Posts Tagged ‘decider’

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Ten: “Somebody to Love”

June 24, 2017

The question facing us is simple. Does Varga walk away, or is he locked up? Will he exalt himself like the eagle and make his next among the stars, or will the Lord bring him down? Is Schrödinger’s metaphorical cat dead or alive? Is the ethical universe half-full or half-empty? The lady, or the tiger?

I want to focus on writer Frank R. Stockton’s extremely famous short story of that name here, because I think the ending of this episode will be similarly misconstrued. The gist of “The Lady, or the Tiger?” is simple enough: In ancient times, a barbaric king offers a condemned man a choice inside a gladiator-style arena where two doors stand before him. Behind one is a ravenous tiger that will devour him on the spot; behind the other is a beautiful woman who will marry him on the spot. The process is completely random, and the prisoner has a fifty-fifty chance of life or death. (“Call it.”)

At least that’s the version of the story you may recall from the dim recesses of memory of English classes gone by. In reality the situation’s a lot more complicated. For one thing, if you get lucky and wind up with the lady, the capricious king will insist you marry her no matter your previous familial commitments or romantic entanglements. Happily married already? Tough luck.

For another, the specific case at the center of the story is a unique one. The condemned man in question, described by the story’s narrator in a sardonic and self-aware voice not far removed from that of Fargo’s occasional voice-over commentators as “a young man of that fineness of blood and lowness of station common to the conventional heroes of romance who love royal maidens,” has been sentenced to this ordeal for the crime of falling in love with the king’s daughter. Like her father, the princess is herself a barbarian by nature, and through sheer force of will has discovered the secret of what lies behind each door. But that same barbarian blood makes her intensely jealous of the other lady in the equation, to whom her suitor will be betrothed should he dodge that tiger-shaped bullet. It’s up to her to signal to the dude which door he should take, and up to us to guess whether she’s sent him to his death or to a life without her, a fate less bloody but possibly no less cruel, in the princess’ eyes anyway.

Apply these lessons to our current story, and the simple choice between good and evil we’re asked to make when we speculate about the outcome of Varga and Gloria’s meeting becomes way less simple.

I reviewed the finale of Fargo Season Three, and quite possibly Fargo itself, for Decider. I think it’s a far more complex episode than surface readings of its ending give it credit for, and I think overall it may be the season that haunts me most.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “Come to Jesus”

June 19, 2017

Mr. Wednesday’s war has come, but we’ve gotten his target wrong all along. Sure, he wants to unite the surviving old gods of the world’s various fallen faiths and pantheons against the New Gods of American hegemony—technology, the media, guns, commercialization, and the military-industrial-corporate-intelligence-government complex represented by the mysterious Mr. World. But attacking we the people is his way to win. In “Come to Jesus,” the eight and final episode of American Gods’ spectacular misfire of a first season, the war begins — a biological war in which Wednesday recruits Ostara, goddess of spring, to destroy all the vegetation in the nation until people begin worshipping the old gods again. “Never once have they had to work for it,” he reasons, “give thanks for it.” His plan is to starve us pampered Americans into prayer.

To paraphrase one of the greatest Americans, “This Whole Thing Smacks Of Liberalism,” i holler as i overturn Ostara’s giant pink Easter bunny and turn American Gods into American Shit.

Wednesday’s thesis, and by extension the show’s, is an even more fundamental misreading of American life than the series’ underlying assertion that in our country’s centuries-long existence it hasn’t had room for legends, myths, and magic. Certainly vast swathes of America have been insulated from hunger, poverty, violence, and toil — though that swathe is getting smaller by the year. But the very idea that “never once have they had to work for it, give thanks for it” is the height of blinkered liberalism, a world view that recognizes the existence of injustice but always manages to locate it elsewhere. As of 2015, the year American Gods was greenlit, thirteen percent of American households are food insecure; in some states that percentage rises higher than one in five households. This pat assessment of America as a land of coddled weaklings who’ve never struggled may be true from where Neil Gaiman, Bryan Fuller, and Michael Green are sitting, but any Viking war god worth his salt ought to fucking know better.

