At the end of the previous episode, it was pretty obvious what was going to happen. Loy let Gaetano loose after letting him know Josto had left him to die. You don’t get over that sort of thing if you’re a hot-tempered Italian gangster, right? And, as “The Nadir” opens, it looks like Gaetano’s pursuing the obvious path. Josto returns to Joplin’s and finds a bloodied Gaetano surrounded by the rest of the Fadda gang. He charges Josto and beats him, hard. It’s lights out for the KC capo and maybe worse. And then Gaetano lets Josto know how proud he is of his big (but significantly smaller) brother. A man who could allow his own brother to be killed to secure power, and who could arrange for the murder of a child to ensure that death? That’s a real man.
It’s a surprising development, or would be if Fargo didn’t already set up Gaetano’s values. He loves his family, but if anyone within that family isn’t putting the business first, are they really family at all? Josto’s willingness to shed blood — both Gaetano’s and Satchel’s — to keep a hold on power so impresses Gaetano that he swears his everlasting loyalty to Josto. They make a great team: Gaetano can be the forceful bull and Josto can be the clever python (or chameleon or whatever). It’s kind of sweet, really, in its perverse, criminal way, and it makes the Faddas once again a force to be reckoned with. Loy had a plan. This part did not go according to it. His next move needs only a one-word description: “Fargo.”
Josto needed a win. In the opening scene we learn that he and Oraetta are not only still very much a thing, their relationship has intensified considerably. Their bedroom games have gotten even more dangerous and Josto thinks he might be falling for the woman he playfully calls “Minnesota.” Oraetta’s not having it, though. She doesn’t like that he plans to marry Dessie, Milvin the alderman’s daughter. (In case you’d forgotten, that’s still a plan, although Milvin and Josto can’t seem to come to terms concerning when the marriage will take place.) And she doesn’t seem all that interested in the whole love thing in the first place.
Maybe her background explains it. She tells Josto that she was a sickly child, in and out of the hospital with a “kind of malaise” doctors described as a “failure to thrive.” She could barely keep food down and who knows what might have happened if her saintly mother hadn’t been there with her “special juice”? (If this is going where it seems to be going, her backstory would make Fargo yet another series featuring Munchausen syndrome by proxy. But does Oraetta know that?) Josto tells a story of his own. The Irish boss with whom he lived for three years as part of a power-sharing arrangement was “the devil,” a man who did things to Josto no one should ever do to a child.
Oraetta cuts him short, flustered by the news that Dr. Harvard did not die of her poisoned pastry, despite all appearances to the contrary. But Josto and Oraetta aren’t the only ones delivering backstory this episode. Though action dominates the second half, in the first half we get a seemingly heartfelt explanation from Odis about how he became the man he is. Mocked throughout his life for his tics and OCD (though he doesn’t have that second term to use), he’s discovered they worsen when he feels out of control. But, as a cop, he feels in control. Except the compromises he’s made with the Faddas and the Cannons make him feel like he’s surrendered much of that control, so his symptoms have worsened again. It’s complicated, but he tells Deafy he’d like to make it less complicated by going straight. And as he says this, there’s little evidence of his compulsive tendencies. He seems to have seen the light, justifying Deafy’s faith the goodness and righteousness can prevail over evil.
Stay tuned to see how that pans out. But first we get another where-I’m-coming-from conversation, this one between Dibrell Smutny and Buel Cannon. Buel explains that she won’t be able to help Dibrell, no matter what Dibrell thinks she can do. But Dibrell suspects otherwise, relating the history of King of Tears mortuary and how it fits in with her thoughts of Ethelrida, the daughter who has, as she puts it, “dreams that take my breath away.” The talk resolves nothing between them, but they seem to understand one another by the conversation’s end, when Buel asks Dibrell to hold the service for Satchel, Buel’s still-presumed-dead son. Elsewhere, other members of the Smutny and Cannon families start to forge a bond thanks to Lemuel and Ethelrida talking, flirtatiously, about their jazz preferences. “He’s your captor,” her mother warns. “Not your friend.”
