This review contains spoilers.
Speaking prior to the debut of the first season of Fargo, showrunner Noah Hawley made the telling comment that he saw his project as less a TV show and more a ‘ten hour movie’. The import was that the show could be enjoyed as a self-contained story, something that needed no external input, such as the promise of a second series and multiple year arcs, to work. His argument has some merit, particularly for TV shows such as his, that take the anthology format and promise a narrative resolution in each season.
As with any creative decision, there are positive and negative aspects to the approach, but ultimately, it’s a valid view and a valid decision for Hawley to make. I thought about this a lot while watching Rhinoceros, an episode that created several opportunities to reflect on it. The self-contained element (or semi self-contained, in this case, where distinct seasons are linked) adds a sense of jeopardy to the lives of characters who won’t be returning next year in any case. It means that, while we know, for example, that Lou Solverson will survive the 1970s, retire from the force and start running the diner, others are not so safe. At this stage in the season it means that even a character as important to the plot as Dodd Gerhardt cannot be considered safe. Especially not when he’s at the mercy of a newly self-actualised Peggy Blomquist and an electric cattle prod.
In her confident wielding of that weapon, Peggy offers another argument in favour of the self-contained narrative; that of swift character development. A multi-season arc provides opportunities for steady progress; a ten hour story just gets on with it. And Peggy has definitely just got on with it. She’s shown a spirit of recklessness from the outset (a trait that she shares with the man at the business end of the cattle prod) but she is now starting to establish a rationale for her behaviour. Finally, through Hank, we get to hear why she took that fateful decision to drive the injured Rye back home rather than to the hospital. “You say it like these things happen in a vacuum, like it’s a test. A or B,” she says to Hank in justification. She was, she thinks, stuck in a depressing domestic limbo just waiting for fate to offer an alternative option and couldn’t resist it when it arrived with a bang one snowy night. Her choice wasn’t the product of a split second’d thoughtlessness so much as a lifetime’s downtroddenness. It’s all a bit post hoc, but her reasons are her reasons and they may at least provide a sliver of comfort as the local war swirls around her and her hapless husband.
That war, by the way, isn’t going to go away any time soon. Peggy’s decision wasn’t made in a vacuum and the fallout from that decision wasn’t made in one either. The accrual of misunderstandings, reputation-saving and plain old revenge have created an environment of chaos in which the simple question of why someone chose a particular course of action is almost redundant. As the bullets start flying and stand-offs made, we find ourselves in the middle of a kind of hyperviolent farce with no clear winners in sight.
It takes a peculiar intellect to cut through this darkling confusion. Fortunately, we have one in the person of Karl Weathers, whose brisk latinate verbs make his dialogue sparkle and add the impression of weight to the utter tosh that he enjoys spouting in his barroom chair. Here, his inebriated eloquence help him to guide the enraged Bear Gerhardt through to the best course of action and to act as a reminder of how much of this aggression is founded on emotional reaction rather than well-considered action.
If it is a ten hour movie, rather than a two hour one, it gives the creative team more room to achieve things. Consequently, a character such as Weathers, who would perhaps warrant merely a cameo in a shorter production, is given room to develop and the space to affect other characters in meaningful ways. His small-town, government-mistrusting, drunk lawyer is a blend of several modern stock characters that works, like everything else in this show, because he is written well, performed well but most of all, he is given the space to show off both of those aspects. He, like this excellent season, is worth every minute of those ten hours.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, The Gift of the Magi, here