FARGO REVIEW: Episode 5, ‘Gift of the Magi’

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The fifth episode of “Fargo” Season 2, entitled “Gift of the Magi,” 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.

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In “Gift of the Magi,” war has come to the wind-swept prairie of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, the snow white and blood red landscape of the Coen Brothers and Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” universe. In a season that promised a prolific body count, the mobsters of Kansas City and the Gerhardt Family do not disappoint.

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Small town butcher Ed Blomquist (Jesse Plemons) cleaves off more than he can handle in “Fargo.” (FX)

This episode has everything you’d expect from a mob war: family vengeance, a dude’s head in a gift box, betrayal and shifting loyalties. It also has some surprises, such as, well, Ronald Reagan, a chubby butcher with the heart of a ninja, and a charming reference to a Christmas story not normally associated with botched hit jobs and four-alarm fires.

See, the original Gift of the Magi was the O. Henry story of a husband and wife who each sell something they prize so that they can afford to give a gift to the other, not knowing that those gifts will become obsolete because of their sacrifice. “Fargo” titles aren’t always directly relevant, but this one was.

Another version of the Gift of the Magi is not just a story of love; it’s a story of how small town and industrial America worked itself into the annals of nostalgia. It sold its jobs and downtowns to forces of efficiency, and was rewarded with shiny new products it could barely afford.

In the troubled relationship of Ed and Peggy Blomquist, last week’s episode showed two people moving entirely different directions. Peggy wanted a new life somewhere else, while Ed wanted safety and security in his hometown. But Peggy’s hit-and-run accident that killed a scion of the Gerhardt crime family in Fargo has applied new pressures to their fragile union. In this episode, the Gerhardts come after Ed. And while Ed manages to survive, he loses all hope of buying the shop or settling down any time soon. Meantime, Peggy comes to terms with her husband’s desire to stay just as he decides they must move on.

The point may be moot. Lights and sirens approach the Blomquist home in the conclusion of this episode. Whatever illusion of escape or evasion they had entertained is about to end.

Season 2, Episode 5 begins with the sound of a campaign speech by Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell): It evokes all the sounds of the former president folks would remember, right at his time in American history. We know from the pressures facing the characters in “Fargo” why his message caught on; but we also see how hollow it could be at times, how the real problems seemed much bigger than even the bright smile and powerful words of the Gipper.

Folks might say, why would Reagan have been in Minnesota? You know, it being the liberal state it is and all. Minnesota went for Carter both times, and even Mondale in ’84! Well, Luverne would certainly have been in the heart of Reagan country. Southwestern Minnesota is a very conservative place: Staunchly Republican since the state entered the union, and literally the birthplace of the Volstead Amendment which brought prohibition to America (and that we now know spurred the rise of organized crime, such as the Gerhardts and Kansas City mobs). So, that works. Oh, ya!

One thing they got wrong, though, is the fact that the Minnesota caucuses in the 1980 presidential race were February 26, 1980. Deer hunting would have been in early to mid-November of 1979. Reagan didn’t even announce for president until November 13, 1979, and it’s unlikely he would have begun the campaign with a bus ride between Luverne and Fargo. Also you just don’t campaign during deer season, for cripes sake. Interesting.

The mob battle in the woods was the best action scene of the series so far. A group of Kansas City mobsters goes into the woods as a pack of poorly outfitted deer hunters. They are trying to woo a local official to their side with the expedition, but he is the first casualty as they are ambushed by waiting Gerhardts. Most of the Kansas City men are slain, as are several Gerhardt goons. The whole thing feels like a civil war battle. Everyone has hunting rifles and shotguns, nothing automatic. People scramble through the woods for cover. The most effective killer ends up being Hanzee, the Dakota man working for the Gerhardts who uses a knife not a gun. Our last view of Bulo (Brad Garrett) comes as he meets Hanzee trying to escape, entirely flanked by just this one efficient hit man.

Bulo’s head is delivered to Mike Milligan in Fargo (Milligan was the only major KC mobster not on the hunting trip; an interesting detail). He’s now the lead man for Kansas City, and he has Dodd Gerhardt’s daughter in his sway. One quickly sees how this relationship could prove deadly to anyone near it.

Meantime, Dodd uses Hanzee’s information about Rye’s fate to provoke the battle scene we saw earlier. Hanzee again shows his loyalty to Dodd — either by not questioning Dodd’s interpretation or willingly going along with it. Now the hapless Ed Blomquist is portrayed as “the Butcher of Luverne,” a cold-blooded killer on the Kansas City payroll.

Bear Gerhardt (Angus Sampson) proves to be the voice of reason in the Gerhardt clan. Dodd mocks him, but he delivers the line we all know is true: “Everybody gets what they deserve.” We all know what that means for people like Dodd, but the meaning is less clear for people up the moral spectrum — people like Bear and his son Charlie, Floyd, or even Ed and Peggy.

Dodd (Jeffery Donovan) sends a hitman to kill Ed, but nephew Charlie — eager to prove himself — thinks a Gerhardt should pull the trigger. So Charlie (Allan Dobrescu) is brought along.

In a tense scene, Charlie waits to kill Ed while the butcher shop clerk Noreen flirts with him. Will he have to kill her? Will he have the guts? Ultimately he buys meat and leaves, but then comes back. With the hired gun at his side things get violent quick, but the shot misses Ed and starts a fire in the shop. Ed fights off the killer, eventually offing him with a meat cleaver.

Even though it was self-defense, Ed flees the scene to gather his wife and leave town.

Ed, desperate to flee as Peggy explains how she got the money for the shop: “That’s great, thank you, but we need to pack.” The “Thank You” was so sincere, even as he slips from the end of his rope. Oh, ya!

Meanwhile, Lou tries to get some assurances from Reagan that he’s really the man to clean up this crazy world. Reagan provides movie bluster and pleasing words, but on the hard question — he says nothing, and walks away. There is no answer.

One of the best episodes so far. We haven’t even reached Sioux Falls, where Season One intoned “the bodies stacked up past the second floor,” but as Dutch Reagan reminds us “We have a rendezvous with destiny.”

Read other episode reviews at my Fargo page.

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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, a Northern Minnesota 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.

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