FARGO REVIEW: Episode 6, “Buridan’s Ass”

Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tollman)

Fargo on FX

The FX series “Fargo,” inspired by the 1996 Coen Brothers film, is based in northern Minnesota. As northern Minnesota’s leading pop culture, news, entertainment, iron mining and invasive species blog, MinnesotaBrown is here to review the show through Minnesota eyes. Now, to this week’s episode:

This week on “Fargo,” Episode 6: “Buridan’s Ass,” the chase is afoot. We have met predator and prey, and both have become quite adept in their roles. The title refers to an old parable used to illustrate the concept of fate versus free will.

Who has a choice in what happens today? Or was it always going to happen just this way?

The sly grim devil Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) now executes his plan, which is nominally about getting $1 million out of a strung-out grocery store magnate (Oliver Platt), but seems more about drawing evil out of everyone he encounters. Each of several murders we’ve seen across the snowy landscape of northern Minnesota bear his fingerprints, or at least his dark influence.

Bemidji police deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), too, is on the hunt, drawing closer to Malvo with increasingly and now dangerously inept Duluth cop Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) in tow. Also with a bead on Malvo are two hit men from the Fargo crime syndicate, Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg) and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard), aiming to settle a score for their boss. But this episode proves far more perilous for these lesser predators, as revealed in this week’s action.

As usual, my rating scale pegs out at “Oh, ya!” strolling down past “Pretty Good,” “Could be Worse,” and, at the bottom, “Interesting.” I pay special attention to the Minnesota details of this Minnesota-based show. This was the first episode where I really felt like I could write an entire review just on the artistic merits of “Fargo. Ultimately, I decided that the folks who read these reviews probably want to know if that was real snow dancing slow mo on the hood of the Duluth police car while the officer unloaded shotgun blasts like a piston firing an ancient engine of fate. So I’m sticking with the “you betchas” … mostly. (It was fake snow, but still awesome, and I mean “awesome” in its proper context). Also, there be spoilers here. More than I usually give.

We open with the image of fish swimming in a large tank, music evoking the setting within most any Chinese-American restaurant in the Upper Midwest. This image warmed my heart, as we had the Minnesota walleye opener last weekend and took our boys out for their first meal at a Chinese place just a few days ago. Then the cook killed the fish with a hammer and I realized I was watching “Fargo.” Oh, ya!

We finally lay eyes on the boss of the Fargo syndicate, the crime family stirred up by the macabre events so far.  He’s wearing a lobster bib at a Chinese place (?) and then takes the bib off to eat the fish (a statement?). All while swearing death upon whoever killed Sam Hess, no matter who they are. Pretty Good.

Stavros, the grocery store man, is driving through Duluth, amid the onset of the big snowstorm we’ve been expecting on his way to make the drop for the ransom money, unaware that the extortionist is the man he hired to find the extortionist, Malvo. This whole early part of the episode I kept saying to myself, “Jeez, they’re going to have to hurry this up; there’s a snowstorm comin.'” That effect was intentional and well done by Team Fargo. Oh, ya!

This episode does a really great job of using the snowstorm as a dramatic element, too. There are many examples of thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes used in this way in other books, shows and movies, but this was the first time I saw a Minnesota snowstorm used fairly accurately, extremely effectively. Oh, ya!

I do have to quibble with the dialogue of the two radio announcers we hear in Stavros’s car.  A man and woman urge listeners to use caution and prepare for the coming storm, which all checks out. But the tone of their voice is wrong and I’ll tell you why. They use the tone of voice national or major market anchors use when there is a coming hurricane. It’s a tone of voice that suggests sincere concern, forced through the lips of humanoids whose capability for actual empathy was sweat out of them two markets ago. You can’t blame the actors, that’s the tone most Americans are familiar with. Most Americans don’t know the sound of a northern Minnesota meteorologist when a snow storm comes. It’s unique. It’s the sound of a man or woman who took a job in this schizophrenic place for one reason: to accurately predict weather events measured in feet of frozen water, and get these predictions on tape. Some of them want to use this tape to get jobs in bigger, warmer markets. But there is a large number of meteorologists in northern Minnesota who do this because they appear to be insane. There is something incalculably wrong with them. These storms make them happy, and the only thing holding this emotion back in blizzard broadcasts is the dim sense that too much exuberance might lead to some kind of punishment. We get used to it here, but it’s a thing. Could be worse.

