FARGO, Season 3: “Who Rules the Land of Denial”

Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Wrench (Russell Harvard) form an unlikely team in the “Fargo” episode “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” (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.

Who Rules the Land of Denial?

(Original air date: June 7, 2017)

Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the LORD. (Obadiah 1:4)

These are the words uttered by Paul Marrane (Ray Wise), the mysterious man that Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Wrench (Russell Harvard) find at the bowling alley bar after they escape a terrifying ordeal. He’s the same man who held inspired conversations with Gloria on the plane and at the bar during the Los Angeles episode earlier in the season.

Marrane asks Nikki to deliver that message to the wicked. Nikki and Wrench have been chosen for something. They are sinners with a chance at redemption, even if they don’t fully understand it yet.

And we know the wicked. The billionaire oligarch Varga and his henchmen. Men who seek immense power and invincibility through anonymity and cruel exploitation. We also know that Marrane can back up his metaphysical talk because of what happens to Yuri, the wolf man, later in the scene. Is Marrane God? God’s angel? In any event, this episode deploys another “Fargo” version of deus ex machina, an ancient Greek dramatic device often used in morality plays.

“Fargo,” the movie and show, will go down as the finest series of motion picture morality plays of our time. For many, this program’s appeal relates to the “funny” (for me, “normal”) accents and outlandish crimes. But the strength of this show rests in its traditionalism. “Fargo” explores the same questions that challenged Aristotle and the ancients.

This particular episode opens with a new view of last week’s bus accident. Yuri (Goran Bogdan), Meemo (Andy Yu) and our new character Golum (D.J. Qualls) prepare the ambush.We learn that what we saw last week was only part of the truth. Yes, the men dressed as animals. Yes, they walked out to cause the bus to veer off course. But that’s not what caused the rollover. Varga’s henchmen crafted an elaborate iron ramp designed to catch the bus tire and flip it over Here again, what was designed to seem like a coincidence actually qualifies as an extraordinarily choreographed plot.

Yuri (Goran Bogdan), Meemo (Andy Yu) and Golum (D.J. Qualls) provide no shortage of metaphorical mayhem in “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” (FX)

What follows is a tense and exciting chase sequences. Nikki and Wrench survive the crash, only to realize that they’re chained together and that masked men seek to kill Nikki and anyone who gets in their way. Golum, dressed as a police officer wearing a pig mask, breaks through the cage first. However, he learns quickly that this battered criminal Wrench is actually experienced henchman who basically smacks around Qualls’ slender frame.

We see Yuri draw his infamous whip/night stick doohickey. For a moment, I thought Wrench and Yuri would throw down. Ironically, when I was on with the “Ah Jeez” podcast a few weeks ago, they asked who might “win” in a showdown of the henchmen from different seasons. This episode could have answered the question! But alas, Wrench and Nikki choose to flee instead. Yuri, donning full wolf regalia, pursues.

The next few minutes made great TV. Nikki and Wrench must not only become acquainted, with Nikki learning that Wrench is deaf, but they must learn how to work together. We quickly see two instances where Nikki acts as the ears, while Wrench acts as the eyes. Nikki is haunted by the words of her last conversation with Ray. Meanwhile, in a stunning twist, two unfortunate hunters fire a crossbow at the “wolf” Yuri. They hit the wolf pelt, but not Yuri. This proves unfortunate for them.

Yuri and Meemo, now armed with crossbows, continue the chase. They know exactly where Wrench and Nikki are. They’re toying with them. Trapping them. When Nikki and Wrench arrive at the hunters’ camp, complete with ominous arrow-riddled effigy, they attempt to cut their chain with an ax. Until the arrows start flying. Wrench is hit. So is Nikki. Golum comes flying in with some kind of blade, wounding Wrench again. But then they catch Golum, strangling him with their now weakened chain. So hard, it turns out, that they behead the henchman while breaking the chain. DJ Qualls didn’t say much in his short stint on this show, but his departure proves quite memorable.

A side note, the character’s name “Golum” provides a clue as to why he exists in this story. A “golum” is an ancient, mystical being created from earth or mud as a sort of spiritual henchman. They don’t have souls. This guy really was just a disposable henchman working for powerful forces.

Yuri’s arrows keep flying, however, causing Wrench to throw the ax like a tomahawk into the woods where Yuri stands. We later learn his throw was pretty good, slicing off Yuri’s ear. The chase continues.

Now the episode, and entire Season 3, enters its most magical and significant moment. Nikki and Wrench arrive at a lonely bowling alley in the middle of nowhere. Why is it there? Who knows? They go inside to clean up. Nikki sits at the bar and orders a drink, trying to conceal the handcuff and severed chain in her sleeve. The bartender doesn’t seem to care. Sitting next to her is a face we recognize, but not one most would have expected to see. Out of nowhere. Like a ghost. It’s Paul Marrane.

