Every version of Fargo — the film and now three seasons of TV — has shared a common theme of what V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) calls “the inescapable reality.” As he tells Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) and Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg), American films have led people to believe that plans can be changed and that one can dig oneself out of a hole. In the world of Fargo, this isn’t true. Oh, you can keep digging, but the hole only gets bigger. The title of this week’s episode — “The Principle of Restricted Choice” — refers to a theory in Nikki Swango’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) beloved game of Bridge, but it could also refer to life on Fargo.
We open with Gloria (Carrie Coon) investigating the death of her stepfather Ennis. She goes back to the case books she found below his floor, revealing a stack of sci-fi pulp novels like Toronto Cain: Psychic Ranger and The Plague Monkeys, written by an author named Thaddeus Mobley. She finds newspaper clippings about him, and quickly discerns that Mobley and Ennis were one and the same. So not only was Ennis killed in a case of mistaken identity, but it was a name he chose for himself. Why? Who was Thaddeus Mobley? On her way back to the Eden Valley Police Station to meet the new chief, Gloria has issues with her cell phone, and flawed technology feels like it’ll be a recurring motif this season. In a later scene, we’ll meet her new boss, Sheriff Moe Dammik (Shea Wigham), who’s startled that they don’t even have computers in the office, and makes it clear he’s the new boss in town.
While Gloria is investigating her stepfather’s past, Emmit and Sy need to find out more about V.M. Varga. Their attorney, Irv Blumkin, is startled to discover that they borrowed $1 million from a man whose first name they don’t even know. Emmit’s suggestion that Irv just “friend this cocksucker on Facebook and reel him in” is indicative of how little these people grasp about the severity of their situation. Perhaps it’s because they’re too distracted by Emmit’s brother, Ray (Ewan McGregor). Emmit is feeling guilty about the stamp controversy, but Sy advises him that Ray needs to be cut out of his life. Sy thinks that Ray is just a user, someone who will always ask for something more. As he says, “He doesn’t want the stamp, pal. He wants your life.”
In possibly my favorite scene so far, we see the depths of Irv Blumkin’s research abilities as he types “V.M. Varga” into the Google search bar and then has to be instructed to hit enter. He then clicks on a link and a download, infecting his whole office with a virus that shuts down their computers. They’ll have to call “the I.T. kid that Shirley knows.”
While Blumkin tries to fix his desktop, Varga leads a massive big rig into a parking lot owned by Stussy. What’s in the truck? Should Sy and Emmit take a look or maintain “plausible deniability”? Whatever is in there, Varga and his people are wasting no time getting their claws into the Parking Lot King of Minnesota. Meanwhile, Emmit reads about the Ennis murder in the St. Cloud Herald and seems oddly unsurprised. If a man named Bob Tallerico had his eyes and mouth glued shut in the town next door, I’d be a little startled.
Speaking of Ennis, Gloria is still trying to investigate his murder, which leads her to the gas station where Maurice stole a page of the phone book. In a scene that feels a bit reminiscent of this beauty from the movie, the shop owner wonders if a person can make meth from frozen juice concentrate and makes it clear he was watching the Gophers game. He also thinks Maurice was Russian, but he’s not sure why. At the same time, Ray learns that his non-Russian parolee’s death has been ruled “accidental.” Maybe they’ll get away with it.
Ray goes to Nikki’s apartment to tell her the good news, but she’s a little uncertain, slapping him twice because there’s something wrong with his “chi.” He’s feeling guilt and remorse; she’s already planning their next Bridge tournament. The callous way Nikki moves on from murder is a bit distressing, making it feel like she could easily turn on Ray when the situation demands it. She’s more interested in getting the stamp back, and in coining a phrase that could be the subtitle of the show: “unfathomable pinheadery.”
They’re going to fix Ray’s chi by getting that damn stamp. Stussy acts as a distraction, meeting with his brother outside the house while Nikki goes in to retrieve it. There’s a beautiful setup shot as the brothers sit to talk, perfectly symmetrical with benches and bushes with Christmas lights on either side, reflecting the twins and the theme of duality that so often returns to the show. Ray and Emmit actually have a good conversation, and Ray seems sincere about wanting to bury the hatchet. He even goes in for a hug.
That hatchet will have some blood on it, however. When Nikki gets upstairs, she sees that the stamp is gone, replaced by a painting of a jackass. She takes it as a personal insult, writing, “Who’s the Ass Now?” on it in menstrual blood and leaving her used tampon in the desk drawer. Any bridge-building Ray wanted to do outside has now been destroyed, and Sy makes that clear in a meeting at the Fontanelle Restaurant and Lodge. “You and Emmit will never speak again,” he tells Ray, before throwing some money at him and crashing into his car in the parking lot. In the most Fargo moment of the episode, he hits another car on the way out. This show is drenched in collateral damage.
Sy will soon be reminded that he has way more to worry about than Ray Stussy when Varga and his cronies show up at the Stussy offices with dollies of boxes. They’re moving in. Thewlis gets an amazing scene in which he speaks about liking Minnesota because it’s “so perfectly, sublimely bland,” and then makes it clear that he was behind the death of Irv Blumkin, thrown off a parking garage by Yuri (Goran Bogdan) and Meemo (Andy Yu). He suggests Stussy buy new lots and maybe build a stadium. They’re trapped. It’s their new reality.
• Remember the first scene in last week’s season premiere? The man who claimed not to be the murderous Yuri Gurka? The Russian who helped Irv Blumkin fly is named Yuri Gurka.
• The title refers to a theory in Bridge that playing a particular card decreases the probability of a player having any equivalent card. It fits perfectly for this episode as characters like Nikki, Sy, and Vargas are playing cards on their opponents.
• The Christmas lights should have given it away, but you can also see on the Maurice LeFay’s death report that this season so far takes place in early December 2010.
• This week’s music cues: “Sho Z-Pod Duba” by DakhaBrakha as the big rig that possibly contains slave girls is driven in; “Kalinka” by Ural Cossacks Choir after Irv gets tossed, which is perfectly edited into the scene; “The Christmas Song” by Bing Crosby at the Fontanelle; “American Wedding” by Gogol Bordello over the end.
• Catch the reference to Stan Grossman when Emmit and Sy talk about the lot? He’s the attorney for Wade Gustafson in the Coen film, as played by Larry Brandenburg. You can see him in this scene.
• Is the name of the restaurant, Fontanelle, a reference to this scene from Raising Arizona? I choose to believe it is.