Molly has raced ahead of the snowstorm to meet Gus in Duluth. The scenes between Gus and Molly, in addition to being tragic for spoiler-inducing reasons, are adorable this week, and also show the depth to which Gus Grimly is very, very bad at his job. Great guy. Terrible cop. When the police cars and SWAT team rattle past the cafe where they’re conversing, Gus wonders aloud what’s going on. Where’s your radio, Gus? Isn’t this the town where you are a police officer? You ol’ galoot! Pretty good.

In the hospital, Lester heals up from his infection. The police know he was in the room when the Malvo shot the Bemidji chief and he’s now under police watch as he recuperates. His brother comes to visit and tells him he’s a liar, that “You’re not right in this world.” The brother now knows what the audience has come to understand. The jig is up, Lester. Here’s where Lester, long “the prey” in this drama, shows how he’s become a sly, creative creature, figuring out a way to leave the hospital, plant evidence suggesting another suspect, and return to the hospital. Somehow, even though Lester is a “bad man,” I still found myself wanting him to pull this off, like he was a tiny ant struggling its way out of a drain. Without going into too much detail, the plot involves full facial bandages, the smuggling of a winter coat, a foolproof method of acquiring a doctor’s car, a pantsless run through Bemidji and the revelation that the only one other than Lester who knows what he did is his nephew, an autistic (?) boy of few words. Oh, ya!

Only problem with the above is that I would have put a premium on wearing pants during Lester’s escapade. People need to understand your muscles shut down in this cold after a while. The fact that Lester did all of that in a snowstorm without pants is a sign of the mad self-protecting discipline he has developed. But he still remembered to bring a coat. That was a good compromise between reality and fiction. Pretty Good.

Sometimes the outdoor “storm” footage looks a little CGI-like, like it was snow footage filtered through some kind of video screen. This is particularly true early in the storm. As the storm picks up (along with the plot of the show), though, this improves. In general, the snow storm appears plausible, which is way better than most cold-weather scenes shot by a California-based production company. Pretty good.

I’m not sure Real Duluth really realizes how much this show is set in Fake Duluth yet. “Fargo” is as much about Duluth as it is about Bemidji, and Duluth is seen as the “metro center” of this fictionalized northern Minnesota. This is groundbreaking artistic symbolism for our little rural-industrial neck of the woods. Oh, ya!

Either the parking lot attendant that Stavros encounters was the same guy as from the movie “Fargo” or he was cast to be as much like that guy as possible. Maybe the guy’s son? Even the dialogue hearkens the movie, which is the Coen Brothers homage of the day. Pretty Good.

Lester’s brother keeps the key to his well-stocked walk-in gun safe above the door of his well-stocked walk-in gun safe. Very, very Minnesotan. Oh, ya!

Both the setups — the one Malvo uses to finish off his tanned patsy, and the one Lester uses to escape incrimination — are brutally cold, and not in the normal Minnesota way. Well crafted writing. Oh, ya!

As I’ve said, when the snow storm is in full swing the snow looks right, but there are a couple things wrong. First of all, people keep driving around like it’s not a big deal or maybe just a little slippery. January snow storms described as “record breaking” do not allow travel by anything but specialized vehicles. Even SUVs, seen in the show, are not as magical as their owners would like to believe. Second, the sound. I’d love to get some quality foley sound on what a snow storm really sounds like. It’s 99 percent silence, but there is no mistaking the faint haunting whisper of that last 1 percent. It otherworldly. Interesting (and not that bad, but I had to use at least one “Interesting” this week.)

