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YEAR 3, EPISODE 6: THE LORD OF NO MERCY
Let each man say what he deems truth, and let truth itself be commended unto God. – V.M. Varga
There’s no other way to say it, that was an amazing hour of television. It wasn’t just eventful, it was tense in a very interesting, discernibly heart-pounding way. I was reminded of another Coen Brothers property, namely Joel and Ethan’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, although there was no Anton Chigurh in this story. Actually, yes there was.
So much of “The Lord of No Mercy” was about revenge and covering one’s posterior, with people staking out others, people following and being followed, and yes, a stunning death that came far more quickly than expected. Ray Stussy is no longer with us, courtesy of an accident following a struggle over a framed stamp. It was a horrible way to die, with a glass shard going through the side of his neck. Blood spurted violently from the wound, and then Emmit Stussy had to watch the brother he both loved and feuded with slowly fall to the ground and take his last breath.
What’s astonishingly smart about the way this was done is how Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, who wrote the episode, used misdirection. Nikki was the one in immediate danger, with Varga’s thug holding a garrote in her bathroom. He had his orders, and it was just one word: “Execute.” She was left alone, and she was barely able to walk. She was ripe for the picking, and yet, it was Ray that walked into the lion’s den.
Even more brilliantly, he in fact didn’t walk into the lion’s den. I just wrote a false sentence. There was no king of the jungle in that room. Ray was too dumb to just accept the gift of the stamp outright, too stubborn to accept a positive outcome without playing the victim card, but he was going to end up receptive after the initial kerfuffle. We know how this was supposed to play out, because we saw the meeting in the snow at Emmit’s home a few weeks ago.
With everything that built within this, the shortest episode of the season, the biggest moment of the story thus far came from the most innocuous of arguments. Two brothers tried to push a framed stamp towards the other, with both not wanting to take it, and the freakiest of freak incidents occurred. This was amazing structure, and the pacing and speed with which we ended up inside Ray’s apartment was just perfect.
Everything else that took place tonight was side dressing, with the exception of Gloria and Winnie sitting down with Emmit. For someone intelligent, Varga sure as hell came across like a dunce during that scene. He couldn’t avoid inserting himself in Emmit’s office, and couldn’t stay quiet. He came across to anyone with a functional brain like a shady character with something to hide. When Gloria referred to herself as “Chief,” correcting his “Detective,” you could see she wanted to put the fear of the position (she no longer holds) into him.
Varga is such an intriguing, despicable individual, and David Thewlis is absolutely killing it week after week in this role. I’m not sure he’s getting enough credit for how good he’s been in playing this scoundrel. Varga loves to recite history with his own spin, and does it surprise anyone that he tries to confound Sy Feltz through a claim that the moon landing was faked?
Three stories, the first about Lehman Brothers collapsing, the second about Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, and the third showing Neil Armstrong on a sound stage in New Mexico. It was another terrific Fargo sequence, even if it just makes you hate this pretentious twit that much more by the end. I LOVED Gloria firing back on the 24 Hitler’s talking point with, “24 exactly?” She owned this jerk, and he knew she had him dead to rights.
Referring to the quote I selected at the top of the piece, what an appropriate line that is to represent this season, and this episode specifically. Truth is subjective, which is something we’re seeing throughout the world, but it may have always been true. “History is written by the victors” is said frequently, but it’s accurate. You’re not going to tell the story of what a douchebag you were if you’re the one that wins the fight. Why would you? You’re going to make yourself the hero in the story.
Here’s a quick professional wrestling aside. As many of you know, I worked in that industry for ten years, and still write about it and talk about it for a living. One of the first things people ask me is who I’ve met, who I’ve worked with, and who was an asshole. I always say the same thing, and they’re almost always shocked. Those on television that play the heroes, the ones that are the good guys, they’re the pricks. The meanest of the mean are usually the best people. Incidentally, when I was a character, I was virtually always a heel, never a babyface.