I reviewed the season finale of American Gods, which understands neither America nor gods, for Decider.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “Aporia”

June 16, 2017

I’ve enjoyed season three of Fargo so much for so many reasons that I’ve barely had the time or inclination to comment on the few things that haven’t quite clicked. Now’s as good a time as any, since the clicking has finally occurred. Basically, Ewan McGregor’s performance(s) have been one of the season’s few weak links. He’s never been bad as either Emmit or Ray Stussy; I don’t think he has it in him to deliver a bad performance straight-up. But I’ve gotten the sense from time to time of an actor clinging to his wigs as a sort of life raft, the only way he can navigate the choppy waters of playing two superficially similar but very different characters, who look alike, in an accent completely alien from his own. (He’s not as bad as, say, Peter Dinklage trying to be posh, but the Scottish texture of McGregor’s voice is hard for him to disguise completely when he plays American, as viewers—or in my case, triple-digit re-viewers—of his work in Velvet Goldmine could tell you.)

There were already signs that this was ending in the last couple of episodes. Think of the way he ranted and raved about the travails of the One Percent during his lunch meeting with Mrs. Goldfarb after he accidentally killed his brother, a convincingly inappropriate and desperate coping mechanism. Or the cast of his face as he waved down to Sy Feltz for what he may well have known was their last moment of genuine human connection. Or his guilt-stricken panic when Nikki and Wrench began taunting him with the detritus of he and his brother’s history. The accent is the accent, but underneath a person was emerging.

In this week’s episode, “Aporia,” that person emerged in full. It happened during his beautifully framed confession of murder to Gloria Burgle—less “just the facts” than a rambling, time-jumping journey through his entire sorry relationship with his kid brother Ray. It’s one of those moments where you can see an actor seizing the best stuff he’s been given all season, like a swimmer surfacing for that first big fresh gulp of air.

I reviewed this week’s fantastic episode of Fargo for Decider.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”

June 14, 2017

The best way to describe American Gods is that it features Nick Sobotka as a leprechaun and somehow I still don’t like it. “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” the seventh and, shockingly, penultimate episode of AG’s first season (seriously, doesn’t it seem like they have a lot of ground left to cover) features Nick Sobotka as a leprechaun more than ever; while I’m still not crazy about it, it’s a better episode than most.

I reviewed last weekend’s American Gods for Decider.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”

June 9, 2017

This is the one you’ve been waiting for. Whether you’ve been one of Fargo Season Three’s inexplicably large number of skeptics or singing its praises from the jump, this is the episode that either puts paid to your criticism or pays off your faith. It’s called “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”, and it features the season’s best action/thriller sequences, its goriest crimes, its biggest surprises, its most striking cinematography, and its most direct trafficking in the uncanny.

I adored this week’s episode of Fargo, which I reviewed for Decider.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “A Murder of Gods”

June 5, 2017

There’s obviously a lot to be said about America’s demented gun culture. Thanks to the rise of Trump, sadly, there’s now also plenty to say about American neofascism. And the idea of a corporation that demands cult-like devotion from its employees even as it sacrifices their well-being for its own ends may be the richest idea American Gods has played with yet. But in simply conflating all three elements, the show loses the chance to say anything unique or insightful about them. A one-company town full of gun nuts wearing fascist armbands tells us nothing about one-company towns, or gun nuts, or fascism. It does, however, tell us a whole lot about the self-congratulatory liberalism of American Gods, which wants to be rewarded for saying “See? It can happen here,” but which is really saying “and by ‘here’ we mean ‘in this small Southern town full of brainwashed Nazis who are nothing like you and me, dear viewer.’”

I reviewed the seventh episode of American Gods, which remains a waste of the talent of everyone involved, for Decider.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “The Law of Inevitability”

June 4, 2017

“Under the present brutal and primitive conditions on this planet, every person you meet should be regarded as one of the walking wounded. We have never seen a man or woman not slightly deranged by either anxiety or grief. We have never seen a totally sane human being.”

—Robert Anton Wilson

“For Pete’s sake, hon, what’s wrong?”