THE ENTRANCE OF MR. NUMBERS AND MR. WRENCH! They are only in this episode for a couple minutes, but they earn their checks. They had one chance to kill Malvo and somehow he got away, and made them pay. I’ve enjoyed how in “Fargo,” Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg) has come to gradually resemble Dave Carroll, the banjo player in the Duluth-based band Trampled by Turtles. I made this realization just as it was revealed that this show doesn’t need a banjo player. Mr. Numbers’ last word: “Fargo.” Oh, ya! (but sad and all)

MOLLY! Oh, Gus, you are a terrible police officer. But to be fair, you gotta have a plan for a gun fight in a snow storm. In the confusion, one of the most beloved characters in “Fargo” is left shot on the ground. She’s wearing a vest, right? SHE MUST BE, RIGHT? AAAA!

Meantime, the biblical signs keep getting realer and realer for Stavros, who sees his oldest son taken from him … due in part to a rain storm of … wait for it … fish. Stavros thought he was doing right by God, returning the $1 million to the same place he found a bag of cash as a young man. He wanted to protect his son. But he couldn’t change this outcome. Can any of us change what is set to happen?

I was struck by how well this episode used the idea of fate and free will as an intellectual canvas for a show that can be enjoyed on a much simpler level if you choose. All of the big event in this show are, to some degree, predictable. They were all building from within the unfolding plot. But even as we knew these dangers, trials and capers were coming, we find ourselves shocked by them. Impressive.

So many huge questions to answer next week; you won’t want to miss it. If you’ve missed out on “Fargo” so far, get back to those old episodes and catch up. It’s getting the Minnesota angles mostly right, or “right enough to get by,” anyway. But the real reason to watch is because of how tightly “Fargo” is written and performed. “Buridan’s Ass” was the best episode so far, of the best show on TV I’ve seen this year. Oh, ya!

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Finale
Episode 9

Episode 8
Episode 7

Episode 6
Episode 5
Episode 4
Episode 3
Episode 2
Episode 1

See the “Fargo” page

Comments

  1. MattNOVA says:

    I enjoyed your description of Minnesota meteorologists. It may not really be comparable, but I thought of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8hGIF9FljM

    There’s something very supernatural-seeming about Malvo, and it’s very easy to suspect that he’s Satan, a demon, Loki, etc. I don’t think he really is, simply because we have seen too many natural explanations for his dirty tricks, e.g., feeding Stavros amphetamines to make him paranoid, buying crickets at the pet store, and getting blood from a slaughterhouse to turn water into blood. A supernatural entity shouldn’t have to resort to these sorts of workaday methods to generate biblical plagues. (I almost wish he were a demon, because it’d be easier to accept. As a hyper-intelligent human who’s just *that far* ahead of everyone around him, he’s becoming kind of difficult to swallow. His ability read people’s weaknesses and manipulate them is, by itself, utterly preternatural.)

    But that leaves us with the question of what the heck the rain of fish was all about. Apparently such things do happen naturally, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raining_animals, but not when lakes are covered by 24″ of ice. This suggests to me that the cause has to have been: (1) supernatural (act of God, Malvo really is Satan, etc.); or, (2) Malvo using natural means, which really strains credulity. How would he have known where and when to intercept Dmitri? (Tracker?) How would he have launched the fish, and kept them alive in that bitter cold? And wasn’t he busy arranging poor Don’s death? How’d he get there that fast? I really hope the writers find a way to wrap this all up that doesn’t turn out to insult the viewers’ intelligence.

    Yes, poor Gus. And poor Molly. It’s so painfully clear Gus has no business being a cop. I feel sure Molly isn’t dead, though. I don’t know how the show could go on without her. She might be wearing a vest. It could be that she was wounded by Wrench (that’s who I suspect she was on the other end of that gunfire exchange before Gus arrived) and was stumbling toward Gus, and Gus actually missed her.

