Between Fargo and The Leftovers, it’s been a good past few months for the bizarre in television. Even though the unexplained premise on The Leftovers alienated many viewers from the get go, this season’s Lynchian antics have polarized audiences further, as gripping as the show has been. Likewise, although the Coen brothers lineage has guaranteed Fargo a certain degree of distance from realism since the pilot, the voiceover recitation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and the intimations of extraterrestrial life have taken things a long way from Steve Buscemi going through a wood chipper.
But even by the high bar of strangeness Noah Hawley has consistently set this season (always fitting in well with the dramatic context), “The Castle” goes quite a bit further in its willingness to deviate from narrative norms. The episode’s tone gets set from the opening scene, in which a guest-starring Martin Freeman returns to narrate the story as a chapter from a book entitled The HISTORY of TRUE CRIME in the Mid West. Besides warning us of the inevitable high body count (beyond the usual “out of respect for the dead” episode disclaimer), the intrusion of Freeman’s narrator creates an instant tonal shift.
And perhaps a heightened, R-rated fairy tale feeling is the only way to sensibly tackle a narrative as grim as what plays out in “The Castle.” Hanzee immediately lays to rest any doubts of the veracity of the narrator’s opening words, shooting the poor store owner who was nice enough to lend Ed a pack of cards in “Loplop.” Hanzee’s brutality emphasizes the imminence and danger of the threat facing the Blumquists, whom a local police captain wants to wear a wire while meeting with Mike. The ever-virtuous Lou disagrees, prompting his exile from the state. Without his help, Ed and Peggy don’t feel they have much of a choice, and even her “actualized” state doesn’t empower her enough to reject the captain.
Doomed in a wholly different way is Betsy, whose heartbreaking collapse renders her unable to answer Lou’s call. As he stands in the phone booth, he spots the bullet holes and blood indicating Hanzee’s presence, providing evidence of the direness of the situation. Even with the obvious proof of the threat, Lou’s warning falls on deaf ears, prompting him to take matters into his own hands.
As Lou soon learns, the trail Hanzee leaves behind doesn’t quite prepare him for the violence to come. Hanzee gives us a hint, looking ominously at the cops and Blumquists through a scope. In spite of the danger, the police captain doesn’t seem to value unity amongst his force, telling Hank that he “don’t got much in the way of backbone.” A similar bit of intra-organizational strife divides the Gerhardts, as Hanzee tells Floyd that Dodd is still alive, setting up the gory showdown to come.
Yet Ben appears ignorant of the threat, more concerned with Peggy and Ed turning against him than he is with the Gerhardts. Like Peggy last week, Ben gets enraptured by the TV, not too preoccupied by either danger to kick back and eat chips. The poker-playing cops in another motel room share a similar disposition, unfazed enough by their situation to focus on the broken ice machine and their favorite stories of urination.
The blasé police stand in stark contrast to Lou, who uses his dismissal to investigate Constance’s death, bringing him to terms with the danger everyone faces. Hank shares his intuition, checking on Ed and Peggy, but Ben’s willful ignorance overpowers him. Still, as our omniscient perspective allows us to see, Ben and his colleagues can only remain ignorant for so long, as a slew of Gerhardt cars approach the sleeping cops.
Their terrifying procession cues the bloody final act, which, in keeping with the narrator’s opening pronouncement, has quite the body count, even by Fargo’s morbid standards. The Gerhardts slaughter cops, Hanzee stabs Floyd, and there’s seemingly nothing to quell the violence. Nothing, that is, except for the deus ex machina entrance of a UFO, distracting Hanzee for just long enough to allow Ed and Peggy to escape and bringing Bear to succumb to his gunshot wounds while he takes a break from throttling Lou, who gets up to discover his father bleeding in a hotel closet, in pain from Hanzee shooting him but still committed to making it to “dinner [on] Sunday.”
While the deus ex machina ending feels a bit simplistic, Hawley has been building to it all season with the pervasive UFO references. Through the supernatural touches, Hawley has always been clear about the season taking place in a world not quite our own, building on the irony the film establishes in declaring that its story is told “exactly as it occurred.” Hawley brings the show even further from reality with the addition of Freeman’s narration, emphasizing Fargo’s closer relationship with tall tales than straightforward realism. Like the film, as much as Fargo looks like it’s set in our universe, dashes of the absurd emphasize that the series works under its own logic. In an episode as violent, over-the-top, and compelling as “The Castle,” a foregrounding of that logic serves as a welcome reminder.
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.