Tea & Review: Fargo – The House of Special Purpose

If last week’s Fargo was a symphony and the week before’s an interlude, this week’s can only be classified as a funeral march—although no one actually died. The solemnity was more in form than function, expressed through muted colors, elegiac music selections, and slightly more methodical editing. That is, until the final scene.

As was established in past installments, Season Three’s halfway mark is essentially the point of no return, the moment wherein the true stakes are established and the more farcical capers give way for darker plots. Think of the brutal killing of the hapless personal trainer in Season One, or the ambush of the Kansas City mobsters in Season Two. Both reversals were prime examples of the show’s ability to transitional naturally between tones per the story’s demands.

But this time around, the shift feels a whole lot starker.

Thus far this season, the crimes have been relatively minor and the story fairly comedic. If we’re looking for a Coen Brothers frame of reference, the cases of mistaken identity and “loser vs. rich guy” elements certainly scream The Big Lebowski, while Ray (Ewan McGregor) and Nikki’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) relationship somewhat mirrors the central one in Raising Arizona.

However, now that Emmit (McGregor) and Ray’s relationship is irreparable and Nikki’s been brutalized by Varga’s (David Thewlis) henchmen, the gloves are off. This is as serious as Fargo gets.

Interestingly, it may not even be because of the poor souls in the midst of the madness that things feel so dire. It may actually be because of the villains.

The antagonists in each installment of Fargo have been dark figures, for sure. But there has always been something sort of likable, or at least laughable, about them. Malvo, for example, while a monster, always seemed to be having fun, coming off more as a trickster figure than a real man you could fear. Hanzee and Mike Milligan, meanwhile, were very human characters who elicited a great deal of sympathy while committing horrific acts of violence.

Varga and his crew, on the other hand, feel real. V.M. comes off as a pretty convincing portrait of a modern ultra-capitalist, the sort of man who would hire thugs to do his dirty work and keep tabs on everyone he interacted with, and most definitely the type to espouse racist, elitist ideology while rubbing his penis on the inside of another man’s coffee mug to intimidate him.

And it’s that realness that makes it all the more horrifying when Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) realizes Yuri (Goran Bogdan) and Meemo (Andy Yu) have followed him to his meetup with Nikki. He doesn’t know if they’re there to kill him or her or both of them, and neither do we. A more archetypal bad guy might be more about psychological intimidation or playing games. A more sympathetic heel could be negotiated with. But these foes only have practical concerns: money, secrecy, and compliance.

When we witness the machinations of these men, we feel both revulsion and fear. We don’t necessarily feel the accompanying sense of mirth or adrenaline that we did in years past, when the corresponding characters were more overtly entertaining. We only feel dread.

And that dread feeds into our collective sense of melancholy heading into the back half of the season. We have no idea what has truly become of Nikki, but we can assume that she and Ray will want revenge and will end up in more danger. We know Gloria’s (Carrie Coon) been told not to investigate the Stussys by the new chief, but we can guess she isn’t going to give up and will eventually come face to face with the wolf himself. And we’ve seen that Varga and his people are always two steps ahead of everyone around them, meaning they’ll be hard to take down by whomever comes at them first.

In short, things aren’t looking good for the characters we care about.

But I guess that’s just Fargo.

Additional Notes:

  • The titular house historically refers to the building in which the Romanov family was executed on the eve of the Russian Revolution, sort of eluded to in Yuri’s monologue about Siberia. Its relevance to the story is nebulous at best, as with all Fargo episode titles.
  • The degradation of Sy Feltz continues to be the most fun part of the season, in no small part thanks to Stuhbarg’s performance.
  • Emmit’s wife not realizing it was Ray in the tape comes off as a little too convenient, but since it moved the plot in interesting directions I’d say it’s a passable narrative choice.
  • I can’t decide if the police chief’s tendency to go off on rants about seemingly random things, particularly regarding his military service, is supposed to be a take on Walter from The Big Lebowski. Considering we already had a pretty strong Walter analogue last season with Nick Offerman’s character, it seems unlikely.

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