FARGO, Season 3, Ep. 5: “The House of Special Purpose”

Circumstances close in on Sy and Emmit in “The House of Special Purpose,” the latest episode of “Fargo” on 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 House of Special Purpose

(Original air date: May 17, 2017)

The rivalry of the Stussy brothers destroys everything and everyone it touches. Feuding brothers have driven great stories since Act One of the Bible, and these guys seem to be cooking up a doozy here in Season Three of “Fargo”.

But the funny thing about this year’s “Fargo” story is that neither Emmit nor Ray really control their struggle. They’re fighting each other, sure, but the reasons why have never seemed important. It all goes back to the aftermath of their father’s death, but we don’t get the sense that they’re all that upset about dad. It’s all about a little bit of money: money Emmit doesn’t need and that won’t really solve Ray’s problems. In fact, I think the season has suffered for lack of gravity in this conflict.

The real driving factors in the Stussy showdown are their companions, Sy and Nikki respectively, and circumstances far bigger than either of them. One gets the sense that, had outside influences not been involved, these brothers might have made up years ago. Emmit and Ray both possess flaws. Pride for Emmit. Envy for Ray. But the Stussy brothers only seem wicked when goaded by the devil on their shoulder.

And yet, wickedness abounds.

We open the episode on Emmit driving home across the December landscape of Minnesota. The 1970s Mac Davis classic “It’s Hard to be Humble” plays. I have fond memories of this song playing on the radio when I was laying out the morning edition of the newspaper some years ago. We quickly learn, however, that Emmit is about to have a very bad day. Ray and Nikki have produced a sex tape to make it look like Emmit is having an affair. Further, they left it in an envelope on Emmit’s porch where it was found by Emmit’s wife Stella. It sits on the kitchen island like a ticking bomb. We see her look at it, drawn to it, until she just has to open the envelope.

It’s blackmail. But usually one doesn’t blackmail people by telling the wife first. This becomes another incompetent plot from Ray and Nikki, one that somehow seems worse than dropping an air conditioner on a guy. This goes beyond the old feud. Emmit is a loyal husband and Stella appears to be a loving wife. Nevertheless,  in an instant this is destroyed.

The relationship between Ray and Nikki advances in this episode. As the pair set up their blackmail sex tape, Ray tells Nikki he loves her.

“That’s sweet. You’re sweet,” she replies. Nikki never gives him much.

But then he asks her to marry him. She seems genuinely happy about this, enough so that she removes her “hooker wig.” These fallen angels are now betrothed.

Meantime, Emmit’s friend and business partner Sy ran afoul of the violent interloper V.M. Varga by talking to Officer Winnie Lopez in the last episode. Varga does something really awful to Sy’s “World’s Best Dad” coffee mug. Either he A) rubs his penis around the inside of the mug all random like, or B) pees in the cup, or C) worse than that. Now, Sy uses a word to describe Varga’s organ in the cup — something Yiddish or Hebrew. I spent far to long trying to figure out how to spell it and, believe me, the internet was no help.

Anyway, Varga’s Russian thugs then make Sy drink from the cup, including whatever was in there. And it would appear it tastes not so good.

“It’s worse than we thought,” hisses Sy to Emmit in a phone call. But Emmit is distraught over what’s happened with his marriage due to Ray and Nikki’s plot.

This gets us to another key realization in this episode. Somehow, Emmit and Sy wandered all the way to the middle of this story not fully realizing how bad the situation with Varga really was. They’ve allowed themselves to nurse petty grudges in lieu of what should have been fear and hope of escape.

“The enemies are at the gates,” says Sy. “Inside our gates. Fornicating with our cookware.”

Sy asks Emmit to “unchain me.” Meaning that Sy can do whatever he sees fit to snuff out the threat of Ray and Nikki. We will soon lean that an unchained Sy just won’t be enough. He meets Nikki to negotiate a solution, but is tailed by Yuri and Meemo. They interrupt “unchained Sy” and beat Nikki about the torso nearly to death. Sy watches in horror and slinks away. In watching this, I thought Nikki was dead. But she did manage to pull herself back off the ground and into her car. Ray finds her collapsed in the bathroom back at their apartment.

Meantime, Ray’s fraudulent withdrawal from the bank while posing as Emmit has triggered an investigation by the IRS. They want to see the books. “We’ll just show them the fake ones,” Varga tells Emmit. But one gets a sense that the IRS agent, too, is in great danger.

Again in this story we revisit the ideas of “what is truth?” Between the Russian connections and the role of social media and the internet in this season, Noah Hawley is clearly channeling current events. See, we know that Emmit wasn’t cheating on his wife. But, as Nikki points out, his wife believes that he did.

“It never happened,” says Sy.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not a fact,” says Nikki.

That line is juxtaposed with one from Gloria Burgle.

“You don’t have to like the truth for it to be true,” she says.

We see the Fargo morality play entering clearly. Good characters believe in objective truth. Bad ones rationalize falsehoods. And here we see Sy and Emmit trying to get back to the good. The question is whether it’s too late for them, and whether they can avoid the urge for vengeance.

