way the show could kill her off and still work. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened: Noah Hawley knows his shit, and I tend to be a pessimist anyway. But I was relieved when she was still alive, since that meant the story that I was enjoying so much was still fundamentally intact.

I had absolutely no reservations about the time jump—it’s a device that’s becoming more common, but still hasn’t been overused (although it probably will be eventually). More importantly, it derives its power more from wonder than from morbid horror. Like you, Todd, I spent most of the scene with Gus and Molly on the phone deeply concerned he was about to get shot, but when the camera panned to the left and then kept running, I laughed out loud. It’s a gutsy move, but it just makes so much damn sense in retrospect. It allows us to see things (like, say, Molly and Gus together—woo-hoo!) that a 10-episode series would normally not have had time for.

Even more importantly, it lets us draw back from the initial action and put everything into a broader perspective. Suddenly, little things that had been nagging at me made more sense. Gus shooting Molly became less about a cliffhanger, and more a way to both throw her off the thread of the chase (thus delaying the story’s resolution into the future), and getting Gus out of the force for good. That last bit strikes me as especially important. In the few episodes we have left, there just wasn’t time to spend on Gus getting disciplined for shooting a fellow officer—it was a plot event that was important to his character, but also had a lot of tedious bureaucracy and professional humiliation built in, at a point where the good guys really needed to start pushing back. Instead, we jump ahead a year, and the mess is cleared up, and Gus is where he really belongs: delivering the mail like he dreamed about, and being a darn good father and husband.

The time jump also gives Budge and Pepper just a little bit more reason to exist than before. This could all be for naught; the two could end up blundering into Malvo and getting themselves killed before Molly saves the day, and if that or something like it happens, they’ll be a waste of a pair of great comedic actors. But I thought they made more sense now—they aren’t just inept. They’re two inept guys who have a very clear and understandable reason to want to track Malvo down. The time jump works to solidify motives, cast what had been set in fire into steel. Molly’s ambition and raw feelings over Vern’s death have turned into something more profound, something that hasn’t stopped her from living her life but still clearly drives her. And it’s given the FBI agents a year of tedium to mull over their mistakes, and come up with the perfect person to blame.

Then there’s Lester, who is more comfortable in his skin now, which means instead of a nervous, put-upon dweeb, he’s a confident, self-aggrandizing creep. He casually mentions his brother’s incarceration in his acceptance speech (both bringing us up to date on what happened, and showing how he still arranges his past to make himself out as a victim), and then he makes plans to cheat on his wife so smoothly that one can only assume he’s done this before. He’s turned into the bully now, with the clear assumption that there’s no one left to stand in his way. It reminds me a bit of poor Stavros—Stavros who found an apparent miracle, and built a philosophy around it, a philosophy that ultimately cost him everything. With Lester, he evidently believes in the power of the alpha male—in being quick and bold and confident, and in sacrificing anyone who stands in the way of his happiness.

And why shouldn’t he? It’s worked out so far. Except where Stavros feared the judgement of an angry god, Lester is left with just one man. The only man who knows all his secrets, and the only man Lester knows who’s better at this game. I love how long it takes for the reveal to hit in that last scene (this show makes great use of long, luxuriant build-ups); you already know from Tahir and Bill’s story that Lester’s going to meet someone unexpectedly, and then the penny drops and it’s a decidedly different looking Malvo—a Malvo who, at least right now, doesn’t seem to notice Lester at all. I love how unnerving that sequence is. I’m not scared for Lester in the slightest, but the show does a great job of conveying just how unsettling it would be for the little weasel to run into his own personal boogeyman. 

Todd: Considering the time jump made me realize just how skillfully the show has been told so far, honestly. Think, for instance, over how much mileage the show got out of having Gus pursue Malvo and Molly pursue Lester, with Malvo and Lester not meeting again until this moment. (So seismic was that scene inside Lester’s house back in the first episode that my brain had just sort of subconsciously written in a bunch of scenes between the two of them, even though that never happened. Hawley has done such a good job of sketching in the broad strokes of this conflict that I was making up other stuff as we went along, which, to me, is the sign of a good story.

