Television is a writer's medium. The production details on Fargo are terrific, and the show boasts one of the year's best ensembles, but in this incredible season finale, it all comes down to the writing.
Noah Hawley's script for"Palindrome" is a beauty, filled with heartbreaking moments, tense action, quotable dialogue, and plenty of callbacks to the Coens' filmography. It's a near-perfect piece of television, anchored by characters we've come to know and love. Will we ever see Peggy, Mike, or Hanzee again? Could they appear in a flashback? Never say never in the world of Fargo.
As the episode's opening montage passes across each dead Gerhardt, from Rye through Bear, it reminds us of the human cost of this season's narrative. The montage ends on Betsy (Cristin Milioti), and when Patrick Wilson finishes the traditional Fargo open, I feared the worst. The way he says "out of respect for the dead" is loaded with such sadness. I gasped when Betsy opened her eyes, and then the episode gives us the first of its many beautiful little moments: a mother, who knows she's probably not long for this world, rubbing her sleeping daughter's hair.
"That night I had a dream." Hawley calls back to one of my favorite Coen films with a dream sequence that's lifted tonally from the close of Raising Arizona. Betsy has a vision of a "magical future" with "happiness," but it's threatened by chaos and violence. Hawley and director Adam Arkin cut from that potential future to the tumultuous present, thrusting the audience back to the Motor Motel in Sioux Falls. An injured Ed (Jesse Plemons) is on the run with Peggy (Kirsten Dunst), while Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon) and Lou (Wilson) are in hot pursuit. Hanzee shoots an innocent bystander, then everyone heads off into the night.
Meanwhile, Mike (Bokeem Woodbine) and the remaining Kitchen brother get back to the Gerhardt compound. (This is a bit frustrating in terms of time line, since they just left Sioux Falls and the other four major characters are still on foot.) Mike claims the Gerhardt territory like a king who has vanquished his enemies. The new monarch decides he must perform an "act of kindness" and an "act of cruelty" to usher in his new reign. The "kindness" means that the Gerhardt housekeeper receives some of her former employer's fortune; the "cruelty" means that Ricky G (Ryan O'Nan) gets a shotgun blast in the chest. (There's also a nice No Country for Old Men reference in this scene, when Mike calls Ricky "friendo.")
Back in Sioux Falls, Ed and Peggy stumble into a grocery store. Peggy kicks out the employee with a warning that there's a "bad man coming." She delivers that command with such force, I can't fault anyone for listening to her. As Lou catches up with Hanzee, Ben (Keir O'Donnell) joins the chase. Ed and Peggy make it to the meat locker, barring it shut from the inside. In the stunning scene that follows, Ed tells his wife that they're not going to make it together, even if they both survive. Ed needs to say a few things if he's going to die; the different ways he and Peggy see their situation illustrate the distance between them. She's still energized, talking about how this makes their bond stronger. He's tired of having a partner who always wants something new.
Hanzee makes it to the store. We hear banging on the door, then smoke begins to fill the room. It's just like Operation Eagles Nest, the fictional movie-within-the-show that's cropped up several times this season: Molly was watching it, Reagan referenced it, and Peggy saw it in Uncle Grady's cabin. Peggy is convinced that it's a sign — they'll escape because the couple escaped in the movie. When Ed passes out, we realize that she's very wrong. Life doesn't work out like it does in the movies.
Peggy has to open the meat locker if she wants to live. Is Hanzee waiting? No. Hanzee was never there, and neither was the smoke. She hallucinated the whole thing — and Ed is dead. (Farewell, Jesse Plemons.) As Carter Burwell's iconic composition from the Coen movie plays on the soundtrack, Peggy gets in the backseat of Ed's car. It's already morning time and there's a manhunt underway for Hanzee, while Hank survived his shooting injury from the previous night.
In one of the year's most effective scenes, Hawley ties up the Camus references that he's peppered throughout the season. After Betsy asks what cancer feels like, Noreen (Emily Haine) conveys what she's learned from Camus: "Knowing we're going to die makes life absurd." It's nonsense. As Betsy says, "We're put on this Earth to do a job. And each of us gets the time we get to do it. When this life is over and we stand in front of the Lord, you try telling him it was all some Frenchman's joke."
Peggy gets her closure in the back of Lou's car. After she naively talks about wanting to be imprisoned in California so she can see the bay, Lou tells her about his time in Vietnam. It's yet another story within the fictional world of Fargo that's based on true events. (The excellent documentary Last Days in Vietnam covers everything that Lou mentions.) After Saigon fell, he helped get people out of the country as quickly as possible. They loaded up the U.S.S. Kirk with so many evacuees, they pushed a helicopter into the water to make more room. The Chinook copters couldn't land, so they hovered instead, throwing people onto the deck below. They even tossed a child.
Why did Noah Hawley choose to tell this story here? Because the entire season has been about what we do for our families. Familial loyalty destroyed the Gerhardts. A desire to start a family led Ed to make very bad decisions. Even Hank and Lou behave differently because of the families that support them. As Lou says, "It's the rock we push, men. We call it our burden, but it's really our privilege."
In Hanzee's final scene, he's given a new life. A mysterious man brings him a social-security card while he watches kids play on a baseball field. Hanzee's new name is Moses Tripoli. He notes that he'll also need a new face, and says he'll be a new man, "like a phoenix rising from the ashes." He's earned a lot more than a haircut from all of this chaos. It's interesting that Hawley and company didn't feel the need to dispense typical "TV justice" to Hanzee. The last time we see him, he's about to confront some bullies on the baseball field. He can't stop himself from trying to right wrongs in his world with violence.
In Mike's final scene, he meets with Hamish (Adam Arkin, who directed the episode) and ends up stuck in an office, working a nine-to-five job. The great warrior has become a silent desk jockey, which reminds me of another great series finale. (If you've seen it, you'll understand. If you want to remain unspoiled, don't click on that link.) Mike is told to change his outfit and cut his hair. In the modern world, the conquering hero is forced to become someone who refines mail-room procedures and learns how to golf.
The episode concludes, as it should, with the Solversons. Hank (Ted Danson) is healthy again and over for dinner, just like he promised. His monologue resonates in terrific ways: "We're sitting here together. That's what matters. Man once said, 'You'll know the angels when they come because they'll have the faces of your children.'" And, at last, we learn the truth about Hank's room of symbols. The explanation isn't nearly as menacing as an alien invasion or a mental illness. Hank has been trying to create a universal language — he wants to improve the world by making communication easier. As Betsy says, "You're a good man."
As the movie does, Fargo ends with a husband and wife in bed, finding a moment of peace in a chaotic world before they drift off to sleep. It's a beautiful finish for a beautiful season.
"Goodnight, Mr. Solverson."
"Goodnight, Mrs. Solverson, and all the ships at sea."
- The closing lines are a reference to radio journalist Walter Winchell, whose nightly greeting was "Good Evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea." Of course, it's also a lovely way to bookend the season — the same lines appeared at the end of the first episode.
- After Peggy's final scene, we hear Bobby Womack's cover "California Dreamin'," which is my favorite version of the song. It's also used brilliantly in a movie called Fish Tank, which you should see if you haven't.
- Does anyone else think one of the deaf kids in Hanzee's final scene could grow up to be Mr. Wrench, the silent killer from season one?
- Wasn't it great to see Carradine, Hanks, and Tolman again? With the show returning to present day for season three, I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of these familiar characters.
- And yet I'll miss the ones from this season so much. It's hard to name an MVP, but Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Bokeem Woodbine, and Jean Smart would be at the top of my list — although this season wouldn't have been what it was without Jeffrey Donovan or Ted Danson either. What do you think?