Season 4, Episode 9: ‘East/West’

One of the challenges of serialized television shows, especially plot-heavy thrillers like “Fargo,” is that the demands of moving the various subplots forward can keep individual episodes from having their own distinct flavor. The fourth season has fallen into that mid-season trap a little, sacrificing the thematic purposefulness of the early episodes for a little too much plate-spinning. It needed an audacious, standalone hour like this week’s episode to reassert itself again.

The Bertrand Russell quote that opens the episode speaks to the arc of the whole season. “Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim” is actually a piece of a quote from a letter the philosopher wrote to his lover, Ottoline Morrell. It’s preceded by this line: “People seem good while they are oppressed, but they only wish to become oppressors in their turn.” This has been the show’s understanding of American power from the beginning, as a relentless tribalism in which entire ethnic and racial classes start at the bottom, gain legitimacy and then take it out on next disfavored group.

The one sticking point to that cynical thinking, which the show has expressed since the changing-of-the-guard sequences in the season premiere, is that Black people are an exception to the rule. The Irish and the Italians may take that route to broad cultural acceptance, but there’s nothing an exceptionally clever leader like Loy Cannon can do to advance his race from oppressed to oppressor, even if he succeeds in his war against the Faddas. The show is aware of this fact, most plainly in the co-opting of Loy’s credit card idea by white bankers, and yet here’s that Russell quote anyway, preceding an episode that doesn’t have much to do with it. Oh well.

That one hiccup aside, the episode is both a conceptual marvel and an example of how big ensemble shows can benefit from focusing on a couple of characters and sending the rest of the cast on vacation. We hadn’t seen Milligan and Satchel since the botched hit job sent them on the lam together, so it was a treat to spend some quality time with them before their fates were literally cast to the wind. “Fargo” has strayed from Coensville all season long, so it makes sense that an escape to rural Kansas would shift to “The Wizard of Oz” as a reference point rather than to the quirky denizens of Minnesota and North Dakota.

Shot in black and white, with that startling shift to color after a tornado, the episode follows Milligan and Satchel, who are definitely not in Kansas (City) anymore. The two hole up at the Barton Arms in Liberal, Kan., “the pancake hub of the universe,” for a couple of days so that Milligan can find his bearings and figure out where they should go from there. As Satchel stays in the room, bonding with a stray dog of Toto-like proportions, Milligan heads back into Kansas City to retrieve $5,000 in ill-gotten cash that he had tucked in the walls of a feed shop. Only the feed shop is now a catalog store, and the wall is gone, leading Milligan to conclude that the new proprietors have his money.

The episode builds to two crackerjack suspense sequences. The first has Milligan trying to get his money from the catalog store, which is never a situation he doesn’t have entirely in hand. But outside the shop, Satchel faces the much more dangerous prospect of a conflict with a white police officer, who basically eyes him for the crime of Sitting While Black. Milligan gets back in time to defuse the situation, but for Satchel, it underlines an essential difference between him and his “guardian”: They may both be orphans, but in reference to the monologue about the Goldilocks story back at the Barton Arms, Satchel will always be the “outsider in search of himself.” He has no home that could ever be considered safe.

The second set-piece is much showier, landing Milligan in the middle of a gunfight between one of Loy’s henchman, Omie Sparkman (Corey Hendrix), and the wraithlike Constant Calamita. Sparkman has set a trap for Calamita at the only filling station for miles around — one that happens to be eight or nine miles away from the Barton Arms — but when Milligan turns up looking for a treat for Satchel’s birthday, he gets roped into a conflict. To this point, only the Kansas setting, the black-and-white photography and the little dog have suggested “The Wizard of Oz,” but it’s enough to justify the tornado that wipes all three characters off the map.

The switch from black-and-white to color after the tornado isn’t as revelatory as when Dorothy opens the door to Oz — what could be, really? — but it does mark Satchel’s transition to another world, one where he is truly orphaned, without his real or surrogate father. Perhaps some version of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man or the Lion await him on the lonely highway that stands in for the yellow brick road, but it’s been made perfectly clear to him, outside the catalog store and inside the Barton Arms, that he’s not welcome anywhere. He can’t click his heels three times. In Kansas, there’s no place called home.

3 Cent Stamps:

Welcome back, Coen references! The Barton Arms is a nod to the Hotel Earle, the purgatorial dump where John Turturro struggles to script a wrestling picture in “Barton Fink.” Touting the pancakes of Liberal, Kan., honors Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud in “Fargo,” a man who speaks of little but his desire for pancakes. (The Coens and Stormare also call back to the pancakes during his appearance as a nihilist in “The Big Lebowski.”) And it may be a stretch, but the old man strapped to a machine at the Barton Arms sounded a little like the retired TV writer in the iron lung in “Lebowski.” (“He has health problems.”)

Back to less expected references, the episode features a straight-faced telling of “Yertle the Turtle,” the classic Dr. Seuss story about the vain turtle king who makes a throne for himself atop a stack of other turtles. On systems of oppression, you get your choice of Bertrand Russell or Dr. Seuss. I choose the latter.

Love the scenes with the billboard and its maker, who isn’t in a hurry to finish up lest he be unemployed. Milligan has no idea what “The Future Is Now” is supposed to mean, and it’s especially perplexing because the billboard’s image of white suburbia seems so far removed from the snow-dusted plains of rural Kansas. But Satchel appears to recognize that the future isn’t his, at least not now.

Apologies to Milligan, but the finders keepers rule does apply here. When the owners of the catalog store bought the feed shop, they got everything that came with it. “Leaky pipes, bag of money, what have you … that’s the American way.”

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