All posts by Arzhang Zafar

Tea & Review: Fargo – Aporia

Season Three of Fargo has been the Cold War to the second installment’s World War, and the penultimate episode follows suit by building a climax out of an anticlimax. This year, eight episodes worth of buildup doesn’t amount to a massacre or a standoff or even a real shootout. Instead, what we get are small victories nestled in larger disappointments, and more importantly, characters coming to terms with who they are.

“Aporia” begins with yet another murder, though this one has even less to do with the main action than the unnecessary execution of Ennis Stussy that put to whole plot in motion. The victim, perhaps unsurprisingly, is another Stussy, killed by Meemo (Andy Yu) to make Emmit’s (Ewan McGregor) confession to Gloria (Carrie Coon) appear less plausible. Of course, given Chief Dammick’s (Shea Wigham) unwillingness to believe anything that isn’t completely straightforward (and the fact that Varga’s (David Thewlis) henchmen don’t just leave it at one dead name-alike), it works.

But that doesn’t mean the confession was useless.

Although Emmit is ultimately allowed to go free (for a laughable measure of “free” anyway), his admission of guilt allows the audience to hear all that he’s been bottling up about his brother through their troubles, in addition to providing him with some much needed emotional catharsis that will keep his conscience steady in the finale and hopefully fuel his ability to bring the hammer down on Varga.

Continue reading Tea & Review: Fargo – Aporia

Tea & Review: Fargo – Who Rules the Land of Denial?

Fargo is a show that has always been unafraid to throw supernatural elements into narratives in which they would not normally be expected to fit. Though such elements were rather minimal and more subtle in the first season, the second introduced aliens and psychic dreams, and now the third, which has thus far held back on the otherworldly, appears to be going all out.

I’ll be honest and say I’m not entirely sure what the magical realist aspects of the prior seasons really added to the story, whether thematically, tonally, or in terms of narrative, apart from perhaps intentionally stretching the credulity of the idea that the stories being told are true. I mainly enjoyed those scenes because of how off-the-wall and unexpected they were; they were entertaining if nothing else.

But as of “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” I can safely say that Season Three is using the same conceit in a brand new way.

The episode opens with Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) escaping the clutches of Yuri (Goran Bogdan), Meemo (Andy Yu), and an unnamed third Varga henchman played by DJ Qualls. They flee into the woods with the killers in pursuit, and in the second best part of the episode, engage in a battle of wits-come-stamina in which Qualls is decapitated and Yuri loses an ear to Wrench (get it?).

They then stumble upon a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere, which may or may not be some sort of gateway to the afterlife.

There are several facets to the following sequence that I think are worth discussing…

While at the bar, Nikki meets a character played by Ray Wise, who if you’ll recall was the traveling businessman Gloria met on her way to Los Angeles some episodes prior. This man is credited as Paul Marrane, which research (i.e. reading online forums) tells me is one of the names attributed to the “Wandering Jew” of legend. Paul explains to Nikki that she is a lost soul and asks her to deliver a message to the wicked.

But that’s not all. He also makes reference to the massacre of the Jews of Uman at the hands of the Cossacks, as well as the revered Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who was buried among them. These seem to underline the recurrent motif of Jewish history and folklore that has danced around the edges of the season, relating both to the few Jewish characters we’ve been introduced to, as well as antisemites like Varga (David Thewlis) and Yuri.

Speaking of Yuri… After Nikki and Wrench leave the bowling alley in a green VW, everyone’s favorite modern day Cossack enters covered in blood. He too is greeted by Paul, who seems to recognize him and introduces him to the aforementioned Jews of Uman, as well as Helga, the girlfriend he murdered back in 1988. We do not see Yuri again after this.

So…what do I make of all this? Do I believe Fargo is suggesting its world is governed by laws similar to those outlined in the Old Testament, and that the truly wicked among its characters are all subject to Biblical levels of divine retribution? It would certainly be an oddly specific thing to bring up if I didn’t believe it…

Continue reading Tea & Review: Fargo – Who Rules the Land of Denial?

