Fargo: “The Rooster Prince”
B+

Fargo: “The Rooster Prince”

Relearning your humanity

Todd: “There’s more than one right thing,” Gus Grimly tells his adolescent daughter, and she looks at him skeptically. This is exactly the sort of thing you can tell your child with the full weight of adulthood and all its compromises behind it, but it’s also the sort of thing that turns to dust in your mouth even as you’re saying it. More than one right thing? What the hell kind of philosophy is that? There’s just the one right thing, and just the one wrong thing, and that’s the way it is. Right? And yet when Gus tells his daughter that he’s got his priorities as a cop, sure, but also his priorities as a father, there’s a ring of truth to it. We’re all balancing multiple selves off of each other, and the older we get, the more versions of ourselves we invite onto the bus. Gus’ daughter has a dad because he didn’t go down a certain road with Malvo. But that doesn’t mean he won’t eventually.

“The Rooster Prince” is a bit of a step back from last week’s riveting first episode, but the reasoning for that is sound: It’s here that the show starts to truly differentiate itself from its cinematic forebear. “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” teases viewers with the idea that the series might be a remix of the movie before heading off on its own path by the end. “The Rooster Prince” is the episode where this thing settles both into being its own project and into being a TV show at all. With the conflicts established and the pieces all in place, Noah Hawley and Adam Bernstein can sit back and carefully watch as their characters begin to move around the board, seeing what happens when they poke certain slumbering bears. This means that “The Rooster Prince” is rather low on incident, all things considered, but it’s high on the kinds of things that made the back half of the first episode so enjoyable, like a kind of cockeyed philosophizing and scenes where the forces of Minnesota Nice and good police work do war within Molly Solverson and Allison Tolman conveys it all so very well using only her eyes.

The early reviews for Fargo singled out Tolman as an out-of-the-blue sensation—this year’s sudden, stunning find who seemingly arrived without any credits to deliver an amazingly assured performance. (Tolman comes out of the world of theater, which has a way of delivering such capable actors.) I didn’t see as much of that in the first episode—though I certainly found Molly an arresting presence—but “The Rooster Prince” begins setting up why Molly and Gus are going to be our heroes, even if they’ve each encountered setbacks. Gus let the bad guy slip through his fingers out of concern for his daughter, and he’s going to have to work through that before he gets on the trail again. But Molly is certain that Lester knows more than he’s saying, and she’s going to get him to ‘fess up to it, even if everybody else thinks she’s wrong to keep pursuing this lead. Bill—promoted to chief ahead of her, both because of seniority and genitalia—knew Lester in high school. He’s not the kind of guy who’s capable of that, right? Yet something keeps niggling at the back of Molly’s mind, pieces that won’t quite fit together, and I love the way that the exterior niceness slowly drops away until she’s openly accosting Lester at the drug store. If this is to be a cop story, then she’s going to have to be thrown off the case at some point—and she is by the end of this episode, making stunning time.

Yet “The Rooster Prince” is also an episode thick with grief. Zack, what do you make of Lester’s seeming sorrow over murdering his wife? And how do we figure Malvo’s adventures in Duluth are going to connect to all of this?

Zack: Lester’s a strange case, isn’t he? If I had to guess, I’d say that his brief breakdown over his wife’s sweater is the real deal; I wondered the first time I watched the episode if it was supposed to be some kind of rehearsal, and that still might be the case, but re-watching it for review, it struck me as legitimate, almost animalistic response. There’s something not quite right about him, and while I don’t think the show is trying to make us sympathize with the character (if they are, good luck with that), I do think there’s an effort to indicate that killing his wife wasn’t something that’s made him particularly happy. Like a lot of the plotting on the show, I can’t see exactly where things are headed, which can be both tremendously exciting, and a little nerve-wracking; it would be possible for this to implode pretty easily. But for right now, I liked that little moment a lot, because it reinforced the idea of Lester as, well, kind of an idiot, the sort of person who spends his time silently seething at the world, only to lash out when given an excuse in a way that far exceeds any abuse he might have received—and then immediately regret what he’s done, while still not really realizing his part in it.

