After the blood-soaked carnage of “The Castle,” one wouldn’t be remiss to expect Noah Hawley to dial up the intensity even further in “Palindrome,” this week’s finale. “The Castle” ends with Hanzee still alive, after all, and still in search of vengeance on the “Butcher of Luverne.” The ever valiant Lou is determined to do what he can to stop any further killings, even if the entrance of the aliens (teased all season) makes the Gerhardt/Kansas City/Blumquist feud seem shockingly mundane.
But rather than increasing the amount of violence or extraterrestrials, Hawley instead chooses to focus on the impact of last week’s events, making for a character driven and dramatically satisfying conclusion. The opening montage brings a crucial part of that impact (and the violence throughout the season) to the morbid foreground, with cuts between dead Gerhardt bodies accompanied by Patrick Wilson reciting the show’s usual introductory disclaimer. As he concludes, there’s a cut to Betsy lying on a bed with her eyes closed, indicating that perhaps she’s suffered the same fate as the Gerhardts, in a more natural fashion but still too soon.
Unlike Rye, Bear, Otto, Dodd, and Floyd, though, Betsy’s eyes open, allowing her to recap her dream for perennial Camus reader Noreen. Betsy predicts the young Molly’s future transformation into Allison Tolman and Lou becoming Keith Carradine with striking alacrity, congealing well with last week’s voiceover narration and alien invasion: It’s always been apparent that Fargo takes place in a universe of its own, and Hawley wisely emphasizes the distance from that world through elements highlighting the show’s artificiality.
Still, even the snow globe-like setting isn’t immune from death and Black Sabbath, as the intrusion of Hanzee’s menacing face reminds us. “War Pigs” accompanies the fallout from the Sioux Falls Massacre, with cops showing up and the Blumquists struggling to escape. They do manage to flee the scene of the crime, though not without Ed taking a bullet from Hanzee. Lou and Ben follow the couple, hoping to apprehend and protect them, no matter how much the situation is “F.U.B.A.R.” The Blumquists could use a hand, or so it appears, as the first act closes with a striking tracking shot through the grocery store in which the Blumquists hide, a shot interrupted only by the terrifying appearance of an out-for-blood Hanzee.
So, on par for the season’s level of tension and violence, the remaining Kitchen Brother’s gruesome shotgun blast to Gilligan’s Island professor Ricky G doesn’t appear to change things. Mike has no mercy for his “friendo” (in a nice No Country for Old Men reference), preferring to let the man suffer. Of course, he still pairs his unblinking malice with rhetorical flourish and a bizarre sense of justice, sparing the Gerhardt housekeeper and thereby granting her with “an act of kindness.”
The Blumquists don’t appear likely to get a similar reprieve from Hanzee, who looks to be attempting to flood the walk-in fridge with smoke, mirroring the movie Peggy watches as Dodd frees himself. Smoke or not, Ed’s bullet wound is fatal, and he uses his dying breaths to admit to Peggy the apprehension he feels about their relationship. Like last season’s Lester, Ed is a lifelong nebbish whose sudden desire for self-determination realizes itself in disturbing ways, and his admission to Peggy makes for a desperate and damning final utterance.
All is not lost for Peggy, though, as the smoke and Hanzee turn out to be figments of her imagination, replaced outside of her fantasy by Ben and Lou. As a result, the scene serves as a reminder of what the Fargo finale could have been: an action-capped exclamation point on a violent and gripping season. Instead, the reveal of Ben and Lou frames the action preceding it as a reflection on Peggy’s mental state, laying bare the extent to which her season-long quest to “actualize” has brought her. The juxtaposition of clips from the fictional film she watches makes the psychological ramifications of the scene perhaps more overt than they need to be, but they still provide a powerful emotional portrait of Peggy’s character, particularly in conjunction with Ed’s admission. All season, she’s simply wanted to be independent, and her imagination of the Hanzee scenario allows her to see herself as being a hero.
But rather than freedom, her efforts land her in jail. As Lou drives her away, she makes a pathetic plea to be imprisoned in California. Disgusted by her, Lou recounts a tale from his service in Vietnam, explaining the horrors he witnesses. In spite of the Coen brothers’ history of mining Vietnam veterans for laughs, the war stories throughout Season Two have been marked by pathos rather than comedy, and the final tale of combat proves no different. Affecting as the story is, Peggy (understandably) cares more about the restrictions she’s suffered her whole life, inviting Lou’s stern reminder that “people are dead.” The encounter proves metonymic for Peggy’s arc as a whole, making for a satisfying conclusion. As determined as she’s been to free herself from the bonds of modern society, the harsh realities of the world (i.e. Hanzee, the Gerhardts, and the law) get in her way. Any further actualizing Peggy does will have to happen behind bars.
By contrast, the “real” criminals get off lighter, although one suspects that their fates are no easier for them to swallow. Hanzee gets a Social Security card gifting with him a new identity, although he still feels a need for “a new face,” forcing him to leave part of himself behind. Of course, he won’t really be “a whole new man,” as the shot of him going to beat up a pair of bullies shows the bizarre sense of justice he’ll never be able to shed. Mike will presumably never be able to get rid of his unique personal style either, hemmed in as he is by a 9 to 5 gig requiring him to produce “quarterly projections and revenue statements.”
If these seem like unsatisfying endings for the vicious killers who’ve haunted the entire season, they only set up the impact of the finale for the family that’s ultimately been the show’s emotional core: the Solversons. Hank, Betsy, and Lou sit in the living room, struggling to parse the turbulent string of violence they experience. Lou is further confused by the aliens, leading to Hank’s meta-cinematic suggestion that he leave them as “subtext.” Even removed from the extraterrestrials and murderous Midwestern crime families, the world of Fargo is a violent and disturbing one, and Hank attempts to do his part by creating an Esperanto-like universal language. With the season’s final mystery solved, Lou can put Molly to sleep and lie down with “Mrs. Solverson,” bringing a touching ending to an outstanding season.
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.