The ninth episode of “Fargo” Season 2, entitled “The Castle” 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 honest cops across the border in Minnesota to test the mettle of every character, each quite literally under fire.
Here at MinnesotaBrown.com, I 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. You can read all the reviews for all seasons at my Fargo page.
Though I doubt the killing is entirely done, “The Castle” gave us the long awaited Massacre at Sioux Falls. And, yes, the event was gruesome, tragic and sad, mostly for how stupid and avoidable the bloodshed turned out to be. It was also tense, exciting and full of surprises.
The episode opens on a dusty row of books and a title “History of True Crime in the Mid West.” The old style two-word spelling of “Mid West” was a charmingly authentic throwback for the librarians and historians among us, a little like when my home region is referred to as “the iron ranges” instead of “The Iron Range” the way it is now. The episode maintains its multi-frame approach to scene transitions, but this time adds a documentarian narrator (Martin Freeman, aka “Lester” from Season 1). The narration creates a sense of absurdity that plays well in the “Fargo” landscape. The reason true crime is more interesting that fictional crime is because truth really is stranger than fiction. “Fargo” is fictional truth. Oh, ya!
The narrator gives the backstory, helping us understand that the Massacre at Sioux Falls is every bit as big a deal as Old Lou said in Season One. What happens in this episode is a historic level of betrayal and bloodshed perpetrated by people who, by and large, weren’t all bad even if they were bad guys. Ohanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon), or Hanzee, as he’s called, emerges from the woods after fleeing last week’s action. You might recall he took a pair of scissors to the back on account of Peggy being startled by the cops. He shoots the clerk faster than the guy can call for help, cleans his wound with peroxide and seals it with Super Glue. The narrator says it for us, but Hanzee is acting entirely on his own now: his background, motives and thinking are all obscured from history. Does this mean he, too, is fated for death? Or does he get away to become anonymous forever, the way he wants?
One thing Noah Hawley and his Fargo team gets right pretty consistently is the psyche of the small town midwestern cop. You’ve got two kinds. The ones like Lou and Hank who might not be geniuses but are trying really hard to do the right thing and learn from their mistakes. And you’ve got the ones like the South Dakota patrol captain Cheney in Sioux Falls and the detective from Fargo, petty power players who enjoy being big fish in small waters. Then, of course, there are the ones in between. As a former small town newspaper editor who works at a small town college with a small town police academy, I know it well. Chief Bill from last season was another example. The portrayal is neither sympathetic nor dismissive, just very human. Oh, ya!
This episode is fueled by one cop, and it’s not Lou or Hank or even the sniveling detective from Fargo. It’s a bit player, new to the audience, the man in charge in Sioux Falls, a state patrol captain named Cheney. He seeks to “win” this escalating gang war for law and order. Problem is, his plan is to put the unpredictable and somewhat dim-witted Ed into a room with Kansas City’s Mike Milligan while wearing a wire.
I also liked how early in the episode Cheney says to Lou that he’ll show him “what a Dakota man can do.” That’s a funny phrase, because what he means is what a white guy in the state of South Dakota can do. (Not much, apparently). Hanzee is, quite literally, a Dakota man. And we sure see what he can do later in the episode.
The fact that Cheney thinks he can just record Milligan and arrest him, like some kind of smuggler, is incredibly naive, especially when you consider all the death and carnage that this event spills into four states. (Did you catch that? IOWA was mentioned in the intro. I think that means someone dies in Iowa next week, unless I missed an Iowa fatality in previous weeks).
Cheney’s worst move is to ignore all information coming from Lou, dismiss all questions, and treat the Minnesota trooper like a crook. Lou, after all, is the only law enforcer who has actually interacted with the Gerhardts, Milligan and Kansas City, Ed and Peggy. To deny his knowledge is, just, well, stupid.
So is Cheney’s plan. He thinks by putting eight cops in hotel rooms near where Ed and Peggy are used as bait he’ll be able to bring the Kansas City mob to their knees. They go “undercover,” which in their world means every single cop, male or female, wears a pair of blue jeans and a white undershirt. One guy sits out front to keep watch while the rest drink beer and play poker. The female cop says to one guy early on “You’d better wear pants this time.” Later on we see that the guy is not wearing pants. Cheney makes them turn off the radio so no one interferes with his plan.
More than once, this season has hearkened the echoes of the Vietnam War, where Lou served. The Massacre at Sioux Falls seems to be a metaphor for the Vietnam War — where an army of cops, half good and half bad, are flung into a evil civil war between complicated forces. Why does it happen? There are some big reasons and some stupid reasons, so you can take your pick. We do have the overwhelming sense, however, that most of the people who die in this episode didn’t need to die.
On his way back to Minnesota, Lou finds the dead clerk at the same gas station where Ed had frequented the week before. Later he realizes that Hanzee’s lie has sent the entire Gerhardt army, with Floyd (Jean Smart) herself at the helm, to Sioux Falls to get Dodd back. They think Dodd is being held by Milligan and Kansas City. They don’t know they’re going into a doomed fight with cops. Cheney’s plan is stupid, but Hanzee’s plan to level the Gerhardts is perfect.
