Welcome, I suppose, to the land of denial. This season has been full of religious allusions, and this episode brings us the most mystical yet. But first, it offers us a blast from the past.
When we left Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) last week, her life was in perilous danger from V.M. Varga’s (David Thewlis) hitmen, Yuri Gurka (Goran Bogdan), Meemo (Andy Yu), and the fake cop (DJ Qualls). The wolves (literally, since this crew are creepily dressed like animals) were closing in, and Nikki was unconscious.
Commenters on last week's recap were very invested in pointing out that Nikki was seated next to Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) was a deaf hitman for the Fargo mob from home he and his now-deceased partner, Grady Numbers (Adam Goldberg), worked in season 1 — which was set four years earlier, in 2006. The pair also made a short appearance in the season 2 finale, as kids, back in 1979. As promised, this episode brings us a chance to examine that connection because showrunner Noah Hawley, who wrote this one with Monica Beletsky, didn’t just drop in an easter egg. Wrench becomes Nikki’s defacto co-conspirator in the escape, sticking by her side for the duration.
The escape is shown as a cut from Wrench’s soundless point of view to Nikki’s as soon as she’s awakened by loud explosions. Wrench, who is accustomed to team work thanks to a literal lifetime of working with Numbers, uses nonverbal communication to get Nikki to help them get out of the bus. It’s fascinating how well they manage to orchestrate their escape, although the pair have no choice but to work together while they’re chained to each other. This leads to some very upsetting team bonding, though. Nikki gets shot in the leg by an arrow which Wrench removes and the two of them savagely behead the fake cop. Even once they break the chain holding them literally together, Wrench doesn’t leave her side. It’s a choice that completely in character for him, though not necessarily for her. Nikki is unable to part ways with him due to her extreme physical exhaustion — in addition to her new wound, remember that she’s still recovering from that beating that Yuri gave her in the parking lot and, as her voice over tells us, she’s coming to terms with being the reason that Ray is dead. Their snow writing (he speaks only American Sign Language and is seemingly unable to read lips), is the most Minnesota-nice moment of this episode.
Yuri and his crew search for this unlikely pair, leaving a slew of bodies in their wake. From the dead prisoners and guards on the bus to the couple who see the accident to the father and son hunting team they take a hunting bow, they are truly indiscreet and that tells us something about how important killing Nikki is to Vargas. The giant piles of blood on the snow their showdown with Wrench and Nikki in the woods leaves behind is not of any less of note — including Yuri’s ear, which we see Wrench’s axe-throwing removed from his peson. They all leave the police quite a trail to follow.
Things take a turn for the Lynchian when Nikki and Wrench find a bowling alley. Nikki stumbles to the concession stand to order a double whiskey neat that comes in a perfect cocktail glass. That is the first hint that we’re not in Minnesota anymore, because what bowling alley has cocktail glasses? As the camera pans back out of the tight shot on her, we see she’s sitting next to Paul Marrane (Ray Wise), the guy Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) met on her strange, Lynchian trip to Hollywood (or, as I prefer to refer to him, Laura Palmer’s dad). He orders a sherry and talks to her about the nature of existence, then shows her reincarnated Ray (Ewan McGregor) who is not a kitten. He literally says, “Ray is the cat,” so that if we forgot the Peter and the Wolf episode where Nikkid was the cat in that play we are now reminded and quite forcefully instructed to contemplate what it means (that Paul mentions a soul not being able to find a body to reincarnete is explains, for me, why Ray isn't a bird here). You can leave your guesses about that in the comments; I’m dying to hear them. He tells her of massacre of the Jews in Uman in 1768, in which 20,000 people were estimated to have lost their lives. What Paul (hello, Biblical name) doesn’t say is that Uman became part of Russia not long after that massacre — it’s Yuri’s land and his people of which Paul speaks.
He sends Nikki and Wrench, about whom he tells her some “people” wanted him to stay behind but Paul “convinced them he’s on a better path now,” away by telling them to steal the Volkswagen Beetle in the parking lot by order of ironic divine intervention. This is certainly the most interesting bowling alley in the universe. Paul leaves her with instructions to deliver a message, when the time comes, to the wicked: “Tell them, ‘Though thou exalt thyself like the eagle, though thou make thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring the down, safety the Lord.’” That’s Obadiah 1:4 for those of you who didn’t memorize the Bible or write it down to Google later, from the King James version of the book. It’s your typical Biblical prediction of the destruction of the enemies of the church, but in this context, there is another interpretation: those exalting themselves are the slew of men who refuse to listen to the women on the show like Gloria and Nikki, choosing to magnify their importance instead. God and Paul are not down with the systematic oppression of women but do believe some hitmen can find a better path.
My heart breaks a little when Paul tells her, “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the cat.” I’ve bought into Ray and Nikki’s true love, clearly.
Yuri shows up shortly after this in the bowling alley, bleeding heavily. Paul gives him a glimpse at the angry faces of his thousands of ancestors from Uman, courtesy of Helga Albracht, whose name you might remember hearing in the premiere episode of the season. This is his hell. This is Yuri's reckoning.
So let’s unpack: I would call where Nikki was purgatory. I find her imagining purgatory as a bowling alley to be infinitely hilarious. Paul is not God, I would guess, but a being we’d identify as either a guardian or avenging angel in the Jewish tradition. Guardian if you weigh in his timing showing up to help Gloria in Hollywood, avenging if you weigh in his showing up to reckon with Yuri when the time came.
In twisted turn, when we see Gloria with her ex-husband, his boyfriend, and their son celebrating the most Christian of holidays, Christmas. So a Jewish angel saved Nikki on Jesus’s birthday, that was a certainly a Christmas miracle. Anyway, the U.S. Marshalls give Gloria a heads up that the prison bus was taken. Though Nikki isn’t on the bus but they'll call her when she turns up, dead or alive. The realism between that difficult conversation and Paul's bowling alley is stark.
Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) shows up at Emmit (Ewan McGregor) house on Christmas morning to find Varga and Meemo there (how did Meemo get out of the second half of the chase anyway?) and be informed he’s now $5 million richer and that Varga claims their problems with the police have been “smoothed out,” thanks to Yuri’s little visit, one supposes. Sy gets to the office only to realize that he drank, tea made with Varga’s mother’s love, was poisoned. Three months and one beard later, he’s still in a coma and Emmit is starting to think this may not have been a good idea. Gloria and Officer Lopez (Olivia Sandoval) are still on the case, working Emmit on their lunch break. While running away from these women outside of Sy's hosptial room, he runs right onto the roof and finds Ray’s car parked in his spot. He gets back to his office to find all of his photos have been replaced with images of that 2 cent stamp he refused to give Ray. Later he wakes up from a nap with a mustache glued to his face, like Ray’s. Someone is playing the Ghost of Christmas Past in March. Emmit assumes it means Ray is still alive when he calls Varga. Smart money is on Nikki pulling these strings. Varga tries to talk him down, feeding a sedative to a man who has been drinking. Emmit is the duck, quacking in the wolf’s stomach. But now he knows it.
We end with Gloria bidding goodnight to Deputy Mashman (Mark Forward), from their shared supply closet office in the county facility, when she stops to sign her divorce decree. That’s the same moment Emmit drops in on the cops, saying he’d like to confess.
How much will he confess? We're about to find out, from the land of denial.
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