Fargo: “Who Shaves The Barber?”
B+

Fargo: “Who Shaves The Barber?”

A perfectly scheduled lull in the storm

Zack Handlen: The problem with great cliffhangers is that once you blow something up, you have to figure out how to put it back together again. Throwing your hero to the wolves (or, say, the Borg) is flashy and thrilling and intense, but it only works if what comes next justifies the shock. That’s the challenge, really: not just the willingness to shake things up, but the ability to find a new status quo that isn’t forced or a cheat. Succeed, and you’ll win the heart of your audience forever. Fail, and you’ll turn them into a bunch of Annie Wilkes, enraged and shrieking about “he didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!”

Cars and crashes aren’t an issue in “Who Shaves The Barber?” but the episode does have to find a way to resolve the multiple fraying story threads left by last week’s terrific “Buridan’s Ass.” It does this with satisfying competence, albeit with a certain lack of grace. The big revelation: Molly isn’t dead. Gus’ ill-judged shot into the whiteout hit her, but it only took out her spleen, and Molly’s back on her feet in a day or two.

Is this a cheat? From a certain angle, I suppose it is. The idea that Gus’s shot would injure, not kill, isn’t that much of a stretch; it’s arguably more improbable that blind firing into a whiteout would have lead to a fatality. But from a narrative perspective, I could see being frustrated by this, if you read it as the show seeming to suggest a major twist, and then stepping back from it, like a 10-year-old getting a glimpse of the view from the high board at the swimming pool and climbing back down to ground level. Killing off your show’s moral center is a big jump, and a small part of the charge of last week’s episode came from wondering what the hell would happen if Molly really did die. In retrospect, that concern feels a little silly, and feeling silly about being concerned isn’t all that much fun.

Still, I think it works if you view what happened more as character development than plotting. Gus’ ill-judged shot served to keep Molly from catching Malvo at that moment, but honestly, she wasn’t going to catch him just then even if she hadn’t been hit. What really matters is the reminder to both Molly and Gus that plunging blindly ahead is never going to work out for either of them in the long run. Gus could lose his job (although apparently the only person he’s told about the shooting is Molly herself—it’s a lovely scene, but I do hope they don’t try to cover this up), and Molly’s seeming invulnerability is severely shaken. She doesn’t appear too wounded at first, still working diligently away at the case and even interrogating the man she shot (Mr. Wrench, not dead but in handcuffs), but the cracks are there, and her final scene outside of the police station, devastated by the knowledge that Chaz has been arrested, and not Lester, for the death of the police chief, works best as a final straw type moment.

As for everything else, “Who Shaves The Barber?” doesn’t hold together as well as the last two episodes, but it does have some terrific scenes in it. Lester’s return visit to the Widow Hess (whom he lies to and screws) is interesting from a character perspective, but not all that compelling story-wise; but his scene with Bill that opens the episode, as he reconstructs a new version of his wife and the police chief’s death that largely exonerates himself, is gripping stuff, thanks to great acting on both Freeman and Odenkirk’s part. Bill continues to surprise me. He’s never going to be a heroic character, but Odenkirk does a great job of making him understandable and even sympathetic—he’s small town police, stuck in a situation that demands more of him than he’s capable of giving. Over and over the episode finds small ways to remind us that what we’re watching has actual, often horrible effects on the people caught in the crossfire.

Then there’s Malvo, the Crossfire King. His efforts to get revenge (or punish, which seems more appropriate to his worldview) the people who sent Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench after him lead to the episode’s showiest set-piece, an assault on the crime boss headquarters in Fargo which we see entirely from outside the building. It’s a clever, darkly funny sequence that doesn’t have a lot of emotional depth to it; once again, Malvo acts like a prankster god, albeit one with a big chip on his shoulder, and once again, he lays waste to his enemies before any of them are able to fight back. (One fella tries to draw on him, and we hear the audible click of an empty gun.) Like the introduction of the two FBI agents who’ll presumably be drawn into Malvo’s widening gyre of chaos, it’s entertaining, but lacks the clarity of previous episodes. As great as it is to see Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele pop up, it’s uncertain how they’ll fit into the final three episodes—which isn’t a huge problem, but three episodes isn’t a lot of time to develop new characters.

Basically, this is a table-clearing episode, after the feast of the last two weeks. So we get a lot of bits and pieces, and if the sum of the parts isn’t greater than the whole in this case, it still has a lot to recommend it.

