A review of this week’s Fargo, “East/West,” coming up just as soon as my dog is named Rabbit…
In 2009, the Coen brothers sat down with critic Elvis Mitchell for a career retrospective conversation on their home turf in Minneapolis. At one point in the wide-ranging discussion, Mitchell asks about the inspiration for how they staged a sequence with the KKK in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Joel Coen replies, “We’ve talked about this, Ethan and I before, in that almost every movie you make is just an attempt to remake The Wizard of Oz.”
“East/West,” written by Noah Hawley and Lee Edward Colston II, and directed by Mike Uppendahl, is by far the most Coen-y episode of Fargo Season Four, in large part because it’s Hawley and company’s own attempt to remake The Wizard of Oz.
In this case, though, it’s a Wizard of Oz in reverse, where our two Dorothy figures, Rabbi Milligan and Satchel Cannon, have traveled from a Technicolor land of larger-than-life figures to the stark black-and-white plains of Kansas. There are two witches of the east and west, in the form of the bickering sisters who run the rooming house where they hide out. And you can draw lines between the other rooming house guests and Dorothy’s companions if you want, like the old man with the breathing apparatus as a sadder Tin Woodsman, or the fact that the traveling salesman is named Hunk, which was the name of the farmhand Ray Bolger played in the movie before becoming the Scarecrow in Oz.
Oh, and, of course, there’s a twister.
Where other episodes of this season have had to bounce around a half-dozen plots and three times as many significant characters, “East/West” is deliberately spare in both story and style. Most of it is just about Rabbi trying to retrieve some money he once hid in a feed store in the town of Liberal, Kansas, while Satchel hides out at the rooming house, with Constant Calamita and Omie Sparkman on their trail. It’s much slower than any previous installment this year. But it’s also much more interesting, because everything feels of a piece, rather than trying to make mismatched parts like Doctor Senator, Gaetano Fadda, and Oraetta Mayflower fit into the same picture. So much care is given to the details of the rooming house, its occupants, and Liberal as a whole that this one could almost function as its own entity, to be screened for people who haven’t seen anything else from this season and couldn’t tell a Deafy Wickware from a Zelmare Roulette.
“East/West” is a part of this season, though, and thus the journey takes on added resonance for what we know of the bond between the once and future Milligans: Rabbi in his final days on earth, and Satchel as he literally sets out on a road that will eventually make him Mike.
This season began with criminal fathers trading away their children to make peace. It’s a potent idea, but one where the show has demonstrated more interest in the fathers’ feelings about the deal than that of their kids. Ben Whishaw has been mostly marginalized, though excellent whenever called upon, and it wasn’t until Josto and Oraetta’s pillow talk last week that we got any sense of how horrifying the trade was for him as a boy(*). But whenever Rabbi and Satchel are paired, it’s hard not to think about what brought them together, and why Rabbi is so protective of Loy Cannon’s son. Even though they’re not talking about their shared past, and are using the assumed names of Duffy and Colt, their link is palpable. Family business has reshaped both of them, and now the best option is for them to find somewhere over the rainbow where they can hide from the Faddas and the Cannons.
(*) There are scrambled familial relationships among the other rooming house guests, too, with some confusion about whether Pastor Roanoke is traveling with his wife or mother, and the major’s “niece” addressing him by his first name and in general behaving in an uncomfortably close fashion towards the old man.
But the adventure doesn’t work out. The hidden money is mostly gone, having been discovered by a pair of brothers who took over the store. And Rabbi’s attempt to buy a candy bar for Satchel’s birthday ends with a twister swallowing him up, along with Calamita and Sparkman (the latter likely already dead from Calamita’s bullets), as if a more powerful force is rendering its disapproval of this generational feud among Kansas City’s various crime families. Rabbi floats up into the sky destined only for oblivion, rather than a magical city where he can dance with a lion and murder witches. And when Satchel opens the door from their room to go looking for his guardian, the episode’s harsh monochrome sheen converts to color. It’s not the dazzling greens and yellows and reds of Oz, but it’s a future for the kid, who only has his little dog for companionship now as he sets off in search of his own future.
While waiting around at the rooming house, Satchel winds up spending a fair amount of time with Hunk, and, in many ways, the salesman’s relentlessly friendly patter seems a huge influence on the man Satchel will grow up to be. It’s not hard to picture the adult Mike Milligan quoting Dale Carnegie, after all, right before siccing the Kitchen Brothers on some poor slob.
During that awkward dinner, Hunk begins analyzing the story of Goldilocks, describing her as the classic example of an outsider in search of oneself. It’s an archetype that also fits Dorothy Gale, and both of our weary, troubled heroes this week. Rabbi Milligan was the son of an Irish family, cast out into first a Jewish clan, then an Italian one, never finding the home that felt just right. He leaves Satchel Cannon alone but prepared, even if he didn’t offer his usual warning first about what it means if he doesn’t come back. We don’t know what’s in store for the rest of the Cannon family, but unless all the Mike Milligan hints are a really convoluted head-fake, we know what’s in store for Satchel. He’ll be OK, but he won’t fulfill the dreams of either his biological father or the surrogate one who cared for him in the Fadda house. He’ll survive without ever getting to where the clouds are far behind him.
The episode opens with glimpse of one of the buildings wrecked by the twister, a copy of Barton Brixby’s A History of True Crime in the Mid West, which previously appeared in the show’s second season. It’s a clever nod to the year that introduced Mike Milligan, but also a way to establish that “East/West” will be more firmly on Fargo/Coen ground than much of this season to date.
Early in their travels through Kansas, Rabbi and Satchel pass a billboard whose unfinished message reads “The Future Is.” In that moment, anything could be possible, even for two fugitives with no resources and nowhere to go. As Satchel heads off in search of whatever comes next, whether or not it involves Loy Cannon, he passes the billboard, finally completed to read “The Future Is Now.” It is advertising a dream that has already been taken from Rabbi, and that we know Satchel will never quite get either. It’s sad, but then, so is The Wizard of Oz. If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why, can’t this poor kid?