FARGO, Season 3, Ep. 6: “The Lord of No Mercy”

David Thewlis as V.M. Varga. PHOTO: Chris Large/FX

The FX series “Fargo” takes viewers on a “true crime” adventure through the snow-swept landscape of Minnesota. Based on the Coen Brothers Academy Award winning film “Fargo,” each season of the TV series explores a new story cast from the themes of innocence lost, human failings, and the redemptive power of goodness.

Northern Minnesota author Aaron J. Brown reviews each episode of “Fargo” with an eye for unique details from the place where the show is set.

Now, for this week’s review. The details rate from INTERESTING  (bad), to COULD BE WORSE (not so good) to PRETTY GOOD (not so bad), and OH, YA! (real good then).

Beware the spoilers.

The Lord of No Mercy

(Original air date: May 24, 2017)

As “The Lord of No Mercy” opens, we see a darkened door with an opaque brushed glass window. This kind of window doesn’t allow you to see through it, but it does allow light and sound to pass through. What was the meaning of the light and sound? Nothing. Maybe something. The camera pans down to Ray Stussy, sitting contemplatively on the steps down to his basement apartment in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

This episode is about revenge. Not just getting it, but what seeking it does to a person.

Ray (Ewen McGregor) is upset about what happened to his girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). You may recall she was beaten badly by V.M. Varga’s thugs Yuri and Meemo last episode. Ray wants revenge, and Nikki — only able to move gingerly throughout the episode — does too. However, it is Nikki, perhaps because of her physical state, who seeks caution in hunting down the gruesome twosome and their boss Varga (David Thewlis). We, the viewers, know that’s a wise choice, but Ray doesn’t see it that way.

Meantime, Ray’s brother Emmit (also Ewen McGregor) seems to have accepted the gravity of the situation with Varga. Where his friend Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg) continues to resist Varga’s authority, Emmit acquiesces. A meeting between Varga, Emmit and Sy ends with another classic “Fargo” one liner. Varga dismisses Sy’s caution (“Finance is more of a hobby for you”) He declares, “The shallow end of the pool is where the turds float.”

For those playing along with “Fargo Season 3 Gross Bodily Functions” Bingo at home, the turd reference probably scores a good Bingo. And they are playing blackout bingo next, given this season’s consistent desire to gross out the audience.

Varga’s monologuing does give us another variation on the season’s theme of “This is a (true) story.” He shares three interesting anecdotes from history. First, the way that the perception of reality turned one of America’s top banks into chicken feed in a matter of hours during the 2008 financial crisis. Second, the coincidental stop made by Archduke Ferdinand’s car outside a restaurant in Sarajevo, allowing an assassin a second chance. Finally, the faking of the moon landings.

Now, this is a fascinating sequence. Because the first two stories are historically accurate. The third is a longstanding conspiracy theory with no evidential merit. (Buzz Aldrin popped a guy for suggesting as much). It’s a version of the game “Two truths and a lie.” But Varga’s whole point is that the truth can be bent by force — the force of a powerful story.

Varga, we learn, has a plan to deal with the IRS investigator parked at the Stussy Lots headquarters. Of course, we know that Stussy Lots is now a front for a major criminal enterprise, the likes of which we can only imagine. Varga explains that organizations so big, whose funds are laundered so thoroughly, are invincible against such investigations. He doesn’t even have to kill the IRS guy, an early fear of mine, but just send in a lawyer.

That creates one of the most humorous scenes of this season. We see the IRS man set up his notebook, calculator, color-coded highlighters and other accessories in a precise manner on one side of the table. After waiting for a while, we see an impeccably dressed man approach. At first he appears to be a stranger, someone we haven’t seen yet, but in a moment we realize that it’s actually Meemo! The same mute thug who, heretofore, wore only headphones and stylish loungewear.

After setting up his notes, calculator, pens and paper in a symmetrical mirror to the IRS agent, Meemo speaks his only lines so far this season. His confident words comprise a well-prepared legal statement rejecting the IRS investigation and expelling the man from the building without so much as a shove. So, Meemo can talk — and how!

After Meemo leaves the building, Ray and Nikki start tracking them. Nikki has deduced that Emmit and Sy are into something bad, and probably not to their liking. “Involuntary,” she suggests in another of her redundant pieces of logic. “Even against his will.” But she manages to hold Ray back from taking a shot at the criminals.

Later we see another fairly gross scene involving some home dentistry by Varga. His teeth are a real problem for him. As he picks at them with what appears to be a paper clip, we see the first very slight indication that the man can feel pain. One gets the sense that he always feels pain. If you’ve ever had a painful dental condition — a bad cavity or a canker sore — you know that these things not only hurt, but they affect your mood and the way you interact with the world. Now imagine what it would take for Varga to power through paragraphs of diabolical soliloquies the way he does. It’s a way of learning that this man’s pain tolerance is off the charts. OH YA!

