The first and last ten minutes of this season’s fifth episode of Fargo feature as much violence and action as we’ve seen all season. They’re intense, well-staged, and push this fast-moving story in directions we knew they’d have to go eventually, but weren’t certain they would head just before the midpoint of the year. During the 30 minutes in between these two outbursts of violence, one of the series regulars does his best work to date, and Bokeem Woodbine practically steals the episode with one scene. But there’s also some overwritten development with dialogue that sounds a bit too aware it’s in a hit FX show. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still more entertaining than nearly any other way you could spend a Monday night, but the bar set by the first four episodes of the season dropped a bit this week, however slightly.
As we expected, “The Gift of the Magi” features the escalating war between the Gerharts and the Kansas City mafia, as well as the noose tightening around the necks of Peggy and Ed Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons). While the case of his life is turning into a “shit sandwich,” Lou (Patrick Wilson) is stuck on a detail protecting presidential candidate Governor Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell, brilliantly cast in that he’s not exactly doing an impression but still captures something essential about Dutch). As the episode opens, Reagan is giving one of the his virtually trademark congenial speeches, blending religious scripture and patriotic rallying cries in a way that appeals greatly to men like Karl (Nick Offerman) who believe the nation has gone to Hell since that peanut farmer took office. As Reagan talks about the country’s “rendezvous with destiny,” a wonderful campaign phrase that he repeats three times in the episode, several of Fargo’s characters seem about to do just that.
While Karl is getting his dose of political inspiration (although never forgetting that Reagan once made a movie with a monkey), Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett) is going on the most heavily armed deer hunt in history with a local commissioner. After a brief exchange with Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), the posse of heavily armed men heads into the woods, only to be ambushed by the Gerharts. What follows is one of the most violent sequences in the history of Fargo, climaxing as Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon) emerges from the trees and slices the neck of a Kitchen brother, interestingly leaving the other one alive. (One has to assume that was purposeful. Hanzee doesn’t leave witnesses by accident.) Bulo stumbles through the snow, as people so often do in Fargo, emerging from the woods to be greeted by Hanzee. Off-camera, the man who seemed to be in charge and claimed he would wipe every Gerhart off the face of the Earth, has his head cut off and sent to Mike. His hair is still soft though.
What happened? Why did it escalate so quickly? A little bit of political gamesmanship sent the Gerharts to war. We learn that when Hanzee told Floyd (Jean Smart) that Rye (Kieran Culkin) was dead, Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) saw an opportunity, encouraging Hanzee to go with his story that the “the Butcher of Luverne” was a “contract man out of Kansas City.” It turns out that the death of Rye Gerhart, and the cover-up by the Blomquists, basically started a war. It’s interesting, too, that Hanzee’s bending of the truth isn’t that far off from what Joe and Mike wanted to do. They were looking for Rye and hoping to use him as a bargaining chip. A hairdresser and a butcher got in the way. And Dodd couldn’t be happier. Look at his body language when he hears his brother is dead as opposed to his crying sibling Bear (Angus Sampson). And watch him when he comes back from the massacre in the woods, like a kid returning from a high-school football game. “It was always gonna be war.”
Meanwhile, Ed is having trouble sleeping. Peggy thinks that, after Lou’s visit in the last episode, running to California is the only answer. In an overscripted scene in the basement, Peggy tells Ed that Constance (Elizabeth Marvel) saw the car before they faked the accident. Peggy is actually surprisingly focused in this scene, almost against character. The law is coming. It’s time to go. She’s become the realist, no longer playing with her hair and saying everything is going to be fine. Ed is the one who fights back, determined to stay. “Whatever comes, we’ll deal with it or it’ll deal with us.” Lines like that are a bit overdone, but the scene is really set up for what’s to come. It’s a reminder that Ed is still deeply in denial.
Before the action moves to Bud’s Meats for the bulk of the episode, we have two key encounters with Gerhart children. Charlie (Allan Dobrescu) convinces Uncle Dodd that it “should be one of us” that pulls the trigger on Ed. The first time I saw it, I didn’t quite believe that Dodd would send Charlie on such an important mission, but I realized on second viewing that Dodd is riding an adrenaline high from the “win” over Bulo and his guys, and that he assumes Virgil (Greg Byrk) will do the dirty work anyway. Meanwhile, Simone (Rachel Keller) goes to visit Mike — in a hotel now completely in disrepair, reflecting a changing of the guard in terms of the power structure — and learns that they are definitely not “Romeo and Juliet,” although Shakespeare would have liked the head-in-a-box message. In a wonderfully menacing bit of acting, Mike tells Simone that she has to be a serious person now (mirrored a bit in a scene with Dodd at the end). “I want to know what they’re gonna do before they do it … every time.”