“The world. The world is wrong. It looks like my world, but everything is different.”

—Esther and Sy Feltz

I don’t know about you, but over the past few years I’ve had this conversation with my loved ones almost verbatim, tears and all. The world is wrong, isn’t it? For almost all of us? Maybe it’s depression or anxiety or trauma or some other mental illness that makes it feel that way. Maybe it’s the neoliberal nightmare of late capitalism and the rapacious gangsters in suits who’ve seized the opportunity to milk us all dry. For me it’s both, but who’s counting? And who, really, can separate the two? Seven episodes deep, Fargo Season 3 remains a slippery thing, the shape of its final act unclear, a far cry from the escalation toward the preordained Sioux Falls Massacre that gave Season 2 its irresistible momentum. But man oh man, this part is as solid and heavy as a stone. This is a true story.

I reviewed last week’s Fargo for Decider.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Lemon Scented You”

May 31, 2017

“It isn’t our fault they found other ways to occupy their time,” says the Hollywood goddess Media, played by Gillian Anderson. “That’s all you do — occupy their time,” Wednesday retorts. “We gave back, we gave them meaning.”

There’s a self-defeating irony in this claim, for this episode in particular. If all these new gods do is help us kill time, nothing deeper, why bother dressing Gillian Anderson up as Marilyn Monroe in this scene and (cue Tumblr gifsets!) David Bowie in another? Doesn’t the mental depth charge that the appearance of those icons ignites in the viewer — an effect clearly intended by the show itself, or it wouldn’t have bothered casting Anderson, an icon in her own right thanks to her work on its weird-America antecedent The X-Files — depend precisely on them meaning more to us than mere distraction?

Then again, perhaps it’s better of American Gods really does take Wednesday’s position in this argument. Its incorporation of Monroe’s tragic death, here described by the woman herself as a CIA assassination, is easier to justify if the show fundamentally disregards her value to her fans. (Not for nothing, but another of American Gods’ antecedents, that little show called Twin Peaks, had a more humane outlook on the matter.) So too is its cringey Bowie scene, an act of revivification as creepy and gross in its own way as what Laura Moon is going through. With an egregious pastiche of his Scary Monsters period playing in the background courtesy of composer Brian Reitzell, whose tacky omnipresent bombast is one of the series’ most distracting elements, the Bowie-deity incorporates lyrical snippets from the musician’s actual songs into its conversation with fellow new god Technical Boy. Every one of the lyrics is so much better than the dialogue — every one of the songs is so much better than the show — that, again, it all becomes easier to swallow if Fuller and company regard the originals as the mental junk food Wednesday implies they are.

Now that I’ve beaten the shit out of the show for three indulgent paragraphs on this point, it’s important to note that it’s fallacious just to assume the show’s position and Wednesday’s are one and the same. Isn’t he something of an unreliable narrator, as Mad Sweeney asserts to Laura in this very episode? Isn’t the whole show about the power of belief, the same force behind both gods and superstars? Isn’t author Neil Gaiman’s entire schtick based on The Magic of Storytelling — a form of wizardry with which the former Norma Jean Baker and David Jones would be quite familiar, seeing how they used it to transform themselves first and foremost?

Yes, yes, and yes — which makes the story’s stacking of the deck against the new gods in favor of the old all the harder to parse.

I reviewed this week’s episode of American Gods, which, hoo boy, not good, for Decider. The Bowie scene in particular gave me the worst case of second-hand embarrassment for a show I’ve had in years. That said, Emily Browning is doing pretty extraordinary work here, and I write about that at length in the review as well.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Six: “The Lord of No Mercy”

May 26, 2017

My working theory at this point is that V.M. Varga is a clear and present danger primarily to the weak and stupid and easily cowed — to the Rays and Nikkis of the world, who can’t shoot straight (or at all; think of what might have been avoided had Nikki not come up with the oh so brilliant idea of not letting Ray shoot Varga and his minions to death when he had the chance); or to the Emmits and Sy Feltzes of the world, so comfortable and successful living according to their own code of conduct that the introduction of someone playing by entirely different rules catches them completely flat-footed. But in the person of Gloria Burgle, he may have encountered an enemy too dogged and determined and just plain lucky to give this wolf a run for his mutton. What else do they have in common besides their mutual interest in the Stussy brothers, after all? Like Varga, Gloria is a ghost in the machine.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Fargo for Decider.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Git Gone”

