The tenth episode and “Fargo” Season 2 finale, entitled “Palindrome” 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 Minnesota color commentary on each episode of “Fargo.” I use a ratings scale of “Oh, ya!” for the best moments, down through “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.
After the drama settles near the end of the “Fargo” Season 2 finale, “Palindrome,” we see a glimpse of the book Lou just read 6-year-old Molly. It’s “The Great Brain,” by John Dennis Fitzgerald, children’s fiction about life in a small town in a time before modern conveniences. While this now antiquated series is full of good-time romps by the kids in the story, it also reveals dark truths beneath small town America at the turn of the 20th Century — the quiet racism, hidden poverty, and constant demand for conformity that defines life in the heartland.
This season of “Fargo,” which somehow managed to be better than the stunning first season, is about the same ideas of good and evil, fate and free will, and the power of unseen forces as the original Coen Brothers movie. In the “Fargo” universe, characters are shaded gray, but goodness is absolute. Those who choose good are protected. Those who choose evil are punished, either by death or by lifetime relegation to a nondescript office overlooking Kansas City, Missouri.
At the same time, the stifling nature of life in Midwest is put up for proper consideration. For people like Lou (Patrick Wilson) and his family, or even Ed Blumquist, the rhythmic pattern of life in Minnesota is a blessing. But for people like Peggy Blumquist, or Hanzee Dent, this world seems a burden, not a privilege. Others, like the Gerhardts, have made their way exploiting this way of life for their own gain, doing what they believe is an honest form of evil, only to be rendered by fate.
In an episode with precious little to complain about from a “Minnesota continuity” standpoint, this depiction of the dichotomy of life in the North wins a hard-earned “Oh, ya!”
“Palindrome” opens with a series of shots depicting the violent final fate of each member of the Gerhardt clan. All dead. The war is over. Kansas City won. The still framing of these death scenes let us reflect on the conduct of each person. Suddenly the shades of grey seem less important, whether some were more evil than others. As Bear Gerhardt foretold, each got the result promised to those who led a life like this. The only unseen Gerhardt is Charlie, locked away in federal prison. Perhaps a returning character?
We return to Luverne where cancer-stricken Betsy Solverson (Cristin Milioti) may be heard muttering “Uff-ta,” as she tries to sit up in bed, Molly sleeping at her side. Betsy’s sick. She’s not going to make it. But she’s here now. She tells the nursemaid Noreen, the same Camus-reading girl from the butcher shop, that she had a dream. What she describes is the future we know. How Lou will raise Molly alone. How they will find happiness as a family, with Molly and Gus and the grandkids. But also how the forces of evil will threaten them, time and again. All of this we know, so we trust that her vision is wholly accurate, and that Betsy’s point of view in this whole episode is sacred.
We get a special moment, where Noreen recites some of that same Camus philosophy, about how death makes life absurd. Betsy’s having none of that, and says what a thousand midwestern women would say: that we each have a purpose, no matter how small, and we get the time we have to perform that purpose. Simple.
Same life. Same death. Entirely different points of view. It would take a pretty jaded person not to see it Betsy’s way, and that’s the point.
Betsy’s dream scene is directly derived from the flash-forward at the end of the Coen Brothers film “Raising Arizona,” continuing a theme by show-runner Noah Hawley of honoring iconic films by the creators of this universe. While a faithful replication, it hit me that I hope they do less of this next year. It’s nice to have something for the fans, but the world of “Fargo” is different from “Raising Arizona.” In the latter, Hi was written to be a human manifestation of Wile E. Coyote from the old Warner Brothers cartoons. By the laws of that universe he fails at everything but is essentially indestructible.
That later rings false when we see Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) and Ed (Jesse Plemons) running through the supermarket in the same fashion as Hi in “Raising Arizona.” Under “Fargo” rules, no one is indestructible. Everyone, from lead character to bystander, is vulnerable. That’s essential. The story here is so strong that the Coen Brothers callbacks need not be so overbearing.
