From the moment “Out of respect for the dead” appeared onscreen in the film Fargo, it was clear that death would be an inextricable part of the story. The words served as a morbid portent for the shootings, axe murders, and death by wood chipper that were to come, setting the tone for the movie’s bizarre gallows humor. In Noah Hawley’s show inspired by the Coen brothers’ work, a high body count and a willingness to laugh at it have been no less a part of the universe, in some ways serving as the most direct connection between the series and the film.
But even by the normal Fargo standards of black comedy, “Fear and Trembling” is an unusually death-obsessed episode, and the grim results pay off beautifully. The morbidness begins in the opening flashback sequence, where a young Dodd goes with Otto to a Ronald Reagan movie. Unfortunately, the screening turns out to be one with pat-downs, tense crime business discussions, and guns being pulled out. Learning from a young age, Dodd stabs the man threatening his father in the back, allowing him to shoot his enemies and to watch the sci-fi flick in peace. Flashbacks of this nature often risk being gratuitous, explaining motivations of characters the viewer has already decided whether or not she cares about, but the scene works as an effective explanation for why Dodd grows up as he does without the show relying on it for him to be a compelling character.
The flashback also transitions nicely into the present, which finds Dodd passing the legacy of violence he inherits from his father down to his nephew, Charlie. In spite of the boy’s disability, Dodd agrees to let Charlie help, and soon enough they’re both off tasering associates of Joe’s at a donut shop. As is often the case in Fargo, the minute details of the scene make for the perfect finishing touch, with Dodd hilariously telling the guy behind the counter that the donuts are “on them,” then leaving without paying.
The threat of death in “Fear and Trembling” is hardly limited to being the result of violence, with Betsy and Lou receiving tragic news about the state of the former’s cancer. Patrick Wilson and Cristin Milioti are incredible in this scene, with the medium shots beautifully capturing their facial expressions and gestures as they come to terms with her dire condition. There’s a sliver of hope for them, of course, but it’s far from a guarantee, as they can’t know whether Betsy will get a real drug or a placebo. The cancer subplot in the Coen brothers’ Fargo continues to be one of the film’s more controversial elements, but Hawley appears to be handling the subject matter with a bit more sensitivity thus far.
Regardless, he’s keeping the focus on how it affects the couple’s relationship, which is also the subject of Ed and Peggy’s first scene. They’re having the sex Ed wants, but with the audibility of only his groans suggesting that he continues to be the only one who desires it. Director Michael Uppendahl’s work in this scene is a marvel of implication, with the framing of the couple’s limp legs saying all that needs to be said about their physical relationship. Their emotional bond doesn’t appear to be much better, as Ed unsuccessfully tries to persuade Peggy to drop out of her empowerment seminar. Although they don’t seem to be in a good place as a couple before Rye comes into their lives, the added stress doesn’t appear to have helped at all.
In fact, Ed and Peggy don’t even realize the full extent of the danger they’re in, as they’ve yet to be aware of Hanzee’s lurking presence. He threatens a helpless mechanic in the shop where Ed and Peggy’s car lies, even if the guy was “in ‘Nam,” at least until the menacing Karl (a fantastic Nick Offerman) shoos him away. As has been true throughout the season, the Vietnam references can’t help harkening back to The Big Lebowski, making for a gruesome hilarity perfectly in line with the Coen brothers’ tone.
Even if Hanzee leaves, he clearly hasn’t escaped for good, as Hank and Lou show up at the shop, only to learn that something is rotten in Fargo. When Lou sees the Blomquists’ car, he makes the inevitable connection to his exchange with Ed in the butcher shop, directly setting in motion his discovery of their complicity.
He heads to their home to find out what exactly their role is, although Hanzee beats him to it. He leaves before actually harming them, but Lou seems to know that they very well may not be safe for long. The Blomquists are caught between the emotional death they’d face from the law and the physical death they risk from the criminals, and neither seems particularly appealing.
Death is equally a part of the Gerhardts’ relationship with Joe Bulo and his men, as Floyd continues to be unrelenting. Mike and the Kitchen Brothers do what they can to change that, bringing their penchant for violence to the medical center where Otto gets examined. Even still, Floyd refuses to give in, leading to the poignant shot of her cuddling with her husband. “It’s war,” she says, ensuring that even more death is sure to come.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.