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YEAR 3, EPISODE 2: THE PRINCIPLE OF RESTRICTED CHOICE
The inescapable reality…you’re trapped. Don’t look so sad. By the time we’re done you’ll be billionaires, on paper at least. – V.M. Varga
For the second consecutive week, I’ve spent a decent amount of time researching high level contract bridge, simply to try and relate the title of a Fargo episode to its respective definition in the legendary card game. This week, it was a little more difficult, because to explain restricted choice, one must wade into Bayesian statistics and probabilities. The other illustration comes from the famous Monty Hall Problem, which also arose from a Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode in 2016. It ignited a major argument on the show, and it has been the subject of many intellectual fights for years. Feel free to look it up. I’m afraid to go down that rabbit hole. Okay, maybe I’m not scared to get into it.
As simply as I can explain it, the principle of restricted choice utilizes Bayesian updating to assist a player in determining whether to “finesse” with his or her next play, or whether to go for the “drop.” Finessing is one of the earliest techniques a bridge player learns. It’s frequently used to win an extra “trick,” and here’s a straightforward example.
Bridge is played with four people, two sets of partners sitting across from one another. One team is referred to as North and South, the other East and West. If I’m holding an ace and queen of the same suit, and I’m aware my partner doesn’t have the king, it must then exist in one of the two opposing hands. To finesse would be to play the queen after winning the previous trick, and thus being what’s called the “declarer.” In this way, hoping the player directly before me has the king, a low play either forces it out because it’s all he or she has, or keeps it in the hand for a future trick. Then, I can play the queen and win as the king stays pat. If the king comes out, I play the ace and trump the king. Then, my queen becomes the best remaining card, and I’ve used probability to position myself for an extra trick.
God, I hope that’s right. I know it’s pretty close. Bridge theory and explanation involves language that’s difficult to break down without multiple sources. I think I’d love the game, as I dig spades and this is basically a more complex variation on spades, but reading about it as someone who hasn’t ever played is a nightmare.
Quickly returning to restricted choice, the theory posits that you should play under the assumption your opponent didn’t have options to his or her own moves. Using increasing information, your selections can change, and the probability of success can shift from what’s initially known. In the Monty Hall problem, a game show host offers you what’s behind one of three doors. Behind two are goats, behind the third is a car. You choose a door. He then opens one of the other two doors. He offers you a chance to change your pick. The host will always choose a door with a goat behind it. At that point, mathematical probabilities have proven your chances of winning the car go from 1-3 to 2-3 if you change.
Your original selection’s probability is still the same, because you made it under the original conditions. The new condition doubles the chance you’re right. But, you’re about to argue the conditions of your first choice should change as well. I feel your pain. Do some reading. Bring it up at a dinner party, but make sure you remove any sharp utensils.
What does this have to do with Fargo? This week, Noah Hawley brought his newest cast of characters more clearly into the foreground, and there’s at least a loose association with restricted choice. Taken literally, not theoretically, Emmit Stussy and Sy Feltz are trapped, like the king in the bridge example, because they have zero leverage and have made a prior mistake. That additional information led V.M. Varga to increase the pressure, order or accept the necessary murder of Irv the attorney, and install two of his goons in the Stussy Lots Limited offices. Varga is holding the ace, and though it’s an imperfect comparison, he may not have shown it next. He literally used the word “trapped” to describe Emmit and Sy’s position, and he explains it by saying Americans have watched too many movies and television shows. It’s not always possible to renegotiate or get out of a deal. In this instance, it’s not going to happen.
They’re stuck. Their business, which happens to be cash-based and low technology, is perfect for a money laundering operation, not to mention many other potentially unlawful activities.
Also trapped is Ray Stussy, but it’s because he’s the dummy, and not just in the bridge hand. Nikki Swango may have a “walnut-cracking caboose,” but she’s even more trouble than we thought. Or, maybe we knew, but didn’t expect it to manifest itself quite this quickly. Yes, she spearheaded the plan to drop a 200 pound air conditioning unit on Maurice’s noggin, but that tampon business this week was something completely different. I thought of Orange is the New Black, probably because I’ve been screening The Handmaid’s Tale and Samira Wiley was on my mind.
Here’s where both Michael Uppendahl, who wrote the episode, and showrunner Hawley are a step ahead of many in their field. Nikki told Ray she was on her period to stop him from getting too amorous in the apartment, but it was mainly so as soon as we saw her unbutton her pants, we might jump to the “art” conclusion. Not specifically, but when the new burro decorations were shown, it wasn’t a surprise. It was also vile. This was the first ever “feminine hygiene weapon” in FX history, though not in television history.