Tea & Review: The Leftovers – The Book of Nora

The Leftovers has come to an end. Three years of experiencing the maddening doubt of inexplicable loss through the eyes of an eclectic ensemble of characters and it turns out we were watching a love story the entire time.

“The Book of Nora” is as elegantly simple and simply beautiful a series finale as one could ask for. It provides potential answers while refusing to confirm anything; it gives us one final, meaningful look at characters we’ve grown to love; and it is as emotionally charged as anything on television has ever been.

This final hour (and a bit) devotes its first third or so to picking up where Nora (Carrie Coon) and Matt’s (Christopher Eccleston) adventures left off and seeing Nora through to her final destination, so to speak. She and her brother say their goodbyes, she records her last will and testament, she makes the final decision to enter to magical radiation departure machine, and she takes the plunge.

Continue reading Tea & Review: The Leftovers – The Book of Nora

Tea & Review: Fargo – The Law of Inevitability

The writers of Fargo have, over the course of nearly three full seasons, done an excellent job of crafting individual episodes which tell their own little stories while at the same time contributing to a larger narrative. This is a difficult thing to achieve in any serialized medium, but it is especially hard when you have a limited number of hours with which to work. Fargo doesn’t have the privilege of being able to stall or go on tangents, and yet it still manages to create little thematic pitstops on the way to each tenth episode.

In Season Three, it has been especially easy to pinpoint what each particular episode was about, or rather what each one did that set it apart from the rest. We had Gloria’s (Carrie Coon) solo trip to L.A., the Peter and the Wolf analogue, and an episode that delved heavily into Russian and Eastern European concepts. Other installments, meanwhile, have prioritized individual characters and relationships.

Tonight’s episode—“The Law of Inevitability”—is thus far the hardest to pin down. One could argue that it’s an episode that needs to pick up the pieces left after Ray’s murder last week, and so doesn’t have time to be about anything. And while I think that’s true to an extent, I also believe that same practicality affords it a theme that is in and of itself inevitable: transition.

Continue reading Tea & Review: Fargo – The Law of Inevitability

Tea & Review: The Leftovers – The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)

When The Leftovers premiered back in 2014, it was unclear if it was going to be a work of purely speculative fiction in which a mundane world experiences a single inexplicable event, or a magical realist series more on par with Damon Lindelof’s earlier creation, Lost. And though there were some surreal elements sprinkled throughout the first two seasons hinting at the latter, it wasn’t until “International Assassin” that it became clear the writers were intent on heading in a supremely supernatural direction.

Since that episode, the otherworldly elements have only grown in prominence, building a mythology that adds myriad layers to an already-thematically-rich world.

So it only makes sense that in “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)”—which serves as both a sequel to that aforementioned episode as well as the penultimate installment of the series as a whole—we would return to the dreamlike afterlife that first marked the show’s swerve into the mystic.

Continue reading Tea & Review: The Leftovers – The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)

Tea & Review: Fargo – The Lord of No Mercy

Fargo the series has gotten very good at being unpredictable in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Noah Hawley doesn’t throw in random plot contrivances mid-season to stir things up; he subtly builds to seemingly unlikely events that in retrospect turn out to be the natural result of what came before. As such, while the climaxes of Fargo installments do not necessarily abide by traditional narrative logic, they do make complete sense in context.

“The Lord of No Mercy” does a magnificent job of building tension, effective even after it becomes clear that it’s mostly misdirection. Most of the episode follows a cat and cat and mouse game between Gloria (Carrie Coon) and Winnie (Olivia Sandoval), Varga (David Thewlis) and his henchmen, and Ray (Ewan McGregor) and Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), in the immediate aftermath of Nikki’s beating. From the beginning we know that Ray is out for blood, and not long after that we learn that Meemo (Andy Yu) is on his tail with similar intentions. We know someone has to die before the hour is up.

