Saturday, May 24, 2014

Episode of the Week: Fargo - "Buridan's Ass"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 1, Episode 6
Gus: When a dog goes rabid, there's no mistaking it for a normal dog.  And here we are...we're supposed to be us -- people.  We're supposed to know better.  To be better, you know?
 Molly: Must be hard to live in this world if you believe that.

What a wonderful week of television we've been blessed with.  In the last 6 days, there's been Mad Men's gorgeous "The Strategy," two more installments in Louie's enthralling "Elevator" series, the soul-crushing "Echo" from The Americans, and Hannibal's shocking "Mizumono."  Any number of these episodes could've been chosen to be discussed for this Episode of the Week feature.  (Heck, I could've written a solid 600 words about that breathtaking sèance scene in this week's episode of Penny Dreadful alone.)  But what differentiates "Buridan's Ass" from the rest of the pack is that it's an episode that truly signifies that Fargo is kicking into high gear.

Fargo has always been a show about inertia -- how decisions beget similar decisions -- but it's never been more clear than in this episode.  In the pilot, Lester Nygaard did a very bad thing by killing his wife with a hammer.  It would've been the wise thing for him to just own up to it and face the consequences right away.  However, creator Noah Hawley knows that people often do the easy thing, and the easy thing to do is to follow the current of that initial bad decision.  So Lester just makes one bad decision after another.  Over the course of the first five episodes, riding the wave started by the murder of his wife, he lies about his role and hides evidence to keep his foothold on freedom secure.  All the while, he's got this bullet -- a niggling reminder of his guilt -- lodged in his hand, and when it finally causes him to be admitted to the hospital, not even his own brother believes he's innocent.  This episode finds Lester in the deep of his own mistakes, as he concocts a plan to escape from the hospital and attempt to frame his brother for the murder.  While Lester may not be somebody we're supposed to root for, watching the gears turn in his head as he plans out his scheme in Walter White fashion is a bit exhilarating.  If he's going to be caught in his own inertia, he might as well try to be intelligent while doing it.

The same works for the flip side of the equation.  From the very beginning, Molly has been painted as the show's symbol of unwavering good.  She's been given many opportunities to just let the case go, choosing to assume that Lester is harmless like the rest of her colleagues do.  And sure, it'd be wise for her to not risk her life or her job pursuing the truth.  However, once she began to have suspicions about Lester, she couldn't stop herself from going forward -- it's the easy (and right, in her case) thing to do.

And then there are people like Lorne Malvo, who just exhibit chaos.  He's less concerned with doing the "good" thing or doing the "bad" thing than he is with doing the thing that will cause the most destruction, as seen by his Rube Goldberg form of torture on Don Chumph.  In a way, Chumph is a victim of inertia in his own right.  He was doomed the day he decided to join forces with Malvo, and the slow crawl to his ultimate fate reaches its end in "Buridan's Ass."  The same could be said for Stavros, whose cycle of trouble began when he found that bag of money in the snow many years ago.  Convinced that Malvo's games are some sort of punitive act from the heavens, he finally decides to put the bag back where he found it.  But we know that anybody who approaches Malvo's orbit gets pulled in and spit out.  Only Malvo himself is allowed to make a clean getaway.

The forces of good, evil, and chaos converge in the episode's climactic shootout between Mr. Numbers, Mr. Wrench, and Malvo in the middle of a massive snowstorm.  It's a suspenseful, well-constructed scene, starting out with the three assassins and then bringing Molly and Gus into the mix for good measure.  Were it not for the bloody carnage, the characters popping in and out of this hypnotizing wall of white would almost feel like a dream.  Setpieces rely on geography and spatial reasoning, but the disorientation caused by the snow just makes the showdown even more intense.  The scene is unbroken tension for about 5 minutes, before cutting to the equally disorienting raining of fish that Stavros' bodyguard and son get caught in.

The universe of Fargo is a moral universe.  It's all about right and wrong, rewards and punishment, whether its divine or otherwise.  Yet what it also does is show how hard it is to know what the right thing to do is in any situation.  Gus Grimly is essentially the embodiment of that idea.  His first difficult decision came in the pilot, when he chose to let Malvo go, for fear of dying and never getting to see his daughter again.  This episode is just another crisis of conscience for him when he chooses to shoot blindly into the storm, not knowing whether he's helping Molly or damning her.  There may be good actions and bad actions, but "Buridan's Ass" understands how easy it is to get lost in the fog.


  1. This felt like a mid-season finale with the ridiculous amount of things that took place here.

    The comparison with Lester to Walter White is apt, honestly that comparison has been thrown around far too much recently and this is the only use I've seen of it that even comes close to being accurate.

    That Don Chumph set-piece has to be one of the best scenes of the show. Do you know where that song can be found? The closest version I can find is this terrible quality rip:

    I'm kind of disheartened that this was the last we ever saw of Stavros. I get that it was the end of his arc, but I think it would have been interesting for him to come into contact with at least one of the characters after his fate was sealed.

    That snowstorm was ridiculously beautiful. One of the most interesting uses of color correction I've ever seen (assuming that wasn't what it actually looked like?!)

    By far one of the standout episodes of the series.

    1. Yeah looking back, this was by far my favorite episode of the season.

      There was definitely some color correction and CGI done for the snowstorm. Even still it must've been a mess to film.

      Stavros was always kind of my least favorite part of the show, so I was wasn't too upset that his arc ended here. Plus, at least he got a delightfully strange and ominous farewell.