No other show on television blends influences quite like Fargo. Tonight’s chapter of the third season has a first act that almost feels like a riff on the classic The Sopranos episode “Pine Barrens,” and then moves into a deeply philosophical scene that recalls the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, while finishing up with an act that echoes the timeless tale of Faust. With Sy Feltz on life support, his brother dead, and his own sanity slipping, Emmit Stussy is ready to break his deal with the devil and confess.
Long before that crucial moment, we have to wrap up the action of last week’s episode. Nikki Swango and Mr. Wrench are chained together on a prison transport bus that has flipped in the middle of the Minnesota woods. Three men — Yuri Gurka, Meemo, and the nameless man we’ll call Officer Assassin — are breaking into the cage that holds the prisoners. As Mr. Wrench goes to town on the fake cop, the other two men stay back, watching the chaos unfold. Nikki bursts out of the back of the bus, then the two lock the door behind them as they flee into the night. Tragically, a couple who appears to be on the way home from holiday festivities — “Deck the Halls” playing on their car radio — slows down to offer help. Meemo speeds off after them, and we’ll later see them dead on the side of the road.
Back to the hunt. As Mr. Wrench and Nikki work their way through the snow and woods, unable to communicate with each other successfully, Yuri and Officer Assassin follow. As dawn breaks, a father-and-son hunting duo stumbles onto the scene, giving the resourceful Russian a new weapon for the hunt, a crossbow. Audio flashbacks to the last few days of Nikki’s life give the sequence a dreamlike quality, enhanced when they come upon a clearing with an arrow-riddled dummy and an ax.
Just as Mr. Wrench is about to break the chain, an arrow pierces the air and strikes his body. They hide behind a little stump as arrows rain down. They are under assault in an increasingly tense and unsettling scene. And it’s about to get worse. Nikki gets an arrow in the leg, then Officer Assassin gets tripped by the chain. After Mr. Wrench throws the ax into the woods, the two convicts decapitate Officer Assassin with their chain. It’s as bloody and violent as basic cable gets, especially as the blood of all combatants turns the Minnesota snow a dull red. The camera pans to a shot of the bloody ax embedded in a tree, a severed Russian ear beneath it.
Mr. Wrench and Nikki come upon a bowling alley, instantly recalling The Big Lebowski, but there’s no Jesus Quintana or Walter Sobchak here. There is, however, a variation on the Stranger, Sam Elliott’s bar-seated cowboy, ready to offer sage advice. As Nikki sits at the bar, the camera reveals Paul Marrane seated beside her. Remember Paul? He ran into Gloria Burgle twice in “The Law of Non-Contradiction,” first on the plane to Los Angeles and then in the bar during her date from hell. Here he takes on a mystical presence, almost as if he’s not really there, an omniscient visitor from another time and place.
As if Paul’s very presence at this bowling-alley bar in the early morning hours of Christmas Day isn’t strange enough, he leads with some intense philosophy: “They’re all long. That’s the nature of existence. Life is suffering. I think you’re beginning to understand that.” Paul has a kitten named Ray and speaks of the Kabbalistic concept of gilgul, when an old soul is reincarnated in a new body. He asks Nikki to leave Ray behind, but gives her a message to convey to the wicked when the time comes, quoting Obadiah 1:4. She’ll do it if he promises to give kitty Ray some beer now and then.
Yuri sits in the same seat not long after Nikki, but gets nowhere near as friendly a welcome. Paul somehow knows his name and has a message from Helga Albrecht — the woman Yuri almost certainly killed whose murder was the focus of the season’s very first scene — and the Rabbi Nachman. Yuri is stunned and then looks directly to camera. We cut to his point of view, a black-and-white shot of the ghosts of Yuri’s victims.
As Gloria yet again faces the incompetence of her superiors at the crime scene with the bus, Sy comes to the Stussy home on Christmas Day. He’s told that Emmit is upstairs sleeping while Meemo and V.M. Varga gorge themselves on full plates of food. The gluttonous villain gives Sy a plate of food, tells him about a $5 million bonus, then poisons Emmit’s right-hand man. After puking all over his own lobby, Sy drops to the floor, and we zoom in on his eyes as he’s raced into the hospital. The camera pans out to reveal a full beard has replaced Sy’s mustache, and then a sign in the hospital room shows it is now March 2011, about ten weeks after the main action of the season.
The final arc of the episode belongs to Emmit Stussy, who can’t escape the beating of the telltale heart. Gloria and Winnie are still working the case and Emmit looks like a shell of a man, haunted by the death of his brother and the incapacitation of his best friend. He returns to his office to see framed photos of the Sisyphus stamp everywhere, but it doesn’t seem like a mere hallucination because his secretary sees them too. This is after he sees Ray’s corvette on the roof of the hospital parking garage — and it’s seen by Gloria too. And then he wakes up to find a fake mustache glued to his face, also seen by others. It doesn’t seem like Emmit is going crazy, but someone might be trying to drive him to the nuthouse. If Emmit has to be committed, would the company belong to Varga? Or could his situation be the product of something greater, a cosmic justice like the one seemingly unleashed on Yuri at the bowling alley?
Whatever the cause, it’s destroying Emmit. Varga tells him the story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who refused to surrender years after World War II ended, hiding in the Philippines mountains. What is the message of Varga’s latest stories? While he may think he’s encouraging Emmit to stop fighting and accept his new place in life, Emmit takes it another way. He goes to the police station the next morning. “My name is Emmit Stussy,” he says to a surprised Gloria. “I want to confess.”
• After Sy winds up in the hospital, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko is referenced by Gloria in the hallway scene with Emmit.
• There are two music cues during the Emmit chapters that bring to mind a classic piece of literature with clear parallels to this season’s narrative: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. They are “Faust: Introduction to Act 1” and “Faust: Flower’s Charming” near the end of the episode.
• The final music cue has thematic relevance, too, as we hear the very practically titled “What Are We Gonna Do?” by Javon Carter and Rebirth Brass Band over the credits.
• Much of the season’s symmetrical framing disappears in this episode. It’s replaced with a new, somber color palette — especially in the Stussy house, which now looks almost gloomy in the way it’s lit by lanterns and fire.
• Was that the last we’ll see of Yuri Gurka?
• How did you feel about the supernatural appearance of Paul Marrane? All-knowing characters that seem to come from another time and place are certainly fitting for the Coen universe (The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, and The Hudsucker Proxy), but was it too much for you?