    That said, I’m annoyed with Molly for rushing off without backup in those conditions, in the face of what she knew was a hardened killer. Aggressiveness and guts are two of the things that make her a good cop, but she let them get the better of her in this episode. If she had stopped to think for a moment after they found Numbers, rather than blindly running into the blizzard and leaving Gus behind, there’d have been far less question of him accidentally shooting her 30 seconds later.

    I haven’t spent a lot of time reflecting on the deeper aspects of the show, but the themes of free will, temptation, and the basic nature of people are becoming hard to ignore. A co-worker and I were debating this earlier. He says he now — after last night — despises Lester more than Malvo. I argue that’s crazy; Malvo’s a professional killer who also takes joy in causing awful things to happen to people. Yes, Lester is a sniveling, cowardly, despicable little man (far more so after last night), but so far the bad things he’s done have been driven by anger and fear, which are emotions with which we can all empathize, even if we’re sure we wouldn’t act on them in the terrible ways Lester has. Malvo, on the other hand, very calmly, coolly, and methodically creates chaos and suffering for no other reason than to revel in it. I hope far, far fewer of us can relate to that. And yet to be fair, you have to ask to what extent the bad things that people do under Malvo’s influence are really his fault. He doesn’t force folks like Lester and Don — or even the kid at the motel — to do bad things. He creates opportunities and make suggestions. They decide to seize the opportunities and act on the suggestions. What does this say about the kind of people they were to begin with?

    • Malvo is an ex-government agent. How else could he operate in plain sight and with such precision and expect to get away with it.

      • Mike Surack says:

        I like this one. He even breaks into a fed car later in the episode to take a peek at some type of operational manual in the glove box.

  2. MattNOVA says:

    Oh, and by the way: the parking garage attendant, the booth — the whole thing seemed to me like an homage to the movie. (I couldn’t tell if we were supposed to believe it was the same garage. I haven’t seen the film in years and I don’t know if the garage scene in the film was supposed to be set in Bimidji. I doubt it.) But if there were any doubt, did you notice the name of the garage? Gustafson. Gustafson Parking Garage. The character who died at the parking garage in the film was Wade Gustafson.

    I keep wondering how many of these little Easter eggs I’m missing. 🙂

  3. Well, I have an idea about the fish. I like to fish, but never catch anything, so I had a hard time telling what they were…. looks like the dorsal fin starts right behind the head. Too big to be smelt, can’t be eelpout. What I’m trying to get at is that there’s a lot of ice fishing up here, and if there was a festival going on, like the eelpout festival, it’s entirely possible for a truck carrying the bounty to overturn and for a passing snowplow to send those suckers flying a good distance. It’s possible, really.

    I agree with you about the weather announcers. Even in the cities, there’s so much glee and excitement in their voices that any visitors to the state are scared witless. Those boys from Fargo, though, they should know better than to wear light jackets in what must be about February….

  4. Oh, and one more thing that’s been working its way around my head… Although the biblical themes are obvious, we also may have our nordic mythology represented. Malvo seems to be a true Loki, while Molly might be heading towards Thor, Loki’s lifelong enemy. If Molly every wields that hammer that’s been knocking about, I’d say there’s at least a nod in that direction.

  5. MattNOVA says:

    Sure, it has been suggested somewhere — maybe by you! — that Malvo is Loki. It’s a good fit, if Malvo is supernatural. I’m still not persuaded that he is, perhaps in large part I don’t want him to be. To me, when you introduce the supernatural into a show like this without warning, it feels like a bit of a cheat. It’s the ultimate deus ex machina. I don’t like it. It’s the easy way to explain seemingly impossible events. If the supernatural angle is on the table, I kind of feel like the writers should let you know up front. (That’s why I was really happy that they didn’t end True Detective that way — if you happen to be a True Detective fan.) But if the show does clearly turn that way, Loki is a good bet.

    The fish: that seems like a plausible explanation, but I’d hate for that whole thing to be a coincidence. I mean, wouldn’t it be just way *too much* of a coincidence? I guess it could be some kind of point about determinism: the kid was going to die no matter what. But it’d still feel really out of place to me.

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