There have been rumblings that this season of Fargo has not lived up to its “prestige show” status, falling flatter than expected in the ratings and in terms of social-media buzz. The fourth episode of a program like this can often be a deal-breaker. It feels like most people who gave up on hate-watching True Detective this year jumped ship right around now. And so fans of the show should be happy that this week’s Fargo was arguably the season’s best. If this is the time to hook viewers, director Michael Uppendahl and the writers behind Fargo certainly did their best to do just that with the incredible “Fear and Trembling.” Each detail feels essential; each scene hums with energy and tension; each line resonates. It’s this simple: If you don’t like this episode, you just don’t like the show at all.
“Fear and Trembling” (named after the Kierkegaard work in keeping with this year’s literary episode titles, while also pretty accurately representing the state of several Fargo characters) opens with a flashback — a definitive moment in the life of Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan). At a screening of Moonbase Freedom starring Ronald Reagan (not a real movie but I guess 1949’s The Hasty Heart wouldn’t have been as cool on the marquee or fit with this year’s sci-fi theme … and it adds to the “true but not true” nature of the Fargo-verse), Otto Gerhardt (Michael Hogan) is holding a tense meeting about his family’s territory. As dad is about to be shot in the head, young Dodd acts quickly, stabbing his father’s enemy in the back. This is Dodd’s most essential memory, especially for his current state: His dad frozen and unable to act, Dodd having to get violent to remove the threat. It says everything about why he wants to go to war 29 years later.
Much like Dodd was inured to a world of violence, he is doing the same to his nephew Charlie (Allan Dobrescu), bringing him along on a “job.” On their way to attaining a chocolate glazed and old-fashioned donut, Dodd beats up a few foot soldiers of the Kansas City mafia, even letting Charlie get his hands a little dirty. In a great use of split-screen (again), Uppendahl reminds us of the key players in the brewing war over Northern Territory as we see Floyd (Jean Smart) and Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), followed by Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon), Mike (Bokeem Woodbine), and the silent Kitchen Brothers (Todd and Brad Mann).
While tensions rise in Fargo, Lou (Patrick Wilson) and Betsy (Cristin Milioti) face their own war in her fight against cancer — “It’s not a war on you, it’s a war on your body.” Betsy’s doctor has some abysmal bedside manners, explaining to them that they’ll get a drug that could prolong her life or a placebo that won’t, “like a Smartie.” What does it say about the world of Fargo that I’m pretty certain Betsy is getting the placebo? This is a show in which perceived safety so often results in disaster. Every time someone thinks they’re through the worst of it, they are definitely not.
Which brings us to Ed and Peggy Blomquist (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst). At the beginning of “Fear and Trembling,” Ed is allowed that briefest moment of comfort. He’s trying to make a baby with Peggy, and he seems happy. Time to put this violence behind them, buy the shop, and go on with life “like three pigs in a blanket.” Poor Ed. He doesn’t even know that Peggy is still taking her birth control and really hasn’t considered the depth of her manipulation overall. Think about it. He actually killed Rye in the garage, he disposed of the body, and he crashed the car. He even cleaned up the blood in the garage and burned the evidence. He’s the one in legal and physical danger. And much of “Fear and Trembling” is about the noose tightening around hapless Ed as two very different men close in on their target.
First, Hanzee, in perfect Fargo fashion, literally stumbles upon part of the Blomquist vehicle in the road outside of the Waffle Hut and then the car itself in the shop, fitting the headlight piece in like Prince Charming with Cinderella’s slipper. Hank and Lou are extremely likable, but actual police work doesn’t seem to be a priority in Luverne given Hanzee takes about five minutes to solve the case. As he’s investigating the Blomquist car, mechanic Sonny (“Mad Dog” in ’Nam) confronts him, allowing Hanzee an amazing speech about how he sometimes misses Vietnam and can’t get over the “frozen winter” of the northern United States. He also reveals how he was the one sent into the tunnels, cutting off ears along the way. We should fear Hanzee. In many ways, he’s the Anton Chigurh coming for Ed’s Llewelyn Moss. He even bears a resemblance to the iconic character of No Country for Old Men in shadow as he enters the Blomquist home to put all the pieces together.