But, that’s who Nikki Swango is. She loves bridge, has no problem burning them, and is willing to collapse one on your face if you threaten her way of life in any way. She’s a smokeshow, but she might also be a shitshow. I mean, she’s a criminal, and her entire life centers around a card game your grandmother likes. Ray Stussy absolutely IS a shitshow, however, so the potential champion card playing duo could also end up behind bars or in a casket. Swango has plenty of street smarts, as we see when she instructs Ray on how to handle the Maurice BOLO once it turns up. Her chi isn’t blocked at all, but she’s got a mean streak and seems overly concerned with vengeance or perceived slights than she does the more intelligent brand of self-preservation. If you piss her off, to borrow a term from poker, she can go on serious tilt.
Gloria Burgle’s stepfather is dead, asphyxiated by a dope-addled moron, and she can’t sleep. She’s also now convinced herself he changed his name from Thaddeus Mobley, an award winning science fiction writer whose books appear inside the 82-year-old Ennis Stussy’s metal box, which she found under the floorboards after discovering his body. She’s a bright one, and also has a bit of biting sarcasm when it’s needed.
“They glued his nose and mouth shut. Are we thinkin’ the cause of death’s a cliffhanger?”
She’s being treated like a nobody by the new Chief, who all but calls her a fool when he finds out she doesn’t believe in computers and sees police work in more an old school, shoe leather, pad and pencil fashion. Gloria wasn’t a major contributor this week, but the stage was set to take her to the next step in her investigation. My guess is she ends up in the big job at the end of the season, as Fargo does often go with the happy ending for the innocent characters. She’s not one I expect to see die.
Speaking of death, the funeral director apparently doesn’t believe intact, and doesn’t think before he speaks. “She’s in 21-J in ash.” Wow.
The “blood feud” was so very close to being over. Ray was so convincing as he tried to bury the hatchet with his brother. Sure, it was to distract Ennis while Nikki attempted to gank the stamp, but in hilarious fashion, Ray actually meant what he said. Ewan’s acting indicated it was more than just a snow job, because Ray isn’t that clever. He might be devious, but I can’t imagine he’s a great actor, so after the handshake, it was obvious Ray Stussy was serious and “bygones” was more than just a word. But, of course, the tampon, and now Ray is dead to Ennis, and his car is dead to Sy’s SUV. The gloves are off. “D-O-N-E.”
More misunderstandings in Minnesota, as Nikki took the burro to be a mental game, but in fact, the cleaning lady damaged the stamp frame, and he was having it repaired. Here’s another mistake that leads to Nikki’s bold move and the decimation of a Corvette. Ennis and Sy didn’t realize one erroneous loan could turn the Parking Lot King of the Midwest into a front for overseas criminals that tell horror stories about the Danube.
Within each year of Fargo, we see a very normal, unspectacular small town, filled with colorful people and funny accents. When Varga describes Fargo as a place “so perfectly, so sublimely bland,” he’s basically getting to the crux for the series’ success. Abnormal things happening in the most mundane of locations fits Joel and Ethan Coen perfectly, and as V.M. gets into why it’s so wonderful for what he does, it again illustrates Fargo as a whole. It’s unsuspecting, no one thinks twice about it, so he and people like him can get away with anything, literally including murder. In the world of Fargo, anything can happen, and some of it can catch the audience off guard, because even though we know it’s going to go off the rails, it often gets there sooner than anticipated.
However, thus far this is the weakest season, because it does have a very “I’ve been here before” feel to it. I’m still mightily enjoying it, but there’s a small flatness to the proceedings. I suspect it will change, probably very soon, and I’m grading the third year on its outstanding predecessors, but I haven’t been hooked quite as deeply as in the first two seasons. That said, I love it, and Nikki Swango is as good a character as the series has ever brought us. Mary Elizabeth Winstead said it gets wild very early. It’s already pretty close, but I’m hoping for something more unexpected next week.
Also, if it’s cool with Noah Hawley, let’s title the episodes with more simple bridge terms that don’t require Bayesian statistics and hours of research to explain. I kid, but this one was especially complicated. We’ve started with two very good episodes, just not as emotionally cogent or affecting as seasons of the past, but with the promise and potential to supersede those seasons. This is a supremely entertaining world, and as we delve further into it, it’s only going to get better.
I’m @JMartOutkick and at email@example.com. My chi? It’s clear. I can feel it.