Lou tries to radio in to no avail. Everyone, even the watchman, is sleeping — except for Peggy … and Hank, alone in his room.
Give the cops credit. What begins as a base level slaughter of Cheney and his underlings is quickly turned into a prime gun fight. Hank seems like he might even have expected it, how quickly he gets his uniform on. While most of the cops are offed in the first hail of bullets, the rest manage to return fire. Lou — who never left South Dakota — is able to get back in time to join the fray.
I won’t try to rehash all the action. It’s too well filmed, well-timed and dramatic to describe.
We do see two great death scenes of major characters. One is Floyd, the matriarch of the Gerhardt family. Jean Smart played this role brilliantly. Floyd really only suffered for lack of screen time. Some Floyd flashbacks would have been very revealing, something that expanded on her motherly love to this batch of miscreants. Anyway, when she realizes that Hanzee has lied, that he sent them into a gunfight with a gaggle of cops, she turns to him and he kills her with a knife. No words. The two didn’t have much to do with each other. Just business.
Then Bear, realizing that his beloved mother has died (his greatest fear in this whole operation) goes bonkers. Bear sees Lou off to the side and, despite a pair of bullet wounds, charges him like, well, you know. It’s a mad charge. You think Lou will be able to take him down but the bullets seem to have no effect. Bear begins choking Lou (second time in two weeks we had a near asphyxiation) before …. that’s right …
Not just the mysterious lights this time. No, it’s a full, levitating flying saucer. It beams lights down upon the scene, distracting Bear long enough for him to stop choking Lou. Hanzee, Peggy, Ed, Hank — all of them look up at the thing in wonder, while whatever beings are aboard look down upon a bloody massacre. Lou is able to reach his gun and, while the UFO hovers, shoots Bear in the head, killing him. You can only imagine what an interstellar visitor might think of such a scene.
We have several moments to think while this UFO is hovering there. I was fixated on the liquid dripping from the spacecraft. It was probably just water, condensation from how the thing travels through the atmosphere. But I kept thinking like maybe it was tears, or holy water, or something.
I couldn’t finish my thought. Right then we get the line from Peggy to an awestruck Ed, “It’s just a flying saucer, Ed. We gotta go.”
After a moment to recover, Lou breaks off the pursuit of Ed, Peggy and Hanzee to help Hank, who’s been shot in the gut. He seems OK, but not really. As Lou goes to chase the others, Hank asks, “Dinner Sunday?” We all hope so.
Many great character scenes in this episode not mentioned so far:
Mike Milligan on the phone with Kansas City. He’s in a phone booth somewhere in South Dakota. The framing reminded me very much of that iconic scene in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” where Cary Grant is waiting for someone at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. A crop dusting plane suddenly turns toward him and tries to run him down. And then I think, this whole season has been like that scene to some extent — a blend of tense actions and long pauses that let characters breathe while positioning for the next unexpected turn.
Oh, and I was greatly amused by how one of the commercial breaks featured the voiceover “Fargo is presented by The North Face.” You can’t go five seconds in white middle class Minnesota without seeing someone 18-45 in a damn North Face jacket. I’m glad these bastards found each other. I don’t have a lot of Minnesota detail in this one, so I’ll punch Oh, ya! one more time.
Enjoyed the children’s heights recorded by the phone in the Gerhardt complex. A great detail showing the family in this family mob business.
Also, I just love the scene where Milligan arrives at the end of the fight, after the UFO has left and near every Gerhardt in the Tri-State area is lying dead in the parking lot, along with a bunch of cops. He gets out. Looks. Gets back in the car with the last Kitchen Brother and leaves. I think everyone assumed that Mike Milligan would have to be involved in the Massacre at Sioux Falls — that he would be the change agent, the one who did the deed. Nope. He just blew in on the wind. And he will blow back out the same way. But like Hanzee, Ed and Peggy, he’s gone rogue, too. He’s got forces coming after him. His fate is just as uncertain as the others. (Though I’ve been talking to a reader who has a pretty good idea for a Season 3 featuring an old Mike Milligan).
The scene where Lou’s wife Betsy collapses in the kitchen was heartbreaking. We don’t see it happen, we only hear the breaking glass and see her on the floor where young Molly finds her. We know her cancer is getting worse. One can only hope that Hank’s words are true, that they’re all going to be having dinner together Sunday. But we just don’t know.
Will Ed and Peggy live? Hanzee? Hank? Betsy? The only one we know has a ticket punched for 2006 is Lou. We’ll find out in the season finale next week.
Ultimately, my take on the UFO:
The UFO is absurd. But so is all this killing. The UFO subplot does two things. It shows the folly of this violence, while also showing what we humans would look like to outside observers. Whatever is in that UFO is not a monster. We are the monsters. Even here, in the gentile Mid West, where nothing every happens except when it does.
UPDATE: I forgot to talk about a column I wrote early this year about the UFO craze in Northern Minnesota. That period from WWII to the 1980s was a time of mystery in the skies. Without cell phones or wide use of cameras, those mysteries became different versions of the truth — the real, honest truth — to the people who saw them. This is the trick our minds play. What is really true? What if UFOs were as real as the American Dream?
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 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 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.