Lou inadvertently saves the lives of Peggy and Ed by showing up at their house shortly after Hanzee’s breaking and entering. After being called to the garage and seeing the car, Lou has pieced it all together himself, knowing full well that Peggy and Ed didn’t hit a tree. In one of the best scenes of the year, Lou lays it out for his wounded soldiers, explaining to Ed that he’s already dead. “There’s a look a boy gets when he’s been shot.” Ed has been shot, he just doesn’t feel it yet. The sigh Wilson gives when Ed tries to lie again about hitting a tree is priceless. Lou knows that this isn’t about finding a criminal — it’s a lifesaving mission. Either Ed and Peggy confess and Lou protects them, or they don’t and something scarier than the law knocks down their door. Ed seriously thinks about it, and looks like he’s about to confess when Peggy steps in, kicking their lifesaver out the door. Was that their last chance?
Meanwhile in Fargo, after a very Barton Fink–esque shot down a long hotel hallway, it’s revealed that Mike is sleeping with Dodd’s daughter Simone (Rachel Keller). She’s not only “surprising” Mike sexually, she’s ready to sell out her dad, even if that means his death. Milligan is basically getting information here (although the dialogue about the ’70s being a hangover for the ’60s is some of the episode’s best), finding out that Hanzee was sent to locate Rye, and that Otto is being taken to a doctor to “see if they can stop the drooling.”
Cut to a sit-down at the Pearl Hotel between Joe Bulo and Floyd Gerhardt. In another scene that ranks among the best in the series, Floyd lays out her counteroffer. It’s reasonable, but there’s a problem, and his name is Dodd. Floyd’s son beats up Bulo’s men at the donut shop, in peacetime, during a period of deliberation. If one of Joe’s men had stepped out of line like that, he’d be violently punished. And Joe doesn’t trust that Dodd will behave if Floyd’s joint territory proposal is accepted. Dodd is threatening peace. Would Joe and his superiors have accepted the counteroffer without Dodd’s donut debacle? I doubt it, but it’s a nice excuse. To show how little they think of the Gerhardts, Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers enact a display of force, killing Otto’s three handlers outside of the Evan Spence Medical Center, leaving the family leader covered in blood with his hat in his lap. “Anything other than unconditional surrender and we’ll wipe every last Gerhardt off the face of the Earth.”
As if the overwhelming amount of narrative in “Fear and Trembling” weren’t impressive enough, Uppendahl also finds time for beautifully directed smaller moments. Look at the scene in the back of the car between Floyd and Dodd as he keeps trying to put his mother’s hand on his face, needing not just affection but a degree of forgiveness. And then watch how that’s followed with her needing physical strength from Otto as she lays next to her husband in bed, steeling herself for what’s to come. “It’s war.”
Apart from all that:
- The music choices this week were phenomenal, from “Topsy” by Count Basie to open the episode in 1950 to “Too Much Paranoias” by Devo as Dodd marches into the donut shop to a perfectly stage-setting use of Brahms before the Gerhardt-Bulo sitdown to the Chieftains and Bon Iver (“Down in the Willow Garden”) ending the episode on a melancholy note.
- I love the totally random running times that FX allows. This episode ran 54 minutes, which is more like an HBO or Showtime series than ad-supported television. Every scene felt so essential to the episode’s overall success, I can’t imagine cutting ten minutes to fit this one into a standard cable hour.
- Take a minute to appreciate the production design, particularly in Peggy and Ed’s bathroom (that wallpaper!) and the insane amount of detail at the salon in which Peggy works. Everything is in its place for a very specific reason.
- Great that Jean Smart got her Emmy clip so early in the season: “The point is don’t assume just because I’m an old woman my back is weak and my stomach is not strong.”
- I’m fascinated by Peggy’s nervous tics, especially the way she’s constantly playing with her hair. When Lou comes into the house, her shaky arm movements practically scream guilt. Will she sell out Ed in the end, knowing his hands are dirtier than hers?
- Alien Watch: Hanzee loses some time after finding the headlight piece outside the Waffle Hut and seeing some lights in the sky. And he still does better police work than Hank.
- Three very different shots of posteriors this week from Ed, Simone, and even Otto on the doctor’s table. It may be pure coincidence, or it may hint at three of the more vulnerable characters. Trust us to stay on Fargo Buttwatch 2015.