This review contains spoilers
1.2 The Rooster King
The routine is old and familiar. One character tells a gruesome or emotionally challenging story to someone who listens patiently before asking about an item of inconsequential detail. The storyteller always knows the answer, however implausible that knowledge may be. Thus we know that Vern Thurman’s old boss was drinking a strawberry milkshake on the day that a hailstone the size of a softball dropped right out of the sky and stoved his head in right outside the Dairy Queen. The inference is clear. These people are so inured to gruesomeness that the thing itself is less interesting than the details that surround it. Like I said, it’s old and familiar. All the same, it’s a rather odd attitude for a pregnant widow to take.
Unless, of course, the pregnant widow exists in an offbeat milieu in which quirky little homilies sit cheek-by-jowl with agents of almost satanic malevolence. You know, the kind of place in which a grieving son can sit on the stairs at his own mother’s wake and play silently with a toy rifle, as Gordo Nygaard did this week while his father and uncle discussed plans for rebuilding their lives. It’s one of those background details that Fargo does so well, particularly in the establishment of character. Take Stavros Milos, the self-declared American Phoenix and Mercado Rey, explaining the background to his blackmail with a crown projected above his head and with his supermarket butchers chopping huge sides of meat through two-way mirrors, giving him the impression of a discount store Bond villain. He and his family of bitter soon-to-be-ex wife and grinning idiot son are among the more vividly drawn characters but are nonetheless freighted with malice.
Fargo treads a deft line between darkly comic and lightly tragic, so deft in fact that it’s hard to tell one from the other. Exhibit A: Lorne Malvo’s casual intimidation of Milos’ enforcer (his er, ‘fire hydrant’). No naked aggression, no demonstrative eyeballing, just a casual, moderately noisy dump. So too was his gentle intimidation of the post office clerk, throwing in asides about finding a human foot in a toaster oven amid his whispered inistence. Newcomers Mr Numbers and Mr Wrench are similarly casual in their approach, as content to make lengthy sign language asides about the absence of libraries as they are to push a man to a frozen death in a newly-drilled ice hole.
That grim demise was set against a wide shot of the snowy white Minnesotan expanse, a shot that bookended the episode, suggesting that our first impressions of the virginal blankness is incorrect and that the only thing separating us from the reality of the situation is the knowledge that some Very Bad Things are going down.
Such knowledge is itself dangerous and there is, despite the apparent casualness, an emotional cost. We’ve only seen Lou Solverson a couple of times, but he’s already developing a theme of actutely worried father, which is hardly surprising given that he still limps from his own misadventure with a bullet. Molly’s determination to see all these murderous shenanigans as ‘more than coincidence’ might exasperate Oswalt but it terrifies her father. Keith Carradine, an actor who excels in giving his characters the sense of a long, weary ache, was heartbreaking in his folksy suggestion that ‘the only risk teachers face is truancy’. It was delivered, like so many of his lines, as a warning post hoc. He knows better than anyone that Molly is going to slip further into dark territory for the sake of doing the right thing. All he can do is be there for her when she does.
Gus Grimly, another doting father of a spirited daughter, is similarly torn. His encounter with Malvo has stung his conscience and he finds it difficult to reconcile his two duties in the face of an understated but palpable threat. The essence of the trouble is that the dread is without definition, the true danger unknown. Eating his dinner of burger, nuggets (and dipping sauce, remember?) he is unable to articulate the problem because it is as yet unknown. Like Old Man Solverson, he’s reduced to circumlocution. Circumlocution and fear. He will, no doubt, find a more direct route to expression before long and the real danger will make itself known. There’s no point in worrying too much about it. It’ll come when it comes, without warning out of a blank sky. Like a hailstone when you’re just trying to enjoy a nice creamy milkshake. Astrawberry one, probably.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, The Crocodile’s Dilemma, here.
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