Ed is shot. Hanzee clipped him as they were escaping the scene at the hotel. He can walk, but it’s a bad wound to the upper body. So Peggy is doing all the thinking and we know that seldom leads to good conclusions. They flee into the supermarket, to the back, to the meat locker of all places. The irony! In a time of crisis Peggy runs to Ed’s realm, a place of security and predictability, the very things she fled from at the start of the season. Peggy stops the door with a butcher’s blade through the door mechanism and holes up with Ed next to some dangling pork.
They talk. Ed isn’t doing well. Peggy is still scheming it out, checking the severity of Ed’s wound (we see it’s very bad), but telling him a sweet lie, that it’s all going to be OK. Ed stops her. “I don’t think we’re going to make it.”
He’s not just talking about them running away. He is admitting, aloud, that he and Peggy aren’t good for each other. He’s on his deathbed, and that’s what it took for him to state what we’ve know was so obvious. ‘Til death was his promise, and he kept it. Peggy is rationalizing. Once seeking an exit from the marriage, now she’s trying to save it. But they’re being hunted! But Ed is dying! It’s about Peggy now, and her choices.
“You’re always trying to fix everything,” Ed says. “But sometimes nothing is broken. Sometimes it’s working fine.”
We see a vision of Hanzee entering the store, rattling on the freezer door. We see smoke enter the freezer. “He’s smoking us out!” exclaims Peggy. She suddenly remembers that this is like the movie that has appeared in the last two episodes, the old Ronnie Reagan picture about the Nazi pursuing a heroic couple. They got out! They were rescued! Peggy is going to fight her way out with the knife. She’s going to be the hero.
She flings open the door and …
She was hallucinating. There is no smoke. No Hanzee. Only Lou and Ben, the Fargo detective. She lashes out at them, but they subdue her. “Help me Ed!” Ed is dead. She weeps. Peggy’s tragic arc has come full circle.
Meantime, in Fargo, Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) has arrived triumphant at the Gerhardt compound. We get a good look at the Gerhardt family crest, a deeply Germanic symbol hanging on the wall. Milligan patrols the empty house, finding only the family cook-maid. After tasting the meal prepared for his defeated foes, he mockingly declares “There will be no more schnitzel or strudel! Let’s get some American food.”
We learn the only survivor from the Gerhardt army is that weaselly guy from Buffalo Lake or whatever it was. He returned to the compound for the sole purpose of stealing the family silver, which gives us a clear sense of his character. He doesn’t know that Milligan and the surviving Kitchen Brother are there.
Once caught, he says “Time are tough, friendo. Why do you think I’m stealing the silver?” A funny line.
Milligan, though, is triumphant here. A character known for monologues, he delivers his best one yet, a prideful sermon we learn later is only setting him up for a Charlie Brown moment.
“Today is my coronation day,” said Milligan, explaining that a new king must perform an act of kindness and an act of cruelty on the first day to show he’s capable of both. “God and Monster,” he continues. Unfortunately for weaselly guy, he already performed the act of kindness by letting the cook go. “You’re shit out of luck.” Blammo, blood and guts all over that cook Gerhardt family crest. Fairly graphic shotgun wound footage follows. Milligan denies Kitchen the kill shot, “Remember, an act of cruelty.”
Later in the police car headed back to Luverne, Lou has Peggy. This scene is reminiscent of the same scene we’ve now seen in the movie and both seasons of the show, where the cop brings back a wayward soul from a scene of carnage.
Peggy, however, is a different kind of lost soul. A blend of stifled housewife and self-centered sociopath, she is still trying to get to California, actually hoping that she’ll get federal charges so she can go to a California prison she’s been reading about.
Lou revisits the idea of Sisyphus, the man who rolls the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down again and again. Futility? Lou doesn’t think so. Not for Ed. Not for himself. “It’s the rock we all push. We call it our burden. It’s really our privilege.”
