Fargo: 210 “Palindrome” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
“This is a true story.”
A hell of a lot has happened in the past ten episodes, and it all came to a head last week with the collapse of the remnants of the already crumbling Gerhardt crime family and the… uh, surprise appearance of a real life UFO (still not quite recovered from that). With Hanzee still hunting for Peggy and Ed, however, there were still a handful of loose ends to tie up until the crime drama wrapped up its impressive sophomore season.
Palindrome certainly addressed all of those loose ends, even if it didn’t neatly tie up everything. It’s certainly not the finale many expected, delivering a subdued and relatively quiet coda to the season, and that’s reflected in how divisive the audience reception has been for this episode compared to the rest of the season. Despite that, I think it’s the finale this season needed, on the whole. Last week was so explosive and climatic that it actually left very few pieces left on the board, meaning that there was less that needed to be tied up here than expected. The Castle, with its absurd, ultra-violent conclusion, set a bar in terms of action that would be impossible to top – so it was therefore a wise and logical choice to go for a restrained conclusion that brought the stories of every major character to some kind of endpoint.
It’s worth starting with Peggy and Ed, considering that their conflict wraps up pretty early on in the episode. After their absurd run of good luck, everything finally landed butter side down for the criminal couple this week. Despite all the couple have done in their escape from justice, their fate is a tragic one – with Ed in particular coming to a particularly unlucky end. Despite the drama the couple have run into, Ed’s death is a fittingly meaningless one – the result of a wound from a stray bullet during a chase rather than any grand sacrifice, with his final moments essentially amounting to a final rejection of Peggy. It’s funny in a bitter way that Ed’s final words aren’t a brave acceptance of his fate, but a sad, long-overdue realisation of the sheer gulf that exists between the couple’s ambitions and personalities – after all they’ve been through, Ed finally makes his crucial realisation at a time where its only consequence is to further destabilise Peggy into hallucinating a more dramatic fate. It’s a sad, but necessary twist – a meaningful consequence of the couple’s criminal actions, the inevitable conclusion of their luck, and a final reminder to Peggy of the genuine harmfulness of her delusions.
Peggy, too, gets a very appropriate ending. The scene where she hallucinates Hanzee smoking them out, only to find Lou and Ben on the other side, is a terrific one, allowing Kirsten Dunst to really emphasise the manic, desperate attempts of Peggy to shape the narrative to a more palatable and heroic one, before the mania tragically shifts into grief-stricken horror as Peggy realises the truth about what happened. It’s fantastic work from Dunst, who tackles the huge change in emotions within a short space of time in a professionally seamless manner, capping off a season of routinely superb performances in affecting style. Peggy’s fate, despite the element of karma it provides, is also a sad, melancholic one, with the scene between her and Lou in the cop car encapsulating Peggy’s sympathetic struggle. Her intent is admirable and progressive – to transcend the old-fashioned gender roles of society and become her own woman independent of outside influence – but she’s gone about it in an unhinged, impulsive way that gotten a whole lot of people, including her husband, killed. Ultimately, Palindrome emphasises the sad truth: Peggy’s not mad per se, but she simply lacks the ability to turn her thoughts into something tangible and workable, with her attempts to try and do so only reinforcing the vicious cycle she’s trapped in. She can’t get out of her struggle herself, which turns what could have been a cathartic way of giving an unsympathetic character her comeuppance into a conclusion that undoubtedly lends Peggy a lot of sympathy, as there’s a sense that her struggle will continue long beyond the events of this finale.
And then there’s Mike, whose conclusion is perhaps the saddest of all. It’s set up really well in the couple of scenes in the Gerhardt house, which take pains to underline Mike’s delusions of grandeur – his conviction that his ‘achievement’ has made him into a powerful leader who’s climbed enough rungs on the crime ladder to be able to possess a great deal of authority. And, of course, that’s exactly what Mike gets – total acceptance of his so-called achievement and a shiny promotion in the Kansas City mafia. The fact that said promotion has trapped Mike into a dull, corporate world filled with ‘revenue optimisation’ and 401Ks where the only chance of regaining his former life is vague and intangible is the deliciously ironic capper to it all – Mike’s gotten exactly what he wanted in a sense, but he’s fallen victim to the era’s shift towards big business and corporations. It’s a testament to the sympathy Bokeem Woodbine has imparted into the character that this is less darkly amusing and more tragic – the reduction of a powerful, very competent figure into yet another office drone doing unrewarding and unexciting work. We’ve seen the vibrancy of Mike, so it’s a shame in many ways to see him trapped in such a dull and grey environment, despite the fact that this is also a little amusing in its irony. It’s a great end for a breakout character, seeing Mike warmly rewarded for his achievements in a way that drops him into his own personal hellhole.
