Fargo: 205 “The Gift of the Magi” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Throughout both seasons, Fargo has operated on a consistent ethos. Seasons one and two alike have begun with a premiere that saw a major, violent event, followed by a few episodes of escalating tension – and, just like season one, this week’s reaching of the halfway point saw all those simmering tensions boil over in a pretty violent fashion…
The Gift of the Magi is another bravura instalment of season two, but it’s great for very different reasons than previous episodes. Namely, this episode sees a return of the visceral, game changing set pieces that also occurred at season one’s mid-way point, finally providing some cathartic resolution to the tensions that have been ratcheted up considerably since the premiere. It’s not just pure, visceral violence that makes The Gift of the Magi so great however – there’s real substance and stylistic flair behind these set pieces, and plenty of compelling character drama in between.
Take the opening scene of the episode, which confirmed my David and Goliath musings about the battle between the Gerhardts and Kansas City last week. Turns out the Gerhardts are stronger than expected, and their Kansas massacre that reduces Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers by a member (it’s just Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brother now) and takes out head honcho Joe Bulo is a superbly punchy way to start the episode, daring to make genuine and meaningful changes by killing off characters who have played important roles thus far. The scene’s improved even further beyond the violence by the clever juxtaposition between the gunfight and Ronald Reagan’s speech, which accompanies most of the massacre. It has the great effect of adding a huge amount of irony to Reagan’s optimistic speech about America regaining its strength that wouldn’t be there otherwise, and benefits from being such a quirky and off-beat thing to accompany Fargo’s most protracted action scene in weeks.
Speaking of Ronald, the-then presidential candidate’s introduction proved to be a masterstroke. Fargo’s already mined the historical context such as the scars of Vietnam for heartfelt drama, so it’s fun to have an entirely different take on a historical figure here. Reagan works in The Gift of the Magi, mostly, because his spiel about the American Dream and overcoming any problem through self-reliance is incredibly relevant to the themes Fargo season two is currently exploring. For instance, Ed tries to embody Reagan’s ideal, self-sufficient American by gearing up to buy the butcher shop, anchored by the stern belief that a solution to his problems will come floating down – and it horrendously backfires, leaving Ed in an even worse position than before. Fargo doesn’t engage in any patronising condemnation of Reagan by turning him into a hateful cartoon character – instead, it meaningfully strips down and exposes his rhetoric by showing the sheer imperfection of his ideal America.
Reagan’s not on screen that much this episode, but The Gift of the Magi works wonders with what it has, helped on by Bruce Campbell’s pitch-perfect approximation of his insubstantial, packaged ‘earthy’ charisma. The scene with Reagan and Lou in the bathroom, in particular, is absolutely terrific at saying a huge amount about the character in a relatively short space of time. His grand-standing claim about ‘every generation having its time’ is instantly undercut by his recollections of his experience in war movies (in reply to Lou’s reply about having gone to a real war) that he can’t even recall properly, and his response to Lou’s heartfelt enquiry regarding his wife barely feels like it’s even related to what Lou just said; it’s just re-heated rhetoric that Reagan fails to back up, exiting the room without a reply. It’s a superbly compact scene, and a testament to the unerringly strong dialogue this season.
Meanwhile, Ed and Peggy’s story lurched into tragic territory once more. They may begin the episode by re-iterating the same arguments by last episode, but The Gift of the Magi soon starts delivering clever, meaningful changes to the relationship. Peggy’s decision to retrieve the car followed by her rapid change of mind is portrayed brilliantly by Kirsten Dunst, who conveys Peggy’s complex and conflicted psyche as she makes the key decision with nothing but excellent facial acting. Furthermore, that twist leads onto one of the most deeply ironic developments yet this season.
Ed has been something of a rock amid the changeable environment surrounding him this season, steadfastly sticking to his idealistic dreams of kids and the butcher shop. The Gift of the Magi, however, utterly shatters that. The build-up involving Charlie, the youngest and most naïve Gerhardt, is very entertaining in its own right, fleshing out Charlie as a nervous murderer who’s eager to live up to his family’s legacy by committing his first act of revenge and pulling off a fantastic moment where we see Ed, ‘the Butcher of Luverne’ from the perspective of the terrified and paranoid Charlie who’s been told the guy is a hitman.
Yet despite that strong build-up, the main event is even stronger. The battle in the butcher shop is a patchwork of truly excellent little moments that coalesce into a satisfying whole, like the moment where Charlie’s gun jams and he fumbles in a manner that’d be outright comedic in another situation, and the shot of Ed watching his carefully built-up dreams pinned up in the shop quite literally burn away into nothingness. It’s all topped off by the fulfilling of a false prophecy – Ed might not have been actually be the brutal Butcher of Luverne, but he sure does earn that title by killing the very same person who believed that myth. It’s the kind of clever irony that elevates this scene above a merely an exciting, well-directed set piece to something that’s both meaningful and thrilling.
There’s the irony of Ed becoming the Butcher of Luverne, and then there’s the moment of irony that forms the spine of the final scene. The Gift of the Magi’s final scene is a perfectly assembled moment where bad timing and terrible luck combine to create a misunderstanding where no-one gets what they want. Having turned her back on the seminar, Peggy enthusiastically tells Ed about her renewed desire to stay at home and form their normal, idyllic family life – but she changes her mind at the precise moment circumstances conspire to make that life impossible. You’d think Ed would at least have his desire to flee fulfilled, but nope – the cops showing up forces the couple into a worst-case scenario where they get neither their home life nor their life far away. It’s the kind of terrible luck that’d seem sadistic if their conflict hadn’t been portrayed as circular and heavily flawed on both sides. It’s a clever mix of schadenfreude at this dithering and counter-intuitive couple who refused their only tenable way out last week, and sympathy at a couple who have, despite everything, been hit with some pretty appalling luck. One thing’s for sure, though – nothing’s gonna be the same after for this couple.
Season two reaches an explosive midway point in an episode that sees everything from the script, to the direction, to the performances, at their peak. This is a show firing on all cylinders creatively, displaying a confidence that some shows don’t have in their sixth season. That moment where the sophomore slump occurs is looking less and less likely to occur.