The penultimate episode of Fargo’s second season is filled with betrayals, death, very bad police work, and an alien encounter. Yes, aliens. I imagine this will be one of the most hotly debated TV episodes of the year — to some, the extraterrestrial deus ex machina may seem like a bit of convenient silliness.
I disagree for three reasons:
- Noah Hawley and the Fargo team laid the groundwork with numerous references to space invaders, and the presence of aliens has been a part of the narrative since episode one. If Rye Gerhart didn’t get distracted by lights in the sky, we wouldn’t be here.
- The show and film are both about the randomness of the universe, whether it’s Marge Gunderson stumbling upon the cabin in the film or Hanzee happening to find the Blumquist’s car in the shop. A UFO is just another bit of random luck.
- This adds to the urban legend narrative of Fargo itself – the “based on a true story (but not really)” aspect of this universe, in which tall tales are passed down or written in books like The History of True Crime in the Mid West.
That’s the title of the book spine that opens “The Castle,” and it’s read by the one and only Martin Freeman, who played Lester Nygaard in the first season of Fargo. Freeman is an unseen narrator throughout the episode, which is an especially interesting choice. When creator Noah Hawley was recently asked about the show’s yet-to-be-filmed third season, he revealed that it would be set closer to the present day, but affirmed that Fargo can never actually take place in current times. The show is presented as a “true story” that needs to be told, and that story cannot be written if it’s still “current.” And so, Freeman literally reads this story from a book.
Much like the episode’s flashbacks do, let’s go through some quick catch-up: Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) and Ed (Jesse Plemons) were essentially just saved by Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon), who shot his boss Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) in the head before asking for a haircut. As Lou (Patrick Wilson) and Hank (Ted Danson) descended on Uncle Grady’s cabin, Peggy stabbed Hanzee in the back. Bleeding and on the run, he makes it back to the Rushmore General Store, where he kills the owner and patches himself up. We hear more of Freeman’s amazing narration — I wish there had been more of it — and realize that Hanzee is the key to both this episode and the season. The decisions he makes during “The Massacre at Sioux Falls” have the greatest impact, even though history doesn’t remember him as anyone but “the Gerhart’s man.”
Back to the cabin, we realize that the number of alpha males is about to become a problem. Ed notes that his plan to ransom Dodd worked; Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) is coming to the Motor Motel the next morning. Perhaps sensing that this could be a headline-grabbing case, the local police captain (played with perfect smarm by Wayne Duvall) basically ushers Lou out of state. They can’t take Peggy and Ed into the precinct because they “got graft” and their incarceration would likely get back to the Kansas City mafia. So instead, they decide to use them — they’ll wire them up, then send them into the meeting with Mike. Sensing the shift in power, Ben (Keir O’Donnell) sides with South Dakota and helps push Lou, the smartest man in the room, out of the case. Wilson’s urgency is palpable as Lou runs back to urge the butcher and beautician to escape a motel deathtrap. He knows this is a really bad idea: “You’ve been lucky, but that luck’s gonna run out.”
We get a brief but heartbreaking scene with Betsy (Cristin Milioti) at home, as she struggles to open a can while “Sylvia’s Mother” plays on the soundtrack. We see Molly drawing, then we hear a glass shatter. Molly runs into the other room to find mom on the floor, just as Lou tries to call from a pay phone and gets no answer. While Dr. Hook sings, “I just want to tell her goodbye,” he can tell something is wrong.
Lou notices something else is wrong at the Rushmore General Store and spots Hanzee’s trail, including the dead store owner. He calls for the cavalry and is given an escort out of the state. He gets through to Ben and Hank’s car, but his warnings have little impact. He’s told to “take a seat on the bench.”
Hanzee is already watching the Motor Motel through a gun scope when the cops arrive, and then we get to one of season’s crucial moments. Hanzee tells Floyd (Jean Smart) that the Kansas City mafia has Dodd. Freeman’s narrator wonders, “At what point did he decide to finish the job?” If you think about it, he’s really playing along with Dodd’s lie that the Butcher of Luverne worked for the other side. He tells Floyd to send Bear (Angus Sampson) and a dozen men, saying he can’t “vouch for her safety.” Is he trying to warn her?
