The third episode of “Fargo” Season 2, entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” aired last night on FX. What follows is a Minnesota-centric review that contains spoilers.
This year, “Fargo” takes us to Southwestern Minnesota in 1979, the same year I was born on the other side of the state. A small town family crime syndicate based in Fargo is under siege from a larger, corporate mob looking to expand. Events draw in innocent bystanders and noble cops to test the mettle of every character, each quite literally under fire.
What I do with these episodes here at MinnesotaBrown.com is provide specific Minnesota color commentary on each episode of “Fargo.” I use a ratings scale of “Oh, ya!” for the best moments, ranging down though “Pretty Good,” “Could Be Worse,” and the ultimate Minnesota dismissal, “Interesting,” for the most baffling elements.
This week’s episode of “Fargo” on FX was called the “Myth of Sisyphus,” a reference to the ancient story of a man condemned to push a boulder to the top of a hill, only to roll back down, time and again, forever. It’s a metaphor that could be tied to the action of this episode, but I suppose it could be tied to people everywhere. The pressure characters are under seems to be building quickly, and the frustration of not being able to resolve it is beginning to wear on good guys and bad.
In this case, especially on the bad guys.
The Gerhardt crime family is under tremendous strain after its cold-blooded patriarch’s stroke and the encroachment of a Kansas City mob that seeks to take them over. Mother Floyd (Jean Smart) has taken over, with the support of her second son, while eldest Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) is chomping at the bit to take over for his father. We’ve established that their youngest brother Rye is definitely dead, ground to meat by the well-meaning butcher whose wife killed him in a hit-and-run accident after he shot three people at the Waffle Hut. That was the cosmic act that seems drive forward this year’s plot to what we know will be a bloody reckoning.
The Kansas City mob, Gerhardt clan and law enforcement each took a step toward understanding what might have happened, and all will be bearing down on Luverne, Minnesota in coming episodes.
So here are my Minnesota-specific observations:
Dodd’s right hand man is a Native man named Ohanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon), who has been in the shadows so far. That’s fitting, because “Ohanzee” is a Dakota word for shadow. This week’s episode opens with Dent holding a rabbit in the forest, having a flashback to a boarding school memory of a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat. We later see Dent carrying the dead rabbit to the Gerhardt farmhouse and butchering it for dinner.
This is a remarkable scene, one that I think a lot of people might overlook. The boarding school flashback gives some heft to this character. If you aren’t familiar with the native boarding schools, you should be. For decades, virtually every native person, particularly boys, in the Upper Midwest was taken from their families at a formative age and sent to a boarding school where they were stripped of all vestiges of their culture. Native languages like Dakota and Ojibwa were nearly obliterated in this process, but do survive today. It was a haunting, troubling, often violent experience for the people sent to these schools. In 1979, these men would have been about Dent’s age. The use of these details gives Dent a pathos amid this mixed-up story, showing he’ll have a strong role to play in future action. It’s also a good reminder than anything that breaths on this show could be turned into meat at any time. Oh, ya!
Oh, brother, I just loved the scene between Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett) and Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) talking about soft water. Milligan says he was late because he couldn’t get the shampoo out of his hair. Bulo says “Soft water … It’s this goddamn Northern water, slick to the touch.” I grew up using well water that wasn’t treated, AKA “hard water.” And on the Iron Range hard water meant HARD. Like sloe gin. It was self-drying. I don’t think I used a towel until I went to college (but enough about me). I would go on to learn this is atypical. Minnesotans, because of the iron in the water and constant threat of bathtub stains (real bad, you know) love to treat their water, producing something called “soft water.” When I moved in with my then-girlfriend-now-wife, her apartment had soft water. It was like bathing in olive oil. I felt like a greased pig. Oh, ya!
So, yeah, that scene was top notch. For those uninterested in the water debate, we also got the more significant revelation that “Kansas City” views its business in purely analytical terms. They’ll kill. Or they’ll pay. Whatever makes the most sense. And that was the marvelous revelation that the 1980s gave our fair nation.
