I love when a show changes its tempo for an episode. It’s something The Walking Dead does (or did) a few times a season, and it nearly always worked on me. Most weeks, you get multiple storylines spread out over several characters, creating a kind of revolving door serialization that can either be messy or satisfyingly sprawling, depending on the episode. But “East/West” slows things down to focus on just a single plot: the fate of Rabbi Milligan and a few others. Rabbi is on the run from both the Faddas and the Cannons, and has decided to make tracks with Satchel Cannon to Liberal, Kansas, a ton where he has some money stashed away. Calamita is in hot pursuit, but so is Omie Sparkman, with an Italian fella in the trunk of his car for good measure. It all comes to a head at a gas station during a terrible storm, where an act of God settles the issue, leaving Satchel to find his fate on his own.
Stripped of texture and most of its incident, that’s a reasonable summary of “East/West.” But this is very much an episode about that texture, for better and for worse. Rabbi and Satchel hole up in a hotel (the Barton Arms, wink wink) run by pair of eldery white sisters who hate each other; their refusal to budge has separated the building into two sides, the “East” and “West” of the title. Said sides are distinguished by a line running between them, and there is clearly Symbolism at play here, but I’d be lying if I said it added up to much of anything to me. I like the episode overall, but I wanted to love it; there’s a lot of quirkiness and a clear attempt to mean something, but it fails to cohere in a satisfying way.
To the good: Rabbi and Satchel’s relationship is one of the most interesting the season has offered us, to the point where I wish it could’ve pulled more focus. Going into this episode, it seemed reasonable to assume Rabbi wouldn’t make it out alive; there’s a good chance Satchel is going to end up as Mike Milligan from season 2, and Mike’s ruthlessness and relationship to the Kansas City mob would’ve been at odds with Rabbi’s basic, if desperate, decency. And heck, that decency itself is enough to make him a target on a show like this. He’s stuck in an impossible position, he tried to make a semi-moral choice that put him on the wrong side of everyone, and he’s likable. That’s about as close to a death warrant as you can get.
Taking all of that into consideration means that most of “East/West” is suspenseful even when it’s not explicitly trying to be. Rabbi doesn’t meet his fate until near the end, but every moment before that feels laden with possibility. It’s also a function of choosing to focus the hour entirely on his and Satchel’s story—that level of attention means something important is going to happen, so even when the script is just spending time showing us the various strange inhabitants of the Arms, it never gets boring or slack. One of Fargo’s big tricks is how it often tries to approach sudden scenes of violence from unexpected angles, and while that trick has lost its shock value over time (especially once you realize that there are only so many “unexpected” angles to work from), it essentially means that even the most innocuous conversations are laden with portent.
Where this suffers a bit is that portent or no, a lot of this falls into that “odd for the hell of it” vibe that the show has always struggled with. I have no doubt that all of this is supposed to be some kind of metaphor; there are a couple of scenes of Rabbi getting into contentious conversations with a fella painting a billboard that resonate like someone tapping you on the head with a hammer. But for this sort of thing to work, the show needs to convince us that it’s all to a purpose even if that purpose isn’t immediately relevant. This season, Fargo has lost its knack for such convictions. “East” and “West” is probably supposed to mean something (the fact that both sisters hated “coloreds” but once is more open about it than the other is surely indicative), as is the semi-random collection of oddballs. There’s a fella regularly quoting from How To Win Friends And Influence Enemies, another fella heading to Texas for oil, and an elderly general with a young niece who wants to hear fairy tales over dinner. Oh, and a guy all bandaged up who quotes the Bible. (Revelations, I think?)
This all makes the cut for being baseline interesting, but, as is so often the case when symbolism fails to justify itself, it’s just a bunch of parts without a sum to look to for meaning. Worrying what was going to happen meant that Satchel wandering around on his own talking to people was never boring, but once we got to the end, we’re forced to reckon with how little any of this meant. Why is the episode in black and white, only to switch to color when Satchel wakes up on his own? I get that it’s a Wizard of Oz reference—they’re in Kansas, Rabbi (and Calamita) just got sucked up into a tornado—but just making the reference doesn’t actually mean anything in and of itself. Is Satchel’s life on his own supposed to be a dream? Is he not in Kansas anymore, even though he very much is still in Kansas?
About that tornado: it’s a thrilling, gorgeous sequence, but I’m not sure it’s a satisfying conclusion to Rabbi and Calamita’s story. (I guess it’s technically possible that one of them survived this, but it seems unlikely.) Having a character in extreme danger taken out by a completely unexpected threat is a trope for the show, but while the apocalyptic fervor of the tornado itself is a sight to behold, it doesn’t really say much about anything beyond “shit happens.” “East/West” choosing to spend this much time on this particular situation made me more inclined to like it, but it also sets up expectations for a conclusion that earns that attention. I don’t know if that was achieved here.
It’s just, there really isn’t that much story. Rabbi finding out the place where he stashed the money was bought out by a pair of brothers who used it to finance their kitchen appliance store is a decent twist, but it’s a starting point, not a conclusion. There’s a great sequence where Rabbi goes back to the store to hold the brothers up while Satchel waits in the car; the intensity between Rabbi finding out he’s screwed, and Satchel having to deal with a white cop, is the most alive the episode really gets, but nothing comes of it in the end. Rabbi doesn’t kill the brothers and he interrupts the cop before things can get too bad, and then later, he goes and dies for reasons that have nothing to do with any of this. Hell, if he’d got the money, he might still have died.
There’s pathos in him getting killed just for trying to get Satchel something nice for his birthday, and the whole episode is gorgeous to look at and well directed. The scenes of sudden violence are appropriately operatic. I don’t think I was ever bored by this, and it feels a bit churlish to criticize something just because it wasn’t as good as you wanted it to be. But the flaws of “East/West” feel endemic of the flaws of the season as a whole. When it finds time to pay attention to its best characters, it works. When it aims bigger, it fumbles. “East/West” splits the difference, for better and worse.
- So, the Barton Arms is a clear nod to Miller’s Crossing. (And Barton Fink, I guess.) The tornado is probably a nod to A Serious Man—what else did I miss? (Someone on Twitter pointed out that “The Future Is Now” is likely a reference to the same slogan appearing under the all important clock in The Hudsucker Proxy.)
- Satchel finds a dog named Rabbit, and more or less adopts it.
- The billboard that upsets Rabbi ultimately reads “The Future Is Now!” Satchel ends up staring at it at the end of the episode. I don’t know if we’ll see him again; this could be as much as we get of Satchel’s story, although if so, it would be weird that he wouldn’t just try and contact his parents and go home. I don’t know as he’d been with Rabbi long enough to feel confident striking out on his own.
- The episode opens with a shot of a wrecked building with a page from The History Of True Crime In The West stuck to a piece of the broken frame; it’s the first page of Chapter 7: “Liberal, Kansas 1950: Who shot Willy Bupor?” Looks like Willy Bupor is the gas station attendant Omie talks to early on; when Rabbi shows up at the station later, Will has been gunned down. Presumably Calamita shot him, and Calamita gets blown away, along with anyone else who could’ve told the tale.
- Gonna miss Rabbi. Ben Whishaw was great.