FX

On Fargo, Nikki Encounters Two Rays Of Hope

But are they too late to help her in this world?

A few episodes ago, Nikki Swango's worst week ever kicked off with a crunchy beating courtesy of a pair of dead-eyed thugs in a half-frozen parking lot. There was concern that she might be suffering internal bleeding. Despite this, she was soon trying to crawl out a bathroom window until Moe dragged her back in through it, feet-first, and physically manhandled her into custody. Several psychological traumas followed that. Then she was in a bus crash, soon followed by the yank-heavy experience of being chained to a man who is fighting off an armed assailant with his bare hands. And that's followed by a pell-mell flight on foot through the frozen wilderness of central Minnesota in late December, dressed in nothing but Uggs, some off-brand Juicy, and a coat stitched together out of tribbles. This adventure culminates in her getting shot in the leg with an arrow by one of her pursuers. Mr. Wrench, her initially reluctant partner in this unlikely reboot of The Deaf-iant Ones, may not have Nikki's preexisting injuries and is wearing more layers, but he takes a couple of arrow wounds to the upper body. Despite all this, they fight for their lives so fiercely that they end up beheading DJ Qualls with a handcuff chain. Not that DJ Qualls isn't a famously unimpressive specimen of neckhood, but a chain isn't exactly an edged weapon. And then they remove the arrows from each other and keep walking until they see the lights of an all-night bowling alley.

How could Nikki, and to a lesser extent Wrench, survive all this punishment? Well, I have a theory, and it's not much of a stretch: they didn't.

To start with, whatever Fargo wants you to believe about Minnesota, 24-hour bowling alleys aren't exactly thick on the ground even in the cities, much less out in the sticks. More likely that it's not a bowling alley at all, but some kind of metaphysical switching station for souls in transition. This may seem, at first, like an unlikely form for such a place to take, and then a half-second later you think about The Big Lebowski and it makes perfect sense. Fargo the series draws on all manner of source material and sacred texts, but the films of the Coen Brothers are foremost among them.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. The first sign that this is no ordinary bowling alley -- aside from the very fact of its existence in this space and time -- is the sudden presence of a familiar face at Nikki's left, for the second time in as many episodes. We already saw in "The Law Of Non-Contradiction," when Gloria went to Los Angeles, that Paul Marrane has an almost preternatural gift for not only coincidental encounters, but for striking up conversations with strangers. But here -- sipping sherry while impeccably dressed and groomed at this middle-of-nowhere bowling alley that shouldn't even exist, let alone be open -- he starts chatting up Nikki like they've known each other all along. It's gone from preternatural to supernatural.

Of course, Paul does break the proverbial ice by handing her an adorable kitten (above, lower left), along with the barely-unspoken suggestion that said kitten may well be her reincarnated fiancé. "Ray is the cat," Paul says, almost apologizing for the cat's name rather than for the much more unnatural phrasing he uses to introduce it. Clearly the line is written as if to give Nikki the idea that her Ray is somehow inside this new helpless, dependent creature. Furthermore, it's almost certainly a shout-out to a more recent Coen film, Inside Llewyn Davis, and the "Llewyn is the cat" theories it sparked.

Even so, the fact that the first third of the episode is so light on dialogue that it almost seems like a silent film (and literally is, for a few seconds right at the beginning that are shown from Wrench's perspective) makes Paul's chattiness about Job, old souls, Rabbi Nachman, and the 1768 Massacre of Uman (in Yuri's homeland of Ukraine, not coincidentally) just that much more jarring and even unreal.

Paul then changes the subject, asking Nikki if she's ever been here before. He even seems surprised to learn that she sees a bowling alley around them. And his talk takes a distinct turn:

"We all end up here eventually. To be weighed and judged. As it is now, for you and your friend. You know, some thought that he should stay behind, but I convinced them that he was on a better path now. And you?" Here he recites a couple of lines from Psalm 88 in Hebrew, which he helpfully translates: "Who will rise for me against the wicked? Who will take a stand against evildoers?" He lets the answer go unspoken, but the look he gives Nikki after this pronouncement is clear in its meaning: "You will, Sweet Cheeks." In short, Nikki is being talked to the way main characters get talked to when they're dead.