Ethelrida might soon need all the friends she can find, however. Oraetta discovers she’s on the verge of being in deep trouble. Not only has Dr. Harvard survived, he’s recovered and been taken out of state for his own safety. That can happen when strychnine shows up in blood tests, and given that Josto had already threatened Dr. Harvard’s life, it must have seemed like a good idea to whisk him away. But it’s not good for Oraetta, who attempts to pack her bags and get out of there before she’s found out. In the process, she finds the notebook Ethelrida left behind and matches the handwriting to the anonymous letter insinuating that she might be a murderer. This can’t be good for Ethelrida.
Loy’s having a tough day, too. Deafy’s investigations bring him to Loy’s doorsteps and, after Deafy lays some critical words about alcohol on him, saying it’s like “your friend, with a knife,” he follows them with some thoughts about the criminal mind. Their identity, see, is based around getting away with things. And in place of morality they employ a code, a kind of poor substitute by Deafy’s reckoning. In an episode filled with origin stories, Deafy offers a kind of overarching theory about what drives the various factions of the Kansas City underworld, one that’s less concerned with its members’ individual identities than how they operate as a type. It’s an unflattering description, and yet Loy hardly disproves it when he sells out Zelmare and Swanee in order to save his own skin.
And so we’re off to Kansas City’s Union Station for a big shootout. And if it looks a little familiar, that’s because Fargo shot the scene at Chicago’s Union Station. Even if you’ve never been there, if you’ve seen Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, you’ll recognize it as the setting of a gunfight that gives the movie its most famous set piece. It’s no accident that the battle in this episode evokes that famous scene, from its long set-up to its exaggerated soundtrack to its strategically deployed slow motion. (There’s no baby carriage rolling down the stairs Battleship Potemkin-style, however.) If the scene doesn’t come close to topping its inspiration, it gives the episode yet another moment that complicates our feelings toward its colorful criminals.
Zelmare and Swanee are some of this season’s most charismatic characters, but their escape attempt leaves a lot of innocent victims in its wake, as Odis discovers when he finally works up the nerve to join the raid. Seeing all those bodies, which include women and children, makes rooting for them feel extremely uncomfortable. Not that what follows provides a clearer rooting interest. Though late, Odis is still able to kill Swanee and Deafy, who dies with an accusatory look still on his face, but can’t stop Zelmare from getting away. There are no good guys here.
And, though it’s fun to watch Josto and Gaetano make up for lost time by behaving like boys again, there are no good guys at the Fadda compound either, which, in the episode’s closing moments, becomes a battleground that leaves the Fadda matriarch dead when the men Loy has summoned from Fargo show up. Is this the nadir of the title? Because it seems like things are about to get even worse.
• RIP Deafy. At least, thanks to The Mandalorian, one of the marshals Timothy Olyphant played this fall survived. Olyphant delivered a fun performance, somehow making a prig seem both charming and wily.
• RIP Swanee, who went out guns a-blazin’ just as she hoped to — but not before recounting how much fun she had killing Italians with Zelmare. Again, these are not nice people.
• So where is all this going? Fargo’s traditionally been good with propulsive action scenes and dialogue-driven character moments, but much of “The Nadir” plays like a shapeless collection of the latter capped by the former. It’s not a bad episode at all, though the familiarity of the shoot-out is a bit much. (Where much of the series is an act of creative derivativeness, the scene feels a bit too close to the original.) But we’re getting into the home stretch and it’s hard to see how the many strands of his season get tied together. Not that they have to. The season’s offered a lot of pleasures in the form of atmosphere, strong performances, and colorful characters. But it’s unclear whether it will end up forming a cohesive story or whether its 1950s Kansas City will simply serve as a playground for some new variations on familiar Fargo themes.
• Speaking of strong performances, Oraetta spends much of the episode in a state of near-panic. But her face while suffocating Josto as she pleasures him is eerily peaceful.