May 26, 2017

I’m never sure whether to be pleased or annoyed when a mediocre show finally airs an episode that warrants the praise it’s been getting from the start. On one hand, as a critic — and no one believes me when I say this, but it’s true — I’m in the liking-things business, and getting to experience art I enjoy is the delight that drives my whole career. On the other, climbing aboard an already-in-full-swing bandwagon for a show that I sincerely believed to be bad makes me feel dirty, at least until its future trajectory can be determined.

And one episode is definitely not enough to make that determination. Take Noah Hawley’s Legion, about as apples-to-apples a comparison with Bryan Fuller’s American Gods as you can get. Like American Gods, Legion was a new project from a television visionary fresh from a stunningly successful and unique adaptation of outside source material, with Fargo standing in for Hannibal. Like American Gods, Legion was itself an adaptation, of work by influential comic-book creators, with Neil Gaiman standing in for Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz (themselves working off concepts created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee). Like American Gods, Legion saw the artifice and spectacle present in the showrunners’ previous work cranked up to astronomical new heights. And like American Gods, Legion waited until its fourth episode to do something worth the extravagant praise that had been heaped upon it already.

I reviewed this past weekend’s episode of American Gods, which was quite good, for Decider. That was a heck of a Sunday night for TV, all things considered.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Five: “The House of Special Purpose”

May 19, 2017

If “The House of Special Purpose” demonstrates anything it’s how bad things are getting, and how fast they’re getting there. God bless the silence, restraint, and deliberately painstaking pacing of crime shows like Better Call Saul and The Americans, but there’s something cathartic about watching everything collapse as quickly as possible. In this episode alone, Emmit loses his wife over a fake sex tape Ray and Nikki record in a failed blackmail attempt; he blows up at Sy and risks their friendship; Ray realizes the cops are on to his involvement in Ennis Stussy’s murder; Emmit learns the IRS is investigating him due to Ray’s “withdrawal” from Emmit’s personal account while in disguise;  Varga goes apeshit on Sy in his oily way; and Varga’s hired muscle beat Nikki to a pulp. The best thing that happens to anybody is that Sy’s meeting with the Widow Goldfarb, a potential buyer and thus lifeline from Varga’s depredations, isn’t a total fiasco.  “You’re supposed to be a fixer!” Emmit barks at Sy in the middle of all this. “Nothing’s fixed. Everything’s broken.” That’s about the size of it.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Fargo for Decider. In the review spend a bunch of time writing about Nikki Swango, a curveball of a character.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Head Full of Snow”

May 17, 2017

In both sequences, the faults of the modern-fantasy writing style pioneered by original American Gods author Neil Gaiman, both in his prose work and in his mega-popular Sandman comics, remain visible cracks in the edifice. The opening sequence begins with the soon to be dead woman talking to herself out loud about her good-for-nothing son, her wild grandkids, and the meal she’s cooking; It’s so needlessly direct and explicit that you can all but see the comic-book word balloons or caption boxes floating around every line of dialogue. Her acceptance of her supernatural visitor feels convincing enough, though, perhaps because she just died and that seems like the kind of experience that would leave one feeling particularly open-minded about how the world works.

The jinn sequence has no such excuse. It’s just hard to swallow the idea that a novelty salesman in a powder-blue suit who just dutifully sat in an office for seven hours waiting for a meeting with a guy who never even bothered to show up would simply roll with the punches when he discovers his cab driver’s eyeballs are on fire. I mean, does he strike you as the adventurous type? But the blithe treatment of the extraordinary as commonplace is a hallmark of Gaiman’s work and that of all the writers who followed in his footsteps, both in the Vertigo comics line built around his characters and in the world of fantastic fiction at large. This dude has to be okay with meeting (and eventually fucking) a supernatural entity within seconds of discovering his existence, because otherwise there’s no story, is there? Granted, this is in part just a genre convention: Normies react differently to supernatural beings in urban fantasy stories than they do in, say, superhero or horror. But it’s always sat wrong with me, and no amount of red-hot (literally and figuratively) sex is gonna set it right. (The less said about the decision to superimpose the subtitles for their conversation against gigantic flowing Arabic script, the better.)

