Fargo Review: The Gift of the Magi

Whatever comes, we’ll deal with it or it’ll deal with us. — Ed Blumquist

Well, that was fun! It was intense, it picked its spots, but it once again proved that along with The Leftovers, Fargo remains the best in-season show on television. We’ve talked since the beginning of how obvious the “bad” would be in the life of the Blumquist family, and guess what, that escalation finally came in a hellacious crescendo to a powerful hour of Noah Hawley’s story that again, like Sisyphus two weeks ago, focused on inevitability, though this time with one direct line to the concept in addition to those that required more thought.

You just have to feel for Ed Blumquist, less so for his wife, only because she seems so dense and at times also incredibly selfish, usually through external manipulation. But this guy, he just wanted to own a butcher shop, have children with his wife, and provide for them. How do we know it’s what he wants? He says it, verbatim, calling it the American dream. In 1979, especially in a small town — where life was painted with a veneer of simplicity — it’s a noble goal.

Going a bit deeper, there’s a question as to what Fargo’s cast and crew wants their audience to believe about the issue. Peggy Blumquist herself (well, not her, but the actress that portrays her), Kirsten Dunst, raised the ire of many women who took offense to her personal desire to be submissive and doting to her husband. But, for Kirsten, that was her dream, and opinions outside of it are absurd, because her decision doesn’t change anything for any of her detractors.

Ironically, Peggy is the exact opposite, as she wants what she wants, regardless of tradition. In the case of Ed Blumquist, his dream is perfectly fine, though it might alter the individual hopes of his wife, who, thanks to Constance, believes she is destined for far more. So there’s a difference between the coincidental reality of Dunst’s life and the fictional construct of the show.

Speaking of destiny, let’s talk about Bruce Campbell for a minute. Burn Notice has not one, but two alumni on the Fargo cast, with Jeffrey Donovan doing a great job playing Dodd Gerhardt and Campbell as Ronald Reagan, embroiled in the campaign trail on the lead-up to the 1980 election fight with Jimmy Carter. The hour began with Reagan on the stump, speaking to a small group in Luverne, with Lou Solverson on his protection detail. Fargo is such a stud when it comes to marrying multiple angles or juxtaposition of ideas, characters, locations, or emotions, and Bruce plays a perfect Coenish version of Reagan. The voice is close enough to make it work, but it’s impossible not to see a little subtle humor in just about anything Campbell does.

Here, as Reagan speaks in Minnesota, many of his words reflect the bloodbath currently taking place in Fargo as the war begins between the clan Gerhardt and the Kansas City mafia. Hanzee Dent continues to be more Anton Chigurh by the minute, as he says little, stares with menace in his eyes, and appears as an increasingly malevolent, almost supernaturally dangerous force. The Bulo-Dent moment is chilling. Hanzee takes out a half-dozen of the opposition without much trouble, including one of the Kitchen brothers, which sadly eliminates Mike Milligan’s ability to tell the shoe size joke ever again, because one middle finger is one middle finger, and there’s no way to explain it away.

The biggest casualty, by far, of the early struggle, is Joe Bulo. It was somewhat unexpected, if only because as television watchers, we’re accustomed to major players finding ways to escape even the most perilous situation. Anthological storytelling enables anybody to be on the chopping block, or at least puts every character on a level where no one has to survive at the end of the season. Also, it makes it a bit more difficult to determine exactly who really IS important.

The biggest ramification to Bulo’s death is the danger it creates for Dodd’s daughter, who hoped to go sphincter diving with Mike, but instead received a beautifully crafted, threatening set of words, accompanied by the uncomfortable silence of the Kitchen that made it through the initial battle. Simone is in a really ugly spot, and Dodd still doesn’t realize she’s diddling that infernal Mike Milligan. He’s going to need another glaaaaazed donut to get through it. Maybe two.

Milligan wasn’t in a joking mood, but his brief screen time still provided a great soliloquy to the offspring of the enemy. This is a guy who loves this life, sees the opportunity for advancement in front of him, but also can flip a switch and become a REALLY bad guy, without the Xavier Woods one-liners.

The two most telling scenes of “The Gift of the Magi” take place through two one-on-one conversations. Ed Blumquist talks to his wife, and then engages in a chat with Noreen Vanderslice.

We return to Sisyphus, as Peggy is ready to run and Ed basically uses several sentences to say, “It is what it is.” Nothing changes in Ed’s dream. His life has taken a nasty turn over the past week or so, but he’ll be his own boss, he’ll be a father, and he’ll love his beautiful bride. Peggy is scared, but she’s also thinking of having that future for herself that doesn’t include a butcher shop, or perhaps even a son or daughter.

