This week featured some solid material around the Gerhardts and Peggy, but overall it was Patrick Wilson’s opportunity to shine. As he stared down the entire Gerhardt mob with ice in his baby blues, it occurred to me that he would’ve made a damn fine Captain America, and is as good a choice as I can think of to play Roland Deschain, should that whole misbegotten Dark Tower project ever get off the ground. He manages to make Lou haunted, decent, strong, sensitive and relatively simple without any of it feeling like a contradiction in terms. That is no mean feat, particularly the last part; Lou’s nature is not complicated, but he’s seen a lot of messy things, and while he carries that with him it hasn’t changed his fundamental bedrock. That is deceptively difficult to play, I think, and while any halfway decent actor could make the confrontation with the Gerhardts crack because it’s so well-written, not many could make him feel like a real, consistent person across the board. It would be all too easy to give him some tough-guy swagger when he’s on the job, or to succumb to angst whenever dealing with his dying wife, or to get bogged down in a mere impression of Keith Carradine – which, on top of everything else, Wilson is doing a phenomenal, subtle job of channeling him (see his reaction to the UFO guy for a particularly fine example).
It’s a little strange that it took until the 3rd hour-plus episode for the main detective and presumed hero of this crime story to get such a spotlight. His wife is the one making all the investigative breakthroughs, even at a layer of remove, and he would almost seem not to be the man of his own household, if the father-in-law that constantly interlopes wasn’t the sweetest and most unassuming sheriff in the universe. But we see that Lou is, if not an intuitive genius, then at least dogged as an investigator, and unflappable under pressure. Which is befitting a role originated by the least flappable actor in the history of American cinema.
But while we have our hero in Lou, the villain picture is more complicated. The film and first season both featured a mixture of murderous professional crooks and hapless schmucks trying and failing to punch above their criminal weight. Ed and Peggy fall pretty squarely into the latter category along with Jerry Lundegard and Lester Nygard, although poor, stupid Skip has also completed a warp-speed microcosm of this arc. His “master plan” only gets as far as suggesting that a wannabe-thug could talk a judge into releasing funds so he can buy typewriters (typewriters!), and then he’s in a shallow grave before he even figures out what the various parties want with him. Between the sadistic offing of Skip, abusing his daughter and threatening Lou, Dodd and his right hand Hanzee move the Gerhardts into the villainous pole position in the early going.
But there is still the Kansas City faction lurking about, represented by thus-far collegial Mike Milligan. The group has been set up in dialogue as the even more soulless, corporate alternative to the Gerhardts’ mom n’ pop crime syndicate, though so far they’ve done nothing but bark, while the “Lil Guys” are busy murdering judges and burying small business owners alive until only their totems of the American Dream stick out of the asphalt. It’s a mixed message, at least this early in the going, but you don’t have to be psychic to predict that Milligan is going to get up to some pretty heinous shit once The Markets dictate that he be let off the leash.
I’m assuming that Mike and his ilk will eventually prove to be the most dangerous pieces on this board, because they fit a particular Coen mold. As I mentioned last week, part of the reasons the Coens’ work is so unusual and distinctive is that they draw less from Western dramatic conventions than more ancient folklore and mythology. And this is perhaps most pronounced in how they handle their “villains” less as traditional antagonists to contrast and confound the protagonists than as avatars of judgment and retribution. Coen protagonists don’t necessarily have nemeses, but Coen movies almost always feature a form of Nemesis.
“That night, I had a dream. I drifted off thinking about happiness, birth and new life, But now I was haunted by a vision of… He was horrible. The lone biker of apocalypse. A man with all the powers of Hell at his command. He could turn turn the day into night and lay to waste everything in his path.
He was especially hard on little things-the helpless and the gentle creatures. He left a scorched earth in his wake befouling even the sweet desert breeze that whipped across his brow. I didn’t know where he came from or why. I didn’t know if he was dream or vision. But I feared that I myself had unleashed him. For he was the fury that would be as soon as Florence Arizona found her little Nathan gone.”