Marrane, opening with a cryptic Biblical reference to Job, tells Nikki that she has learned something important, that “life is suffering.” Then the strangeness amplifies. Marrane pulls out a cute little orange kitten. He says that its name is Ray — that the name came to him all of a sudden. He says that sometimes the souls of the dead aren’t ready to move on, so they find a new host.

Ray is Ray.

Not every loose soul is so lucky to find a home, he says. He tells a story of a rabbi who demanded to be buried with the thousands of Jews murdered more than a century ago by the Cossacks in Ukraine, the same Cossacks from whom Yuri descends. In death, he would fuse with the lost souls to help them, an act of great sacrifice. Marrane says there is a place of judgement, an in-between world where the good and evil sort themselves. We are in that world.

“Have you been here before?” asks Marrane.

“The bowling alley?” asks the slightly naive Nikki.

“Is that what you see?” asks the man. This place takes many forms, but he only sees one.

In the pinnacle of the scene, Paul Marrane says that Nikki and Wrench could be redeemed. It was their destiny. They must simply meet the wicked and deliver a message, the one mentioned above. Paul provides them a green VW bug and instructions for how to escape, which they do.

Yuri arrives next, earless. He walks in bloody, sits at the same bar. He orders napkins (long pause) and vodka. Paul Marrane appears next to him, too, but with a much more dire message. He shows him the victims of his Cossack ancestors. His victims. The eyes of suffering look upon him. And, quite literally, we never see Yuri again.

Then, the episode downshifts to worldly concerns. Sy goes to see Emmit, but can’t get past Meemo and Varga. Varga serves him tea and for some reason Sy drinks it. He poisons the tea, of course. Neverthless, Sy takes the risky sip just to see his friend.

And we flash forward. Sy, falling ill from the tea, lies in a hospital bed coma. Three months went by. A guilty Emmit comes to see him. And he just can’t take it anymore.

Emmit begins refusing to sign Varga’s papers, disrupting the exchanges of untold millions of dollars of dirty money. Varga gives Emmit drugs to calm his nerves. Meemo hauls him to bed. But we learn Emmit never took the drugs. He crafts his own ruse. From there Emmit sneaks out and heads directly to the St. Cloud Police Department.

He is here to confess.

The final two episodes of “Fargo” will deal with Emmit, Gloria (who is still employed as a deputy!) and the law closing in on Varga and his organization. Will he escape? Will the wicked meet God’s justice?

Many other reviewers and commenters have suggested out that Gloria’s character — the person who can’t be detected by earthly technology — is a sort of “in-between” spiritual being. She is dead and alive, but doesn’t know it. Some evoke the “Schrödinger’s Cat” theoretical construct, foundation of the idea that there exist multiple realities. Last night’s episode validates this theory, suggesting perhaps that Gloria isn’t the only one living in that state. Perhaps we are all dead and alive, occupying a world built to test us.

Episode Grade: OH YA! Every season of “Fargo” leads to an episode in which the disparate characters and themes collide into a unified story. “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” becomes that episode in Season 3.

In “Fargo,” the “Parking Lot King of Minnesota” Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) takes action as his world collapses around him. (FX)

Notes on the Minnesota details:

Whenever the action and mythology picks up on “Fargo,” the Minnesota details become less prominent in the story. But I did make a few observations.

The first observation arose from the comments section weeks ago (h/t Pat and Gerald) and lingers yet. We see Nikki ride the bus heading to the state prison at Stillwater. I enjoyed the ominous image of Nikki climbing onto that bus as much as anyone else. Further, “Stillwater” spoken in the Minnesota accent bears a certain power, dating back to the original movie. However, in real life, such a scene could never happen. 1) Stillwater is a men’s prison. 2) Women serve their time at a state prison in Shakopee. 3) Male and female prisoners would never be transported together. Finally, 4) prisoners would not be transported in street clothes like we see Nikki and Wrench wearing. Good theater, but fully implausible. COULD BE WORSE

Christina and I engaged in a lively debate about the mud that Wrench and Nikki endured during the chase scene. Would one encounter mud during a Minnesota December? We concluded that yes, there could be mud in December in central Minnesota because it was next to a creek. Rivers and creeks freeze slower than lakes. So, we will allow it. PRETTY GOOD

Would there really be wolf hunters in the woods on Christmas Eve? Well, in 2011, the Minnesota legislature approved wolf hunting — long banned — in cases when the population needed control. That season ran through the end of December. The last approved season was is 2013 and there is talk of bringing it back this year. So wolf hunting on Christmas Eve 2011 would be an unlikely occurrence, but otherwise checks out. OH YA!

I find it dubious, however, that serious bowhunters would leave so many arrows in the target back at the camp. Archers, as a rule, keep good tabs on their arrows. INTERESTING

Could have used a little steam coming out of everyone’s mouth during that chase, too. INTERESTING

Are we alive or dead? Or both? I suppose we’ll find out next week. OR WILL WE?!