Together, I believe you and I can keep this rendezvous with destiny. — Ronald Reagan

Even more foreshadowing comes in the shop as Ed recites his dream, much to the dismay of his young colleague, who mentions that people often say to her, “Noreen, you’re morose.” That’s accurate, as she’s the partner Sisyphus didn’t have, the one that could make it clear that the stone will roll back down the mountain every single time, so why even bother. She tells Ed that everyone’s going to die in the end, so there’s really no reason to worry about money or being a manager or having a family. We’re all on borrowed time. No one outruns the reaper. He remains undefeated. What’s the point in trying to find happiness?

For Noreen, who seems to fall for Charlie (and vice versa) immediately, perhaps she is approaching an answer. The end doesn’t mean the ride to the destination has to suck. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. Charlie is either dead…or almost dead, and Noreen was right there to watch it all unfold after he pulled the gun in the shop. So, melancholy and doom and gloom wasn’t exactly out of bounds.

Ed, still trying to find positivity in it all, is the embodiment of the voters Reagan targeted, affected, and successfully converted in 1980 and 1984. He believes in the basic, tried-and-true American dream. Flip to Lou in the bathroom asking Reagan what he should do about his wife’s stage three lymphoma. Reagan, a seasoned politician, says the following:

Son, there’s not a problem on this earth that can’t be solved by an American, and I truly believe that.

When Lou nods and says “Yeah, but how,” he’s speaking to the specifics that were absent from Reagan’s soaring rhetoric. What’s funny here is that Reagan spoke with definitive ideas often, and was pointedly critical of large concepts, but not in this depiction. It’s not a political statement, or if it is, it’s secondary to the truth that this Hawley version of Reagan fits the story and he also helps to explain the mentality of an Ed Blumquist. The real Ronald Reagan was also a gifted speaker, able to captivate a room, even ones that might possibly be hostile. After all, Karl Weathers still shook his hand, even though he did a movie with a monkey. Undignified, but he was star struck.

(I did think of Trump’s candidacy and tendency to never have a plan, just charged, sweeping phraseology. However, Reagan is still portrayed generally as a good guy, particularly for a politician. That point aside, Fargo is occasionally more up-to-date than its 1979 setting.)

As heavy as much of the episode was, this show always finds a source for levity and humor. Ed Blumquist: The Butcher of Luverne, literally. The Gerhardt family’s misunderstanding of “butcher”, thinking Ed is more Daniel Day Lewis than Jesse Plemons (and Landry Jesse, not Todd Jesse) is hilarious. What’s even funnier is Ed still handling his business, saving Noreen, killing one, perhaps two, and escaping the inferno in the shop. The way Blumquist continues to stumble into heroic moments, or ones where he makes very un-Ed decisions is another perfect example of Fargo’s ability to match familiar with oddity and displaying the quirks that live as bones in everyone’s closets.

Then, Ed figures out that it might be time to bounce.

And, it’s too late.

Aw geez.

This is going to be a deal.

Usually, the closing music of an episode isn’t a major focus, unless David Chase or Kurt Sutter is your show-runner. But, Fargo did something almost nothing ever has…it sent me immediately to iTunes to purchase a song. The music selection was so good, with such a tremendous riff and beat, that I had no choice. (Billy Thorpe’s “Children of the Sun,” just to save you a search.)

Also strong is the homage to the Coen Fargo as Jeff Tweedy sings “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight.” Jose Feliciano’s original version was featured in the film. (I’m almost positive it’s Tweedy. I can usually spot his voice almost immediately, though I couldn’t confirm it.)

The interstitial tune spottily matches the uncertainty in Peggy Blumquist; whose instinct to stand by her husband overruns the Constance devil likely perched on her left shoulder, but not until the last second. And, just like Ed’s decision was too late, so was his wife’s, as she sells her infamous Corvair to get the butcher shop payment mere hours before the establishment burns to the ground.

We’re halfway home on the path through Fargo’s sophomore season, which thus far has been better than the first…and that one was my favorite program of 2014, along with The Leftovers and The Americans. The atmosphere, the intensity level, everything has ramped up.

At this point, I’m going to sick Dodd on you…check that…I’m going to send Hanzee after you…if you aren’t watching. It’s so much fun, every week, and so well written, well paced, and well constructed. Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedevi’s script was strong, and Jeffrey Weiner navigated and punctuated the big and small moments smoothly, and with artistic flare.

Fargo is why we love TV. It’s why we love stories. It’s why we’re mesmerized by fiction.

I’m @GuyNamedJason on the Tweets. Find me there. I’m also called morose, but I’m not a big fan of Halloween, mainly because I hate holiday episodes of television shows, particularly ones trying unsuccessfully to gross me out or scare me. True story. Well, not the “morose” part, which was a callback. So was the Halloween reference, but the opinion on said day…was all me.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.