In Greek mythology, Nemesis, or Adrasteia (“the inescapable”), is the embodiment of divine retribution. She is at once vengeful and just, an Olympus-sent Terminator for ancients who didn’t have the patience for less personal conceptualizations of karma. If you offended the gods, Nemesis was coming, and that was that. No deals, no reprieves, just a violent and inevitable reckoning. Now, the Coens aren’t operating in a literal shared cinematic universe, so I’m not saying that Mad Man Mundt and the Lone Biker Of the Apocalypse and Sheriff Cooley from O Brother Where Art Thou? are all actually manifestations of the same character, the way Stephen King periodically hints that all the supernatural villains across his works are different forms of his Flagg character. But no matter how disparate the settings or genres of the films in which they appear, they are all incarnations of a similar concept.
This concept unifies the Coens’ work, even if it sometimes finds expression in ways that are incomprehensible or silly, like the dybbuk, or nihilists from The Big Lebowski. Or it can be vicious but recognizably human, like Carl Grimsmud in Fargo or PI in Blood Simple (the first Bros. movie strikes arguably the most elegant balance between the supernatural and mundane aspects of the archetype – we recognize that Visser is just a man pursuing very earthly aims, but events transpire to make Abby perceive him as a vengeful revenant). More often they are ostensibly mortal, but with strong wafts of a supernatural malevolence, like the Biker or Cooley or Anton Chigurh (who despite not being their original creation, represents an apotheosis of this motif, which must have been a factor in choosing No Country as their first adaptation). It can be largely or completely disembodied, as with the conclusions of Inside Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man. One of the biggest successes of the first season, the reason why it was able to ape “that Barton Fink feeling” so well, was because of how well it was able to fit the Lorne Malvo squarely within this tradition. Sometimes it can be killed or beat back, more often it can’t, but the fact remains: if you’re in a Coen movie, you are likely being stalked by an unfriendly and quasi-supernatural force.
Anyway, this is quite a digression from the actual show I’m supposed to be talking about, but I couldn’t find an organic place to fit it in the last two recaps, so I just dropped it here. For now, the hunters have been successfully misdirected by the intervention of the Blomquists, but fairly soon everyone is going to realize that Rye isn’t going to turn up, and then I expect them to show their true colors. And if the show stays true to its Coen roots*, then they will be pretty fearsome when Mike decides he’s had it with all this hostile politeness. And it will be more than one stalwart state cop, and possibly his father-in-law, can handle. But I can’t wait to see how bad it gets.
Okay then, on to Coen Bingo and other Random Shit.
COEN BINGO AND OTHER RANDOM SHIT
– Hank quotes Marge Gunderson directly with “To kill all those people, and for what? A little money?” This veers close to too-cute territory, as it’s fairly prominent dialogue to repeat verbatim, but Danson puts just enough of his own spin on the thought that it doesn’t stand out.
– Skip the typewriter salesman again channels Macy with his freak out in the car and flopsweat-y response to police questioning.
– The salesman is buried alive in a horrifying scene that recalls a somehow even worse one in Blood Simple.
– I don’t know what to make of Hanzee’s flashback with the magician pulling the rabbit from the hat, but eating a raw rabbit liver(?) was pretty hardcore.
– The stuff with Mike and Brad Garrett griping about water pressure and touching hair may not have been specific to anything I can think of (Clooney’s obsession with Dapper Dan pomade in O Brother is in the ballpark, but it’s hardly a specific reference), but it certainly had the feel of a Coen dialogue scene down pat.
– Lou finds the locks busted straight out of the doorframe at the typewriter shop, in a copy of Anton Chigurgh’s trademark.
– I have found the split-screen and other ostentatious editing techniques to be tip-toeing right up to the edge of distracting, but for whatever reason I really liked the exchange between Ed and Peggy being done in VO over them quietly riding the bus.
– More business with the UFO, which suggests that maybe it wasn’t just Rye having a coke/blood loss/bug spray in the eyes hallucination of light reflecting off the balloon when he wandered into the road. Or maybe it was. And maybe I’ll have to watch The Man Who Wasn’t There again before the season is over to see if any more connections crop up (not this week though – I put Miller’s Crossing next on the Netflix queue, since it felt like their take on a gang war would be more relevant to upcoming storylines).
– Apropos of nothing, how great is this shot composition:
* Which is not really the test for whether it’s good, but I’m focusing on it a lot because a) it’s a really, really tricky tightrope the show has managed to walk swimmingly so far, and b) in case it isn’t obvious, I really, really wuv the Coens