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “The Law of Inevitability

Next Episode: “Aporia


  1. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Very good review, and very good episode.

    A few points.

    The mythology and history we have entered into in this episode is Jewish.

    A Golum is part of Jewish legend and myth; as Aaron says, an artificial man made of mud and earth and animated through dark magic, evil and without a soul, and a tool of evil.

    A Marrane is what the French called the Jewish people who were forcibly converted to Christianity during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions — the people who chose to abandon their religion in order to save their own lives.

    In the Old Testament tradition, angels were the messengers of God and Fate, and worked to right the world and repair evil. They were powerful, fearsome, relentless, and deadly, not at all like the children’s guardian angels we all know and love. Being visited by an angel was not necessarily a good thing.

    My guess here is, if the writers did their research, Marrane represents a Jewish person who apostatized during an earlier era, and is now doing exactly what he advises Nikki to do, make amends for her past sins by acting to bring the evil to justice, in his case over centuries.

    We are once again returned to the odd prequel with the Stasi, from episode one. Yuri, as I have suspected for some time, is in fact the Yuri Gurka who committed the murder that the Stasi officer is investigating, and the man that the hapless victim in the prequel was accused of being. Yuri murdered his girlfriend, Helga. She is the same Helga Albracht who is now in the first rank of the victims that Marrane tells Yuri he must answer to. Yuri is also being asked to pay for the sins of his Cossack ancestors, who committed the massacre of Jews that Marrane discusses. Perhaps, given the idea of reincarnation of souls the show is playing with, Yuri is even a reincarnation of one of those brutal ancestors.

    Gloria later tells us that perhaps Sy was poisoned “like that Russian fella,” so presumably Yuri is now either dead or trapped between life and death like Sy.

    Since Nikki has been told she needs to deliver the message to the wicked, we will certainly see her back, perhaps with Wrench and his near superhuman strength at her side, finally bringing down the people who have been persecuting her and others.

    I am not sure of the significance of Gloria signing her divorce papers, at the end of the episode, freeing her husband who has admitted he is gay and is living with his partner, and possibly allowing them to marry, but I am certain it is not trivial. I am wondering if this is a type of symbolic cleansing — ridding her soul of anger and acquiescing to good — before entering battle.

    I am left speculating now as to who will survive the final battle. I assume Gloria will, and like Aaron suspect that her invisibility to technology is a sign that she is one of those who is above the world, like Marrane, functioning as an angel of justice. I now wonder if Nikki will also, since she is going to be the avenging angel too, but perhaps she will die in completing her mission. Emmit seems to be heading in the direction of making amends for his own sins, which have mostly been fairly minor, although with considerable impact, so he may survive too. Oh please, by all that is holy, do not let Sheriff Moe survive!

    Two other technical notes. The bowling alley scene is a direct quote from “The Big Lebowski,” a scene at the bar of a bowling alley where “The Dude” meets the cowboy played by Sam Elliot, another angel-like figure who has Godlike information about the characters and who advises The Dude as to how to make his way.

    As far as the absence of steam from breathing out in the cold, that is a constant problem in films. Most of the scenes in the chase are probably filmed on a sound stage, and there is no good way to have the characters breath condense in what is usually a room kept at about 60 or 65 degrees, and which heats up quickly once the lighting is turned on. The big battle is not having visible sweat pouring off the actors in their parkas. There is frequently a reverse problem of breath condensation too, in scenes that are shot outdoors in what is supposed to be summer, spring, or fall, but are actually being shot in winter. This mostly happens with night city street scenes.

    Anyhow, the show is getting really interesting, and much more mystical than any of the earlier ones, but Hawley is making it work. Interestingly, the Coens did a whole movie about the subject of righteousness and the punishment of the wicked in the context of the Jewish tradition, “A Serious Man,” so this is familiar territory for the Coen machine. As Aaron notes, we are confronting not just the question of who will live and who will die based on the morality of their actions, the common theme of the whole Fargo cycle, but actually are wondering who is really alive, and who they really are, given the idea that the world is inhabited by angels, ghosts, and reincarnated beings.

    Better lay off the Snowshoe while you figure this one out. We’re going to need our wits about us.

  2. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Would it be too cute for Nikki to die in the end, and then have another kitten turn up with Ray?

    I wonder if the deeper dive into mysticism and the concept of a just life and the calling of evil to account is happening because this is going to be the capstone of the entire Fargo cycle. Fargo has always been concerned with good and evil and of the world balancing accounts, and perhaps this is a philosophical discussion of that concept at greater depth. I find myself wishing I knew more about Kabbala, the Jewish mysticism that is very popular in Hollywood just now, and wonder if we are being treated to a dramatic discussion of some of its principles.

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