Varga’s dental work is interrupted by another visit from the police officers Gloria (Carrie Coon) and Winnie (Olivia Sandoval). They’re here to see Emmit about the connection between Sy’s parking lot rampage and (what we know was) Ray’s botched hit that took the life of Gloria’s stepdad Ennis.

Finally, Varga steps in, revealing himself to the intrepid Gloria — the first meeting of this season’s protagonist and antagonist. He doesn’t give his name, which piques Gloria’s interest. And Gloria’s line of questioning piques his. She reveals that she suspects Ray of ordering a hit on Emmit, something that deeply disturbs the more well-heeled Stussy brother.

Later, we see Varga is in his “room,” which appears to be some kind of warehouse (with a picture of Joseph Stalin on the wall no less). Varga finds his normal method of assembling a dossier on a person to be stymied. Gloria keeps no Facebook profile. No Google footprint. She’s even successfully kept the Eden Valley Police Department off the internet. All of Gloria’s Luddite ways have shown her to be precisely the sort of hunter who could take on the invisible wolf of Varga. The sly look on his face shows that he recognizes her to be a worthy adversary. Quietly, Varga orders Yuri to investigate the matter in Eden Valley and Meemo to execute Ray and Nikki.

When Gloria and Winnie go to check out Ray’s apartment we get a very suspenseful scene as we don’t know whether it’s them or Varga’s thugs knocking on the door. For a brief moment I thought Ray was going to shoot one of the cops by mistake. But that was clearly part of the misdirection planned in this episode. Ray and Nikki conclude that the “heat’s on, we better blow.” They hole up in another “Sioux City Massacre“-style motel.

Ray, in his haste to leave, forgot the getaway money back at the apartment. He heads back, leaving the injured Nikki alone. We know that both of them are now in great danger.

What follows is easily the season’s most powerful exchange. Ray goes back to the apartment to get the money sack, only to find Emmit waiting for him. But Emmit isn’t there to hurt Ray. In fact, he’s not armed. He only seeks to end their feud. He even gives Ray the stamp — the valuable “Myth of Sisyphus” stamp left by their father.

And, to quote the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Ray then “seals his fate.” Ray not only rejects Ray’s appeal for peace, but turns down the stamp! All because Emmit says he’s giving it to him, rather than “returning” it to him.

But Emmit doesn’t want the stamp back. He insists that Ray take it. And then, just like the reverse psychology in an episode of Bugs Bunny, the brothers fight over who DOESN’T want the stamp. In the mild scuffle, Emmit accidentally pushes the stamp’s frame into Ray’s face, breaking the glass. We see a large shard of glass protruding from Ray’s neck. Emmit is in shock. He tells him not to remove the glass (Ray does). And then Emmit watches in horror as his brother Ray bleeds out on the floor

Why doesn’t Emmit help him? Was it shock? Anger? Relief? Was it the fact that there was no way to film one Ewen McGregor trying to stop the bleeding on another Ewen McGregor? In any event, we see the life run out of Ray, and Emmit’s devastation.

Emmit, likely for the first time, calls Varga for help. Varga appears to be resting on the hard concrete floor. Perhaps another reference to his prison days? In any event, Varga offers another monologue over the phone. This one about Beethoven. For the record, this was the first time I — a Varga monologue defender — said “shut the hell up, Varga,” while watching at home. INTERESTING

But Emmit needs help and Varga obliges. He calls off Meemo’s hit on Nikki in the “nikk” of time. Varga cooks up a plan to stage Ray’s death as a murder by Nikki over the beating she received. Emmit is still horrified. He wanted reconciliation, only to spur the worst kind of violence. The biblical kind.

“I didn’t mean to,” says Emmit.

“No one ever does,” replies Varga.

Meantime, Gloria — already on her way home to Eden Valley — decides to turn around and check Ray’s apartment one more time — something we know will put her (and Winnie Lopez) in contact with an active crime scene and ruthless killers. We also know that the Russian strongman Yuri has been sent to Eden Valley to investigate the Ennis Stussy murder and its connection to the Varga organization.

This episode earns this season’s first unequivocal OH YA! Full of action, emotion, and consequences, the story works because we finally care about what happens to the characters. I may have been wrong about the idea of a Ray/Emmit mixup being part of the season’s end, but I’m now fully entranced in the story.

Note on the Minnesota details:

As is typical when “Fargo” dives into a suspenseful turn of events, quibbling about Minnesota-specific details becomes less relevant. I only found a couple items.