I reviewed this week’s episode of American Gods, which was better but still not good, for Decider.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Four: “The Narrow Escape Problem”

May 13, 2017

Varga’s theory of human behavior is expressed via a memorable metaphor: bulimia. Twice in this episode, we see him in his deliberately shabby suit, gorging on rich food, then heading for the bathroom and bringing it all back up. (The handkerchief he neatly unfolds to protect the knees of his pants from the men’s room floor is a lovely little shoutout to the similar ritual performed by the Faulkneresque alcoholic writer W.P. Mayhew in Barton Fink.) Consume all you want — just don’t dare to leave a trace of it where people can see.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Fargo, which more or less argues that wealth is inherently immoral, for Decider.

How “Billions” Became One of TV’s Best Shows

May 10, 2017

I was ready to write Billions off as a loss. Debuting last year, Showtime’s high-profile financial thriller boasted an impressive cast, helmed by Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis in the dueling roles of U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades and billionaire hedge-fund genius Bobby Axelrod. The writing, led by co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, combined obvious affection for the setting with a gimlet eye for its excesses and crimes (not to mention its denizens’ penchant for comparing themselves to movie gangsters at any given opportunity). But for all that, the combination never quite clicked. The power plays that gave the show its most exciting moments were so fast and furious that character got lost in the shuffle, and Chuck and Bobby’s rivalry, while carefully balanced in terms of audience sympathy, never quite attained the Ahab vs. Moby Dick “from hell’s heart I stab at thee” vibe it demanded.

Then along came Season 2 and, to be blunt, holy shit. Starting with a season premiere that saw it leap straight off the blocks, Billions became one of the most consistently, raucously entertaining shows on television. The war between Bobby and Chuck enlisted a growing cast of characters in its most exciting battles yet, under the eyes of an all-star lineup of directors including Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale), John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), Noah Emmerich (The Americans), Alex Gibney (Going Clear), Ed Bianchi (Deadwood), and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (the upcoming Captain Marvel). The dialogue was drum-tight and laugh-out-loud funny, the suspense sequences white-knuckle stuff, and the moments of pathos all the more compelling for the show’s general disinterest in pulling at your heartstrings when it could make your heart pound instead. All in all it’s a textbook case of a second-season turnaround, right up there with critics’ darlings The Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire.

What the hell happened?

Good question! I did my best to answer it for Decider.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “The Secret of Spoons”

May 8, 2017

They’re gettin’ the pantheon back together, man! “The Secret of Spoons,” American Gods second episode, is where the show truly begins living up to its title, as Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon meet a series of deities from around the world, up to and including an idol of the silver screen itself. But the residual thrill you get from watching the show do its version of a movie trope as familiar and beloved “the team comes together” is where this episode’s pleasures begin and end. Alternately corny and cringeworthy, it otherwise leads you to suspect that American Gods is material tailor made to bring out the worst in Bryan Fuller. It reduces his visual spectacle to mere excess and flattens his writing from operatic to dime-store paperback.

I reviewed this week’s episode of American Gods for Decider.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “The Law of Non-Contradiction”

May 8, 2017

Hawley tapped John Cameron, a longtime collaborator of both the Coens and their old friend Sam Raimi, to helm one of the series most Coen-esque installments ever, which is really saying something. (Un)comfortably ensconced in Los Angeles rather than the upper midwest, Fargo could really bring its Barton Fink/Big Lewbowski A-game, with some of its most explicit shout-outs and hat-tips yet. For example, the “ring for service” bell that never seems to stop ringing, the shot of Gloria reclining on the beach looking out into the sea, the mysterious shoes and the equally mysterious box, the screening room lit by the hazy light of the projector, Tad’s role as a screenwriter whose success in another medium leads him to get in over his head in Hollywood: That’s that Barton Fink feeling, baby, brought to you by filmmakers who understand the feelings of alienation and insecurity they’re supposed to engender in you, not just by people who are trying to coast on the residual goodwill of previous work with throwaway references.