Todd VanDerWerff: “Who Shaves The Barber?” strikes me as just a bit of a reboot of everything in the show. There’s nothing wrong with that—“Buridan’s Ass” moved a lot of pieces off the table—but there’s a definite sense of the show clearing its throat just a bit. What I’m finding so great about this season is how well structured it is, however, and that extends to this episode, which seems to know that we’re going to need a little breather in between the events of the last episode and whatever’s coming next. It feels like Noah Hawley consciously said, “Hey, we’re going to need an episode that will get a score in the B-range at The A.V. Club right here, so let’s do that.” I mean, I know he didn’t, but I’m just that self-absorbed.

So let me start at the end with Allison Tolman, or, as another TV critic said to me after we got done watching the episode, Allison FUCKING Tolman. That final scene in the snow outside the Brainerd police station is perhaps the actress’ finest moment yet, and I love the way the anguish on her face builds in tandem with the slowly growing sound design, until the volume of the soundtrack and the horrors she’s seen both abruptly slam into the credits. (One thing I love about this show is the long, long credits, which give it a much more movie-ish feel.) Tolman’s face is one of this show’s chief weapons, and I like how often the series’ directors—here, TV directing genius Scott Winant—use her face as a kind of safe harbor in the midst of a storm. I think that’s why everybody—myself included—overreacted a bit to the notion of her being dead. Without that safe harbor, where was this show even going to go?

Also, I can understand the reason for why some will be upset that Molly survived, but I think the show’s structure is so consciously based around mirroring Molly off Malvo (and Lester off Gus) that the show would ultimately fall apart if one of the central four were to abruptly exit the story before we’d come to the end. We’re all placing a bit of a bet on Noah Hawley ultimately coming down on the side of the angels here, if only because it seems like he’s made the forces of “bad” look so invincible that they’re just asking for a fall. It’s entirely possible that his worldview is cynical and misanthropic enough that we’ll watch the Triumph of the Malvo (to say nothing of the Lester) as the season draws to a close. I doubt it, but it’s possible.

But either ending that Hawley chooses would be vastly undercut by killing off one of the characters this early. The show’s structure so clearly needs everybody to be alive and bouncing off of each other that it would start to wobble on its axis without one of those characters around. I think that too often, we become obsessed with the idea of a character’s death indicating a story’s gutsiness or something, but what Hawley is building here is clearly much more about pushing Molly to a point where she feels broken, so she can start to pull herself together again and come to a point of ultimate victory. It’s storytelling 101, and that it’s balanced with what appears to be Lester’s ultimate moment of triumph and Gus’ ultimate moment of remorse is what makes it so effective.

Because good lord, I do not think I could hate Lester any more than I do now. We’ve compared him to Walter White a fair amount in these reviews, and there’s good reason for that: Here’s another guy who appears to be just a nice, normal fella, only to reveal a deep, abiding resentment and bitterness, emotions that he’s held in check but only barely. So much of Fargo is turning out to be about assumptions. Bill assumes Lester can’t be guilty because he knew him back in high school. People assume that Molly is wrong because they have certain innate assumptions about female police officers or even just who she is specifically. Malvo succeeds because he pokes through people’s assumptions about themselves and finds their weaknesses. But Lester’s growing attachment to his own festering bile is driven by the fact that so much of what he assumed about himself to be true just wasn’t. He wasn’t a very good person. He wasn’t a very good brother. He wasn’t a very good friend. And in attaching himself to that, he becomes a truer version of himself. The lies come more easily.

But we still have Molly. And we still have Malvo. And I think it’s intentional that this episode is the first time we see them come face to face, in the middle of a whiteout where they seem to be the only two people, and they each turn and stare at the other. Like looking in a mirror.

Zack: Lester’s “festering bile.” I like that. At one point in the episode, he tells someone “I’m the victim here,” and it sums up so much of what’s despicable about the little shit. Freeman has done a great job of augmenting his usual awkward straight-man routine with just enough smugness and self-pity that the character’s shift into a more proactive mode is both fascinating and deeply repulsive. His hook-up with the Widow Hess wasn’t as terrifying as his assault on his brother’s family last week, but it’s all of a same toxic piece. The most interesting difference between Lester and Walter White to me is that Walt’s rage at what he viewed as the waste of his life gave his successes a perverse, if uncomfortable, thrill; Lester is more like a cockroach that woke from uneasy dreams to realize he’d been transformed into a human being.