We get an accurate description by Gloria of where Eden Valley is located in relation to St. Cloud. Good job, Team Fargo! OH YA!

There was a moment when Ray, with his bald forehead and long hair, huffed across his room angry about what was done to Nikki. In that moment, Ray resembled former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Like Ray, Ventura served in office post-mustache. Alas, we’ll never find out if Ray would have reached the braided conspiratorial phase of life Ventura now occupies. OH YA!

Is Eden Valley a nice town? Well, Gloria tells Varga it has a Tastee-Freez AND a Dairy Queen. Dairy Queen is one of the most ubiquitous fast food places in Minnesota, so that checks out. But Tastee-Freezes are fewer and farther between. Kind of a Californians idea of a Midwestern restaurant. Nevertheless, there’s something about the way Gloria says this. She’s not necessarily proud. She’s not bragging, really. That’s just what kind of town it is. PRETTY GOOD

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “The House of Special Purpose

Next Episode: “The Law of Inevitability

Comments

  1. Gerald S says:

    Well, the big news is that Ray is dead. His ongoing efforts to dig himself into a hole end with him getting killed during a fourth grade style pushing match with his brother over who has to take the stamp that they have been fighting to get since the first episode. In the end, Ray is too stupid even to know he has won.

    I think the reason that Emmit stands and watches Ray bleed out is one more sign of Emmit’s main character trait — he is frozen by events there, just as he is passive and helpless in most circumstances. Historically it has been Sy who has provided the action and momentum in their partnership, but now Emmit has given that role to Varga — that is why he calls him instead of emergency services and the police, and that is why he just sits and acquiesces when Sy still tries to resist Varga. Emmit is the perfect foil for an evil overlord, since he reacts passively to anything.

    Leaving Nikki alive may turn out to be a disaster for Varga and his crew, since I have a strong suspicion we are going to be treated to the sight of Nikki giving us a blood bath of the same proportions as the bar scene from “The Accountant.” Nikki is gradually being hemmed in tighter and tighter — no money, no car, no Ray, beaten severely as a “whipping boy” to teach Sy a lesson, likely going to be violated on her parole for her affair with Ray. She has only two choices, to either run as far and as fast as she can go (not very fast or far since she has no car and didn’t even have money for aspirin) or to seek revenge on all those who have marginalized her. I suspect that she will try to figure out a way to get some money out of the situation, probably starting with approaching/attacking Sy to try to shoe horn her way into the conspiracy. People have been underestimating her throughout the story, and she might have something to show them.

    David Thewlis has been turning in a virtuoso performance as Varga, rivaling Billy Bob Thornton in the first season as a villain. This episode steps that up a notch from what I already thought was a straight 10’s performance. One more piece of his past has dropped, with him being revealed as a massive fan of the Soviet pantheon, with his quote from Lenin and his picture of Stalin. I actually thought his monologue about Beethoven was important and revealing: the world is so awful, people are either so terrible or so pathetic that we don’t deserve beauty, but rather having our heads beaten. Varga has embraced that concept, whatever background he might have.

    BTW, I take Varga’s “three true stories” as a classic example of “what I tell you three times is false.” All three are wrong, and the ridiculousness of the Apollo story is just a tip to the audience to check not only all of these stories but everything Varga says. The Lehman Brothers story is a fantasy in the minds of Wall Street types who want to create a story that absolves them from the truth that they demolished their own companies and the world economy by getting involved in an investment strategy based on insane leverage and the belief that real estate prices were incapable of going down, and that one thousand bad investments somehow added up to a good one. Lehman was the most severely leveraged of the major firms at almost 35 to 1, so a drop of just under 3% in their investments would wipe them out. The value of their heavy portfolio of mortgage backed securities by at least 30% in a few weeks as the real estate bubble collapsed, leaving Lehman bankrupt so it would have only survived via a massive bailout, which the Bush administration was unwilling to extend. The Lehman collapse and its fallout induced the Bush people to reverse that position for subsequent bail outs of many other banks. Princip, the assassin of the Archduke, was not the person who threw the unsuccessful bomb — that idiot was captured alive after he vomited up his cyanide capsule and tried to drown himself in a river that was only a few inches deep — but rather was waiting as a back up assassin. Princip had actually stationed himself in front to the cafe that Varga suggests he was eating at. The fact that the Archduke’s car came that way at all and the fact that it stopped to try to turn around was a mistake by the driver in the absence of the person who was supposed to be guiding them, who was wounded in the bomb attack. And, of course, the whole Apollo was fake meme is one of the craziest of crazy conspiracy theories. So all of them are wildly wrong, and IMO the Apollo thing is thrown in to point us to the fact that they all are wrong. The lesson is that anything Varga says in terms of history, philosophy, and world view is in fact ludicrously wrong and badly twisted, something we already know from earlier episodes, but now driven home with a series of hammer blows.

