Make America Great Again
Wow. What a stellar hour of television. Anchored by two violent action sequences and filled in between with an incredible amount of tension and character moments, “The Gift of the Magi” is the best episode of the season so far, if not one of the best of the series.
We can start right from the beginning, with a ten minute sequence that encapsulates everything this season is about. Lou Solverson is temporarily relieved of duty from the Waffle House case in order to escort Governor Reagan through the state, and his speech, harkening on good ol’ American values of faith, hard work, “and above all, family,” is intercut with a messy shoot out between the Gerhardts and the Kansas City mob.
And what are they fighting for if not for the values in Reagan’s speech? Both sides are trying to make a living, hold onto their own territory, and make a better future for themselves. This parallels the political climate of the time, a change in American politics. Bulo, right before he’s massacred, laments that “the age of the local mom and pop is over.” It’s a bizarre, confusing time for both the American people and the characters of Fargo that this sequence so effectively gets across.
And what better actor to play the winning Ronald Reagan than the charming Bruce Campbell himself? The two become one and the same in the episode’s most pivotal scene. Lou finds himself in a restroom alone with the governor. After much stammering, he finally confesses that he feels the “sickness of the world” has infected not just his small town, but has manifested itself in the form of cancer in his wife. Reagan gives him the same political answer he’s been giving his entire campaign trail. That would be fine for most people, but not Lou.
Reagan, almost stupefied, is at a loss for words. He simply pats Lou on the shoulder before exiting. There is no answer. He’s an actor, he’s Bruce Campbell, who never experienced the same real life horrors of war that Lou – or seemingly everyone else in this show – has. Nor has he combed a murder scene, trying to make sense of a judge’s killing. Nor has he seen or even been aware of the piles of bodies being pulled out of the woods not too far from his campaign trail. No, of course Reagan doesn’t have an answer.
But the implications of this absurd scene are much worse than a politician’s loss for words. What if the world isn’t fixable at all? Or perhaps even worse, what if the world has always been this way, sick and violent? What does that mean for Betsy and her cancer? She believes feeling nauseous after taking the experimental drug could mean she received the correct pill, an answer to her personal problem. But there is no pill that can simply cure reality, and even Reagan knows that.
Instead, we see characters try to find solutions on their own. Of course Dodd had heard of the “Butcher of Luverne,” the infamous Kansas City hitman. It’s a quick jump to go to war, echoing sentiments that drew America into the Korean and Vietnam wars to begin with. “That’s the feminine side, ma” he tells his mother when she wants negotiations. War was inevitable. Violence is the only solution, and the sickness that pervades North Dakota and Minnesota will only get worse.
And then, of course, there’s Ed and Peggy Blomquist, who are struggling to find the American dream of their own. Their storyline this week is where the episode gets its title. “The Gift of the Magi” is a short story by O. Henry in which a couple, lacking any wealth, give up their most prized possessions in order to buy each other a Christmas gift. The twist is that the husband sold his watch to purchase a set of combs for his wife’s lavish hair, which she cut off and sold in order to purchase her husband a silver chain for his watch. Both are left with useless gifts, but gained a new-found appreciation of their love for one another.
We see the exact scenario play out in Fargo. Ed finally tells Peggy he is committed to purchasing the shop, starting a family, and rebuilding the life they wanted. In a moment of much needed redemption for Peggy, she decides to sell her car instead of fleeing, earning a paltry $700 in order for Ed to purchase the shop.
The irony in this version of “The Gift of the Magi” is that the shop is completely burned down after a fight between Ed and mobster wannabe Charlie. The store clerk Noreen flirting with Charlie is one of the most tense moments this season. The instruction to leave “no witnesses” is still fresh on his mind, even has he tries to engage in a conversation over the nihilistic text of Camus.
Yet Charlie’s need for acceptance eventually overrides his sheepishness later in the episode, and he, Virgil, Ed, and Noreen have a fight that literally brings to mind a fear of hellfire and all consuming violence. Ed’s American dream is destroyed, poisoned by the warring nature of the Gerhardts, and he and Peggy are thrown back into a fearful state where they have no choice but to run this time around.
The world of Fargo is confusing and absurd, but it only serves to highlight those same qualities in our own reality. Does America need to be pulled out of some ditch, or is this the natural state of the world? We all seem to remember a moment, far enough away that we can’t see it anymore but close enough that it still feels like normalcy, where everything wasn’t corrupted with violence and poisoned by cancer. Did those moments ever truly exist, or are we clinging to some false hope that things will return to a better state in order to keep going? Fargo most likely doesn’t have the real life answers, no more than Ronald Reagan, but the struggle of its characters trying to make sense of the world is palpable, and speaks to the ultimate meaning behind “The Gift of the Magi.” If life is futile, our gifts end up being useless, and we’re just waiting to die like Camus suggests, than perhaps above all our will to try, to always strive for happiness and a better tomorrow for one another, is the ultimate point after all.
Odds and Ends:
- Whew, I almost launched into a tirade about nihilism and futility by the end but managed to clinch the review. Perhaps next week.
- Mike Milligan works as a character because he, as he straight up tells us in this episode, is an optimist, contrary to every other person on the show. He still steeps himself in violence, but manages to find that silver lining, when his own mother could only see the cloud.
- There were two alien references this week. The obvious one was Betsy staring at the coffee ring on the picture. The second, I would argue, was the top-down shot of Bulo running through the woods. It was the only one of its kind and brought back the idea that everyone is being watched by something greater (Aliens? God? You decide!).
- We lost a Kitchen brother this week, the prog rock group is no more.
- He had the least to do this week, despite having the most pivotal scene, but man does Patrick Wilson absolutely kill every scene he’s in. Actually, so does everyone on this show, but the stuttering as he worked himself up to talk to Reagan was the most authentic display of emotion I’ve seen on television in a long while.
- One last note on Bruce Campbell and Reagan: boy does he sound just like him. I found his announcement that he was running for president back in 1979 and was wondering why Bruce Campbell started talking to me.
- Also wow, that announcement mirrors the themes of the show almost too well. Noah Hawley and the rest of the writers really know what the hell they’re doing.
Steve reminds you that Ronald Reagan used that slogan before Trump. He’s on Twitter.