A review of this week’s Fargo, “Lay Away,” coming up just as soon as just as soon as Jonah says there’s a big fish out there somewhere…
“There are people you can kill, and people you can’t.” —Ebal Violante
This season of Fargo opened with five episodes in a row that clocked in at around an hour without commercials, meaning anyone watching live on FX on Sunday nights wasn’t done until around 11:30 P.M. Both “Lay Away” and last week’s “Camp Elegance”, by contrast, run around 45 minutes, closer to traditional, basic-cable length. But the relative brevity of these recent installments actually makes them feel more laborious than their longer, denser predecessors.
“Lay Away” is pretty much all plot, with a bare minimum of the character and stylistic flourishes that tend to make Fargo feel like Fargo (or like a half-dozen other Coen brothers films). There are again brief hints of a supernatural power — the Smutny family ghost popping the lid of a coffin while Ethelrida is watching Loy’s men use the mortuary as their new warehouse, or Oraetta Mayflower appearing to have glowing angel wings for a moment as she watches Dr. Harvard gag on the poisoned macaroons she’s fed him — but mostly the story boils down to the lead gangsters making threats and counter-threats, telling lies, and plotting moves.
Or, rather, the episode is mostly the suggestion of plot, rather than actual movement of it. Outside of Loy deciding to set Gaetano free — perhaps to prove the point that he’s not the animal the Italians take him for, or perhaps because he can tell just how badly Josto wants his brother to be dead — precious little of consequence happens. It’s almost all setup for whatever’s coming next, rather than something interesting in the moment. Loy whipping Leon with a belt for overstepping is a memorable scene(*), and it’s fun to see both Buel Cannon pull a shotgun on Constant Calamita and the lady outlaws taunt Odis. Mostly, though, the episode feels like a collection of deleted scenes surrounding one or two important moments that could just as easily have been placed in the episode before or after.
(*) Loy repeatedly demanding that Leon say Doctor Senator’s name is evocative of the famous Muhammad Ali fight against Ernie Terrell, who had made the mistake of referring to Ali as Cassius Clay. As Ali savagely beat on Terrell, he kept asking, “What’s my name?”
It’s here where we need to talk about Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman. The idea of Fargo casting Rock in a dramatic role as a Fifties gangster got everyone excited when it was first announced. Of course we got excited. It’s the kind of outside-the-box choice this show has made with great results in the past. It was hard not to think of how well Rock would do as a Mike Milligan type, even if we didn’t know then that he would be playing father to a kid who seems likely to grow up into the actual Mike Milligan. And there’s a long history of comedians like Robin Williams and FX alum Dennis Leary turning out to be strong dramatic actors when given the chance. Rock, though, has been hit or miss. He’s strong with the monologues, as you might expect, but he only sometimes seems to be engaging with his co-stars when Loy is in conversation (the “acting is reacting” part seems his toughest challenge), and he doesn’t quite have the gravitas you’d want for a character meant to be as powerful and crucial to the story.
Rock at least has his moments, where Schwartzman just seems miscast. Josto never seems dangerous, which may be the point of things — he’s the entitled failson who only got the big job by inheriting it — but renders a big imbalance in almost every scene he’s in. And if he’s primarily meant to be comic relief, it doesn’t help that Oraetta and Gaetano (two of his primary scene partners) are both inherently more ridiculous characters.
So, an episode that’s mainly about Loy and Josto barking at one another plays into many of this season’s weaknesses, particularly when it sidelines some of the more compelling figures, like Ethelrida and Deafy.
The good news is that we’re just about out of this Frankensteined-together middle portion of the season, with two much stronger episodes immediately following. But it’s been a bit of a slog to get through this stage of things.