At the top of “Aporia,” Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) sit alone in a starkly lit interrogation room. It’s not the first time these two have sat across from each other, but a long, dread-filled walk to V.M. Varga’s (David Thewlis) car later in the episode suggests that it might be the last. At the end of last week’s review, I mentioned that while Emmit was seemingly looking to confess his crimes to Gloria, the act wasn’t necessarily a way of atoning for his sins. The guiding force that’s thrown these people together, acting like a vengeful God experimenting with the degeneracy of humankind, isn’t in search of a confession, but an admission of wrongdoing. That means more than just confessing to a crime— it means recognizing the steps that were taken that led to the crime.
Emmit, for perhaps the first time in his life, is reckoning with the fact that he’s never been a good brother, and maybe not a very good person. When he lays out, in all the gory details, how a shard of glass ended up in Ray’s neck after an argument, he finishes with, “30 years I’ve been killing him. That’s just when he fell.” It’s a haunting statement, and a fine moment for McGregor, who up until this point has been solid in his role, if somewhat lost in the mix of outstanding turns from Carrie Coon, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, David Thewlis and Michal Stuhlbarg. What McGregor achieves, though, is some semblance of balance, challenging Emmit’s ignorance toward his own villainy and finding something compassionate in the process. Still, Emmit appears doomed; Varga has been killing him for months now, and it looks like it’s his time to fall.
“Aporia” is a remarkable episode because, not unlike like last week’s stunning exploration of fate and responsibility, it clarifies the season’s various narrative and thematic threads in a meaningful, rewarding way. Earlier this season, I worried that Fargo had followed its dark humor too far, to the point that the humor vanished and all that was left was a hefty dose of cynicism. Let that cynicism fester and you risk becoming something as vapid as House of Cards. Curb it and embrace it, and perhaps you can finding something more hopeful, à la The Leftovers, a show that found the light in the darkness across three superb seasons. Fargo isn’t aiming for the same moments of reckoning as The Leftovers, but it is interested in ideas of karma, destiny and the way we define ourselves through actions both moral and immoral.
If last week’s “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” shook up the status quo, then “Aporia” is the karmic follow up, the moment where things begin to balance out. This is where Fargo deserves some credit for its more cynical moments. Without them, perhaps the small victories of “Aporia” aren’t nearly as affecting. Take Nikki’s sit-down with Varga, wherein she blackmails the mob boss into (hopefully) giving her and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) $2 million in exchange for the laptop and USB drives they stole from him. The heist sequence early in the episode is thrilling in its own right, the jazzy score, pared down to snappy snare hits and rim shots, driving the momentum of the scene, but it’s the sit-down meeting that really shines.
The face-off between Nikki and Varga feels momentous, and that’s thanks to the previous character work and, of course, the performances. Thewlis is so repulsive as Varga that you can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance, if only so you never have to watch him eat a pint of Rocky Road ice cream in a bathroom stall ever again. Then there’s Winstead’s Nikki, who may not boast the moral compass of Gloria or Winnie (Olivia Sandoval), but is without a doubt a protagonist. The women of Fargo, outside of perhaps the widow Goldfarb (Mary McDonnell) and her shoddy memory, have established themselves as the only true heroes. Letting Nikki off the hook for Maurice’s murder wouldn’t be a great idea, but pairing her with Varga positions her as the biggest threat to the season’s Big Bad. In that positioning there’s the suggestion that Nikki’s crimes make her a victim of circumstance more than anything else, while Varga, Yuri (Goran Bogdan), Emmit and Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) are actively working to oppress others for their own gain.
While Fargo doesn’t always hit its mark, there’s a feminist reading to be made here, and it’s a reading that’s developed as the season has gone on. Nikki’s reply of “Good!” when Varga says he’s beginning to dislike her falls within the tradition of powerful women being condescended to by men who aren’t used to having their authority challenged. Similarly, in the episode’s most heartbreaking sequence, Chief Moe (Shea Whigham) gloats to Gloria about solving her case, as he plays right into Varga’s hands and follows planted clues at two new crime scenes before arresting a man who’s all too willing to confess to four murders.
Gloria’s defeated and downtrodden. All her hard work, ignored to begin with, is thrown away because of a single man’s ego. Where Gloria is constantly questioned about her ability to execute certain parts of her job based solely on her gender, Chief Moe is allowed to close a case without even questioning the ease with which he did so. It’s the height of privilege, assuming that his superior skills were all that was needed to crack the case wide open, without even considering for a second that Gloria’s evidence doesn’t agree with what he found. She’s pushed to the sidelines and, like so many women before her, forced to do twice the amount of work in order to prove herself.
And yet, “Aporia” is ultimately hopeful. Not only does IRS Agent Larue Dollard (Hamish Linklater) get a package in the mail containing a hard drive and the accounts payable for Stussy Lots, but Gloria gets the recognition she needs to keep moving forward. She meets Winnie for a drink, and Gloria talks to her about feeling invisible all the time. Winnie’s there to build her up, though. She pokes her jokingly to assert her realness before asking her to stand up. Then, she gives her a long hug. “I like you,” Winnie says. “I like you, too,” Gloria replies. Then, Gloria heads to the bathroom and, much to her surprise, the motion sensor faucets work for her. Finally, Gloria is truly seen. She’s present, needed, and ready to get back to the search for the truth. Sometimes, all we need is a little human connection to remind us of our purpose, and to show us that despite how neglected we may feel, we’re never truly alone.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.