He seems like a routine Malvo has run before, and that’s an idea the episode makes explicit with that really terrific scene with the tape recorder. If the previous episode suggested that the character, with his calm detachment and apparently motiveless desire to stir shit up, was a Mephistopheles figure, this week makes that even more explicit. There’s an awareness of that whole male anti-hero convention that helps to elevate this above just more of the same. Malvo isn’t a freelance self-help guru. He gets off on bringing out the worst in people, and Lester is getting a glimpse of just what it means to get stuck with the bill.

As for the blackmail plot, so far it’s more a curiosity than anything else, although I loved the set-up. Malvo’s trip to the post office was reminiscent of Anton Chigurh’s brief dealings with “normal” people in No Country For Old Men, although Malvo is less obviously insane than Chigurh was—there was still that alien-observing-human-conversation vibe throughout. And I’ll be honest: I find that delightful, especially when it doesn’t end in anyone getting murdered. This episode gives a clearer sense of Malvo’s actual job (he seems to be some kind of fixer), while still leaving him as largely a mystery. That tape recorder scene leads directly into Malvo’s confrontation with Stavros’ main thug, and again, there’s that sense of detachment; Malvo listening patiently to the guy’s threats before dropping trou and taking a dump in front of the guy reads like a scientist establishing dominance in front of a lesser primate.

All of which could turn this into a one-note excuse to get off on how stupid people can be; and while that can be fun, it’s a relief to have Molly and Gus on the other side of things. Especially Molly, whose straightforward determination and obvious intelligence make Bill’s behavior more frustrating (because he’s standing in the way of good police work) and actually tolerable (since there’s no sense that Molly is ever going to give up, or even significantly doubt herself, in the face of Bill’s befuddled disdain). So many other shows have told stories about men giving in to their worst impulses that it’s refreshing to have one in which the forces of law and order are at least as worthy of our time as the villains. I’m at least as invested in Molly and Gus as I am in Malvo and Lester, and the episode finds ways, with that lovely scene at the sheriff’s wake (which helped make his death more than just a brutal twist) and the conversation between Gus and his daughter, to deepen that investment.

Speaking of that scene with Gus—what did you make of the brief glimpse of the Neighbor Who Is Proud Of Her Underwear? And we haven’t even talked about the arrival of the two hitmen tasked with tracking down Sam Hess’s killer, so… let’s do that.

Todd: The strongest connection I see running between Fargo the film and Fargo the series is how both are about the careless disintegration of carefully built order. Midwestern small towns run on very strictly maintained senses of proper place and behavior, and both stories involve what happens when someone dares to pluck at that order just enough to see what it takes to make it fall apart. (It’s worth pointing out that much of the film takes place in Minneapolis, a large city but one with close enough ties to Midwestern small towns that I think I can still make this work.) The major difference is that the unwinding at the center of the film is almost an unconscious decision: Our “hero” believes that he can have his wife kidnapped without things going wrong, only to realize just how incorrect he is. Meanwhile, the unwinding at the center of the show is very consciously a choice by Malvo to sow the seeds of discontent wherever he can. And in so doing, he creates a situation that begins to tear at the fabric of the little town of Bemidji.

Because this is a TV show, that disintegration needs to have more forms than just Malvo and Lester’s misdeeds, which means that we get to see the consequences of what happens. If Sam Hess had ties to some sort of gun-running organization—as it seems he did—then that organization is almost certainly going to respond to his death with some kind of payback. What makes this Fargo and not some lesser show is that the two men sent to look into what happened are a deaf man played by Russell Harvard and an exasperated partner played by Adam Goldberg. There’s a sense throughout this show of most of the actors rising to the weird, challenging material and giving some of their best performances in some time, and I certainly felt that way about these two, who somehow hold the center of scenes both comedic and menacing. What I really like is the way they’re portrayed almost as work-a-day stiffs, just trying to get through this latest job, as opposed to Malvo, who seems to take real relish in spreading destruction. The final scene—in which they toss the poor guy who just happens to look like Malvo into a hole in an icy lake—reminded me, for all the world, of those Looney Tunes where the sheepdogs would clock in. “Morning, Sam.” “Morning, Ralph.” Just another day at the office.

