The second episode, a marginal improvement over the first, has the benefit of playing with what the first episode strenuously lays out. It’s looser, more unpredictable and explores character in-depth. The title (“The Principle of Restricted Choice”), a reference to the card game Bridge, refers to the likelihood of a separate player’s card hand based on the assessment of your own. In the episode the titular “principle” distills character conflict, specifically the one shaping between twin brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, in which emotion and dignity are high stake commodities.
If the first two seasons of Fargo possessed a single recurring theme it was the ripple-effect of flawed yet undeniably human decision-making.
Fargo’s second episode this season starts in the wake of a badly hatched crime which pits police chief Gloria Burgle against the impulsive, lovelorn parole officer Ray Stussy; though it’s neither a battle of wits or intelligence, their destinies intertwine through a series of bad luck and pure happenstance. Emmit Stussy, now having found himself fully embedded into Varga’s seedy enterprise, enlists the help of business associate Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg), a domineering interloper who also helps in Emmit’s petty feud with his brother. Sy’s presence, however, only further maddens the conflict than extinguishes it. And in one memorable scene a Google search turns out to be a man’s last one.
In the second episode we see characters not only skirmishing their emotions but recognizing them. Emmit and Ray’s conflict finds a potential armistice in their war for their deceased father’s rare stamp, but it only takes one blunder of miscommunication that sends their tussle into further disarray. The feud strongly evokes a similar discord between in the tenth (and final) part of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue, which too centers on two brothers, a deceased father and a priceless stamp collection. Though not nearly as emotionally profound, Noah Hawley imbues in the brothers’ a warmer and (maybe) even a more sympathetic discord. Sy Feltz, a business partner and confidante to Emmit, appears a second time this season, in a more pronounced role, to drive a wedge between the brothers.
In a vaguely less productive narrative we see Gloria confront new police chief (Shea Whigham) and conveniently discover the torn phone book used by Maurice in the previous episode. Where she goes, what she does next, and what she represents feels like ground already covered in the previous seasons. Despite Coon’s staunch and willingness, there is only so much a character of her archetype can do after 2 seasons (and a film) other than wearing goofily large winter police caps and unveil unique investigative brilliance beneath deceptive yokel simplicity.
With V.M. Varga, however, Hawley finds something of a genuinely original character. Much in the tradition of Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo, Varga is more a force-of-nature than a character, but David Thewlis gives him an air of menace and speech making him feel as lucid and rich as any other character in the show (and ten times creepier). His character, quickly corrupting and invading Emmit’s space of success, legitimacy and hard work, seems to represent everything Noah Hawley fears about American society as a whole. Varga uses the phrase “inescapable reality” to describe Emmit’s predicament, a “reality” asserting the impossibility of the “American dream” (everything Emmit Stussy seems to represent).
The second episode doesn’t boast Hawley’s haunting images in the first episode but Fargo’s “The Principle of Restricted Choice” explores consequences, conflict and human stupidity with more overall humor, clever retrospective and drama. Michael Stuhlbarg and David Thewlis are standouts in this episode, if only because they’re indelible performances help materialize the series’ burgeoning sense of conflict, theme and menace. Yet Hawley’s sense of character and moral reckoning are becoming more realized too as conflicts are tested and filial boundaries are crossed.