While the other cops go “undercover” with white T-shirts and Wrangler jeans, Ben is on Blumquist duty. As he watches TV, Peggy and Ed look like they’re planning something. Meanwhile, Lou hears that Constance was strangled at the Southnik; we hear Constance’s last words again. This time, they sound more poignant: “I tried. You heard.” Lou has to try too.
While Hank realizes the depth of Ben’s incompetence, the cops play poker and talk about pissing in the pool and inside the desk drawers of their superiors. A convoy rolls into town, and Lou actually spots Floyd with her Gerhart army. He jumps in his car and follows, then Floyd and Bear share a ominous exchange: “I miss them all.” “We’ll be together again, on high.”
In the climax of the episode — and arguably, the climax of the season — Bear and his men move to take the Motor Motel. Hank and Peggy can’t sleep, and that insomnia ends up saving them. Bear orders his men to various doors of the motel. They’ll bust in and look for Dodd, who isn’t even there. As the assault goes down, Peggy sees a shadow outside of her window. Hank takes down a Gerhart soldier while Bear, calling out for his brother, shoots the police captain. Ben handles two of them before Peggy knocks him out.
And then it all starts to collapse.
“They’re cops!” Floyd looks at Hanzee with regret, and they share a brief moment before he stabs her. He told her not to come. There’s a part of him that wanted to let her live, but it’s too late now. Bear sees that Floyd is dead, and runs in her direction before Lou shoots him in the head. It doesn’t kill him. He actually charges Lou, taking a few more shots before he tackles him to the ground. He’s beating on our favorite cop as Hanzee approaches, killing everyone he sees, Gerharts and cops alike. Everyone will die. Hanzee shoots Hank; he’s on a mission to find Ed and Peggy. Why? It could be because they saw him shoot Dodd, or it could be because they saw a moment of vulnerability. As Freeman’s narrator says, “He had shown his true self.”
When Lou is being strangled, all that foreshadowing about aliens finally pays off. The so-called “caretakers to the zoo” step in and save his life. This gives him a chance to grab a gun and shoot Bear in the head. (Again.) Hanzee sees the spaceship hovering in mid-air, and it gives him enough pause that Peggy and Ed escape. In a great bit of character detail, Ed is amazed by the UFO and Peggy is unfazed: “It’s just a flying saucer.”
Hanzee shoots at Ed and Peggy. The UFO takes off. Lou is about to chase when he hears Hank say, “Officer down.” Peggy and Ed are on the run with Hanzee in pursuit. Mike and a Kitchen brother pull up, see the chaos, and drive away. Lou and Hank share a tender scene in which Hank says he’ll be in a “suit of armor” for Sunday dinner, another reference to the first episode. As “Run Through the Jungle” plays on the soundtrack — a nod to The Big Lebowski — the sirens get louder and Lou heads after Hanzee, Peggy, and Ed.
- Ben tells Lou that he’s less John Wayne and more Betty La Plage, a fictional actress who co-starred with Ronald Reagan in the film-within-the-show that opened the season: Massacre at Sioux Falls.
- The shooting of the owner and the camera angle that reveals oil cans next to the gas pump reminded me of this scene from The Jerk, which is still hilarious.
- Hawley has said that this season would integrate a bit of The Man Who Wasn’t There, which features a lead character who sees a UFO. If you think about it, that could’ve been the title of this week’s episode. The Gerharts and Mike descend on the Motor Motel to find Dodd, a man who wasn’t there.
- So, is the narrator actually Lester Nygaard? Or is Martin Freeman playing another character? I’d like to picture Lester sitting at home, reading The History of True Crime in the Midwest aloud to some book group.
- Is anyone else sad that there’s only one episode left? We’ll never see another withering stare from Jean Smart’s likely-to-be award-winning performance. I actually felt a bit of sadness when Floyd died. I’ll miss her.
- This great episode was directed by Adam Arkin, an actor who appeared briefly in this season as the man who told Mike that the Undertaker was coming. Arkin has directed episodes for a number of terrific TV shows, including Justified and The Americans. Good news: He also directed next week’s finale, “Palindrome.”