The final image of the episode knocks home last week’s Peter and the Wolf comparisons. It’s a wolf. The wolf is coming. The wolf is here.

EPISODE GRADE: Pretty good. Almost gave it an OH YA! Still holding back because I still don’t understand the motivations of some of the key characters. And I’m mad that the Sheriff’s resistance to Gloria’s investigation seems to be rooted in nothing but pure asshattery. Gloria and Winnie are three episodes ahead of the rest of the cast, so it feels like they’re just waiting around. If you want to know how I feel about everything look at the sigh Winnie Lopez gives after the sheriff tells Gloria to shut down her investigation.


Notes on the Minnesota details:

In watching Emmit’s long drive home I have updated my thoughts on the authenticity of the fictional versions of these towns. The “Fargo” version of Eden Valley and St. Cloud seem OK, if broadly interpreted. But there is no way Emmit’s home is found in anything like the real version of Eden Prairie — a western suburb of Minneapolis. His neighborhood looks more like the exurbs somewhere northwest of the metro. INTERESTING

That said, Emmit’s SUV is caked in road salt and sand in the appropriate Minnesota way. OH YA!

I enjoy how Nikki seems well spoken, but often drops incorrect words into her dialogue. This time, in directing the sex tape, she recommends sexual positions that “favor our bottoms,” in other words “keeping our faces absurd.” Ray corrects, “obscured.” Works both ways. OH YA!

Sy’s meeting with the Widow Goldfarb who wants to buy Stussy Lots takes place at a darkened supper club called the Bear’s Den. I don’t know if this is a real place, but it could be. I can practically taste the thick French dressing and sunflower seeds from the salad bar. OH YA!

“Congratulations, you’re the stupidest person alive,” is a hell of a way to open a phone conversation. Way to go, Sy! Not very Minnesotan, though I think most of us would like to be able to do that someday. PRETTY GOOD.

Also, I have to give proper acknowledgement to the kids playing hockey in the streets when Ray walks by. That’s an authentic Minnesota detail (shared with Canada where this show is shot). However, I would quibble with the fact that these kids would normally be on a city rink in the month of December. Perhaps it was too warm? Maybe the ice isn’t ready yet? I could let that slide. But I cannot abide the half ass way these kids are playing hockey. They just mill about awkwardly. One guy kicks at the puck. Kicks? Get your shit together boys if you wanna make it to State! COULD BE WORSE

Oh, and hey! I’ll be on the “Ah, Jeez” podcast from Minnesota Public Radio this week. Hosts Tracy Mumford and Jay Gabler recorded the interview with me before this most recent episode. Readers here know how I complain that MPR “drank my milkshake” on Fargo page views after Season 1. But today I bury the hatchet.

Or do I?

I will say that they asked a great question about who would “win” a fight among the “henchmen” from Seasons 1 (Numbers and Wrench), 2 (The Kitchen Brothers), and 3 (Yuri and Meemo). I said it was too early to say because the guys this year have only offed one person on their current assignment. But having seen this episode I’m starting to feel like the Russians this year are just thugs. Quality thugs, but rarely in combat with equals. Numbers and Wrench were more intellectual types, though they knew how to use guns. For old school intimidation and raw mayhem, however, I think you have to go with the Kitchen Brothers. It is interesting that in previous seasons one henchman dies and one lives. I wonder if that trend continues? I encourage discussion on this topic.

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “The Narrow Escape Problem

Next Episode: “The Lord of No Mercy”


  1. Pat Schoenfelder says

    I give this one an Oh ya!

    I agree that the basis of the bad blood between Ray and Emmit seems fairly trivial, and also fairly recent, since Ray tells us he was Emmit’s best man and was in Emmit’s daughter’s wedding, and since we first met Ray at Emmit’s anniversary party. The bad blood appears to be mostly due to Nikki, the Delilah, as Emmit says, who has made Ray — apparently an easy going guy who used to be satisfied with his mundane life — greedy by making him want to provide money for her and for her scheme to become a professional bridge player. We have yet to learn what Nikki did to end up on parole in the first place, but the fact is that she is a beautiful bad woman who is taking a simple minded man who is knocked for a loop by her looks and style and is unable to think straight in his desire to please her and hold on to her.

    Sy appears to also want to engender bad blood between Ray and Emmit, apparently out of a desire to supplant Ray as Emmit’s “brother.”

    Ray and Emmit are not in this conflict because they are ambitious or bad men. They are in it because they are simple minded and fundamentally gentle men who have fallen in with bad companions who have led them astray — remember what your mom told you about that. Emmit in particular has a really hard time recognizing the fact that there are wolves in the woods, to reprise last week’s metaphor. Ray knows their are wolves, but his job has led him to believe they aren’t really dangerous, just hapless error prone idiots.

