That really got out of hand fast. This is “The Gift of the Magi.”
The episode begins with a tour bus. A political tour bus, to be specific. We hear a man talk about his salesman father who, like many people, struggled during the Depression. But our speaker has never been one to focus on life’s downs. The nation has done a lot to advance the cause of freedom, but if you look around, you don’t see signs of that dignity. You have to stand in line just to fill up your car.
Hanzee, meanwhile, returns Rye’s belt buckle to Floyd and explains what happened, as if he was there himself. Apparently, just like the law said, a butcher did this after Rye followed the judge and shot up the place. Dodd interrupts, saying that the killer is known as the Butcher of Luverne- a contract man out of Kansas City. Sounds like a theory, though Floyd more wants to hear Hanzee’s point of view. He, though, also figures that Kansas City wanted to use Rye for leverage.
Joe Bulo and the Kitchen Brothers go hunting with Commissioner Richard Armbruster, played by Jeff Clarke, who is slowly being courted by Bulo. As Armbuster takes aim, he and the syndicates receive surprise enemy fire from the Gerhardt. Armbuster is taken out, Bulo retreats, but the Kitchen Brothers ward off the attacks.
However, Hanzee soon joins the fight- he kills Wayne Kitchen and knocks out Gale. As Bulo makes it back to his car, he finds Hanzee waiting for him. Christ, Hanzee is fast.
Back to our speaker of the hour, Mr. Ronald Reagan, played by none other than Ash Williams himself, Bruce Campbell. He will be a leader that will lead this great nation toward its rendezvous with destiny.
Though moved to tears, Karl refuses to shake Reagan’s hand since he made a movie with a monkey. It wouldn’t be dignified. But he did still like him in Cattle Queen of Montana. Lou Solverson will be escorting Reagan’s bus as far as the state line, even though he’d rather be investigating the murders. Before Lou leaves, Karl wants him to ask Reagan if it’s true that Joan Crawford had crabs. Yeah, no.
Back at the Gerhardt home, Floyd and Charlie sit in anticipation when Dodd enters with good news: they got ‘em. No Milligan, though. In light of this, there’s no question that Kansas City will strike back hard. When Floyd figured that these people would negotiate, Dodd sees that as her feminine side talking. It was always going to be war, Dodd says. Floyd wants this butcher in Luverne dead. No mercy.
Said butcher awakens as Ed heads to the basement and finds Peggy thinking about what they should take when they leave for California. You know, when they run. After all, they heard what Lou said. If this still isn’t over and it’s just the tail of the snake, they need to go. And all those dead people in The Waffle Hut- the fella had a car, so why was he in the road? Peggy also reveals that Constance saw the car after it had been cleaned, but before the other crash. Peggy was gonna walk her right out, but she heard music coming from the garage.
But it doesn’t seem like Constance will say something. And yet, law enforcement is asking questions. Peggy knows that they can’t stay. Ed counters that Peggy agreed to fix this. He’s still thinking about kids and the shop, but Peggy wants to be more realistic than that. Ed still wants the shop and will figure out a way to make this work, even though he doesn’t have the money to acquire it and Bud still gave him a deadline. Even still, he’ll figure it out. That’s what people do.
Charlie tells Dodd that he wants to help, and won’t look to Bear for permission. After all, if this Blomquist guy killed Rye, then it should be a Gerhardt to kill him. Dodd tells Virgil, played by Greg Bryk, to look for Ed Blomquist. In addition, he tells Virgil that not only will Charlie go with him, but he’ll also pull the trigger. If anything goes wrong, Virgil is to fix it.
Simone also heads off, as we follow her to the Pearl Hotel. She knocks on room 502 and is greeted by Gale Kitchen, who eventually lets her in. Simone checks in on Mike Milligan, who talks about his ever optimistic mother, who could find the cloud in every silver lining. Simone’s mom, she says, smiles all the time, like some ghoul, probably because dad would hit her if she looked sad.
Then Milligan tells Simone why there’s only one Kitchen brother standing with him, all because of the Indian, who killed a lot of people. But Simone claims to know nothing about that. Mike asks Simone what they are in her mind- Romeo and Juliet? Simone doesn’t know. Mike goes back to his mother and how they would eat in the dark. For shits and giggles, he wrote on her tombstone that she was happy until the very end. Mike Milligan, you see, is an optimist. So when he sees the head of Joe Bulo in his box, which he shows to Simone, he doesn’t think that the sky is falling. It’s the sound of opportunity knocking.
