FARGO, Season 4: “East/West”

Ben Whishaw as Rabbi Milligan. (PHOTO: Elizabeth Morris/FX)

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. The ratings range 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.

Episode 9, “East/West”

(Original air date: Nov. 15, 2020)

This season of “Fargo” piles on great performances, killer lines, apt metaphors, superb cinematography that all somehow add up to less than the story. It’s like a “We Are the World” of Noah Hawley productions. So much that it becomes too much.

But to be honest, I’m willing to accept that reality just to get the dialogue uttered by the guy hired to put up the billboard on a rural highway outside Liberal, Kansas, in Episode 9, entitled “East/West.”

As the action unfolds we see a man slowly papering a billboard. The giant banner depicts a suburban scene. It’s an odd billboard to put in the middle of nowhere, but that’s not his concern. In the picture, a white businessman in a suit smiles into the void. The lettering reads “The Future is,” with the blank corner yet to reveal the answer. The billboard man is in no hurry. He’s paid by the hour and, once he finishes, he’s unemployed.

Rabbi Milligan wants to know what the future is, according to the billboard, but the man just says he’ll have to wait to find out. As events transpire we learn that the answer is, “The Future is Now.”

What does that mean? We’re treated to a wandering monologue by the billboard man, in which he winds larger philosophical questions about time and space around his own unique situation, a newly unemployed billboard technician. “Once again,” he states, “I am at the crossroads.”

The pacing and tone of the whole thing reminded me of dialogue from another Coen Brothers movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“East/West” — our first episode set outside 1950 Kansas City — gives us lots to chew on. Yes, there is a tornado. And yes, the episode pays homage to “The Wizard of Oz” by opening in black-and-white until after the tornado has passed. But the tornado doesn’t cause young Satchel Cannon’s dilemma. It only exposes it. He is alone, left to wander the world.

We open on a Bertrand Russell quote, “Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.”

Apt. And complicated. Perhaps one of the reasons it’s hard to cheer for the characters this year is that so many seem to live by this very philosophy. Criminals trying to outlast other criminals, to avoid being exploited by the master criminals who run society under a false cloak of respectability.

But amid the cruelty we recognize the humanity in characters like Rabbi Milligan and Satchel Cannon, wanderers just trying to make it to a home they never knew.

As the black-and-white episode opens we see a sign for Liberal, Kansas. A name like Liberal makes you think. Of course, the name stems from the unique history of Kansas, when liberal abolitionist Republicans settled the state to prevent the spread of slavery. So, Liberal was once liberal, but it is clearly a pretty conservative place. The only radio station Rabbi can find features a preacher howling about the dangers of Communism.

A car pulls up to a gas station, the only one for miles around. We see Omie Sparkman, Loy Cannon’s man, get out of the car. He’s looking for Constant Calamita, the ruthless enforcer for the Fadda Family. And while the older station attendant hasn’t seen the skeletal Italian, he suggests that he’ll have to stop here if he’s driving through the area. So Omie stays, waiting. Oh yeah, he’s got a white guy in the trunk, too. Brought him along to help him find Calamita. Only that guy tries to warn Calamita when he pulls up, which doesn’t turn out so good for him.

Now we see Rabbi and Satchel driving by a day earlier (It’s a black and white flashback within a black and white prelude). They don’t stop for gas. Rabbi knows they can’t be seen. They pull up to a strange boarding house a few miles beyond the filling station called “The Barton Arms.”

Run by two feuding sisters, Barton Arms employs a Black woman in what appears to be a nurse’s uniform admitting guests to the hotel. They are asked a series of questions to determine to which side of the hotel they belong. She points out that the sisters don’t like “colored” guests, looking at Satchel. This seems odd coming from an employee of the facility who is, in fact, Black, but it’s only the first of many strange customs at the Barton Arms.

The house is literally divided along an East/West line. Even the spiral stairwell is divided so that “East” guests walk on one side and “West” guests on the other.

Rabbi tells Satchel to stay in the room while he goes to take care of business. Satchel initially follows orders, but ends up finding a very adorable dog inside the chifforobe. The dog, a not-so-subtle parallel to Toto from “The Wizard of Oz,” is named Rabbit. She quickly takes a liking to young Satchel. (And vice versa).

Meantime, in town, Rabbi Milligan sees that Jack’s Feed and Seed (remember, that’s where they were headed) isn’t open anymore. In fact, it’s an appliance and furniture store now. This is a problem because Rabbi apparently stashed a bag of cash in the walls of the old feed store.

Rabbi takes Satchel (and his dog friend Rabbit) back to town, this time with a plan. Rabbi sticks up the appliance store to find out what happened to the money. (Indeed, the pair of brothers who bought the place found the bag when they remodeled, spending most of the loot).

