Fargo season 2 episode 5 review: The Gift Of The Magi

Fargo season 2 offers up a detailed exploration of violence in The Gift Of The Magi, feat. a bonus appearance from Bruce Campbell...

This review contains spoilers.

2.5 The Gift Of The Magi

There are times that I check the running time of an episode of Fargo just to see whether it’s actually four hours long. This isn’t because the fifty-odd minutes tend to drag, quite the contrary, but because the writers seem to cram so much into every edition and still appear to take their time in doing so. The Gift Of The Magi, for example, managed to examine the commission of violence, in some considerable detail, through two separate lenses.

The early shoot-out offered a look at violence through the eyes of the victims (if the brutal KC mob could ever earn the soubriquet ‘victims’, it was here). Fast, bloody and utterly frenzied, the assault came as a complete surprise to Joe Bull and his crew, whose arsenal did very little to protect them. From the viewer’s perspective, the action had a cruel and balletic beauty, blood arcing over the snow in deliberate slow motion. The action came quickly, with heads, bodies and limbs exploding in frantic anger, and slowly, with the miniature tragedy of the injured man facing his end at the hands of a Kitchen brother. It was a necessary reminder that entertaining violence is still violence.

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A further reminder came in the later scene that looked at violence from the perspective of the (only partly willing) perpetrator. As we saw last week, the Gerhardt boys tend to get an early introduction to wet work and are left with no illusions as to the necessity of getting their hand dirty. For some, such as Dodd, this is an activity and lifestyle to be warmly embraced. For Charlie, the difference between the glamorised family stories and the actual moment of action is as great as, well, the difference between watching bloodshed on TV and actually being there when it happens. The butcher’s shop scene was superbly handled and well performed by Allan Dobrescu, who perfectly carried Charlie’s naive terror as the practicality of murder hit home. ‘No witnesses’ is a fine instruction until you actually meet a witness and find yourself in friendly conversation with her.

Of course, Charlie is still a Gerhardt and failing in his mission means a return visit so that he can fail again later. The second time around is an even bigger disaster that not only manages to screw things up more deeply for the Gerhardts but also sees Ed Blomquist’s dreams literally go up in smoke. Ed is also a newcomer to violence but with a capacity for improvisation that gets him through the moment, even if the aftermath is a little tough to live with.

This post-violent melancholy isn’t restricted to those who are unused to its demands. Mike Milligan, whose tendency to reflection often strikes a more playful tone, was fully given over to despondency as the cost of his work became apparent. Bokeem Woodbine has been doing sterling work as the velvet voiced enforcer, but he’s never been better than in this scene, in which he managed to be at once rueful and threatening.

This tone is maintained, albeit for rather different reasons, through the slow anti-progress of live with the Solversons. The burden of Betsy’s illness is taking its toll and a need for some sort of relief is palpable. Betsy clings onto the hope that her symptoms mean that her pills are viable ones and that if she’s feeling bad now, then it’s all for a better purpose. Lou, who has the opportunity for distraction in his busy work schedule, is nonetheless stuck for advice. He seeks it in the then California Governor, Ronald Reagan (a marvellously subtle comic impersonation by Bruce Campbell) but finds the future president’s words to be nothing more than empty sloganeering, an ersatz wisdom as genuine and earned as the old man’s war record.

If inadequate for Lou, Reagan’s appearance at least offers some respite for the audience; presenting opportunities for comedy amid the carnage. The perpetually politically confused Karl Weathers is moved to tears by the politician’s carefully crafted speech and can only maintain his ordinary cynicism in short bursts. His enthusiasm provides the episode’s best joke, and best response, in Lou’s insistence that he’s not going to ask his principal about Joan Crawford’s crabs.

It’s nevertheless a minor break from the episode’s central melancholy and, crude as it was, well-judged in relation to the the overall tone. Events continue to escalate, fortunate positions are exchanged and the multi-party tragedies spin yet further to their conclusion. 

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Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Fear And Trembling, here.