Sy Feltz is not having a good day.
For four episodes now, Fargo has treated Sy as Emmit Stussy’s right-hand man, as well as the show’s comic relief, and Michael Stuhlbarg has been more than up to the task. But when you have an actor of such uncommon talent as Stuhlbarg in your ensemble, you want to make the best use of him, and “The House of Special Purpose” does so with aplomb. It’s a solid, at times devastating episode that does an excellent job of pushing the plot forward, and it also serves as a great showcase for Sy (who could be closely related to Larry Gopnik, Stuhlbarg’s character in A Serious Man, for which he should have gotten an Oscar nomination).
David Thewlis continues to run away with the show as V.M. Varga, and although this third season is probably the show’s weakest (although it’s still very, very good), Varga remains a terrifically chilling cipher, an invasive source of evil whose motives are never explained, which is oddly one of the season’s most effective narrative choices. In one of the episode’s most upsetting scenes, he shows up to Sy’s office to announce that he’s taking up residency and Sy has to find new digs. Then, in a very V.M. Varga thing to do, he takes Sy’s coffee cup, pisses in it (reminiscent of Lorne Malvo using defecation as a power move in season one), then Yuri and Meemo force Sy to drink it. There’s no good way to show, or to watch, a grown man being forced to drink his own piss. It’s emasculating, degrading, and only the start of what turns out to be a pretty awful day for everyone.
My name is Trevor and I think Fargo is sooooooo great. (I just had to re-establish that.) Ewan McGregor is especially impressive this season, and his accent work remains flawless. His inflection really helps the viewer differentiate between Ray and Emmit. And the Stussy brothers are protagonists unlike any we’ve seen on Fargo thus far. They lack the budding sociopathy of season one’s Lester Nygaard, or the straight-laced sense of justice of season two’s Lou Solverson. In a way, both of them are like William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in the Fargo film. Ray is a fundamentally decent man who thought he could play at being a criminal, with little regard for the repercussions, because crime is never as straightforward as it is in movies. And Emmit is really the aggrieved party here. He’s caught up not only with Varga but in Ray’s ill-conceived machinations.
For Ray’s part, he’s brought in by Gloria and Winnie, who continue to make a fun team. Olivia Sandoval in particular is intriguing as Winnie, who never really stops smiling, and in that smile you can see several character traits: a genuine love of her job, a slight social awkwardness, and a way to disarm suspects. It’s a remarkably nuanced performance for a character with such relatively little screen time.
“The House of Special Purpose” is an exemplary halfway-point episode, masterful in the dread it instills in the viewer as things move past the point of no return. Ray and Nikki fake a sex tape, featuring Ray in his Emmit wig, so Emmit’s wife Stella takes the kids and leaves. Varga sews discord between Emmit and Sy (“I don’t think we can trust…the Jew”). It’s actually the episode’s funniest scenes, because Thewlis puts such strange emphasis on seemingly random words and syllables that it makes even his most ominous pronouncements oddly comical. Ewan McGregor nicely plays up Emmit’s befuddlement, lending him and Thewlis the air of a deadpan comedy duo (“I heard he broke into your bank.” “Sy?” “Raymond”).
On top of the erosion of Emmit’s faith in him, Sy has to finagle a way out of Ray and Nikki’s demands. Nikki doesn’t care that Stella watched the tape; now she wants double the money to come clean to Stella. Mary Elizabeth Winstead shines in her scenes opposite Stuhlbarg, and Nikki never fails to impress in her absolute refusal to take zero shit. “It didn’t happen!” Sy sputters, to which she coolly replies: “That doesn’t make it not true.”
It’s because of our love, and admiration, for Nikki that the end of “The House of Special Purpose” hits as hard as it does. Yuri and Meemo break up the confab between Sy and Nikki, and director Dearbla Walsh (Penny Dreadful) mines the stark setting for as much dread as it can produce. “That’s why the snow falls white,” Yuri tells Sy. “To hide the blood.”
It’s only in retrospect that the ending of “Special Purpose” seems not just obvious but inevitable. Meemo grabs Nikki hard by the hair, and Yuri looks coldly at Sy and tells him, “This is what comes after the cup.” What happens next is Walsh’s greatest moment as a director, as she just focuses on Sy’s reaction as we hear Nikki being beaten. Stuhlbarg does some amazing facial acting, mirroring our reaction hearing Nikki’s screams, before we hear nothing. It would be a shocking, ignominious end to a great character, but being the badass she is, Nikki not only survives, but manages to get herself home – before Ray finds her cold in the tub, fate undetermined.
Sometimes, Fargo forces you to wonder if happy endings exist, or if all we can expect is, to borrow a phrase from Emmit, coincidence and random life.