    Which brings up the real evil in this season, easily the match for the first two seasons: Varga and his minions. These are viscous and dangerous people who bring to mind Billy Bob in year one, with the added ominous note that they represent a whole class of people who have come boiling out of the meltdown of the Soviet bloc, having learned their lessons at the hands of the KGB, the Stasi, and the Gulags. They are vicious because they come from a world that has always been vicious, and they are unrelenting and unmoved because the world they have known was unrelenting and unmoved. A world where, as Yuri tells us in his monologue, women cooked their babies for food. The truly frightening thing here is that I have the impression that Varga, Yuri, and Meemo are just a tiny tip of a very large iceberg. If they wanted they could have a thousand more like them on airplanes from Eastern Europe tomorrow.

    In the earlier seasons, the bad guys were more or less home grown Midwesterners, Yuri makes the point that there is evil out there that Midwesterners and Americans can’t even imagine.

    So your don’t have to know if Yuri and Meemo could “take” some of the thugs from earlier seasons. You would have to wonder if fifty more just like them could “take” them.

    As Gloria says, “You don’t have to like the truth for it to be true.”

    I agree that the road salt, the street hockey, and the “Bears’ Den” 1950’s style supper club are nice Minnesota touches, and also was struck by how very bad the kids were at hockey. I am forced to conclude that that scene was actually shot on a sound stage with a bunch of kid extras from LA — can’t believe that kids in Alberta would be that bad.

    I thought that Sy’s Hummer was a nice Minnesota touch. Only Minnesotans could believe that driving a Hummer was a sign you were a tough guy, not a sign that you have erectile dysfunction and are not smart enough to check Consumer Reports before you buy a car. Sy is revealed repeatedly to be a bully who often responds to being abused himself by going out to find someone else to abuse. He has gotten close to Emmit, his “model,” by convincing Emmit he is tough, but he is only tough with helpless people (and parked cars.)

    Another funny joke bit, set up with great patience in a manner reminiscent of many similar jokes by the Coens themselves, is Emmit’s wife’s name, which allows him to do the Stanley Kowalski bit from “Streetcar Named Desire” as she drives away from their McMansion.

    I agree that I have doubts whether there is an area quite so desolate as Emmit’s neighborhood in Eden Prairie, but Eden Prairie is really big — large enough to conceal a Vikings training center and headquarters and the late Prince’s Purple palace and record studio and a high school with a waterfall in its lobby. There is a lot of fairly vacant land in the western part as you approach Highway 41 and the U of M arboretum, and in the southwest near Flying Cloud airport.

    A couple of notes on details. Nikki is beaten by Yuri with a thick braided whip, possibly a jockey’s whip, but clearly intended to invoke the historic Russian knout used by the Czar’s torturers. It would be a lot like being beaten with a length of garden hose (on a hot day, not in the dead of winter,) and would do a lot of damage to the skin and to underlying muscle, and perhaps break ribs or small bones, but would not cause the kind of internal injury that a severe beating with fists or a rigid club would cause. The victim survives without really needing medical care, but faces days of severe pain every time they move.

    Second, Varga urinates in the cup — get your mind out of the gutter! And the word that Sy uses is “shvantz” or “schvantz,” a German derived Yiddish term that translates literally as tail. Italian uses almost exactly the same word with the same meaning. Interestingly, the word penis also is the Latin word for tail, so when we are all trying to be delicate or scientific we are echoing the slang of Roman longshoreman from 200 BC. I guess the fact that you have never heard someone say schvantz adds to your credentials as a true son of the frozen north, but maybe you should get out more.

    I am continuing to speculate as to who will die and when. I actually expected both Gloria and Sy to end up dead tonight, killed when Yuri and Meemo thought that they were involved in the conspiracy that Varga discussed with Emmit in the parking garage. I continue to worry about the future of Winnie, since she seems to be a possible candidate for designated dead Latina (a close relative of the more famous designated dead black friend.) Gloria’s boss continues to beg for death — but ask your wife if his asshattery does not seem familiar to stuff she has seen, heard about, or even suffered through — it’s a different world without that Y chromosome. Because of what I have said about what I see as the origin of Varga, it seems clear to me that the only way that the wolves will not descend en masse is if, at minimum, Ray, Nikki, Sy, and Emmit are dead — that is also required by the usual Fargo morality play standards. I am uncertain as to whether and which of Varga, Yuri, and Meemo will get the chop, but my guess would be all three, again for morality play purposes. The smart assed IRS agent is on very thin ice, and the deputy in Eden Valley may be too stupid to live. I worry about Emmit’s family, but they probably will be OK, the heirs to the money that is flitting through Stussy Parking.

    I see a possible ending with a “Hamlet” like climax with everyone dead except Gloria, and with the widow Goldfarb playing the role of the invading Prince Fortinbras, stepping in to buyi the parking lots from the widow Stussy. The scene then fades to an offstage shot of Ermantraub, name tag on his desk, pushing a few keys on his computer to cause all the assets of Stussy Parking to disappear into untraceable numbered accounts belonging to the massive criminal conspiracy we have just seen the smallest part of, and with Ermantraub telling an offstage voice that he will go out to lunch as soon as the transfer is complete. The scene then draws back to show that Ermantraub is in a cubicle amidst a room of at least a hundred more cubicles fading off the stage, each containing a man or woman toiling over a similar computer in the boiler room of a massive criminal empire.

  2. Ian Macdonald says

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