And yet, even in this, we have sympathy for Peggy. Rural Minnesota in 1979 was not kind to women with dreams. Lou is describing a man’s world. And yet, as Lou points out: “Peggy, people died.”
Intentions do matter, even if one is wronged.
In a most interesting turn, Hawley and team bring us to Hanzee. He escaped. He is sitting in the bleachers of a small town ballfield, watching kids play catch. A man comes to meet him. He has a new identity for him. A new life. Even a promise of a new face. But who is this guy? On one hand he might be a Kansas City man. Was Hanzee a double agent the whole time? The lack of knowing also leaves it open that this man might be a devil, a manifestation of evil wreaking havoc upon the world. But then again, what’s the difference?
Hanzee’s new name is Moses Tripoli. He talks about perhaps starting his own crime syndicate. He could be anyone, with a new face, but one wonders if he’s connected to the crime syndicate in Season 1. His attire and demeanor, however, are not unlike Lorne Malvo. But Hanzee couldn’t be Malvo? He’d be too old? We also see that the two boys playing catch are using sign language. We see bullies pick on them. Hanzee hates bullies. We see Hanzee go to take out the bullies. Do the boys become Numbers and Wrench from the first season? We are left to wonder such things.
I haven’t decided if Mike Milligan’s fate is comic or tragic. He went into the soup and walked out a king, celebrated by his bosses. He outlasted his mentor, Bulo, who knew what the long arm of corporate influence was doing to organized crime (and the country, and everything). So, Mike returns to Kansas City thinking he’ll be sent back to run the Great Northern empire once ruled by the Gerhardts.
Only, it doesn’t work that way. Not anymore.
The boss (Adam Arkin, who also directed this episode) explains that they have expendable, low-skill guys on the ground now. Unspoken, but implied, is the fact that Milligan was just such an expendable until he scored the big victory. No, the empire is run from here, Kansas City, now. We see Mike’s new office. It is unremarkable. It overlooks an unremarkable city. There is a green typewriter on the desk, perhaps one of those new models we heard about in the first couple episodes? Mike will oversee Fargo from here. He’ll have to cut his hair, and stop wearing his western suits. HR will be by later with forms for insurance and a 401(K).
If Milligan follows this path, and it seems he must, he will have already lived the most exciting time of his life. He climbed the ladder, only to find a logjam somewhere in the middle. If you thought Midwestern conformity was powerful, just take a look at corporate conformity.
I mean, golf? Mike Milligan will have to spout his monologues on the green of the 17th hole from now on. Our last vision of him is Milligan at the desk, out of place for the first time all season.
The episode closes with the Solversons, as it should. We get our Sunday dinner. Hank is healing up from the gunshot wound. Betsy asks about the strange, obsessive collection of symbols she found strewn about his home office. It’s a language, Hank tells her. A universal language everyone can understand.
“Miscommunication — isn’t that the root of it? The conflict. The war?”
“You’re a good man,” said Betsy.
“Don’t know about that,” said Hank. “But I have good intentions.”
What I love about the living room scene is that when the UFO from last episode or the strange symbols from Hank’s office are discussed, Lou and Betsy seem to speak as one. They’ve clearly talked about everything, probably in bed the night Lou came home. They believe each other. They trust each other. No matter what.
Later, Lou promises to take Molly fishing, something we know they do regularly by the time 2006 rolls around. We don’t know how long Betsy has, but we know the words they say to each other every night, and that Lou probably continued saying for years to come: “Goodnight, Mr. Solverson.” “Goodnight Mrs. Solverson, and all the ships at sea.”
“Fargo” reminds us of what is decent in a mad, mad world. The harder our times get, the more blood we see in real life or fiction, the more important it is to hold close the ones you love and just try, try, try to do some good in this world.
“We’re put on this earth to do a job,” said Betsy. “And each of us gets the amount of time we get to do it.”
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.