In some places the allusions seem to fold endlessly into one another — Gloria’s motel simultaneously evokes Barton Fink’s hotel, the motel that figures prominently in No Country for Old Men, and the site of the Sioux Falls Massacre from the show’s previous season — to say nothing of cinema’s ur-motel, run by one Norman Bates and his mother. The emotional resonance here is dense, is what I’m saying; unlike some shows I could mention — fuck it, I mean Stranger Things — it’s designed to last beyond the mere fact of recognition. In other words, to paraphrase Barton Fink, it will show you the life of the mind.

Despite not caring fro two prominent aspects of last week’s Fargo, I liked the overall thing quite a bit, and explained why at Decider. (That cameo from you-know-who!)

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “The Bone Orchard”

May 4, 2017

Will you believe in American Gods? There are two ways to uncover the answer, and fortunately neither involves accepting any deity as your personal lord and savior. The first hinges on how you felt about Hannibal, AG co-creator Bryan Fuller’s spectacularly disgusting, confrontationally beautiful (or is that the other way around?) adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels. The slow-motion gouts of computer-enhanced arterial spray, the gardens of the dead, the highly symbolic horned-animal imagery — it’s all here, as spectacular as ever under frequent Fuller collaborator David Slade’s sure directorial hand. (Even if Hannibal composer Brian Reitzell’s score works way too hard to sell it to you.)

The second hinges on whether you can stomach characters called Shadow Moon and Mad Sweeney fighting for the pleasure of Mr. Wednesday in a show called American Gods. For fans of Neil Gaiman, the comics writer and novelist from whose book Fuller and co-creator Michael Green adapted the show, this is the sort of modern-fairy-tale whimsy that makes him such a beloved and influential figure. (His work has inspired some comics writers’ entire careers. Hell, it’s inspired some comics publishers’ entire careers.) But if you’re allergic to Gaiman’s “it’s the Magic of Storytelling” schtick, or to the urban-fantasy vibe that this show shares with series like Preacher and True Blood (themselves based on books that are hard to imagine existing without Gaiman), you may be out of luck.

Looks like I’m covering American Gods after all! I reviewed the series premiere, which as you can see above shook out how you might have thought it would for me, for Decider.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “The Principle of Restricted Choice”

April 27, 2017

We live in a world run by racist monsters who would gladly murder your children in front of you if it meant an extra zero for their net worth, so you have to take your pleasure where you can get it, and I get it from Shea Whigham. Best known to fans of excellent crime dramas for his role as Eli Thompson on Boardwalk Empire — the Ray Stussy to Steve Buscemi’s Emmit-like Nucky Thompson, basically — he slowly but surely became one of my favorite things about that show: a character so consumed by his own failures that you could hear it in his voice like a speech impediment and watch it seep out of his face like five o’clock shadow. He’s only in “The Principle of Restricted Choice,” this week’s episode of Fargo, briefly. And he’s delivering the sort of angry-police-chief comic relief familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a cop show, chewing out recently demoted Gloria Burgle and her deputy for operating their podunk department (now absorbed into the county’s police force) from a meeting room in the public library, using a storeroom for a prison cell and eschewing computers entirely. We live in the future, he insists, and she’d better get with the program. If the future includes more of this gravelly voiced actor with a face like a stern Renaissance aristocrat, I’m fucking in.

Don’t believe the anti-prestige-TV hype part 3: I reviewed this week’s marvelous Fargo for Decider.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode One: “The Law of Vacant Places”

April 20, 2017

Fargo Season Three has arrived, and Noah Hawley is back on his bullshit.