Why is that so? It could be many reasons, but I’ve always subscribed to the theory that many babyfaces are in that position because they refuse to allow themselves to be booed or hated. It isn’t always their decision, and certainly isn’t in the major leagues, but as they’re working their way through the lower rungs, they often demand things. They don’t think it’s believable for them to be the villain, plus they know those guys don’t sell merchandise at the same rates as the white hats. Thus, they are ACTORS in front of people, but when they walk to the back, they say pathetic things.
Quickly, here’s a quick story. There’s a guy you would likely know that’s a big time star today. At that time, he was still on the way up, and we were on a show together in the southeast. While in the locker room, this arrogant piece of garbage said the following statement to himself in front of a mirror just before walking through the curtain to perform. “I’ve got to make sure to fluff my dick for the ladies before I go back out there.” That’s a true story. I was one of the those in the room that witnessed it first hand. And he wasn’t just a fan favorite, he was the top babyface in the company.
That guy was a complete jackwagon, one of the worst at the time, but he walked out to constant fanfare and signed autographs and kissed babies. He was a politician, but he was an awful human being behind the scenes. He was also married and had a child. He was John Edwards without the Lego hair.
What’s so cool about the V.M. Varga character is this man knows he wears the black hat. He might even wear two. It’s possible he rationalizes away his behavior, but he knows he’s a criminal, he’s aware of his problems, and he’s fine with being a rapscallion. Very few bad guys are that self aware. They think they’re in the right. Gargamel isn’t the norm, he’s the aberration. Lord Voldemort isn’t how it usually works. There’s always a REASON for a man like Hitler or Stalin…or Obama or Trump.
So, he’s more like Anton Chigurh than we think, because he’s a malevolent force, a dark cloud sliding through the universe, much in the same way Lorne Malvo was two seasons ago. The difference was Billy Bob Thornton was funny and engaging, while Varga picks his teeth and calls women fat. He also urinates in people’s “World’s Best Dad” coffee mugs and forces their owners to drink the contents. That’s right up there with murdering Harry Potter’s parents in cold blood.
It turns out my thought of the two brothers working together to turn the tables over on Varga isn’t going to come to fruition, but this repeated idea of truth being whatever the powerful says it is permeates through everything. When Varga speaks, he does so with confidence, and thus he’s more believable, despite sometimes delivering nothing but bunk from between his gums. Ray’s death is another such truth that might never be known. We saw it, so we’re ahead of everyone else. Varga believes Emmit can pin it on Nikki, but he hasn’t factored in just how tenacious Gloria Burgle and Winnie Lopez are as police officers.
The problem is for Emmit, who has been a perfect gentleman since moment one this season. He didn’t cheat on his wife, but a fake sex tape still led to her taking the kids and leaving town. He was naive in his dealings with Varga and didn’t understand why it was so easy to obtain that quantity of money. He legitimately wanted to reconcile with his brother. He’s done virtually nothing wrong, but with four episodes remaining in this portion of the anthology, his future is very much in doubt.
Who will believe him? If he crosses Varga, he knows he could be murdered, or perhaps turned in as the killer. The beef over the stamp is something only a few people know, and it sits as leverage to destroy him if need be. What if Mrs. Goldfarb is involved with Varga and we haven’t learned about the connection yet? I doubt it, but I had no idea Ray Stussy was going to die tonight either. Fargo has created a universe with infinite possibilities, although it generally plays out in predictable fashion for the lead heroes and their main antagonists.
This was such a fun hour, such an intense hour, and such a satisfying hour. Fargo hasn’t let me down in Year Three. I have placed it alongside The Leftovers and The Americans as the best show on television since its first season. The Leftovers is now a clear number one, but Fargo is right behind it. This story has gotten better as it’s progressed, and that’s a trend I fully expect to continue as we inch closer to the end of our time in 2010 era Minnesota.
One question as I leave you this week: What the fuck is Nikki Swango going to do once she finds out Ray is dead? And who will she blame? (Sorry, that’s two questions). Answer them anyway.
And, here’s a bible verse that seemed appropriate relative to tonight’s episode title.
For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. – James 2:13
I’m @JMartOutkick. Before you leave, take the frame and the stamp, but leave the glass.