Fargo: 204 “Fear and Trembling” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
It’s a scene most people will have seen before in movies and TV: the villain, or even the hero, is pushed towards the edge of a precipice. For a couple of moments, the character flails around, trying and failing to grab onto something, before toppling over to their fate. For a few seconds, they’re technically alive, but essentially dead. This week’s episode of Fargo took place pretty much exactly inside those few seconds.
In Fear and Trembling, a great portion of season two’s vast roster of characters found themselves just seconds away from toppling towards their doom – and it’s what they did to try and keep themselves from falling that made this perhaps season two’s strongest hour yet. Take the Gerhardts for example, who find themselves in a pretty dreadful position at the end of the episode. Floyd is just about the only reasonable figure here, diplomatically suggesting a compromise to settle the dispute with the Kansas City mafia in a scene that acts as a terrific showcase for Jean Smart, who combines quiet restraint with undeniable, innate authority. However, it’s a testament to the careful way Fear and Trembling slowly but surely piles on obstacles to peace that when Floyd grimly declares that it’s war, it’s not a gasp-worthy shock; the moment lands with a resigned thud of something that was going to happen all along. And of course, it was – Fear and Trembling makes it abundantly clear that it’s only really Floyd (and her other son, but he’s basically a drone), out of all the powerful figures at play who wants peace. Kansas City want to steamroll the Gerhardts, and Dodd, brought up knowing only violence and war, is itching for a fight anyway. It’s a hopeless situation, but Fear and Trembling is excellent at wringing tension and excitement out of what’s a thoroughly inevitable outcome.
And then there’s Peggy and Ed, who are at the edge of the precipice pretty much just because they put themselves there. Season two has mainly concentrated on their murder cover-up thus far, but Fear and Trembling changed tack for a thorough exploration of their crumbling relationship. It’s a little tragic, really, seeing these two, by all accounts normal people, slowly realise that they want two things that can never be reconciled – and Fargo heightens this by making both characters sympathetic and understandable to the point where it’s hard to really mark one out as the bad guy. Even Peggy, who seemed quietly unstable early on, has an appropriately historically relevant and understandable motivation of breaking out from under her husband’s thumb – but, admittedly, it’s still Ed who garners the most sympathy from this reviewer. He’s just so simple, with motivations that lack any of the complexity that’s walling him in – his simple dreams of owning the butcher shop are being scuppered by complicated factors he can barely fathom, so it’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for the guy. In many ways, he’s the Gus Grimly of season two, in that he’s a straightforward man caught up in something twisted and confusing, but very much unlike Gus, Ed lacks any of the smarts necessary to keep his head above water.
The evidence of that is in the plot concerning Hanzee, the Native American enforcer for the Gerhardts. We’ve had Kansas City dancing around the solution for a while now, so it was surprising to see Hanzee capably follow the trail of clues all the way from the Waffle Hut to Peggy and Ed’s house. In many ways, though, this is not a surprise – it’s a natural consequence of their clueless stumbling about that followed their murder of Rye, which Fargo has put careful emphasis on in previous episodes. Therefore, it’s nowhere near as contrived as it sounds on paper, as it’s the satisfying and well-earned culmination of weeks of building up to it. Notably, Hanzee’s plot also serves another purpose. Hanzee figured out what the Kansas City mafia couldn’t, and that’s a major shift in that it evens the playing field in the conflict between the Gerhardts and Kansas City a little. It’s no longer a small force versus an infinitely larger story, but a battle between a large, but complacent outfit and a smaller outfit that has the upper head in the cunning stakes, which makes the outcome of the fight between the two crime syndicates far harder to predict.
Hanzee’s not the only one who discovers the Blomquists’ secret, however, as Lou also joined the dots. His confrontation with the two is a highlight of the episode – not just because of the reliably excellent Patrick Wilson’s monologue, but because it includes such a huge moment that’s played, initially, as something less important. Peggy and Ed’s refusal to confess to Lou is a great moment because it’s the precise moment that viewers will look back on as the moment when they sealed their own fate, attempting to brave the Gerhardts’ forces on their own, but it’s not played as an enormous shock by the episode. It doesn’t need to, because the viewers can work it out themselves, and this way we get a moment that doesn’t feel artificially made to be more ‘dramatic’ and overly melodramatic than it needs to be.
And then, finally, there’s the Solversons, who aren’t immune to the whole precipice issue. Betsy’s cancer has only been a footnote thus far, but Fear and Trembling managed to sensitively incorporate it into the storyline here. The idea that Betsy has a 50% chance of having taken a placebo instead of the real test drug is a twisted, vaguely cruel one, but it works as an emphasising of the absurdity that governs Fargo’s world. In Fargo, people get what they deserve, but only some of the time. Sometimes, the real world kicks in, and something illogical and unexpected comes along that has no real reason to occur other than randomness. It’s a pretty morose note to end a review on, but hey, this is Fargo. It’s not exactly a ray of sunshine.
These conclusions are becoming more and more similar. Fargo season two has genuinely blown my expectations out of the water, establishing a rich, compelling world filled with excellent characters almost immediately. If season one was overly centred around the handful of powerhouse characters like Lester, Molly and Malvo to the detriment of others, then season two is a much evener affair, where just about everyone is getting their just desserts in terms of screen-time. It’s been a terrific season of TV thus far, and I can’t wait to see what happens when we reach the halfway point next week.