‘Fargo': Michael Stuhlbarg Steals the Show as Sy’s World Goes Sideways

     May 17, 2017

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Though there was plenty of symbolism and graceful scenes of woe, violence, and domination, Fargo‘s “The House of Special Purpose” was primarily a work of utility. That is to say that the point of the episode was to guide us through a series of plot points, even as the episode proved to be ensconced in the familiar dialectic and aesthetic proclivities that have become a type of signature for Noah Hawley. And yet, for all the sadness and regret that was evinced while Sy witnessed Nikki being beaten or as Emmit mourned the end of his marriage, the episode felt as if it sped by without leaving any lasting impression other than moving the story forward an increment.

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Image via FX

The fact that the episode featured less Gloria scenes than the last few may have something to do with this. As written by Bob DeLaurentis, the episode went about making clear that Gloria and Winnie, her colleague in blue from St. Cloud, are onto what happened with Maurice LeFay, Ray Stussy, and poor old Thaddeus Mobley. In a scene wherein Gloria argues with her superior about the usefulness of her investigation, the folly and importance of storytelling was once again underlined via a “true story” about a girl with a red balloon but the overall feeling didn’t change, no new insights offered on the characters or their relation to the narrative. The exchange felt like the last two scenes in which Gloria and her boss butted heads, and their side of the story seemed to end up in essentially the same place as it was when the episode started.

Of course, DeLaurentis is under no obligation to offer an easy sense of change in their working relationship where there isn’t one, but the whole scenario felt engineered solely as a way to keep things moving while also aiding in the plotting of Emmit and Ray’s tango. The escalation of their war was at the heart of this episode, beginning with the botched blackmailing scheme involving a falsified sex tape made by Nikki and Ray. This highlighted another favored thematic conflict of Hawley’s, namely how uncontainable personal desires often short-circuit best-laid plans, especially those involving money, family, and crime. The separation of business from held beliefs and yearnings doesn’t work out so well when your sister-in-law can’t help but look at the DVD meant for her husband.

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Image via FX

In Emmit’s case, his personal grievances are taken care of by others, particularly Varga, his henchmen, or Sy. As a result, the actions taken to ensure he’s being represented often come off as brutalist or juvenile, even in the face of having a woman leave her bloody tampon in your top drawer. (There’s something fascinating about bodily fluids in this series that’s hinted at in the World’s Greatest Dad mug scene and last week’s scenes involving Varga vomiting, a feeling of Varga taking something useful and making it gross and without value in the name of it being marked by him.) So, when Sy gets macho, the problem is only worsened and Emmit is made to look like a petty man, whereas the near-fatal beating of Nikki by Varga’s henchmen make him look cold, uncaring, and without a single scruple.

The one scene that seemed to exist outside of the mechanism of the plot was Sy’s meeting with Ms. Goldfarb (Mary McDonnell of Battlestar Galactica) at the Bear Lounge, in which Sy spoke of feeling as if he had “left the known world” after being humiliated by Varga and his men. Michael Stuhlbarg, a performer who has a long history of being one of the best parts of any given movie or TV show, from A Serious Man to Arrival, was the clear MVP of the episode for this scene alone, talking desperately and honestly while attempting to keep up a smiling face for a prospective investor. When he arrives at the table, he’s looking for someone to relate and for a moment, Goldfarb suggests that she knows what he’s talking about, thanks to the death of her late husband who gave her business advice with his dying breath. Ultimately, however, her position returns to a place of heartless, direct capitalism as she warns him that he can either sell her Stussy Lots Ltd. in its entirety or get ready to have some serious competition. The feeling of helplessness that Stuhlbarg conveys in this scene is echoed in the haunting shot of him watching Nikki get beaten and they share a melancholic, convincing point: if you’re going to act tough, you better be ready to make tough decisions.

Rating: ★★★★

Television