The first half of “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” feels like the result of an idle and unassertive showrunner. Unsure of what to do with its characters, the episode spends the entire first thirty minutes absorbed in a fever-dream foot chase in the woods. This progress, however, is more focused on the development of tone and composition rather than the development of story or character, making it a more productive experimental gesture than the previous episode’s generic info-scrunching and head-scratcher mentality. Nikki survives her prison bus’s devastating turnover and subsequent murder attempt by last episode’s would-be assassin. After a narrow brush with death, she runs into the woods chained to none other than the first season’s Mr. Wrench (the tall mute guy). Although bereft of its customary grand opera-approach, Fargo proves equally striking as a romp, with absorbing visuals both long-enduring and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it.
The eighth episode also seems a tribute to the Coen’s past works. The chained dependency of Mr. Wrench and Nikki playing with the premise of O Brother, Where Art Thou? in which prisoners, in a chain gang, are bound together in one chain fruitlessly searching for redemption. The other involves a celestial bowling alley where a seemingly all-knowing and all-seeing individual resides. Without a doubt, this is a nod to The Big Lebowski, one sequence actually seems to precisely mimic the moment in which The Dude meets The Stranger in the film’s iconic final sequence. And of course, there’s a car chase in which Meemo (Andy Yu) chases down and executes two potential witnesses in a sequence which parallels Peter Stormare’s Fargo, but without the latter’s formal and visual thrust.
The second half of episode eight seems to be devoted to upending the previous episode’s moral vacuum (in the best possible way). Ewan McGregor’s Emmit is eaten away by remorse and guilt. His moral comeuppance comes in the form of an unseen specter first confronting him with his brother’s beat-up red Corvette. It then proceeds to torment Emmit with reproduced images of his prized stamp (the source of the brother’s ugly fallout) framed on his office walls. The seemingly absurd and preternatural lengths to which the episode expresses Emmit’s neurosis is almost satirical in nature (considering the materialistic nature of his haunting), but also deeply sympathetic; note how despite Emmit practically selling his soul to the devil, there seems to be an immutable goodness in him.
The episode’s most unforgettable few moments take place in the aforementioned bowling alley in which Nikki, Mr. Wrench, and a bloodied Yuri find temporary refuge. It appears first to Nikki and Mr. Wrench as a blinking neon over a snowy horizon. Entering the establishment they encounter a mysterious stranger who speaks in plainspoken symbols. He’s played by Ray Wise, who made a similarly enigmatic appearance in the season’s second episode. The scene itself may require some transcribing, but whether it’s karmic retribution, purgatory or Osiris weighing Nikki, or Mr. Wrench and Yuri’s heart on the feather of Ma’at, the scene clearly spells out a moral reckoning for its characters.
“Who Rules the Land of Denial?” isn’t without its flaws but it’s perhaps Fargo’s best episode yet. Gloria, who has remained a static and frustratingly dormant character since the second episode proves somewhat of a mainstay to the episode’s themes of the powerlessness of moral rectitude. Her frequent attempts to inculpate Varga and the Stussys has, until this point, been met by rejection by dimwitted superiors and upended by endless bureaucracy. And despite its repetition, it only took her to humbly face defeat for the show to find that sort of enlightenment. Episode eight, which may be looked at as the nucleus to the show’s moral degradation, proves most effective when basking in form and mood.