But while this exchange is happening, Satchel is in real trouble out in the car. He’s just sitting there. Not doing anything. But a town cop sees a Black boy in a car and assumes he must be up to something. Satchel’s silence prompts the officer to call him out of the vehicle. Is he going to jail? Will it be worse than that?

Fortunately, Rabbi gets back in time. Tells the cop he is taking care of the kid because he served with his dad in the war. The cop reminds him that he should be careful driving around with a negro kid; people here (in Liberal) won’t understand.

It’s a little heavy-handed, but we feel Satchel’s fear throughout this scene.

The Barton Arms board house is quite a trip, as is the dinner gathering attended by Rabbi and Satchel. You’ve got the two sisters who hate each other having divided up the guests into one side or another. Both are prejudiced against people of color like Satchel, but one hates her sister more, so she fights to include him at the table.

The guests seem to resent each others’ presence, though an aluminum siding salesman (well versed in the philosophy of Dale Carnegie) seems pretty chatty with everyone. He ends up delivering one of the most important lines of the episode. In describing the story of Goldilocks he reminds that in the original story the bears were actually witches. And the story never really ends, either. Rather, Goldilocks escapes to continue wandering the world alone.

Back in the room, Rabbi tells Satchel they’re leaving … without the dog. “Only a fool thinks things stay the same.” Satchel is upset. He reveals that he had hoped he could keep the dog for his birthday. Whether or not it’s actually Satchel’s birthday (this is open to interpretation), Rabbi feels bad enough that he goes looking for a cake or candy to at least give the kid something. (He’s not interested in keeping the dog).

Milligan drives down the road for the chocolate bar, only to find that the gas station attendant is dead and Calamita is about to shoot Omie Sparkman. Seeing Milligan, Calamita shoots. It’s three-way gunfight with Omie, Calamita, the Rabbi … and … a tornado? See, there’s a big storm coming and it includes a tornado. Tornados aren’t typical in the winter but we’re asked to go along with it. Omie gets shot down, but before Calamita can finish Rabbi, they both get picked up in the swirling tornado, hurled into a very grim version of Oz.

The world returns to color. We find Satchel alone. After waiting a while, he leaves the hotel on foot with his dog Rabbit. Like Goldilocks, like Dorothy Gale, this young man is left to wander the world. And most likely he’ll try to get home — if home still exists.

EPISODE GRADE: Pretty Good. If you accept the overstuffed premise of “Fargo,” Season 4, and the deus ex machina of this episode, “East/West” stands out for its artfulness and the way it shines light on the plight of Satchel Cannon, who we know will become a connection to the greater Fargo universe.

Minnesota Details

  • Omie Sparkman gets the gas station attendant to let him park behind the building in exchange for painting the storefront. But this is late December. A thin layer of snow clings to the ground. This is not a good time to paint. Try to paint in weather like that and it’ll stay tacky all year, then start bleeding when it warms up again. INTERESTING
  • Oh, and there are almost never tornadoes in late December, even in Kansas. It’s too cold. And we see the snow on the ground. So this is truly a deus ex machina tornado. INTERESTING (Side note: All these friggin’ guys with serious gunshot wounds are going to survive being picked up by the tornado, aren’t they?)
  • The salesman in the store that used to be Jack’s Feed and Seed tries to sell Rabbi a “divan for your boudoir.” In addition to reinforcing the sense of 1950s “suburbanization” of America depicted in the aforementioned billboard, this is a highly valid 20th Century midwestern phrase. OH YA!

Stray Observations

  • Lots more use of the original “Fargo” movie theme music this season, always twisted just slightly.
  • The “Barton Arms” boarding house in Liberal, Kansas, is an obvious homage to the hotel in the Coen Brothers film “Barton Fink,” another story populated by odd characters in a cramped hotel.
  • The guy that Omie locked in the trunk starts speaking un-ironically about “The King of the Turtles,” which ends up being an almost perfect distillation of Dr. Seuss’s “Yertle the Turtle.” “Yertle” wasn’t published until 1958, so we are asked to believe that this turtle story comes from some kind of folk tradition. Either that or this season is being written by sophisticated “A.I.” and “Yertle the Turtle” was the next random monologue source.
  • I don’t have enough time to describe the many misfit humans from the boarding house. Is that girl really that old guy’s niece? What’s with the preacher and his mother? And I half thought the convalescing patient in the room down the hall was Dr. Harvard, but no — it’s just some creepy, sick dude.
  • But the creepy patient did have something prophetic to say. He “reassured” Satchel by saying not to worry about a flood. “The fires are next.” So … sleep tight?

Next week brings us to the penultimate episode, which will presumably come to us in 100 percent living color.

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “The Nadir

Next Episode: “Happy”

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