But I was also taken with flash-forward land’s sense of loss, with the way that we look at the big wall of linking crimes in Molly’s room, or in that little speech from Lester at the awards dinner. I was reminded by how much the first episode really did want us to get invested in Lester and his travails, before brutally yanking the rug out from under us, and I found myself wondering if there was a way to have given Lester this level of success without having him descend into the realm of the utter asshole (probably not). (I also found myself wondering what symbolic resonance insurance is meant to have in the story, so you may as well ignore me.) There’s so much in “The Heap” about everything that gets lost when you choose to start looking at other things—even if those other things are good things—that I can’t help but find a kind of melancholy in it as well.

Of course, we’ve spent all these words on the episode and barely talked about what happened in everything before the time jump. And, yes, that was a bit more programmatic, but I liked how the episode gave us these moments that suggested the characters were going to continue pushing down certain paths, then gave us the year-later timeline, where we realized they hadn’t, whether out of a sense of duty (Gus) or out of a sense of obligation to a friend (Molly). This is true for everyone except Lester, of course, and I can’t wait to see what horrible fate awaits him now that he’s reconnected with his old friend.

Zack: I guess I’m focused on the post-time jump events because everything leading up to that moment only really worked for me in retrospect. Watching Lester and Chas’s wife commiserate over coffee; watching Molly try one more time to force Bill to listen to her theory on the case (this time with helpful visual aids); watching Lester finally “defeat” the Widow Hess and her bratty, bullying sons… everything that happened in the episode’s first half hour felt like a repeat of a story idea we’d already visited, sometimes with changes, sometimes just the same old head against brick wall.

What makes it work, then, is the fact that this feeling of repetition is intentional. Like you said, these scenes work to give us a strong enough sense of how these characters’ lives are going to play out, at least for a while, that the time jump seems like a natural extension of the story itself. Instead of finding more subplots to fill the time with, we simply pull away, and then come back to the story when it’s ready to continue.

And here I am, still talking about the damn jump. Well, as funny as it was to see Lester use a stapler as a weapon, in retrospect, the Widow Hess storyline isn’t ever going to be my favorite part of the series. The whole thing plays out a little too much like wish-fulfillment; Lester kills his wife, and then meets an attractive woman who lets him work out all his insecurity about the man who used to bully him. There’s no humiliation for him, either. Linda (his new wife) doesn’t seem all that upset about the Widow’s angry “I let you come inside me,” so Lester gets to fuck his cake and marry someone nice, as it were. I get that this is part of building Lester up so that he’ll have higher to fall, and it’s fascinating to see what “being a winner” means to him (basically he’s just a slightly more polished Sam Hess), but it would be nice if the emasculated man had finally defeated his shrewish wife, only to learn he was never all that great to begin with.

That’s a minor complaint, though. The stage has been rebuilt for the last two episodes, and here’s hoping everyone gets what they deserve.

Todd’s grade: A-
Zack’s grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • If you’re into TV time jumps, check out our brief history of the form in inventory form coming up in just a couple of hours. [TV]
  • The only character we don’t catch up with in the 2007 universe is Mr. Wrench, whom I assume we’ll meet again next week. [TV]
  • Well, there’s also Stavros; he could be gone for good after “Buridan’s Ass,” but I kind of hope the show finds some way to check in with him again. [ZH]
  • Those scenes of Molly, Gus, and Greta together made me so happy that I’m a little worried about myself. [ZH]
  • Our series of scenes “introducing” us to many of the major characters in the preambles lets us meet and greet Lester’s new washing machine. And then he apparently sits and watches the spin cycle. Like you do. [TV]
  • Bill isn’t my favorite character on the show, but I’m surprised at how much I like him. Odenkirk does such a great job of presenting the frustration and enthusiasm of someone who honestly does care, but who isn’t quite smart enough to get the whole picture. He could’ve been just an asshole or a joke, but he isn’t. [ZH]
  • Your Coen brothers movie of the week: I’ve always felt like 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is pretty underrated, and Billy Bob Thornton stars in that one as well. So let’s just say that, and I’ll let you experience the black-and-white majesty of it. (Speaking of which, I kind of want to see a black-and-white season of this show.) [TV]
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