Simone spills that the family had a meeting without her. If she knew, she would have said something. Mike lets her off with a warning: if she wants be taken seriously, she has to be serious. His point is that he wants to know what the Gerhardts will do before they do it- every single time. Otherwise, she can die with the rest of them. With that, Simone leaves.
On the road, Lou receives a transmission from Ben Schmidt, who reports one hell of a shit sandwich, 12 dead: half Kansas City, half Gerhardt, and one zoning commissioner. Lou shares his theory about the local beautician and her husband being responsible for Rye Gerhardt’s disappearance. Maybe they panicked and dumped the body somewhere. Meanwhile, there are visitors from both factions looking for revenge, so this is looking like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Schmidt offers to come on up, and Lou will join him once he’s done with the Reagan detail.
At Bud’s Meats, Noreen is deep into her book- does she do any actual work?- and asks why Ed is putting in all this effort for the shop. He’s living the American dream of getting a shop, but Noreen says that he’s gonna die anyway. Camus says knowing we’re all gonna die makes life a joke. Knowing that we’re all gonna day makes life easier. She suggests killing yourself to get it over with fast. The hell? No matter the path, Noreen just sees death. Even though Ed’s father lived to be 96, he still, at the end, died. I can’t say I completely disagree with Noreen’s logic.
Outside, a nervous Charlie is hesitant about his target, but Virgil tries to calm him by saying to just point and shoot. And if the target keeps moving, shoot it again. Oh, and no witnesses.
He eventually enters the shop and makes small talk with Noreen, who rattles off the available meats. When Charlie asks for the butcher, Noreen points out that Ed isn’t, in fact, the butcher. He’s just the assistant butcher. Either way, Noreen buzzes for him. Charlie waits and waits, his hand ready on the gun. He notices Noreen’s book- he read and found it depressing. Noreen thinks that it’s beautiful, which is why her schoolmates find her to be morose. After all, Halloween is her favorite holiday. Okay, I like Noreen a lot more now.
Charlie’s favorite is Easter. The Resurrection, you know. Kind of like Rocky, but then, as Charlie points out, Rocky did lose in the end. Ed finally comes out and all Charlie has to show for it when he returns to the car is some meat.
Peggy, meanwhile, packs as much as she can fit into her suitcases. She then heads to the auto shop and finds the car fully repaired. Sonny reports that everything has been fixed, from top to bottom. Peggy gives him a check and tells him to wait until the end of the month to cash the check. However, before leaving, Peggy stops and returns to the shop. She asks if Sonny would like to buy the car. After all, they need cash to buy the butcher shop.
As for Peggy’s trip, she just now decided to not go. Sonny can only give around $700, even though the car is probably worth $1400. And with that, Peggy heads home, feeling proud of herself.
At the Gerhardt home, Bear speaks with Hanzee about this morning. Though there were losses on both sides, Hanzee reports that the message has been delivered. On behalf of himself and Floyd, Bear thanks Hanzee for his service. Ever since Otto took him in when he was nine, he never complained. Bear considers Hanzee a part of this family, not that Dodd would ever say that. Even still, Hanzee’s actions have escalated this war.
Then Dodd returns, still waiting for Simone, and orders Bear to leave Hanzee alone, since he’s his man. Dodd is disappointed that Bear likes taking orders from a woman, even if it is Mom. Bear warns that there will be a reckoning where all souls will be held accountable for their actions. Dodd doesn’t give much thought to that.
Back on the campaign trail, Lou and Reagan bond at the urinals- the one place to have small talk. Governor Reagan asks where Lou served and Lou responds that it the Mekong Delta. Reagan thinks back to 1942, when America just joined, but then talks about his service…of working on Operation Eagle’s Nest for Paramount. He got dropped behind enemy lines trying to rescue Jimmy Whitmore and Laraine Day from this SS commando. Reagan can’t remember if they made it out, but it was a hell of a picture.
Lou mentions that his wife has stage three lymphoma. He wonders if the sickness of this world could also be inside his wife. He asks Mr. Reagan if they’ll get out of this mess. Reagan responds that there’s not a mess that can’t be overcome by an American. Okay, but how? And that’s when Reagan leaves. Great talk.