But the who, how, and why of it are something to behold.

Continue reading Tea & Review: Fargo – The Lord of No Mercy

Tea & Review: The Leftovers – Certified

The Leftovers has always, at least in part, been about the ways in which people deal with unpredictable seismic shifts in their lives. Of course, at its core the show is speculative, exploring what would happen if an undeniably supernatural event robbed the world of two percent of its population. But whether intentional or not, this potentially banal logline allowed the writers to build a sort of thesis statement about human responses to the often tragic forces that rock worlds and destroy psyches.

Across three seasons we have watched individuals try to cope with the Sudden Departure in ways both straightforward and indirect, with the potential results of their methods only having been hinted at, and pretty ambiguously at that.

Now, through the character of Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman), we’ve finally witnessed something close to a narrative culmination; not an answer per se, but a suggestion at what the totality of a person’s life could look like after a massive, otherworldly tragedy.

“Certified” follows Laurie in the days following her arrival in Australia, as she does what she does best and provides counseling to Nora (Carrie Coon), John (Kevin Carroll), and Kevins Sr. and Jr. (Scott Glenn and Justin Theroux). The episode’s structure is nonlinear, following parallel timelines in which Laurie spends time with Matt (Christopher Eccleston) and Nora in Melbourne, then the others at the country ranch that has become their base of operations. Cutting back and forth between these events almost gives the impression that she’s in two places at once.

Continue reading Tea & Review: The Leftovers – Certified

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.

Continue reading Tea & Review: Fargo – The House of Special Purpose

Tea & Review: The Leftovers – It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World

Included in every season of The Leftovers, nestled within the grand, cosmically surreal narrative of the series proper, are more intimate stories dealing with the minutiae of the central characters’ lives. The most consistent and consistently entertaining of these have been focused on everyone’s favorite religious zealot, Matt Jameson (Christopher Eccleston), with each installment adding more depth to the preacher while testing bringing his faith to the brink of oblivion.

Season One’s “Two Boats and a Helicopter” was structured almost as a dark joke, placing Matt in the midst of a series of misfortunes as he battled the Guilty Remnant and tried to raise funds for his Church, ultimately losing almost everything. But still, his faith remained strong.

Season Two’s “No Room at the Inn” was more harrowing than wry, turning Matt into a sort of martyr figure taking on the burdens of the outcasts living outside Jarden, Texas. And though all signs pointed to him having become dangerously delusional, he was vindicated by the end of the season, his faith never wavering.

And now, with “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” his personal arc has finally reached its climax.

Continue reading Tea & Review: The Leftovers – It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World

Tea & Review: Fargo – The Narrow Escape Problem

Whereas last week’s trip to Los Angeles was something of an experimental detour, “The Narrow Escape Problem” may be the most Fargo episode of Fargo thus far. All the ingredients are there: overly complex problem solving, tactless Midwesterners, oddly friendly police officers interrogating flustered first-time criminals. We even get a quirky framing device.

Speaking of which—the use of a fictional recording of Peter and the Wolf narrated by Billy Bob Thornton as a sort of thematic exoskeleton is definitely the most intriguing element of the episode, by far. It plays with the idea that the characters in Fargo are recurring archetypes, while suggesting a new perspective through which to view the somewhat familiar story being presented.

But as usual with this show, I have to ask: what does it all mean?

That is to say, the narration pairs up several of the major characters with Peter and the Wolf counterparts (as well as the respective instruments that represent them in the composition), but what exactly does that say about each of them?

Gloria (Carrie Coon), for example, is Peter, the central intrepid adventurer who ignores his grandfather’s warnings and defeats the villainous wolf. The analogue here is, of course, rather obvious. Thus far in the season, Gloria has repeatedly ignored the will of her superiors in order to bring down the people responsible for her stepfather’s murder. The thing is, though, she doesn’t actually know who she’s up against. Is she, like Peter, underestimating her opponent?

Continue reading Tea & Review: Fargo – The Narrow Escape Problem