This season of Fargo enters its second act with a bang, or, more specifically, the crack of a high powered rifle shot. The shootout in the woods that opens “The Gift of the Magi” is as brutal and shocking as the show needs it to be: the death of one silent Kitchen brother as well as Joe Bulo, a character who the writers invested no small amount of time and effort in, achieves the intended effect of telling the audience that no one is safe from now on, a sense of danger that is then exploited to great effect over the rest of the episode and its sequel.
While not unique to anthological series, the ability of violence-centered television shows to kill off major characters at any point during a season is best exhibited by these self-contained stories. To put it bluntly, there are economic and narrative constraints on long-running series whose setting and characters carry over from season to season. Actors get signed to contracts and writers get married to characters in ways that preclude certain narrative outcomes. This results in a phenomenon that I call “final season teleology,” which is to say that during the final season of a long-running series, major characters become disposable in ways that they never were before. Shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost, and The Sopranos all fall victim to this trope, though some more than others, by killing off characters who have lived through countless dangerous situations in previous seasons. While there are counterexamples, such as “Wild Bill” Hickok’s demise early in Deadwood and Ned Stark’s beheading in Game of Thrones, it is incredibly rare for a continuous narrative show to kill off major characters before a show’s final season. The rule of thumb is that if a character is introduced in the first season, they will live until at least the premiere of the last season.
However, in anthology series, the writers have the freedom to treat every character equally, which in turn allows for situations to seem more dangerous than those on long-running series. Take, for example, the shootout in the butcher shop that closes out “The Gift of the Magi.” Charlie’s fumbling first attempt is fraught with tension because we know that no matter who walks out of that establishment alive, the characters will all be gone in five short episodes. There’s no chance that Ed or Charlie or Noreen will come back next season, so they’re all in the actual danger of both the diegetic and narrative varieties (by which I mean that the actual danger of the situation in which the characters find themselves is mirrored by the chance of being removed from the narrative itself). When the showdown actually takes place, every bullet and cleaver swing holds the kind of danger for the characters that such actions actually hold in real life. Contrast this with shootouts in shows like Sons of Anarchy or Justified, where main characters dodge or absorb hundreds of rounds of ammunition without the audience ever feeling like they might simply get shot in the head and die on the spot, and you begin to understand the power of the anthology series.
The violence in “Rhinoceros” is even more affecting. The twin conflicts between Peggy and Dodd and Lou and Bear feel equally dangerous yet resolve in opposite manners. First we get to see Dodd’s stupidity go up against Peggy’s “touched” ingenuity in one of the best action scenes of the season. The moment we are shown the full extent of Peggy’s Collyer Brothers-style basement we know that she has the upper hand, but Dodd, with his mixture of male chauvinism and pure brutish confidence, enters the maze anyway, although the setting puts him so on edge that he shoots one of his own men by accident and abandons his trademark cattle prod to squeeze through a tight spot. The result is an R-rated version of Home Alone, with cracked skulls and electrical burns instead of splattered paint and snowballs, and the episode resolves without showing Dodd’s ultimate fate.
Bear is smarter than his older brother, or at least less impulsive, a revelation on which the episode’s second standoff turns. The tête-à-tête between the enraged Gerhardt and the drunk barrister in front of the police station is one of the most tense and strangely believable scenes in the show to date, as the inebriated Karl Weathers makes a series of legalistic arguments as to why leaving the State Trooper station would be the best thing for Bear and Charlie. The audience watches Bear slowly realize just how far out of hand the situation has gotten as each one of Karl’s points hits home. As the season progresses, Bear is being revealed as the smartest of the Gerhardts, the only member of the family who seems willing to look beyond his immediate circumstances and consider the ramifications of his actions. The real tragedy is that Charlie seems to take more after his uncle than his father.
Another unresolved thread from “Rhinoceros” is the shootout at the Gerhardt compound, which is the inevitable result of Simone’s betrayal. Mike Milligan’s revenge for Joe Bulo is swift and brutal, and is likely to end with a complete eradication of the female Gerhardts as well as the ailing patriarch. If, however, the writers decide to let any Gerhardt present at that ambush live, the show will not be taking advantage of its anthological format; after all, like with Dodd, ending the episode without showing the aftermath of that violence hints that someone is still alive.
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Mike Milligan’s pre-massacre recitation of the Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky” is a rare misstep in Fargo’s writing. The poem’s content is nonsense that hints at violent conflict, which is already very on-the-nose, and Milligan’s dry reading superimposed over imagery of battle preparation comes across as incredibly heavy-handed and self-important. Compared with the show’s normally erudite influences, “Jabberwocky” is the equivalent of a Brittany Spears song being played on the soundtrack, a pop culture intrusion that feels out of place. Whereas Noreen’s obsession with The Stranger fits her youthful character, the Mike Milligan we’ve come to know and love seems more likely to be entranced by Joycean nonsense than the Carrollian brand, and thus his deadpan reading of the childish prose feels out of character.
The “Jabberwocky” inclusion is rendered more unfortunate for coming on the heels of the graceful O. Henry reference in “The Gift of the Magi.” The episode title refers to a famous short story which the Blomquists act out: Ed finally agrees with Peggy that leaving Luverne is the right idea just as Peggy changes her mind and makes motions towards staying in town, consequences be damned. Their actions are an ironic retelling of the eponymous tale, which, for the Blomquists, ends with flashing red and blue lights instead of gentle irony. In a more obtuse vein, “Rhinoceros” is likely a reference to a play by Camus contemporary Eugène Ionesco, in which the inhabitants of a French town all slowly turn into the titular creature, yet here there is no parallel quite as obvious as the O. Henry one from the previous episode. Compared with such lofty and relatively obscure references, the inclusion of Carroll’s most famous poem is disappointingly pedestrian, although the fact that I am able to compare the relative quality of Fargo’s literary references is itself a form of praise for the show.