Erstwhile on Fargo… (I love the way they use the word ‘erstwhile’ instead of the usual ‘previously’ during their little catch-ups at the start of each episode). During the last two episodes we’ve seen the Gerhardt family and the Kansas City mob clash violently as their gang war escalated, while Lou Solverson and Hank Larsson (as well as Ed and Peggy Blumquist) found themselves slap-bang in the middle of all the mayhem. With only four episodes left, it feels as though we’re being pushed towards a final reckoning, but there’s a lot to get through first. So dense and rich was this seventh instalment, it could have been the best episode of the series so far. And that’s saying something.
This episode was all about leverage. Or at least it felt like it. You can never be sure with Fargo. The opening montages saw the KC mob and the Gerhardts trade killings in bloody tit-for-tat style (talking of style, this show is so cinematic and the opening scenes were straight from a Scorsese gangster flick with beautifully framed shots, tracking and quick zooms into tighter framing of the characters).
We quickly learned that Mike Milligan’s raid on the Gerhardt’s ranch ended with the death of patriarch Otto. Almost as soon as Floyd had covered her husband with dirt, Lou rolled up and asked her to come down to the station. Hank and the hapless Fargo cop questioned her, agreeing before hand that they would try to turn her, or at least get her to reveal information about the KC mob so that they could all put a stop to the carnage. It was a risky, bold move, and watching two seasoned actors like Ted Danson and Jean Smart play cat-and-mouse in an enclosed space was fantastic to watch. They traded stories; they found common ground; they hammered out a deal. All while Floyd was wearing a furry hat and smoking a pipe.
As much as anything this second series of Fargo has explored the role of women in 1970s society. We’ve had Floyd herself assuming the mantle of family leader in the face of stiff and explicitly misogynist opposition from her shitbird of an unpleasant son, Dodd, and as she’s done this she’s assumed some masculine affectations and accessories to not only look the part but feel the part, either because she thinks she has to succeed or because she wants to so she can still feel close to her beloved husband. Elsewhere, Peggy Blumquist has risked everything for personal development and to break free of gender stereotypes. And then there’s Dodd’s daughter Simone, who’s somewhere in the middle. Her carefree, epicurean ways have been at odds with Floyd’s stern family-first line, one foot in the future and the other in the past.
Her flip-flopping between these two worlds, these ever-shifting habitats, eventually got her killed. I know some people have argued that Simone’s character and storyline have been the weakest in the series, but I’ve enjoyed her participation, not least because a 10-episode series can explore side characters and the ideas I’ve just mentioned in some detail. Simone symbolised such confusion about where she wanted to be and go and such anger with the way she was treated with her father, it was only a matter of time that her tightrope act would crumble. Sure enough, her fraternisation with Mike Milligan rumbled by Bear and his new cohort from a Buffalo gang.
Bear, still raging from Charlie’s near-death experience and incarceration, drove her out into the wastelands. There, with the low winter sun burning through pallid, watery skies, Bear made her kneel and (seemingly) executed her (although we never actually saw the bullet explode into her).
With Dodd still missing, as well as Hanzee, the Gerhardt family seemed to be imploding. What did Simone say earlier in the episode? “This family’s for the ground.”
Which was good news for Mike Milligan, even though his boss in Kansas City expressed dismay at his handling of the extermination of the Gerhardts and told him in no uncertain terms to make way for a character called The Undertaker, who was being sent to Luverne to finish off the job.
Ah, Mike Milligan. He reminds me so much of a character from a fairy tales: A dangerous jester; a killer with a light touch; an intellectual psychopath. He’s a great watch. In the space of three minutes he quoted Martin Luther King Jr (to his boss) and then Louis XVI (to Simone, before her apparent death) and then, when Lou Solverson burst through his hotel room door, engaged the policeman in some riddle tennis. It was like watching two pugilists eye each other up in a boxing ring, metaphors jabbing away at each other. There’s mutual respect there, you can tell, but Milligan didn’t extend the same kind of courtesy to The Undertaker when he burst through the door – he shot him where he stood.
Another bold move, brought on by being spurned by his boss. He was given a lifeline by a telephone call right at the end of the episode, from one Ed Blumquist (not sure how he got Milligan’s number), who informed him that it was his lucky day and asked if he would be interested to know that he had Dodd Gerhardt in the trunk of his car. We hadn’t heard from the Blumquists (and Dodd) all episode. Now we knew why.
Floyd Gerhardt, by getting into bed with the police, thought she was gaining leverage over the KC mob; the deal Ed Blumquist struck with Mike Milligan now hands some of it back (if not all of it) to the big-city types. It’s all boiling up nicely, and it’s going to end in a bloodbath, no doubt. And probably in Sioux Falls, too.
Whatever’s going to happen, this was a hugely impressive episode, stuffed full of character development, tension and narrative twists and turns. If there’s a criticism of the Coen brothers’ work (and therefore this series) it’s that the endless metaphors and riddles (both visual and aural) can sometimes result in emotional distance from the characters. Here, the emotional heart of this series has been Betsy, and her presence has added some much-needed emotional clout.
Her time is, sadly, ebbing away, and she knows it. In a heart-rending scene, she made town drunk and lawyer Karl Weathers (who had come over to look after her and Molly at Lou’s request) promise that he would look after him after she had gone, and talked about how they first got together and how she would like him to marry again. But not to Rhonda Knutsen. Not her – her eyes are too close together.
She had a look of resignation and determination in her eyes when she laid out her instructions told Karl (who’s rapidly become a sneaky-important character). Betsy (and her audience) knows her fate. We just don’t know the fate of others in this excellent show.
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