The fifth episode of Fargo’s third season seems to be about boundary pushing and it’s well timed. We’re halfway through the season, and though plenty has happened, our characters’ journeys, intertwined under the absurd laws of the universe, haven’t yet converged. However we are starting to see the pieces fall into place. We have Carrie Coon’s police chief Gloria attempting to nab Ray Stussy for the conspiratorial crime which led one of his parolees to accidentally murder her stepfather. We have Ray’s fiance, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s devilish Nikki Swango finally confronting Michael Stuhlbarg’s Sy Feltz when the former attempts to blackmail the latter’s employer with a faked video tape. And in one actorly showcase we see Ewan McGregor viciously arguing with himself, as twin brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, a pinnacle which seems to herald their long-awaited breaking point.
The episode here is titled “The House of Special Purpose”, an important (and deceptive) grace note considering one of the show’s standout performances comes from the chilling Goran Bogdana, a Croatian actor playing Ukrainian by the name of Yuri (one of V.M. Varga’s two escorts). In the episode’s climactic moment Yuri recounts a brief history of Siberia and the Soviet Union to Nikki Swango; under Josef Stalin’s reign 20 million died during his rigorous process of industrialization. The scene doesn’t merely see Yuri intimidating Nikki with blusters of motherland toughness, it also reworks history as an accurate interpretation of the present. Yuri isn’t talking of Stalin as a perpetrator of atrocities or crimes against humanity but rather a necessary evil.
The episode becomes all the more unsettling when one realizes the origins of the title “The House of Special Purpose” which alludes to the Ipatiev House, where the Tsar and his family were murdered under Russia’s transition of power from the Emperor to the Bolshevik’s and what inevitably came after. The scene however isn’t about political discussion but the cruel retention of power and what Yuri does to invest in that power is perhaps the episode’s defining moment.
Another high point in the episode is Michael Stuhlbarg whose reactionary performance as Sy Feltz boasts an impressive combination of emotional complexity and raw comic expressiveness. In the episode we see him (in that order) humiliated, browbeaten, strengthened and jolted back into nothingness in Stuhlbarg’s fiercest display of dramatic diversity since his underrated performance in the Coens’ A Serious Man. In the episode’s funniest and second-cruelest moment Sy is forced in his office by Varga, at gun point, to drink from what Yuri dubbed as “the holy cup” in what seems to be nothing more than territorial dominance. Of course the mean-spirited nature of the scene is overturned by the sheer showmanship of Michael Stuhlbarg and David Thewlis.
The episode also sees major developments in the lives of twin brothers Emmit and Ray, however both racing towards different outcomes. Ray and Nikki, in an especially cruel act of blackmail, create a sex tape where Ray again dresses his brother and Nikki an anonymous fling. The mail sits on Emmit’s front doorstep but gets to his wife first. What happens next seems to be a tragic pitfall for one brother and an auspicious turning point for another. While Emmit’s wife watches the tape and quickly leaves, Ray finally proposes to Nikki who quickly accepts. Bestowed with such reverses in fortune the show makes it very certain that anything can happen to anybody. (This is also indicated by the episode’s twisted and ambiguous final moments which spell a downward spiral or everyone not willing to go all the way).
“The House of Special Purpose” introduces some of the series most effective use of dramatic devices in the season thus far, including subtle foreshadow, dramatic irony, tragedy, and villainous soliloquy. None, however, is applied with more depth than the paradox. The very essence of truth and fiction are unveiled in quiet, slyly revealing moments. Although Gloria’s story has become just a flat variation of Allison Tolman’s bumpkin police lady in the first season, the moment she shares with her superior (played by Shea Whigham) displays at the very least some thematic relevance to the show’s entire arc; fiction seeping into the fabric of reality. This entangling of paradoxes becomes a compelling self-fulfilling prophecy for show-runner Noah Hawley. For example, think about Ray and Nikki’s sex tape, it’s obviously a fake to us, but the consequences that ensue (Emmit’s wife leaving him) make it no less real.