At House Solverson, Betsy takes one of her pills from her trial drug bottle before paying extra attention to Molly’s artwork of the family and a UFO. Okay. Hank soon enters, as he got worried, plus Lou has maybe two hours left on this Reagan detail. Right now, Betsy can’t decide if she’s hungry or wants to throw up, but that’s just a symptom. Betsy heads off with some rest and asks if Hank will watch Molly. He agrees, so they’ll just be eating sugar cereal and playing with his service weapon. Maybe this is when Molly learned how to shoot.
Charlie calls to speak with his father and admit that he’s ready for school. In the meantime, he’s gotta finished what he started, so he heads back in the shop just as Ed goes in the back. Charlie enters and locks the door behind him. As he heads for the back, he points his gun at Ed, but then Noreen exits the bathroom. The distraction causes Charlie to fire. His gun jams and the fired bullet sparks a blaze. Virgil enters and fires a shot that ends up hitting Charlie.
Ed and Noreen fight Virgil, but Virgin manages to overpower them both and begins choking the life out of Ed. Quick decision made, Ed grabs a cleaver and slams it into Virgil’s head. He and Noreen escape the burning shop and drag Charlie out with them. Ed goes over the story with Noreen: he saved the kid, who shot first, and then the big guy came at him, so he acted in self-defense. That’s the story he wants her to tell the cops. He then runs off while Bud’s Meats go down in flames.
Simone returns home and finds Dodd waiting for her. Her cover story about meeting a friend doesn’t suffice. He asks if she thinks that she’s grown, with her clothes and hair and no bra and all, like she knows about the world. Being grown has a price, Dodd says. A kid gets slapped when they’re bad. When you’re grown, you get the fist or the knife. Floyd, nearby, orders Dodd to let Simone alone.
That evening, Lou arrives at Bud’s Meats and finds Hank speaking with Noreen.
Later, Ed rushes home and tells Peggy that they need to pack. However, Peggy has been thinking about what Ed said: he was right. It was selfish of her to spend without asking. They have to fight. She presents a check that she got for selling the car. It’s enough to buy the shop because this was their dream. Then Ed finally says that not only is the shop burned down, he may have killed a guy. Lou was right about someone coming after them.
So while Ed is grateful, the two need to pack. However, the sound and lights of police sirens stop them in their tracks.
“The Gift of the Magi” was all about escalation. Floyd declared that there would be hell to pay and promised war. We got just a taste of that this week with the Gerhardt family bringing it to the Kansas City syndicate, which not just threw them off guard, but also put them on the defensive.
A lot of things in this episode defied expectations. Though, if anything, Fargo does that often and Floyd even pointed out last time how she shouldn’t be underestimated. Joe Bulo, for example, wields great influence and expects to get things done diplomatically. He promised to exterminate the Gerhardt name, but he had an opportunity to negotiate before that. In his mind, there’s no way he’d become a target.
But that’s just what happens. Though Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers have been the ones causing havoc, Bulo has called many of the shots, so he’s fair game. That entire shootout at the beginning was a well-directed sequence and strong way to kick off the episode. Like the massacre at The Waffle Hut, the moment started off calm enough, but exploded in no time.
This just stirs the pot, more than anything else. Even though the Gerhardt family struck early this time, there were losses on both sides, so there’s no clear winner here. The fallout that started with Rye’s murder has led to an ongoing ripple effect that’s tearing the families apart as everyone strikes to stay one step ahead of their competition.
The same way that Simone, who has been one-upping her family, now finds herself in danger and on the defensive with Mike Milligan promising to kill her. Like Floyd, Simone is someone who doesn’t want others to underestimate her because of appearance or gender, but she doesn’t have the wisdom or experience that the adults around her do. But like Charlie, she’s still too young and isn’t as prepared as she thinks she is. She tries to maintain an air of confidence and doesn’t realize the seriousness of the situation until Milligan implicates her in the massacre, even if she didn’t play a direct or even indirect role.
When shit gets real, people can get caught up in longing or talking about a simpler time. A more carefree world, like when Simone longed for the carefree love of the 1960s instead of embracing the reality of her situation. It’s easy for some to maintain that optimism and find a cloud in the silver lining, similar to Mike Milligan’s mother, because it gives you hope that, despite how bad things may be, they’ll eventually get better.