The only real element of Palindrome that potentially falters is Hanzee, who escapes and takes on a new name – Moses Tripoli, the guy from season one who headed up the Fargo syndicate and got shot to pieces alongside his entire organisation by a very angry Lorne Malvo. In many respects, this is a good ending for the character – it’s both triumphant, in that Hanzee moves from a racially abused lackey to an empowered leader of men, and tinged with tragedy, especially considering his associate’s comments about empires rising and falling, which are particularly pertinent given that we know Hanzee’s organisation is destined to fall. But in linking Hanzee so explicitly to season one, Palindrome almost becomes gimmicky. Almost everything Fargo’s done in season two has been carefully judged in order to provide a satisfying and substantial payoff, but this twist does feel a little too much like fanservice – a way of linking the two seasons together in a fan-pleasing way that arguably wasn’t entirely necessary, serving as a neat Easter Egg rather than a really meaningful conclusion. It’s not a bad conclusion for Hanzee by any means, but the Tripoli link feels like a bit of a reach – rarely for Fargo, it’s a plot twist that feels inorganic and slightly contrived.
An altogether more satisfying conclusion comes from the three members of the Solverson family. Lou was one of the very few characters guaranteed to survive this season, and this certainty is reflected in the way Palindrome chooses to leave the character. Ultimately, Lou is a simple guy who has his own steadfast beliefs that are basically unshakeable, and can only be reinforced by his experiences. No matter what adversity is thrown at Lou, Palindrome emphasises that he’ll come out of it with very little changed – even after facing down a UFO, Lou refers back to his past experiences in Vietnam for clarity. Patrick Wilson, who’s been quietly brilliant all season, really sells Lou’s reverence for simple heroism founded on kindness and bravery in this speech, and his belief that all men have to protect their families only underlines Lou’s simple, universal moral code that allows him to keep his sanity among those who’ve been broken by their experiences. It’s a nice tribute to a thoroughly likeable lead who’s ably continued the Fargo tradition of purely decent upholders of the law, and a clever inverse of Peggy in a way – while Lou confidently holds onto his beliefs and therefore achieves something of a happy ending, Peggy’s a far less stable character who’s slightly unclear of her own end goals and clouded by her own delusions, subsequently receiving an ambiguous and uncertain ending.
Thankfully, while they’re destined to bite the bullet soon enough, Betsy and Hank made it out of last week alive. Cristin Milioti gets much more to do than in recent weeks here, and she expertly channels the same decency and steadfastness that typifies her husband. Like Lou, Betsy has a somewhat optimistic view of the world, and views the cynical absurdism of writers like Camus as foolish – in a sweet scene that balances out a little of the cynicism that’s typified a lot of this season, Betsy rejects the idea that life is absurd even with the knowledge that she hasn’t got an awful lot of time left. Likewise, Hank gets a slightly more substantial conclusion than expected, with the symbols from episode seven finally explained. The revelation that Hank’s creating a universal language to avoid conflicts over miscommunication is a great one that works on multiple levels, eliciting a variety of emotions. On one hand, it’s a touching reminder of the decency that’s left in the world, and that there’s people out there who are willing to try and fix the world’s innate problems at the ground level. But on another, it’s yet another tragic ending – because, ultimately, Hank’s attempts are futile, pointless and destined to fail. We’ve seen from the movie and the first season that there’s still plenty of Midwestern true crime cases based on miscommunication and mistakes on the way at this point, and Hank’s new language never accomplishes very much. Hank may have tried, but his attempts to try and fix the world’s conflicts focus on just one aspect, and are therefore doomed to make an infinitesimal object. However, as Palindrome hints, perhaps the fact that Hank has tried is enough – it’s the decency and the thought that counts, rather than any major end result.
Fargo faced a huge challenge in topping its impressive first season, but it’s surpassed itself in its sophomore season, crafting a richer and deeper story that’s always felt more balanced – rather than development and depth being concentrated in a handful of main characters, we’ve had scores of surprisingly fleshed out characters that have all played surprising roles as the season’s gone on. It’s provided a twisty story that’s been engaging from start to finish as a long-form story but has always delivered episodes that are individually satisfying hours of entertainment, and it’s possessed an absolutely first-rate cast, all of whom have given their all here. There have been a few stumbles here and there, but this has been one hell of a season. Why is spring 2017 so far away.
Palindrome is an appropriately bittersweet, melancholy conclusion that provides just enough closure without undercutting the messiness this season has worked hard to instil. I could have done with a slightly less gimmicky send-off for Hanzee, but Noah Hawley et al ended things well here.