After the weightless sci-fi psychedelia of Legion — a seemingly sincere but ultimately empty exercise in the superhero genre — the writer/director/showrunner has returned to the moral snowdrifts of the Upper Midwest for the third season of Fargo. The sudden chill has done him good. Legion did all sorts of rad tricks with lighting, editing, cinematography, narrative structure, and found-music pop-rock soundtracking, but for all its freneticism the end result was inert; tied to a hoary X-Men x-tended-universe story about a crazy telepathic mutant and his not-as-creepy-as-it-could-have-been psychic parasite, it felt like stagecraft rather than communication.

But as an East German interrogator puts it in the flashback (?) prologue to “The Law of Vacant Places,” Fargo S3’s season premiere, “We are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth. Understand?” This is followed by the show’s usual “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” chyron — but Hawley, directing from his own script, then fades out the word “TRUE,” and eventually leaves nothing behind but “STORY.” This is already a far more effective disquisition on the difference between “true” and “real” than a season’s worth of Legion astral-plane hallucinations, because it’s rooted (literally — the words are overlaid across a shot of bare winter trees) in places and people rather than in an ersatz examination of The Mind or what have you. No matter how much Fargo owes to the Coen Brothers’ quirk-noir classic and the rest of their black-comedy crime films (some more black than comedy, some more comedy than black), it comes down to murder — the story of human bodies and what they’re capable of doing to one another. Here, heads are far more likely to get smashed by a falling air conditioner than explored like a memory palace.

I reviewed the season premiere of Fargo, which I enjoyed a great deal, for Decider. I’ll be covering the show there all season. Please do not believe a word of the backlash you may have seen to the show this season, which when compared to the freakout for Legion provides the clearest illustration I’ve ever seen of how TV critics overreact to novelty over quality. The stars of Trainspotting, Naked, A Serious Man, and The Leftovers are now all on the same show. If you suspect it’ll be good, congrats, you win.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Thirteen: “Mercy”

April 13, 2017

Eddie Lane has been anointed the Guardian of the Light, but the burden sits uneasily on his shoulders. Cal Roberts remains in charge of the Meyerist movement, but his emotional instability ensures that his grasp on power is a shaky one. Sarah Lane’s feelings toward both men exist are a paralyzing maelstrom of love, loyalty, and loathing. Her family, themselves members of the Meyerist inner circle, send her conflicting messages about where their own loyalties lie. The other major players in the movement have been momentarily marginalized, yet still seem capable of shifting their support from one leadership candidate to another should circumstances warrant. Eddie and Sarah’s children Hawk and Summer, the former in particular, are caught in the emotional and ideological crossfire. FBI Agent Abe Gaines is a man without a country as his undercover investigation into the movement causes him to question his personal and professional priorities. And the fate of a small town called Clarksville, its water supply poisoned by a corporate polluter, hangs in the balance as the Meyerists hash out their legal, political, and financial future. Yes, the Season Two premiere of The Path has — I’m sorry, I’m <puts finger on earpiece> I’m now being told that this was the Season Two finale of The Path? Did I get my notes mixed up or something?

Upon further review, the answer, unfortunately, is no. “Mercy,” the final episode of The Path’s maddeningly meandering second season, returns us pretty much exactly to where it started. Sure, the show may have added a dozen or so Deniers, now that Eddie has kinda-sorta accepted his role as a potential leader for a Meyerist reform movement, and subtracted one Richard, who lit himself on fire in what turned out to be an entirely unsuccessful attempt to shake the corrupted faith to its foundations. Other than that, though? It’s like the intervening twelve episodes never happened. All those changes of heart and reversals, all that business about blackmail and Clarksville, the very existence of Kodiak and Chloe (remember them?), the constant stream of Seinfeld pop-ins (for god’s sake, Abe pops in on Eddie and Sarah while they’re fugitives from the law in Canada in this episode) — none of it wound up mattering at all. Cal is twitchy, Sarah is torn, Eddie is facing the world with a grimace, and for all its up-with-people rhetoric Meyerism is a psychological disaster area. Situation normal, all fucked up.

I reviewed the disappointing finale of The Path’s disappointing second season for Decider.