Having the two around also contributes to something that makes Fargo such a treat to watch: It adds to the overall sense of weirdness that surrounds the show. There’s stuff in these two episodes that plays like little else on TV right now, and just having everything surrounded by snow gives everything that sense, too. (In its use of long landscape shots of barren nothingness, Fargo apes Breaking Bad magnificently.) The woman who likes to show off her underwear falls under this banner as well, I’d imagine, since it seems like one of those “only in the movies” things to have happen to Gus. As you mentioned, there are many, many encounters between normal folks and Malvo that feel like real life tilted about five degrees to the side, like that post office scene. (I love the idea of asking for a package addressed just to “Duluth.”) There are elements of weirdness that don’t work for me so far—like Glenn Howerton as an overly tanned personal trainer—but the vast majority of these sorts of touches feel like little tastes of some deeper strangeness that’s only beginning to seep out.

What do you think, Zack? Does the show earn its weird? And are there any little touches or riffs you don’t like as well?

Zack: Well, I’m with you on Howerton; I’m not sure if it’s how the character’s conceived, or the actor’s performance, but he just doesn’t quite pop the way he’s supposed to. I think it might be because Howerton’s just not as good at playing the kind of dippy cheeriness the role requires—there’s an ironic detachment to every line he delivers that makes it all seem too calculated, in a way that’s more distracting than suggestive of depth.

Other than that, though, I’m digging the weird. I especially like the music choices—the drumming that opened the episode, and the song (which I don’t think I’ve ever heard before) that ends it. At this point, juxtaposing calm or quirky music over on-screen violence isn’t anything new, but there’s something jarring about how the show uses its score, in a good way. Like those shots of all that wide open space, it establishes a certain tone. It remains to be seen if that tone will add up to anything, but for right now, I’m content to enjoy the ride.

Todd: I am, too, but the show works for me because it grounds all of those odd touches in something genuine, something human. I keep coming back to Lester weeping privately at the sight of what his wife has left behind, and then I look at the title of this episode: “The Rooster Prince.” The story of the rooster prince is a Jewish folktale in which a prince comes to believe he is a rooster and acts accordingly. To cure his condition, the wise men of the palace convince him that roosters eat at tables with utensils and so on, retraining him to be human by telling him that what roosters do is what humans do. That seems to me particularly evocative of Lester, but I’ll toss this one to you, commenters: Is Lester training himself to be human again? Or is he training himself to give in to evil?

Todd’s grade: B+
Zack’s grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • That song you liked so well, by the by, Zack, is called “Full Moon,” and it’s by eden ahbez (not so much for the capital letters was old eden). He was a major influence on California hippies, and he composed the standard “Nature Boy.” So now you know! [TV]
  • I love how show keeps finding ways to get that fish poster in Lester’s basement on screen. “What If Everyone Is Wrong But You” is one of those mottos that will probably change meanings as the show goes on; right now, it neatly sums up Molly’s problems, Malvo’s philosophy, and underlines Lester’s only (doomed) hope. [ZH]
  • Another nicely weird touch: the window on the butcher’s room in Stavros’s office. I wonder if that’s just symbolic, or if it’s Chekov’s slaughterhouse. [ZH]
  • Gus’s daughter is played by Joey King. King was great in both The Conjuring and White House Down, and she does the “a little exasperated but still loving my dad” thing quite well. [ZH]
  • The events differ considerably, but Molly’s account of the shooting of her father during a traffic stop certainly resonates with the highway patrolman who’s killed in the film Fargo, right down to the way that Molly uses the phrase “little guy.” I know it’s not the same thing (since, after all, the trooper dies in the movie), but there was just enough there to have me briefly wondering if this was going to connect to the movie directly somehow. [TV]
  • The conversations between Molly and her father (Keith Carradine) do a nice job of counter-balancing all the dark humor, and I especially like how unphased  Molly is over her dad’s concern. It’s a way to both recognize the awfulness of what’s happened without getting buried under it. (And some of Pa Solverson’s comments have a definite No Country feel to them.) [ZH]
  • Your Coen brothers film of the week: This is such a predictable answer, since we’ve mentioned it a few times this week, but my favorite film by the brothers has always been No Country For Old Men, which struck me as the absolute perfect movie to resonate with the person I was in 2007 and continue to remind me of that person the further I get from it. There are so many wonderful sequences in this film, and I’m glad it vaulted the brothers to another level of success. [TV]
Filed Under: TV, FX, Fargo

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