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This season of Fargo can’t see the forest for the trees

“That’s just the nature of existence.”

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Fargo

"Who Rules The Land Of Denial?"

Season 3 , Episode 8

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So that was weird, right? Don’t get me wrong: I like weird. There are plenty of striking bits in “Who Rules The Land Of Denial?” The animal masks/pelts that Yuria and the others wear while chasing Nikki and Mr. Wrench through the woods; a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere that might be heaven, or something like it; the return of Ray Wise, who might be God, or the Writer, or who knows. A time jump! A man plagued by guilt! A sudden plot twist! Stuff abounds in this pen-penultimate entry, and I wouldn’t say I was ever precisely bored by any of it. But I’m not sure this all adds up to anything beyond narrative flailing—frequently memorable and entertaining flailing, to be sure, but flailing nonetheless.

Let’s start with the second half first. After Varga poisons Sy with some tea, Emmit’s second-in-command falls into a coma. We see him rushed to the hospital, and the next we know, we’ve jumped ahead three months and are firmly in the land of March. Varga has maintained his iron grip on the Stussy corporation, apparently taking advantage of Emmit’s distraction to invest further and wider than ever before. Nikki and Mr. Wrench remain at large. Gloria has been shunted off to a supply closet with Donny. And Emmit—well, Emmit’s in a bit of a mood.

I like time jumps. The first few I saw on television made a major impact on me (I’m thinking Battlestar Galactica), and when done well, they can shake up a potentially staid narrative in thrilling ways. When a story makes an unexpected temporal leap, it’s the structural equivalent of killing off a main character. Something we thought was necessary (in this case, X amount of time) is suddenly removed, and assumptions are forced into question. But the change also brings risk, because it has to prove itself justifiable, not just a stunt to generate immediate energy.

This particular time jump feels mostly like a stunt, if only because so little changes between before and after that it’s hardly a jump at all. Three months isn’t that much time, sure, but there are no surprises here. The only major difference is seeing Gloria in the supply closet, and that’s been coming since the start of the season. In fact, jumping ahead means losing some tension instead of gaining it. Before, Gloria was struggling to get things done on a deadline. (Can she solve this before Chief Asshole takes over?) Now she’s dropped rank, but it hasn’t seemed to have slowed her up in the slightest.

The only meaningful impact of losing those three months is skipping directly to Emmit’s “plagued by grief and maybe also by Nikki” stage. Last we saw him, he was weeping over his dead brother but feeling “free.” Now he’s haunted by reminders of what he’s done—framed photos of that damned stamp on the office wall, a Ray-like mustache glued on him in his sleep—and it’s only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down. Like, say, in the final shot of the episode.

Structurally, this is all familiar but perfectly acceptable. Emmit didn’t mean to kill his brother, and we’ve had ample evidence that he’s not a bad sort; like the inverse of Ray, whose venality and short-sightedness covered an essentially good heart, Emmit’s decency and etiquette covers a selfish but not truly evil core. He was vulnerable, and probably not as good a man as he liked to tell himself, but falling short of your own assumptions doesn’t necessarily make you someone who can live with murder (or, in this case, manslaughter). The idea that Emmit would fall for the easy path of riches and guilt-avoidance that Varga offered is entirely plausible, and it’s just as plausible that he wouldn’t be able to walk that path forever, especially not with someone (it has to be Nikki, right? Apparently she had training as a guilt ninja) giving him a good, hard push.

My problem is the short-cutting. It comes from the flailing, I think. Far more than its previous two seasons, Fargo Year Three has been a mashup of a dozen ideas at once, and while many of those ideas are clever and even effective (I still love that third episode), they don’t generally bounce off each other very well. Emmit’s breakdown in tonight’s episode needs to be the culmination of his battle with Ray, the climax of a series of missed opportunities, bad faith arrangements, and broken promises. Instead, it’s something that more or less happens because, hey, it’s happened in other stories like this, right?