From there, things get a bit more prosaic, as Paul offers Nikki the use of a car parked outside with the keys under the mat, in exchange for her agreeing to deliver a message "to the wicked." And after handing back the kitten, Nikki and Wrench head out to the parking lot, hop into a green Volkswagen, and drive off into the cold and out of the rest of the episode. It's the kind of departure that seems ordinary enough to make you briefly forget about what just happened, and maybe even wonder if you read it wrong.

But not for long, because Yuri shows up moments later, still bleeding from the former site of his left ear at a steady rate that can't possibly have been sustainable for this long. And indeed, when he sets his stolen crossbow on the bar and demands "napkins...and some wodka," Paul's greeting to him is rather more severe -- even terse. The last thing we see from Yuri's point of view is what looks like every victim of the Cossack ancestry of which he is so proud. Things are not looking good for Yuri. At the very least, he will not be getting a free car.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Christmas morning comes and goes, and so do two and a half months while Sy languishes in a poison-induced coma, courtesy of Varga and his one remaining henchman, Meemo. And weird things start happening to Emmit. His car is swapped out for Ray's totaled Corvette at the top of a hospital parking ramp while he's inside visiting Sy. All of the art and photos on his walls and desk are replaced by differently-sized copies of the infamous Stussy stamp. And someone pastes a Ray-like false mustache on Emmit's face while he's sleeping. The fact that Emmit discovers this last indignity while gazing at his reflection in his own urine is even more poetic justice, given how many years of Ray's life on this planet were spent in close proximity to other people peeing.

And here's the thing: these "pranks" are all pretty nontrivial. Getting a busted car to the top level of a parking ramp is no mean feat, and at the very least will require some awkward conversations with a tow truck driver. The stamp thing takes preparation, a significant investment of time and money at a copy shop, and access to what is presumably a secure office. And while it might not seem too hard to evade Meemo while he's distracted by his earbuds and his rehearsal of Vincent Cassel's Ocean's Twelve laser dance, it's got to be tricky to put a mustache on somebody without waking him up -- and put it on straight, no less! Even in death, Ray would never have the wherewithal to haunt his brother at this level. It reads much more like the work of someone who isn't above leaving a message with a tampon.

It's no wonder Emmitt loses his long battle against his own decency and ends up marching into Gloria's office to make a confession. That's some "Telltale Heart" shit he's been dealing with.

So maybe we can conclude that Nikki (with or without the help of Wrench) is haunting Emmitt from beyond her unmarked, slowly thawing grave somewhere. Let's just pencil that in.

What I'm less sure of is who actually recruited Nikki as an agent of divine justice. Certainly she's a fan favorite, but it's not like she adhered to Judeo-Christian ethics during her life. She was the one who decided to kill Maurice and figured out how to do it, even if Ray was the one who delivered the final kick to the A/C unit. She didn't exactly pour oil over the waters of the tempestuous relationship between the brothers Stussy. And let's not forget that she was a parolee whose original crime I don't think we've ever learned. Maybe this is what Paul meant when he told Nikki, "This is the universe at its most ironic."

But maybe it's not what it seems. You'll notice Paul isn't exactly specific in what he says to Nikki when he assigns her mission to her. Could it be that Paul isn't an angel (or Fargo's version of one), but the exact opposite? Let's face it: Ray Wise has been an avatar of sinister smoothness since Twin Peaks was still on ABC. Hell, he was once part of another TV show's regular cast playing the actual Devil. And after all, from characters like Lorne Malvo to Varga, Fargo generally seems more comfortable exploring the infernal side of the eternal moral equation.

You know what, I can't believe we're actually having this discussion. UFOs were one thing, but are we seriously considering that Fargo, a quirky but generally reality-based Midwestern noir anthology, is dabbling in the afterlife? That two of the five regular cast members (two and a half, if we're counting Ray) have been killed off with two episodes to go because they'll still be running around making things happen until the finale? Jeez, look at me. Maybe I am a crackpot after all.

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