Though ample narrative ground was made in “Who Rules the Land of Denial?,” the eighth episode of Fargo‘s third season proved to be a galvanizing blend of major plot turns and inspired moments of visual braggadocio. It’s also inarguably the most violent episode of this season, boasting a gushing wound from a severed ear, a loud and armed assault on a prison bus, and one bonafide decapitation in the mode of No Country for Old Men‘s gruesome opening kill. This is not to say that there’s a director correlation between the substance of any given episode of Fargo and its body count but there is something to be said about being action-oriented rather than leisurely, ruminative pacing.
Indeed, the episode’s opening movement involving Yuri’s crew attempting to kidnap and assumedly disappear Nikki after flipping her prison transport bus is amongst the most thrilling sequences the series has offered on the whole. There are notes of Miller’s Crossing in the chase through the woods – The Sopranos‘ “Pine Barrens” was also on my mind – but the whole sequence felt unique to Noah Hawley and his creative team of writers and directors rather than yet another tip of the hat to the Coens. The use of dimly lit environs, beginning with the eerie, disorienting opening-credits images and moving into the standoff at the tree stump, emphasized not only the urgency of the chase but the lack of bearings that Nikki and her unexpected partner are working with in the moment.
Speaking of which, how about Russell Harvard‘s return as Mr. Wrench from Season 1? It’s worth noting that it wasn’t clear that Wrench was Nikki’s seat-mate when we first got a gander at the character, though that might have just been my own poor total series recall. It’s also good that not much is made of Wrench’s appearance in the intricacies of the narrative as of yet, that the match-up feels more like the outcome of a delightful whim than an overburdened attempt to connect everything, at least for now. As a result, the reintroduction didn’t slow down the action or require some narrative break to explain where he’s been or what he’s been doing, though that could very well turn up in the last few episodes. Not unlike the aesthetic references to the Coen catalog, Harvard’s appearance was just enough of a good thing to neither be all that effective or pestering.
The reemergence of Ray Wise‘s friendly godlike being was also a small, entertaining, but also somewhat innocuous affair, complete with The Big Lebowski references. It’s similar to the appearance of the UFO in the last season in that it suggests that there is indeed a world beyond the one we know, whether in the metaphysical or up in the uncharted wilderness of space. All the talk was enjoyable enough, thanks to Hawley’s dialogue, but the substance of the exchange between Wise’s heavenly creature and Nikki seemed to boil down mostly to Nikki asking him to put a saucer of beer out for reincarnated cat Ray during the next Gophers game. As a moment of closure, it should have been bigger or more confrontational. As a whimsical signature in the mode of the Coens, it’s suitable but a little too similar to Sam Elliot‘s role in The Big Lebowski.
It’s not long after that meeting at the bowling alley that Sy was poisoned and sent into a coma by Varga, who has seemingly taken over Emmit’s entire life at this point. Hopping forward to March 2011, wherein Gloria is now officially a deputy and Sy is being kept alive by a series of plastic tubes and beeping machines, Hawley and director Mike Barker quickly narrow their scope to specifically focus on Varga’s hold on Emmit and Stussy Lots Ltd. There’s never a moment where the episode feels falsely plotted or especially rushed but there is a feeling that Hawley and Co. diffused their moral tension by cutting forward rather than allowing Emmit’s struggles with Varga and Ray’s death to build to a natural climax. One might say that to do so would render the season’s narrative more traditional or even predictable but what goes down with the red pills and the run-ins with Winnie and Gloria is just as predictable without much in the way of emotional catharsis.
Of course, the point of this might be that Emmit isn’t entirely destroyed over Ray’s death despite the way he’s been talking and emoting in the last two episodes. The overall tone of this season, however, suggests that Ewan McGregor‘s Emmit is somewhere between the desperate greed of Martin Freeman‘s scheming rube in Season 1 and the wild ambitions of Kirsten Dunst‘s oblivious loudmouth in Season 2 – worthy of sincere empathy but also drowning in his own self-delusions. That’s what makes his reactions to his office being full of upside-down two-cent stamps and the banged-up Corvette so weirdly compelling – McGregor reacts both in horror and something like hope, a still-surviving wish that he could trade his riches in for his old life with Sy, Ray, and a loving family. He ends this episode on the verge of confessing, and if there is anything left to sympathize with in Emmit, his discussion with Gloria in the next episode should be a barnburner. Whether it will be just that or not is the question now.