Fargo S03E08 Recap: 'Who Rules The Land Of Denial?'

I have to be honest, this third season of Fargo hasn't roped me in as much as I had hoped it would. Not that it hasn't been great; the acting, music, cinematography and so much more about it have been phenomenal. But seasons one and two of Noah Hawley's unexpected Coen Brothers' adaptation were special, coming together to give us near perfect seasons of television. Comparatively, something's been missing from season three.

It's hard to really put my finger on what exactly that's been, especially considering how damn much of it I actually like. But if I had to put my finger on it, I'd probably point the blame on a seemingly inconsequential, often middling plot that always takes way too long to get anywhere, and maybe the fact that the lion's share of the characters on the show are unbearably incompetent and stupid (and you know it's bad, because character stupidity is something I'll usually defend).

To recap, the plot of the season is basically that brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor) are feuding over a valuable stamp they both lay claim to. Emmit has the stamp and doesn't want to give it to his brother out of principal, while Ray feels entitled to it, so he hatches a bunch of plans to try and get it back and get revenge on his brother, including posing as him to steal money from his bank account, sending his parolee girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to find it, and even sending another criminal to steal it. Each of these schemes ends badly and continues to entangle the police, notably Chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), whose stepfather shares the same last name as the Stussys and winds up dead in a case of mistaken identity. Complicating matters is that Emmit's parking lot business has been overtaken by a criminal organization fronted by one V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), who has been consistently gaslighting Emmit and his partner Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg).

There's some good in there, but the show had mostly been spinning its wheels on most of this stuff for the first six or seven episodes. There was even a whole side-episode following Carrie Coon as she travels to Los Angeles in a vain attempt to learn who her stepfather was. That all changed last week, after Emmit accidentally kills his brother trying to give him back the stamp. Varga and co cover it up by pinning the blame on Nikki and then trying to kill her in prison before she could help Gloria tie things together. The attempt fails, but they try again by crashing the prison bus she happens to be travelling in.

And that's where we find ourselves at the beginning of "Who Rules The Land of Denial?", an episode where everything mentioned above starts to click and come together in the weirdest and most Fargo possible way.

The episode is basically broken up in three acts. The first one is the longest, following Nikki and her new friend Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard, making a surprise reason following his role in season 1). They escape the overturned prison bus and make their escape through the woods while attached via a chain, evading Yuri and, for some reason, a character played by DJ Qualls, before getting the jump on Quall's character and fucking beheading him with the chain, as well as severing Yuri's ear with an axe. They then stumble onto a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere, where the attendant asks no question and Ray Wise's character Paul Marrane from the aforementioned Gloria episode happens to be sitting and waiting for Nikki with a kitten named Ray, proselytizing weird religious sayings and offering them a getaway vehicle before seemingly revealing himself as the figurehead of Varga's operation and getting rid of Yuri.

There's a lot to unpack in this sequence. At a top level, it's just kind of perfect. The chase sequence offers the most bloodshed and action yet in the season, and that's been something that has seemingly been lacking compared to the previous two iterations. But if a severed head-ear combo isn't enough for you, the sequence in the bowling alley is so weird and out of nowhere that it's hard to really know what to make of it. Was it real? Did Nikki and Wrench really stumble onto a random bowling alley that just happens to be open on Christmas morning? Was Ray Wise really sitting there, ready to out-David Thewlis Varga, revealing himself as the mastermind but also questionably letting the people he's trying to kill go, all while convincing Nikki that her dead fiancé has been reincarnated as a cat? Or is all this some sort of metaphor? Did Nikki, Wrench and Yuri all die from their injuries in the woods, making their way to the bowling alley of the afterlife in order to start their journey to heaven and/or hell? It's hard to tell, and it's probably purposely ambigous considering what happens in the second half of the episode, but it's all just fantastic.

Nikki and the gang are seemingly written off because the second half of the episode makes a bold move. After a quick second act in which Gloria gets shut out by US marshals trying to get an eye on the bus scene, Sy tries to visit Emmit only to be blocked by Varga, who very overtly poisons him. Sy falls into a coma, at which point we flash forward two-and-a-half months later to mid-March. The investigation has gone nowhere for Gloria, now demoted to a deputy and resigned to harassing Emmit on her lunch break. Varga is still running the joint, and with no Sy to contradict him, he has Emmit wrapped around his finger.

A wrench in the works appears, however, when someone starts messing with Emmit. Ray's car appears in his parking spot at the hospitals, the photos in his office are all replaced by images of the stamp, and someone sneaks into his house while he's passed out drunk, somehow sneaking passed the dancing Meemo, and sticks a fake mustache on his face. Emmit is convinced his brother is either alive of haunting him from beyond the grave, and even Varga and Meemo seem confused about what's going on, leading us to believe they're either lying and elaborately manipulating Emmit, or that Nikki is alive and orchestrating the whole thing. Either way, it spooks Emmit enough to go against Varga's wishes and go to the police to confess.

The episode weirdly leaves us with more questions than answers, but somehow manages to be perfect. Beyond the action and the continues amazing performances all across the board, it's beautifully shot and presented and discombobulating enough to leave us wanting a lot more. Throw in a couple of unexpected, delightful guest spots and that perfect time jump that somehow accomplishes nothing and this is basically everything we've wanted out of Fargo this season.

What's unfortunate is that we needed to build to this point. This isn't how Fargo was before. Season 2 is basically a perfect ten episodes of television, from top to bottom. Season 3 has been a lot of setup so far, but "Who Rules The Land Of Denial?" proves that it's all been building to something, and for that, it gets 10 mysterious bowling alleys out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • I wonder if there's a specific reason Noah Hawley decided to bring back Mr. Wrench. So far it doesn't seem like there was a specific reason for it, and it even seems a little counter-intuitive for his character, considering how easily he's willing to help Nikki the entire way. I wonder if he was just brought in because the season had no other connection to the series.
  • Outside of a probably too obvious reference to The Big Lebowski with the bowling alley, I didn't see any Coen Bros Easter eggs in this episode, but you have to figure there are plenty.
  • "This is the universe at its most ironic."