Fargo: 209 “The Castle” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
In 2007 in Bemidji, Minnesota, an older Lou Solverson and Lorne Malvo had a subtext-loaded chat in Lou’s diner involving plenty of veiled threats and close calls. Perhaps the most interesting part of that conversation, however, was Lou’s reference to a past case he worked on – a massacre at Sioux Falls in 1979. Lou seemed pretty terrified at the memory, even all those years on – but what exactly happened at Sioux Falls in 1979?
As it turned out, it involved close encounters of the third kind. But before we get to that extraterrestrial conclusion, there was plenty more in the excellent penultimate episode, The Castle, to unpack. Like last week, this was an episode with a singular purpose for the most part – to slowly arrange all the chess pieces on the board necessary for the massacre to come about. Usually, a show building up to an inevitable bloodbath would imbue the entire episode with dread and fear, with the violence to come positioned as a storm cloud on the horizon. There was some of that in The Castle, but the route it took instead was a far more unusual and entertaining one than a simple feeling of dread.
There’s nothing methodical about the set up of the Sioux Falls Massacre – just a bunch of misinformed people making terrible decisions with very little trust that they could work, creating enough of a nightmare to allow the massacre to take place. The scenes with the dumb cops are almost excruciating to watch in that there’s so many little moments where a key action that could have prevented matters isn’t taken, or when their total misunderstanding of the situation becomes all too apparent (take the discussion in the motel juxtaposed with the business-like, heavily armed Gerhardts heading towards them). None of these comments is a criticism of the way The Castle went about things – the sheer nonsensicality of the cops’ decision-making mixes well with the absurdist atmosphere carried over from last episode, creating a feeling of senselessness that makes the final twist really work.
It’s also worth mentioning the narration that runs throughout the episode. Showrunner Noah Hawley has long talked about the Fargo universe as a leather-bound anthology of ‘true crime’ in the Midwest – and that’s exactly got here, with the lovely bonus of Martin Freeman returning to narrate in his native tones. It’s not an overused trick, but it works at highlighting the ambiguities and undertones of characters’ motivations (the musing on Hanzee’s reasoning is a nice way of pointing out how mysterious he really is), and ultimately feeds into the aforementioned absurdist atmosphere by providing an element of theatricality. We’ve been reminded every episode that this is all a story with the ‘true story’ caption, and underlining this point gives Fargo a license to really go for broke with the more heightened elements of the story – knowing it’s all fictional anyway, it becomes a lot harder for the viewer’s suspension of disbelief to be broken by unusual events (I’m so subtle) because we’re being reminded at every turn that there’s an intermediary layer between the viewer and the events of the story. In short, Fargo cleverly gives itself a free pass to do things that are a little nuts thanks to this narration, which consistently reminds the viewer that what we’re watching is a story.
I highlighted how much Hanzee has improved as a character last week, and he takes another step up last week to become the mastermind of events – the only real person who knows exactly what he’s doing throughout the jumbled hodgepodge of events in the massacre (except maybe Lou, but he’s still a reactive character rather than a proactive one here). The great thing about Hanzee is that he plays the role of a classic defector to the enemy, orchestrating the destruction of one side (the Gerhardts, those poor things) while allowing the other to profit – but the ‘other side’ bit is just a side effect for Hanzee, with even the destruction of the Gerhardts secondary to his pursuit of Peggy and Ed. Hanzee has all the hallmarks of a devious double agent, but he’s actually a pure force of chaos – barrelling through everything and everyone in order to achieve his goals. It’s surprising that this previously secondary character has taken on such an enormous significance, but it’s not an unwelcome surprise – in his chaotic, mildly sinister and frequently dispassionate (his face as he stabs Floyd, for instance) ways, Hanzee really does feel like a spiritual successor to season one’s Lorne Malvo. He might not equal the raw charisma of that villain, but it’s nonetheless extremely impressive that Fargo has quietly made this ancillary enforcer character into such an interesting heavyweight.
And then, of course, there’s the Sioux Falls Massacre, and that word I’ve been holding off from saying all review. As befitting of the chaotic incompetency that led to its existence, the Massacre is a senseless, bloody mess – there’s no sense of two enemies facing off against one another in an organised fight, as it’s simply a battle between two groups of people who were in the same place at the same time with heavy weapons. It’s a neat feint from a season that appeared to be heading in the direction of a big confrontation between Kansas City and the Gerhardts, and even teases that possibility here with Mike heading to the scene – but what we get is a less clean, ultimately pointless battle that leaves a whole lot of people dead with very little accomplished. Reason is completely thrown out the window here, and as such as we get blatantly unrealistic but entirely fitting moments like Bear shrugging off a shot to the head and a couple to the chest as if he’s wearing a suit of armour…
… Oh, and the aliens (that feels really good to get off my chest). This seems to have been a divisive plot point, and I did express concern about Fargo introducing the aliens in a major role a couple of weeks back, but I thought the UFO really worked here. It was essentially the natural conclusion of the gradual piling up of ridiculousness that permeated the episode – the be-all end-all of unexplainable, ridiculous ideas that definitively showed the insanity of the Fargo world to everyone. It’s a thoroughly strange moment that skirts on the edge of being a huge mistake, but instead comes off as inspired due to the legwork The Castle did in establishing an environment where a UFO landing was just the logical next step in events. It also gave us the classic Peggy line: ‘It’s just a flying saucer, Ed, we gotta go!’, also proving that actualisation is potentially the best way at getting to the bottom of the absurd Fargo world. Who’d have thought that?
I pegged the Blomquists as doomed in the early episodes, but they’ve done a pretty terrific job thus far of somehow surviving everything that’s been thrown at them. It’s no surprise, therefore, that they’re one of the very few survivors of the Massacre, scampering off to live another day (or maybe less, depending on when Hanzee catches up). Is there any reason as to why these people keep getting away with absolutely everything, no matter how many other people get hurt? Nope, but this is an episode where a legitimate UFO appeared, so their inexplicable luck just fits right into the atmosphere of The Castle.
By the end of The Castle, there’s a definite sense of conclusion. The Gerhardt family are, for all intents and purposes, no more, killed in an abrupt and violent fashion, and Kansas City now have no-one to fight against. It stands to reason, then, that we’ve just seen the Game of Thrones-style ‘finale in the penultimate episode’, and that next week’s season finale will bring things to a quiet climax. Still, there is the relatively large matter of Peggy, Ed and Hanzee to deal with, so it’s hardly likely that the climax is going to be that quiet…
Fargo season two surpasses itself again in an outstanding penultimate episode that delivers the massacre we’ve been expecting in an absurd fashion that says a great deal about the pointlessness of the conflict, topped off with an inspired moment of craziness that makes this episode one to remember.