At Bud’s Meats, Ed has a very Fargo-esque conversation with the fantastically named Noreen Vanderslice (Emily Haine), who has taken the Camus she’s reading very seriously (and don’t forget that episode three was named after Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus). We’re all gonna die. Life is just a joke. Ed’s face after Noreen basically tells him he should kill himself is priceless, even if having this conversation just as Charlie and Virgil pull up outside feels a bit on-the-nose. The reluctant hit man enters the butcher shop and gets distracted by a conversation with Noreen about the similarities between Rocky and Jesus Christ. Charlie buys meat and leaves.
While Ed’s likely killer is steeling himself for murder, Peggy is leaving town. She packs her bags and even tells Sonny that she’s headed to California. She hesitates. Can she really leave Ed? Reflecting the subject matter of the titular O. Henry story in which a down-on-its-luck couple buys gifts for each other on Christmas, Peggy makes a sacrifice, selling the car for half of what it’s worth. Everyone will be happy now, even if Peggy’s face is interestingly flat on the bus ride back into town, still uncertain she’s made the right decision.
Before the showdown, we get two scenes with the Solversons. First, Lou has a brief conversation with Governor Reagan in the men’s room, during which the future president tries to relate to the troubled veteran through a movie he made with Bob Stack called Operation Eagle’s Nest (the same movie that Molly was watching on TV two episodes ago, which doesn’t really exist). “Anyway, it was a fine picture.” Wilson sells the sadness of the line “I wonder if maybe the sickness of this world isn’t inside my wife somehow,” even if it’s another one this week that seems a bit too self-aware. Campbell’s sly smile and tilted head as all the answer for Lou when the officer asks for help is a great moment. At the same time, it’s good news that Betsy (Cristin Milioti) feels nauseated — Smarties don’t make you pukey — and Ted Danson has one of his best moments as he conveys his lack of ability to really comfort his daughter but finds a way to express emotion nonetheless. “I can fix the toaster” is how some men say "I love you."
Charlie calls home and expresses how he wants to go back to school, sounding a lot like a redshirt talking about what he’ll do when he gets back to the Enterprise. He locks the door and we know it’s going down. Ed is cutting up a pig in the back when Charlie pops in with a gun pointed at him. Noreen comes out of the bathroom, screams, and Charlie shoots, missing and starting a fire. He can’t reload. The fire picks up. Virgil breaks in to handle it, shooting at Ed but hitting Charlie with the ricochet. A fistfight ensures, Noreen is thrown to the ground, and Ed is almost strangled before knocking Virgil back and dropping a machete on his head. Ed stares at the fire, finally realizing that Lou was right. He doesn’t have that look of someone who doesn’t know anymore. It’s fear and panic time. He knows he’s FUBARed. They drag Charlie out and Ed runs home to get Peggy, but she sold the car. And the cops are coming. “Lou was right.”
Apart from all that:
- Music choices this week were not just tonally fantastic but callbacks. When Peggy is packing up and leaving, we hear “Let’s Find Each Tonight,” made famous by José Feliciano, which is, of course, literally in Fargo. “José Feliciano, you got no complaints.” Also, the episode ends with “Children of the Sun” by Billy Thorpe, which was playing in episode one when Rye was driving to the Waffle Hut. What happened that night is coming back for Ed and Peggy, and, of course, lyrics like “People of the Earth, can you hear me?” and “Flies the crystal ships on their celestial flight” call back to the season’s alien theme. You also can’t really go wrong with “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” by the Dramatics (when Simone is going to meet Mike) and “Shambala” by Three Dog Night (as Peggy returns, hoping her troubles have been washed away).
- “The Gift of the Magi” might be Jeffrey Donovan’s best work to date. Look at the way he plays the different family dynamics, from his wartime excitement with his mother to the way he talks down to Charlie and Simone to the scene on the porch with Bear. Dodd thinks he’s in charge, and Donovan perfectly captures what that kind of adrenaline does to an asshole.
- Truly great shows cast even their smallest roles perfectly, and two of the best performances this week came from Emily Haine as Noreen and Greg Bryk as Virgil. I hope we see more of the former, and I’m pretty sure we will.
- I fear for the Gerhart children. I don’t think Charlie is dead yet, but both he and Simone are in dangerous positions. Did the cops get Charlie after the fire? What will he say? And how long can Simone stay alive? This week proved with the deaths of a Kitchen brother and Joe Bulo that anyone is expendable. And now that Dodd has lost one of his best men in Virgil? The body count is sure to rise.
- For some reason, Reagan talking about Bob Stack reminded me of this and made me feel old. Enjoy.