Regardless of how things end up in the end, one of things I appreciate the most about this show is its ability to mitigate the darkness with just enough light to stave off despair. Molly ends the hour in a bad spot, but her earlier scenes are largely positive, if a little sadder than usual. There’s a vulnerability to her now that wasn’t there before, and that vulnerability comes through the most clearly when she’s talking with Mr. Wrench. It’s a largely one-sided conversation, and one that specifically references one of the most famous scenes in Fargo the movie: specifically, the scene with Frances McDormand and Peter Stomare near the end of the film, when Marge tries to vain to communicate with the criminal she just captured.

Molly goes so far as to use a few of Marge’s exact lines, which isn’t something I’m a huge fan of; the show did the same thing last week with Stavros and the parking-lot attendant, although at least there it managed to subvert the scene being quoted. More effective to me was Molly’s understated, “It’s crazy, I never shot anyone before.” After all the drama last week, to see her try and reckon with a part of her job she must have assumed could someday come up, but never really had to deal with before, has a humanism and sadness that makes her more than just the avatar of justice and strength she’s become in Gus’s eyes. She’s still figuring things out, which is one of the reasons Malvo’s been doing so well.  

Todd: One thing I want the show to be a bit cautious about is just how Molly is drawing the conclusions she is. When she maps out the crime on the window for Gus, she jumps to some of the correct conclusions, but it’s not immediately clear how she’s getting there. Yeah, she talks us through her logic, but her logic seems to conform mostly to hunches and guesswork. That’s all well and good, and it’s probably the best she can do while confined to the hospital. But I also don’t want her plunging blindly forward after hunches and guesswork, though I suppose the events of the last few scenes of this episode will put her back at square one, in a place where she needs to find some piece of evidence that will convince her superiors of what she’s saying.

Speaking of going back to square one, I’m feeling that way, ever so slightly, about the characters played by Key and Peele, who are a lot of fun—of course they are, being played by Key and Peele—but still leave me feeling a bit lacking in terms of if they’re important enough to be entering the story at this late date. It almost feels like with the death of Adam Goldberg’s character, the show decided it needed another duo of goofy dudes to hold down the fort. I realize it’s bad form to worry about something that hasn’t yet had reason to play out, but on a show as structured within an inch of its life as Fargo is, I can’t help but do so. Again, I think this episode has been deliberately placed within the series as a bit of a lull, but here’s hoping it’s a lull the show will recover from quickly.

Zack’s grade: B+
Todd’s grade: B

Stray observations:

  • Love that opening shot of Gus sitting with his head in his hands in the hospital waiting room, as the camera pulls back and the scene rewinds around him. It suggests both the numbing chaos of a crisis situation, and the desperate desire to try and pull events back to before they went wrong. [ZH]
  • I also liked how Greta leaned in front of Molly’s face as she woke up, at an angle I had to spend a little time figuring out the geography of. It nicely suggests how disorienting waking up in the hospital can be. [TV]
  • It’s a bit sickening how perfectly Lester’s plan works. Bill’s horrified, but there’s also a small amount of relief; at least now they have all the bad guys in jail, eh? [ZH]
  • And, again, I can’t believe how skillful the show has been at making me give a damn about Chaz, a guy who sort of seemed like a throwaway character when the show began and an example of the show trying to have quirky Coen-esque side characters and largely failing at it. It was nice to have some of these folks reveal hidden depths as the weeks have gone on. [TV]
  • The back-and-forth between Molly and Gus about Molly’s spleen was awful cute. [ZH]
  • ALSO GUS BROUGHT MOLLY FLOWERS. *long series of squeals* [TV]
  • Your Coen Brothers Movie Of The Week: Well, since this week Molly learned you have to pay certain price if you want to be a cop, why not take a look at True Grit. Unsparing, heartfelt, and frequently hilariously grim, True Grit is one of the most straightforward stories the Coens have ever worked on: a girl (Hailee Steinfield) hires an ornery marshal (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s killer. As Rooster Cogburn, Bridges gets the showier part, speaking in the gruff mutter that has apparently been his default setting ever since. He’s great, and Matt Damon (as a prideful Texas ranger named LaBeouf) is terrific as well, but he movie belongs to Steinfield. Her unflagging determination to see justice done is more than a little reminiscent of Molly, and the movie doesn’t shy away from the cost of that justice. [ZH]  

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