    Thewlis gets all the best lines tonight, except for Gloria’s deadpan put downs of him. (Double Oh Ya!!)

    Ironically, although Varga describes himself as almost so rarely seen that he may not exist, it is Gloria who is truly a ghost of some sort. Automatic doors can’t sense her presence, she has no hits on Google, and she is automatically — mostly because she is a woman — discounted by everyone from her terrible boss to Varga. If this were a different kind of show I would be suspicious she is actually a ghost or an angel, something along the lines of Bruce Willis in “Sixth Sense,” but Fargo has avoided the occult except for the flying saucer in season two, so I don’t think we are going to have any ghosts, zombies, or aliens. Gloria’s “invisibility” is a metaphor, ironically broken only when she stepped out of both her context and her parka in the LA episode, but she is going to use that invisibility to surprise Varga, just as the earlier heroines in the movie and TV show have.

    Cool surprise that Meemo speaks fluent and unaccented English, and easily steps into the role of a lawyer to bulldoze the IRS man — and probably save the investigator’s life, since the final gotterdammerung will have rung down long before the three weeks of notice has expired — unless the IRS man tries to make a response sooner, in which case he dies.

    Still worried about Winnie surviving. Wondering if Yuri’s trip to Eden Valley will end in the death of Gloria’s boss.

    By the way, in real life there is neither a Dairy Queen nor a Tastee Freez in Eden Valley. It’s not big enough to draw in any chains. Have to drive to Paynesville, Litchfield, or Cold Spring for your frozen treats.

    Anyhow, I agree that this is the best episode to date, mostly because we are going past the set up to the pay off. Oh ya!

  2. Great points as always, Gerald. On the “three stories” bit, I see your point. But I do think there is a clear distinction between the first two and the last. The value of Lehman was always inflated. The negative “appearance of reality” was, in fact, reality — but a reality so far reaching that acknowledging it calls into question the validity of the whole economy. As for WWI, the sandwich story is probably oversimplified, but the fact is there was a slavic conspiracy to kill the duke and one of the conspirators succeeded, after the bombing failed. The particular shooter’s success was owed to the happenstance of the situation. The moon landing conspiracy is often tied to propaganda suggesting that the rich USA bankrupted the poor workers utopia of the Soviet Union by forcing them to spend heavily on space and weapons when they couldn’t afford to. So the fact that Varga, an apparent Russian sympathizer, spouted this is just part of the character I think, just like his casual anti-semitism. I think your idea that the underlying strategy that Varga deploys is to muddle the truth so it can be molded to his liking is right on.

    Yes, let Yuri have a crack at that guy.

    My theory on this season is already shot with Ray’s death. So I’m going in blind on future episodes, which is probably the best way to do it.

  3. Gerald S says:

    I agree that the first two of Varga’s stories are much less obviously wrong, but again suggest that the very absurdity of the third story is what points us to the notion that the first two may well be, and in fact are, wrong as well. Also, as soon as he tells the stories, Varga more or less tells Sy that what he is saying is untrue when he makes the suggestion that people can say anything but it is up to the universe to sort it all out.

    This wrongness is laced completely through Varga’s monologues, from his speech on the approach of the unwashed hordes bent on destroying our civilization to his anti-Semitic and fat-shaming discussion of Sy’s wife (that from a guy who has a truly bizarre relationship with food) to his story about the 24 Hitlers (which Gloria calls him on) to his lecture about Lenin and Beethoven. Any time that the guy talks about anything beyond pure mechanics, he is wrong. His whole world view is wrong. ( BTW that also made me wonder of his speech about the IRS is not going to turn out to be wrong as well, and that the IRS will show up again with more and better troops and with enough information to sink the company — although maybe Noah Hawley has recently been auditied and wants to kick and mock the IRS.)

    I was unaware that part of the “the moon landing was fake” was tied to Soviet reactions to it, but that makes sense.

    I also thought that Ray would die in a more violent and less absurd way, but the randomness and essential silliness of his death actually fits with the absurd nature of the Stussy twins in this story. The randomness, absurdity, and banality of evil is an important theme in this season, pointed out in passing by both Nikki and Varga, and Varga makes a point of saying that about Ray’s death.

    One other minor thing I noticed is that I think that the industrial space that Varga is living in is probably the interior of the trailer of the parked truck. The proportions look right, the flooring looks right, plus that is where Yuri and Meemo went to get him when Ray was following them.

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