The buildup is lost, and if you’re going to tell familiar stories, you need the buildup to give all the quirky little details weight. Ray had depth thanks to his relationship with Nikki (a relationship that pays off with tragic adorability earlier in the hour), but Emmit was mostly just someone who reacted to the strange behavior of others. For his collapse to have meaning beyond checking off a box in a list, we need to have a sense of him as someone who has made poor choices, but who is deeply conflicted about those choices. Instead, I can summarize the idea of him well enough (see two paragraphs back), but an idea isn’t really a person, not even a fictional one. For a show like this to work, everything needs to resonate. Instead, each thread largely exists in isolation, only occasionally tying in to one another.

Which means that the first half of “Who Rules The Land Of Denial?” can be an intense, eerie horror sketch, before segueing into an odd riff on fate, before crashing back into the “real” world. I respect the ambition of each segment, but I’m frustrated at their lack of cohesion. Oddness is only dramatically impactful when it exists within a larger context. This is one of the reasons that David Lynch is considered a genius; his natural gifts at filmmaking and storytelling allow him to express his deepest obsessions in ways that, at their best, remain hauntingly, desperately familiar. When people say, “It’s like a nightmare,” after watching Lynch’s work, the part that’s implied is that it’s a nightmare you’ve had before. If the imagery was purely random, it wouldn’t leave a mark.

There are familiar elements in tonight’s episode. That bowling alley looks like it could’ve come straight out of The Big Lebowski, and the animal masks are reminiscent of half a dozen horror movies. But that familiarity never creates a new context for those elements to exist inside of, which robs them of any cumulative effect. Seeing Ray Wise again was great, and there were fleeting moments of feeling from his conversations in that bowling alley, the best being the discovery that Ray might have somehow been reincarnated as a kitten. (Nikki’s response gave the reveal significant emotional weight.) There’s a sense of order restoring itself. “Paul Marrane” sends Nikki and Mr. Wrench on a quest of vengeance, and he forces Yuri to face the horrors of his past.

But the catharsis of that possibility is lessened by the lack of focus and development in earlier episodes. That doesn’t make this bad, and it’ll be a relief if Varga does actually get what’s coming to him. Yet that relief will be undermined by the thinness of so many of the people around him, and the hard-to-shake impression that a lot of this season simply didn’t need to be there. I’m hoping that the last two episodes might tie everything together. I’m not holding my breath, though.

Stray observations

  • About Mr. Wrench: Apologies for missing him last week (it’s been a while since I watched season one), but his return, while interesting, doesn’t really seem to be much more of a curiosity. It’s almost certainly the hitman we last saw in a hospital bed in “2006,” given certain comments Marrane makes in the bowling alley (also, he’s still deaf). Those comments, plus the fact that Mr. Wrench almost certainly saves Nikki from getting killed, suggest a sort of self-conscious bit of authorial intervention. Which is a clever idea (as though the only way to really stop Varga and his men is for Someone to step in and lend a hand), but as of now, it feels mostly just like an Easter egg for fans and a way to connect the current season to a previous one.
  • I almost appreciate the clumsiness of some of this because it suggests Hawley is being forced out of his comfort zone. That could, in later years, lead to writing that’s less indebted to other, better sources. But we’ll see. (I also appreciate that things have gotten weirder instead of just being predictable and boring.)
  • Well, DJ Qualls got a memorable exit at least.
  • Varga’s men do a lot of killing this week. There’s the bus full of prisoners (and guards), that jeep with the unlucky couple that passes by them on the road (a call back to the original Fargo, I’m thinking), and the also unlucky father and son out bow-hunting in the woods.
  • “Ray is the cat.” “What?” “I call him Ray.”
  • “This is the universe at its most ironic.” Does the green VW bug mean something? It probably does, and I’m forgetting.
  • It’s taken Gloria a surprisingly long time to sign the divorce papers. Given that she’s on good terms with her ex, and that he’s with a man now, this is something I would’ve liked to have seen more of; feels like still more character development that was introduced but left on the sidelines.