'Fargo' Recap: Strikes and Spares

The divine meets the demented – and the show's best-ever first half meets an uneven second act – as the stage is set for a final showdown

'Fargo' brings back some old faces, plays with the fast-forward button and goes up before coming way down. Our recap of an exciting, uneven episode. Credit: Chris Large/FX

This Fargo season has featured Russian thugs and international intrigue à la The Americans; it's been anchored by a terrific Carrie Coon performance, just like The Leftovers. So it's not a surprise that the series continues its tour of prestige TV with a little trip to Twin Peaks, bringing back Leland Palmer himself – actor Ray Wise – as philosophical business traveler Paul Maranne. We last saw Wise's fellow traveler, he was hanging out with Gloria Burgle in a Hollywood bar, watching her shoot down a would-be date. ("We gonna have sex or what?" the suitor asks, to which Burgle replies, "What.") But this time out, he's like another person altogether: a kind of supernatural avenger, determining who's worth saving in this broken world, all while perched in a place outside our reality (similar, in fact to his other show's "black lodge"). Whenever he's on the screen, you feel as if you've accidentally stumbled on to a transmission of an entirely different, must freakier show.

But then this week's episode – "Who Rules the Land of Denial?" – is a pretty odd hour of TV, overall. In terms of this season's overall plot-arc, what happens here is momentous. About halfway through the episode, Sy Feltz drops by his business partner's house on Christmas morning, where Varga steers him into the dining room and serves him a bitter tea. A few scenes later, we skip ahead nearly three months to March of 2011, and learns that the man is in a poison-induced coma. As for Emmit, well, he's slowly going mad with guilt.

After the time-jump, the episode spins its wheels, as though it had reached its pivot-point quicker than intended. Fargo's creator Noah Hawley surely has big plans for the final two weeks, intending to tie together all of this year's narrative and thematic threads – and maybe to connect it all to the previous two seasons even more than he does in this episode's first half. (More on that in a second.) But the back half of this particular chapter becomes fairly tedious, as Emmit's haunted over and over by physical manifestations of his late brother Ray – his wrecked Corvette, his cheesy mustache, their family's rare stamp, etc. These scenes matter primarily for the mystery of who's behind this "Tell-Tale Heart"-ing of the now–million–dollar mogul. (Nikki? Varga? The ghost of his own deceased sibling?) But that's something that still remains unrevealed.

It's also a bummer that Gloria is sidelined so much this week. Partly that's because she was busted down to deputy after the Christmas break, as her new boss Chief Dammik promised. Not that the demotion stops her and Winnie from tailing Emmit to the hospital, whenever he drops by to visit his comatose friend. But given their jurisdiction and orders, there's not a lot the duo can do besides add to Mr. Stussy's anxiety. And even before the unexpected narrative fast-forward, the ex-Chief is stymied in her investigation of Nikki, thanks to another dismissive male cop: a U.S. Marshal who refuses to give her any info on the prison transport wreck that we saw at the end of the previous episode.

So the last half of "Who Rules the Land of Denial?" is mildly disappointing. But that's mainly because the first half is Fargo at its best, thanks to multiple boffo action/suspense sequences and not one but two wonderful, and  wonderfully weird, returns.

The opening returns us to the previous episode's climactic van-crash, and reveals step-by-step how Yuri, Meemo, and a still-unnamed fake cop (played by DJ Qualls) set up a rail-ramp and coordinated a distraction to force the paddy-wagon to flip. More importantly, the replay makes it harder to miss that Nikki's seat-mate on the bus is none other than Mr. Wrench, the deaf hitman who nearly killed Lorne Malvo back in Fargo 1.0. (Someone pointed out online that this makes him the only character to have appeared in all three seasons.) Now five years older but no less crafty, the killer helps Ms. Swango escape the wreckage, setting off a desperate chase through a dark forest in the middle of nowhere.

From the minimal dialogue to the shocking, gory violence, these early scenes serve up premium pulp. Director Mike Barker and credited screenwriters Hawley and Monica Beletsky balance the explicit and the implicit, at times cutting away before showing what happens to the innocent bystanders who stumble into the mayhem (including one couple which slows down to gawk, like in the movie Fargo). At other moments, they make sure we see every arrow penetrating skin, every axe-blow landing in someone's back, every body part getting severed. All of this plays out with no cuts to what any other character is doing besides the fugitives, the men chasing them and anyone in their immediate area. For a while, this is the only story that matters.

It all comes to an unexpected end too, with the two convicts escaping from the Minnesota backwoods, all muddy and bloody, then limping into a strangely hospitable all-night bowling alley. There, Nikki orders a whiskey at the bar, before the camera pulls back and pans over, Big Lebowski-style, to find the dapper Paul. The mystery man orders a sherry (!) before comparing the plight of his new drinking buddy to the trials of Job because, well, it's Fargo. The mysterious Mr. Maranne talks about arcane Jewish spiritualism, and suggests that Ray Stussy's soul has been transferred into a newborn kitten. Then he offers Nikki and Mr. Wrench an escape vehicle, while implying that the universe has judged them and found them to be "on a better path."

But better than what? For an answer to that, look to Yuri, who enters not long after the semi-good-guys leave. He also meets Paul. He is not given any getaway car, however, but a lecture about all his past misdeeds. Finally, courtesy of some Maranne mojo, the Russian thug is confronted with the faces of all the people he wronged. It doesn't appear that the universe is showing him any leniency.

So here's where we are now, heading into Season Three's last two episodes: Gloria has been stripped of her authority. Nikki's on the run somewhere. Varga is still attempting to mollify an increasingly paranoid Emmit with fables and urban legends, reassuring him that, "You won … life." Our heroes and the antiheroes appear to be losing their fight right now, but their nemesis and his stooges don't seem too happy either. Meanwhile, an affable gent named Paul is sitting at a bowling alley bar, waiting patiently to give everyone their due. The ball has been launched down the alley now. How many pins this thing's gonna knock over or leave standing before it's through, no one knows.

Previously: Christmas Evil