Season Three of Fargo has been a strange one to pin down, which is really saying something about a series coming off a season that boasted UFOs as a storytelling device. It’s not the straightforward narrative that’s been the challenge, but the shifting nature of Fargo itself. Where the first two seasons hid some of their flaws behind solid performances and the very newness of the series, this season has struggled to find its unique voice. Season Three boasts a familiarity in its structure that can quickly morph into complacency, and nearly every episode this season has labored to put forward a creative vision that truly feels fresh.
I mention this season’s troubles because “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” is by far its most compelling and ambitious episode—in particular, the first half, which we spend in continuous suspense as Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and another inmate, to whom she’s chained, attempt to escape Yuri (Goran Bogdan) and his police-impersonating assassin (DJ Squalls). The fact that Nikki’s escape partner is none other than Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard), the deaf hitman from the show’s first season, is a nice touch, but that kind of knowing winking isn’t its core appeal. Rather, it’s the episode’s approach to building tension, along with some visual inventiveness, that contributes to the nearly 30-minute sequence feeling like the best stretch of the season so far.
The tension builds immediately, as “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” begins with a scene that takes place right before the climax of last week’s episode, in which the prison bus carrying Nikki flipped over and left her reeling. Here, we’re privy to the cause of that accident, as we watch Yuri and his men building a homemade version of the kind of apparatus that’s typically used to flip stunt cars on film sets. The dread comes from knowing what’s coming—and that’s where the episode plays with our expectations. The scene doesn’t move quickly. Rather, like Yuri in general, it’s methodical in its pace. The pole is slowly assembled and set in the road, and then everyone waits, the hum of the approaching bus slowly working its way into the sound design. It’s a beautifully crafted sequence that sets the tone for the first half of the episode, in which dread and impending doom run rampant.
As Nikki and Mr. Wrench make a run for it, various shifts in the color palette and sound design keep us on edge. The nighttime shots, set deep in the woods, make it look like the scenes are filmed in black and white, allowing shadows to play tricks and underscoring Nikki’s psychological state: She sees danger lurking behind every tree. While waiting for Yuri and his men to pass them by, much of the audio cuts out; all we hear is eerie, deafening silence, a kind of vacant blowing of the wind that’s somehow sound and the complete absence of it all at once. This leads to a stirring, violent climax that sees Nikki and Mr. Wrench strangle and decapitate the fake police officer before Mr. Wrench sends Yuri running after chopping off his ear.
This series of scenes would be enough to cement the episode as the season’s most memorable, but “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” doubles down and delivers a fallout scene that’s just as ambitious. In a bowling alley ripped straight from The Big Lebowski, Nikki sits down at the bar and orders a double whiskey. As the camera pulls back, she’s revealed to have a guest by her side: Paul Marrane (Ray Wise), the same man who met Gloria (Carrie Coon) at a bar during her investigative trip to Los Angeles.
The two chat, an interaction that reveals Marrane to be a kind of omnipotent force similar to The Stranger, played by Sam Elliott, in Lebowski. He knows about Ray (Ewan McGregor)—he even has a cat that he believes is now the host of Ray’s soul—and about Nikki’s need to get away from some bad men. He offers up a VW Beetle—another Coen brothers staple—for her and Mr. Wrench to use, and she takes it. Then, Yuri walks in and asks for napkins before Marrane tells him that he has a message for him from his ex, Helga. Cue a black-and-white still of, presumably, Helga, and then a sudden commercial break.
It’s a beguiling and strange scene, but it fits in with the season’s themes and the general tone of the episode. There’s an undercurrent of dread, but there’s also the sense that some sort of force is guiding everyone’s actions. Karma, or perhaps just the re-balancing of the universe, is a fact of this season. Ennis Stussy was killed because of a name he took decades ago. Ray dies at the hands of the very possession that fueled his feud with his brother. In “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” that karma catches up with Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg). Just as he rushed into the lending deal without thinking—or, rather, while willfully ignoring the potential consequences—Sy drinks a tea provided by Varga (David Thewlis) without considering what might happen. What happens is that Sy is poisoned, though not dead. Everybody is getting what they deserve, as karma works its magic. Will Varga get what’s coming to him, too? Perhaps, as the episode ends with Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGreggor) ready to confess.
Of course, confessing isn’t the same as atoning. Reminders of past sins remain; stamps adorn the Stussy office now, and Ray’s Corvette somehow finds it’s way into Emmit’s parking spot. There’s a guiding force at work here, seemingly bent on destruction rather than redemption.
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.