Lou and Hank take five or six exchanges before they can properly end their conversation on the radio. “Over and out,” would not suffice. This is how Minnesotans actually say goodbye on the phone and it’s even worse face-to-face. Howard Mohr dubbed it the “Minnesota long goodbye.” I always know when I’m dealing with a non-Minnesotan because when the conversation has reached a natural end they just hang up, leaving me saying “Talk to you later. Bye then. Yup, have a good day,” to no one but myself. Oh, ya!
Ed and Peggy finally decided to do something about their car, which was the means by which Rye Gerhardt met his demise. Hank and his daughter put the clues together to figure that Gerhardt might have gotten hit by a car, which freaks out Peggy. So she has Ed stage a new accident so they can get the car fixed. Apparently that’s how her uncle took care of all his drunk driving accidents. This authentic to the time and place, and is still actually fairly common in Wisconsin. My favorite part about the scene is that as Ed prepares to ram the car into the tree (he actually has to do it twice, because he hit it backwards the first time), he puts on that old school seat belt. I love that, because in rural Minnesota in 1979 I’m pretty sure seat belts were only used for premeditated insurance fraud. Oh, ya!
Mike Milligan gets the monologue of the week. In the Mexican standoff between Lou and the Kitchen Brothers, Milligan says how much he liked Hank back in Luvurne. “We’re a very friendly people,” says Lou. “That’s not it,” says Milligan. It’s the opposite. “It’s the way you’re unfriendly, always so polite.” says Milligan.” “Like you’re doing me a favor.”
This is a crystalized version of the debate over “Minnesota Nice,” which some people still think is real expression of regional kindness and others think is merely a veneer for a cold society unwelcoming to outsiders. I’d suggest, “What if both are true?” Picture if you will, a culture in which people want to be left alone. All of them. They like people, but are most concerned about their families and the people they trust most. Conversations are exercises in getting out of conversation, to the point that the politeness is what draws out the conversation. It’s not hard to imagine. In Minnesota kindness is important. Just as important as being left alone. Don’t ask me how it happened, but I know what it looks like. And Milligan has picked up on it — becoming the show’s “outside authority,” flexing his wordly ways before the simple folk of Luverne. Nicely done. Oh, ya!
Wait? Am I about to do it? Did Noah Hawley manage to run a whole episode with nothing but “Oh, ya!s” from yours truly?
No. Absolutely not. Because he still doesn’t get how fricking hard it is to dig graves in the winter. He did it in Season 1, and he did it again last night. So, the squirrelly typewriter salesman bites the dust at the end of the episode. And knowing what we all know today about typewriters he was probably being done a favor. But Dodd offs him by having him lay in a grave that was dug in the middle of some kind of construction site. Then the guy in a dump truck dumps hot asphalt on top of him. Nice optics, Hawley. I get it. But just try it for real.
Now, I know the Gerhardts would have the means to dig a grave in the winter. (Several hours of hard work with a backhoe). They’ve got equipment. They’ve got all kinds of construction works. But the amount of time it takes to do that is prohibitive. I don’t know who was in the dump truck, but whoever they are, they’re the trigger man. Must be someone Dodd trusts pretty well. So, is he going to tell a guy in the morning that they need a perfect man grave dug in the middle of a leveled construction site in the morning? “Yeah, Jerry, we need a hole dug out there. Yeah, pretty much like a grave. Yeah. Oh, yeah, I know, I know. Take your time. Also, could you mix up some asphalt and keep it hot in the back of a dump truck outside in goddamn January for awhile. I haven’t yet learned who I’m going to murder tonight, but it will be someone and this is how we’ll do it.”
No way. Interesting.
Also, there’s a damn steamroller back there. You guys better flatten that shit out or this is not going to work at all. And there’s no way the guy in the dump truck is the same guy who’s going to drive the roller. No way. I swear, this why highway construction is such a mess around here.
In any event, the previews show that the Gerhardts, Kansas City and the Law all converge on Luverne — specifically in Peggy and Ed’s world — next week. Stay tuned.
Aaron J. Brown is a northern Minnesota author and radio producer. He wrote “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range,” an earnest, humorous look at the people, history and culture of the unique rural-industrial landscape of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He is the producer, writer and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio, an ultra-local traveling comedy and music variety show. A columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune, his work also appears in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio and The Daily Yonder.