A fantastic, tense, and very dark episode of Fargo ends with the brutal beating of a major character, and the sense that the violence is far from over. As “The House of Special Purpose” unfolds, the feeling that someone will die mounts with each subsequent scene. Will Nikki Swango cross the wrong person? Will Sy Feltz kill Nikki or Ray Stussy to protect Emmit? And doesn’t it feel like V.M. Varga or his cronies could commit murder every single time they’re onscreen? Noah Hawley and his team have built an almost uncomfortable degree of tension this season, and the body count will almost certainly start rising soon.
For now, Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) is riding high, as “It’s Hard to Be Humble” by Mac Davis plays in the episode’s opening sequence. Little does he know that his wife Stella, (Linda Kash), is about to find a life-changing package on the front step. The envelope may say that it’s for Emmit’s eyes only, but she can’t help her curiosity. She finds a ransom note and a sex tape of Emmit with Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Of course, we know it’s Ray (McGregor), clarified in a flashback to the sex tape’s production in the next scene. And we learn that Ray may be smitten, but doesn’t exactly know how to time a wedding proposal. Advice: Wait until your bride-to-be has taken off her hooker wig.
Back in the present day, Stella is leaving Emmit, and she’s taking the kids and her mother with her. (They may have named her Stella just to give Ewan McGregor a chance to shout her name, which always recalls A Streetcar Named Desire.) Now that Ray has stolen from his brother and torn his family apart. What’s left?
Meanwhile, life is about to get even more uncomfortable for Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg). He comes into his office to find Varga (David Thewlis) with his feet up on his desk, mocking the weight of Sy’s wife and tossing out anti-Semitic asides. He makes it clear to Sy just how much he’s not in charge of anything. This isn’t even his office anymore, and if V.M. wants, he’ll take his wife, too. Yuri (Goran Bogdan) and Meemo (Andy Yu) reported back about Winnie (Olivia Sandoval) stopping by, and V.M. wants to make sure Sy knows who’s the boss. To drive home the point, he rubs his “schvantz” around Sy’s World’s Greatest Dad mug, and then they make Sy drink out of it. The slo-mo of “contaminated” water coming out of Sy’s mouth certainly won’t quiet viewers who think this season has emphasized the grotesque.
Still feeling like he’s “left the known world,” Sy goes to meet the widow Goldfarb (the always-welcome Mary McDonnell). They’re going to try to sell the business to her, before it gets further away from them. (Good luck with that.) It’s an interesting setup for a character we’ll probably see again, but Sy has to run because Emmit’s life is falling apart. He gets to Emmit’s house and sees him crying. While Sy is more upset that Emmit signed partnership papers with V.M. — “Enemies are at the gates … inside the gates, fornicating with our cookware” — Emmit has a more personal problem: His family has left. This will divide Emmit and Sy, who blames his partner for not fixing what is broken. Emmit takes the shackles off Sy. What does that mean? Send Nikki back to jail? Kill her? Kill Ray?
Will Gloria (Carrie Coon) and Winnie get to the Stussys before their whole empire goes up in flames? They’re laying out the case they have essentially solved to Gloria’s deputy, who correctly notes that the new chief is not going to like it. He isn’t wrong. In a later scene, the macho, power-hungry jerk that is Chief Moe Dammick (Shea Whigham) basically orders Gloria to drop the case again. He claims it’s all just a coincidence, recounting the story of Laura Buxton, which has nothing to do with the Maurice LeFay debacle.
In the meantime, Nikki is about to play her hand. When Sy calls her to yell at her about the blackmail scheme, she doubles her demands. The playfulness here in the dialogue regarding truth is fun, given the show and the film’s willingness to bend it: “It never happened!” “That doesn’t make it any less of a fact.” They’re gonna meet in a parking lot. Just a guess, but I don’t think this will end well.
Before the meeting, V.M. has an important conversation with Emmit in which he gets to plant the seeds of distrust. He suggests that perhaps Sy is making a move and using his brother as a diversion or a straw man. The brand of the business doesn’t specify which Stussy. He’s going to get into Emmit’s head, which probably isn’t that hard to do.
As if that isn’t bad enough, Stussy Parking is also facing a new potential downfall: the IRS. Agent Dollard (Hamish Linklater) shows up at the office, triggered by the $10,000 that Ray withdrew/stole. It’s just a routine visit, but nothing about their business right now is routine. It’s more pressure for Emmit, and another reason for V.M. to just burn the whole thing down. V.M. asks if Dollard is married or has kids, so they can figure out a way to pressure him, and then suggests that Emmit just show him the fake books. Emmit is so naïve that he doesn’t even know they have fake books.
The episode closes with an even darker moment for Sy than when V.M. violated his coffee cup. As with a lot of things this season, the scene involves a shift in power, someone who thinks they have it learning exactly how much they do not. First, Nikki and Sy are negotiating, but Yuri and Meemo pull up and get out of the car. After Yuri compares Minnesota to Siberia, they drag Nikki off, and we hear the sounds of her beating, reflected in Sy’s horrified cringes. He thought he was broken before — but things can get so much worse. We hear hit after hit, and see the terror on Sy’s face. There’s a slow pan after everyone drives away, revealing that Nikki is still alive. A cover of World Party’s “Ship of Fools” plays as Ray comes home to find Nikki lying in the bathtub, covered in bruises.
• That “Ship of Fools” cover features Noah Hawley himself on vocals.
• McGregor does some of his best work of the year when Emmit comes home to his empty house. He’s both heartbroken at losing his family and furious at everything that’s happened in the last few days. The mix of tragedy and fury is palpable.
• It really feels like somebody will die soon. Who goes first? Could Sy have much time left? Why do I feel like he’s going to have to watch everyone around him die and be the one left with the trauma?
• This show has always been great with casting small roles, but McDonnell and Linklater are especially inspired choices.
• We’re halfway done with the season. How do you feel so far? What do you want from the second half? Who’s your MVP?
• Somebody GIF David Thewlis violating that coffee cup ASAP.