The voice of a fictional Ronald Reagan (played with a perfect mix of jocularity and sincerity by Bruce Campbell) looms over “The Gift of the Magi,” setting a tone in the first act that never wanes throughout the episode. In a voiceover, he explains the humble origins of his salesman father, his heroics as a high school lifeguard, and the absolute truth of American exceptionalism. Betsy, Molly, and Constance listen with rapture (and Karl has tears in his eyes), but Lou appears a bit more ambiguous towards the Gipper. The scene features astonishing performances from all of the actors, beautifully capturing their range of reactions and introducing a voice of skepticism to Reagan’s words without being too heavy-handed.
Meanwhile, back in the snow, war finally begins to boil over between Joe’s men and the Gerhardts. In spite of having the “art” of a long bow on their side, the Gerhardts can’t handle Hanzee’s viciousness, and he brings the already violent showdown to an especially gory conclusion. Beyond the excellent blocking and cinematography throughout this scene, ratcheting up the tension by keeping everyone’s relative positions ambiguous without rendering the action too unintelligible, director Jeffrey Reiner does an impressive job of emphasizing the effects of the violence. Even with Fargo’s inextricable humorous streak (as strong as ever, even in this dark episode), Reiner doesn’t diminish the impact of gun shots or throat-slittings. The show is comedic, but not cartoonish, and that’s never more apparent here.
By contrast, Dodd takes the situation too seriously, fearing the wrath of “Butcher Luverne” (who is actually, of course, the hapless Ed). In spite of the Gerhardts’ confusion, they do put the pieces together about Rye’s fate, setting in motion their attack on Ed and yet another captivating arc. Although Floyd is taken by Dodd and Hanzee’s story, she remains rightfully skeptical, continuing the motif of women knowing better than the men in their lives, a pattern omnipresent throughout this season, and one vital to the film.
The trope continues at the Blomquist home, as Peggy has the foresight Ed lacks — at first. Determined to stand his ground, he wants them to resist the overt danger of their legal and criminal pursuers, even though Peggy takes initiative to begin their move to California. Although Ed has no problem getting a refund on the seminar without her permission, he doesn’t like her taking a similar role of authority in their relationship, exposing and mocking his need for patriarchal dominance.
Dodd’s comparable desire gets upended by Simone, who, after a jump-cut filled scene reminiscent of the “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” sequence from The Big Lebowski, finds herself back with Mike and the remaining living Kitchen brother. Although she begins with a flippant desire to know “Where’s Thing Two?”, Mike soon informs her of the gravity of the situation by uncovering the box holding Joe’s head and stroking his hair (in a perfect callback to the “shampoo” conversation from “The Myth of Sisyphus”). The scene then morphs into an uncomfortable threat of group sexual assault, with Simone finding herself between the menacing figures of the two men, but writers Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi wisely stop before descending into the ugliness of a rape scene. Still, Simone is sufficiently (and understandably) shaken by the situation and agrees to spy on her family.
Simone brings Mike closer to figuring out what’s going on with the Gerhardts; likewise, the discovery of the bodies from the first act shootout brings Lou closer to unraveling the whole thing. His comparison of the situation to “the Cuban Missile Crisis” makes for a humorous reminder of setting, something Fargo has been doing throughout the season. The reference verges on glib, but it’s funny enough, and grounded enough in Lou’s inexperience of violence on the scale of what’s seen on the show that the joke works.
It’s effective, but not quite as strong of a historical joke as Lou’s exchange in a urinal with Reagan, which ranks among Fargo’s funniest exchanges. The scene pushes credulity a bit, with Reagan’s comparison of his performance in war films to Lou’s service not being wholly believable, but Lou sells his disgust well enough to make the scene work excellently. Reiner films Patrick Wilson nicely, leaving half of his face to our imagination, and Wilson does more than enough with the other half to make Lou’s thoughts explicit. The scene also features quite a bit of pathos for Lou’s situation, moving away from the misanthropy of Season One to more focused mockery (Reagan is the only one being made fun of here), which allows for smarter and more incisive humor.
Of course, the major story beat in “The Gift of the Magi” comes in the last act, with Charlie finally having the nerve to shoot Ed, even as the Camus-loving Noreen Vanderslice stands by. But even Charlie and Virgil aren’t enough to get the job done, and Ed escapes after a scene forming a violent bookend with the snowbound massacre in act one. The violence brings him to finally acquiesce to Peggy’s request, even if she’s changed her mind. His acquiescence comes too late, though, and the ominous tag finds Ed and Peggy cornered by sirens, bringing the magnificent first half of Season Two to a spellbinding conclusion.
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.