Well that was something, huh?
After spending weeks introducing quirky characters and setting up the war between St. Cloud's Stussy brothers, Fargo kicks off the second half of this year's run by tightening its narrative noose – and choking one of its major players to death. Tonight's episode – "The Lord of No Mercy" – continues this season's uncomfortably relevant inquiries into how our world is secretly controlled by cynics who manipulate what we believe. But this was also a refreshingly action-packed episode, with conflicts, close shaves … and one fatal shard of glass lodged in Raymond Stussy's neck.
Let's begin by paying our last respects to Ray, a man of simple desires, who died as he lived: a self-centered sleazeball. The hapless former parole officer is felled by a broken picture frame, containing the rare postage stamp that our man had been trying to acquire since the Season Three premiere. He could've just taken the stamp when his brother Emmit offered it to him. Instead, he's an ungrateful prick, sneering, "You can't give me what was mine from the start." His stubbornness provokes a struggle over the frame, and an accidental throat-slashing.
We should also acknowledge the skills of Ewan McGregor and the Fargo writers, who all season long have made Ray seem more sympathetic than than his sibling, even though it should've been obvious from the start which brother was "the good one." In Episode One, Ray bribed an ex-con, who then killed a total stranger. He later stole 10 grand from Emmit's bank account; and last week, he faked a sex tape that ended up driving Stella Stussy away from her husband. By contrast, the Parking Lot King of Minnesota has always been a pillar of the community, well liked by his colleagues. His greatest crime – in TV drama terms, anyway – is being rich.
Well, that and owing a sizable chunk of money to a nefarious international criminal syndicate. But as this batch plays out, it's become more and more evident that V.M. Varga and his ilk will do whatever they want with whomever they want, regardless of whether their targets are ethically shaky or morally pure.
In fact, if not for Ray's ironic comeuppance, the big reveal in this episode would be just how contemptuous Varga is of anything resembling authority. He shuts down Larue Dollard's investigation of Stussy Lots (for now) by dressing up his henchman/hired muscle Meemo as an attorney and hitting the IRS man with paperwork. To businessmen like Emmit and Sy Feltz, this is madness; it's like an admission of guilt. But the bad guy refuses to play by any government's rules. Like President Andrew Jackson, he dares the state to enforce its laws. (He also smirks at Sy's shocked reaction, saying, "I'm starting to think that finance is more a hobby with you.")
The most galling Varga scene in "The Lord of No Mercy," however, sees him treating officers Gloria Burgle and Winnie Lopez as insignificant pests, easily swatted away. When they arrive at Stussy headquarters to lay out what they suspect about the connection between Ray, Maurice LeFay and the late Ennis Stussy, V.M. barges into the meeting, refuses to give his name and refers to Ray as Emmit's "alleged brother." He describes Gloria's case as her "story," and shoos the cops away before their version of the truth can take root.
All of this calls back to this season's prologue, where an East German official snapped, "We're not here to tell stories, we're here to tell the truth." For a villain as slippery as Varga, those concepts are interchangeable. In this week's episode, he shares Lenin's conviction that great art is dangerous because it can fool us into thinking people aren't fundamentally terrible. (Then, in an echo of The Big Leboswki, he clarifies that he meant Vladimir Illanich Lenin and "not the bloody Walrus.") He also tells Emmit and Sy the cautionary tale of Lehman Brothers' collapse; insists that the moon landing was faked; and explains how Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination was set in motion by a man eating a sandwich. His point is that real-world consequences spring what people believe to be true, whether it actually happened or not.
We're seeing some flaws in his worldview, though – like when he tries to dig up dirt on Gloria, only to find that her name generates zero hits on Google. She also rolls her eyes at him when tries to discredit her Stussy coincidence by pointing out that there were 24 Hitlers in the Berlin phonebook during WWII. "24 exactly?" she asks, shooting holes in what was already a pretty weak argument.
Ultimately, someone as off the grid as Officer Burgle probably won't be as easy for Varga to handle as Ray and Nikki, whose weaknesses have made them tragically predictable. That fateful meeting with Emmit only happens because the couple flees their home too quickly, to avoid another interrogation by Gloria and Winnie. In the rush, they leave their getaway money behind. Ray goes back to retrieve it. Bad move. As the episode ends, he's dead on his floor, while she's on edge after coming within minutes of being murdered in her room by goons. Meanwhile, a dissatisfied Gloria has just turned her cruiser around to return to St. Cloud, where she's about to drive right into the middle of a mess.
Yet for all the excitement and tension in the episode's closing act, the most excruciating moment in the whole hour comes when Varga tells Emmit to pin his brother's death on Nikki, using the beating she took as evidence that her fiancé was abusive. Ray was a crummy human being – but dammit, he loved his woman, not wisely but too well. Why does it hurt to imagine the life of a louse being tainted by a lie? Blame a well-told story, for making us care about a creep.
Previously: Sex, Lies and Videotape