Avis TVAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.
I love when a show changes tempo for an episode. It’s something The walking dead done (or did) a few times a season, and it almost always worked on me. Most weeks, you get multiple storylines spread across multiple characters, creating a sort of revolving door serialization that can be messy or satisfyingly sprawling, depending on the episode. But “East / West” slows things down to focus on one plot: the fate of Rabbi Milligan and a few others. Rabbi is on the run from both the Faddas and the Cannons, and has decided to make pieces with Satchel Cannon in Liberal, Kansas, a ton where he has money stashed. Calamita is in hot pursuit, as is Omie Sparkman, with an Italian in the trunk of her car for good measure. It all comes to a head at a gas station during a terrible storm, where an act of God fixes the problem, leaving Satchel to find his destiny on his own.
Stripped of texture and most of its incident, it’s a reasonable summary of “East / West”. But it’s really an episode sure this texture, for better or for worse. Rabbi and Satchel meet in a hotel (the Barton Arms, wink) run by two elderly white sisters who hate each other; their refusal to budge separated the building into two sides, the title’s “East” and “West”. These sides are distinguished by a line between them, and there is clearly symbolism at play here, but I would be lying if I said it got me a lot. I like the episode as a whole, but wanted to like it; there are a lot of quirks and a clear attempt to signifier something, but it fails to cohere satisfactorily.
For the good: Rabbi and Satchel’s relationship is one of the most interesting the season has given us, to the point that I wish it could have garnered more attention. Going into this episode, it seemed reasonable to assume that Rabbi wouldn’t make it out alive; there’s a good chance Satchel will end up as Mike Milligan from season 2, and Mike’s cruelty and relationship with the Kansas City mob would have been at odds with the basic, if desperate, decency of the Rabbi. And hell, that decency itself is enough to make him a target on a show like this. He’s stuck in an impossible position, he’s tried to make a semi-moral choice that put him on everyone’s side, and he’s sympathetic. It’s about as close to a death warrant as it gets.
Taking all of this into consideration means that most “East / West” are suspenseful even when they don’t explicitly try to be. Rabbi doesn’t meet his fate until towards the end, but every moment before that seems loaded with possibilities. It is also a function of choosing to focus the time entirely on one’s own story and that of Satchel – this level of attention means Something important is going to happen, so even when the script just spends time showing us the various strange inhabitants of the Arms, it never gets boring or slack. One of FargoThe great thing about this stuff is how it often tries to approach sudden scenes of violence from unexpected angles, and although this stuff has lost some of its shock value over time (especially once you surrender There are only so many “unexpected” angles to work from) this essentially means that even the most innocuous conversations are loaded with portents.
G / O Media can get a commission
Where it suffers a bit is that omen or not, a lot of it falls into that “weird to hell” vibe the show has always struggled with. I have no doubt that this is all meant to be some kind of metaphor; there are a few scenes of a rabbi entering into controversial conversations with a guy painting a billboard that sounds like someone is hitting you on the head with a hammer. But for this sort of thing to work, the show has to convince us that everything is for a purpose even if that purpose is not immediately relevant. This season, Fargo has lost his talent for such condemnations. “East” and “West” are probably meant to mean something (the fact that both sisters hated “colorful” ones, but once is more open about it than the other is surely indicative), as is the semi-collection. random oddities. There is a guy who quotes regularly How to gain friends and influence enemies, another guy is heading to Texas for oil, and an elderly general with a young niece who wants to hear fairy tales over dinner. Oh, and a horny guy quoting the Bible. (Revelations, I think?)
All of this makes the cut to be basic interesting, but, as is often the case when the symbolism doesn’t justify itself, it’s just a bunch of parts with no sum to search for meaning. Worrying about what was going to happen meant that Satchel was walking around alone talking to people was never boring, but once we got to the end we were forced to take into account how little that meant. Why does the black and white episode only turn to color when Satchel wakes up on his own? I understand it’s a Wizard of Oz reference – they’re in Kansas, Rabbi (and Calamita) just got sucked into a tornado – but just referring doesn’t mean anything on its own. Is Satchel’s life meant to be a dream? Isn’t he in Kansas anymore, even though he’s still in Kansas?
About this tornado: It’s an exciting and beautiful sequence, but I’m not sure it’s a satisfying conclusion to the story of Rabbi and Calamita. (I’m guessing it’s technically possible that one of them survived this, but that seems unlikely.) Having a character in extreme danger eliminated by a completely unexpected threat is a trope for the series, but while the apocalyptic fervor of the tornado itself is one to see, it doesn’t say much beyond “shit happens”. “East / West” by choosing to spend so much time on this particular situation has made me more inclined to appreciate it, but it also creates expectations for a conclusion that deserves this attention. I don’t know if this has been achieved here.
It’s just that there really isn’t much of a story. Rabbi finds out that the place where he hid the money was redeemed by two brothers who used it to fund their kitchen appliance store is a decent twist, but it’s a place to start, not a conclusion. There is a large sequence where Rabbi returns to the store to hold the brethren while Satchel waits in the car; the intensity between Rabbi finding out he’s screwed and Satchel dealing with a white cop is most vivid in the episode, but nothing comes of it at the end. The rabbi doesn’t kill the brothers and he interrupts the cop before things get too bad, and then later he goes away and dies for reasons that have nothing to do with it all. Hell, if he had had the money, he might still be dead.
There is pathos about him getting killed just for trying to get Satchel something nice for his birthday, and the whole episode is beautiful to watch and well done. The scenes of sudden violence are rightly operatic. I don’t think I ever got bored of that, and it’s a little rude to criticize something just because it wasn’t as good as you wanted it to be. But ‘East / West’ flaws seem endemic to flaws in the season as a whole. When he finds the time to pay attention to his best characters, it works. When he aims bigger, he fumbles. “East / West” divides the difference, for better and for worse.
- So the Barton Arms is a clear nod to Miller Passage. (And Barton Fink, I guess.) The tornado is probably a nod to A serious man– what else did I miss?
- Satchel finds a dog named Rabbit and more or less adopts it.
- The billboard that bothers the rabbi finally reads “The future is now!” Satchel ends up looking at him at the end of the episode. I don’t know if we’ll see him again; that could be all we have of Satchel’s story, although if that was the case, it would be weird if he didn’t just try to contact his parents and come home. I don’t know, since he had been with Rabbi long enough to feel confident about going on his own.
- The episode opens with a photo of a destroyed building with a page of The story of real crime in the West glued to a piece of the broken frame; it’s the first page of chapter 7: “Liberal, Kansas 1950: Who Killed Willy Bupor?” Looks like Willy Bupor is the attendant at the gas station that Omie is talking to at the start; when Rabbi later shows up at the station, Will was shot. Presumably Calamita shot him, and Calamita is blown away, as well as anyone who could have told the story.
- Will miss Rabbi. Ben Whishaw was great.