But we’re in a pessimistic age where not everyone gets home alive and gets to have that rendezvous with destiny. Reagan is emblematic of that optimism and hope for a better day. This is the man who would later champion American exceptionalism with the “Morning in America” political ad. Reagan may not have concrete answers to solving those problems that can only be handled by an American, but he can damn sure tell a story that gets you motivated into thinking that he has. It helps to be an effective communicator, even if you don’t have substance.
And can we talk about Bruce Campbell for a second? The man doesn’t appear in the episode for long and I don’t know how long he’ll be around, if at all, but he sells the performance and is much more convincing than so-called more grounded portrayals, like Alan Rickman in The Butler. He’s not trying to imitate Reagan so much as embody his presence and he’s great with what little screen-time he has.
The scene between Reagan and Lou Solverson was a particular highlight since, hey, we’re watching two guys try to have a long conversation at the urinals, but also because it showed both the optimism and pessimism in the country right now, condensed down to these two individuals. While Reagan attempts to regale Lou with his adventures filming a movie and talking about how Americans can solve any problems thrown their way, Lou is more pessimistic than that.
He feels that the sickness that’s running rampant right now has infected his wife and he’s powerless to stop it. He can’t have pie in the sky visions about the world because everything around him is too much to bear. Even if he may be right about Ed and Peggy’s involvement, the fact that they haven’t come clean, the body count from this episode alone, how this all feels like the Cuban Missile Crisis- it furthers his belief that the world has lost its moral center.
And the Solversons look to be holding things together for now, even if Betsy’s condition isn’t getting any better. At the very least, Betsy isn’t resigned to her fate, the way someone like Noreen is. She may not be in the best of shape, but she’s still giving life all she has and I enjoyed her moment with Hank and Molly.
In fact, for all of the darker moments this episode had, there were some moments to relax and exhale, such as the talk with Lou and Reagan, or Noreen’s conversation with Charlie, which was equally tense with Charlie’s hand always floating to his gun. A morbid conversation the two had, but it felt important because of the focus on inevitability. Noreen accepts the fact that she and everyone else around her will die soon, so right now, she doesn’t see the point in a grandiose vision for herself, the way that Ed does.
And while some can find a silver lining in everything, others just sit back and let life take over, rather than taking initiative. That’s the pickle that Ed and Peggy find themselves in right now. Both want to take action and do things for the sake of the other, but their actions cancel each other out. Hell, that’s the whole lesson of The Gift of the Magi story: two people that sell their closest possessions in order to get a gift for each other. In the end, neither gift is complete without the treasure that each sold in order to get it, but it’s symbolic of how far the two realize they’ll go to show their love.
The same is true here. Peggy sells the car in order to help Ed buy the shop, while Ed wants to buy the shop to secure a bright future for Peggy and their future family, but he can’t do that now that the shop has gone up in flames.
Both have good intentions and Peggy does show some progression when she changes her mind about running so she can stay and help Ed, though part of me wonders whether she’ll eventually follow through on wanting to better herself. When she leaves the auto shop, she seems proud of what she’s done, but I’d like to see if she ever follows up on Constance’s advice to become a better woman.
Ed, meanwhile, has another brush with death when Lou’s predictions about someone coming after them ring true. Like the shootout at the start, the firefight in the shop was very tense with no clear idea who would survive. It didn’t help that Charlie fudged the shooting, but Ed showed some spine when he not only killed Virgil, but saved Charlie from the fire. He already killed Rye and now Virgil, so why put even more blood on your hands? But even after all of that, Ed and Peggy can’t catch a break.
Five episodes in and the second season of Fargo has delivered its finest outing yet with “The Gift of the Magi,” and we’ve still got five more episodes to go. It raised the stakes through some violent confrontations and painted a portrait of characters trying to maintain a bit of hope and optimism in a bleak world. Like Noreen said, we’re all going to die anyway. Bruce Campbell’s Ronald Reagan was a welcome addition and I hope it’s not the last we see of him. If it is, I’m not upset with what we got.
But with Ed and Peggy cornered by authorities, dead bodies piling up for the Gerhardt family and Kansas City, things aren’t going to get better anytime soon.