Season 5, Episode 7: ‘Linda’
After eight episodes of frolicking in a Coen-ized version of gangland Kansas City in the early 1950s, the last season of “Fargo” shifted audaciously to a black-and-white homage to “The Wizard of Oz,” complete with a tornado as deus ex machina. Having already moved the show out of the Coens’ Minnesota and North Dakota, its creator, Noah Hawley, gave himself the license to claim another patch of Heartland terrain, as if advancing across a Risk board. The Coens had ended “A Serious Man” with a tornado, too, so it wasn’t even that off brand.
Now in the homestretch of the new season, Hawley returns to Oz again with an extended fantasy sequence that addresses Dot’s back story more deftly than a standard monologue or flashback ever could. It’s also a subtler homage than running a tornado through Kansas in black-and-white: Not until Wayne improvises a story for Scotty around “Dorothy” and rainbows does the connection become blazingly apparent. And even then, the episode is graced with a sense of the uncanny, as Dot’s past is illustrated with the punch of a particularly vivid dream. Such is the power of the “Fargo” pancake.
A fuller reckoning with Dot’s history with Roy and Gator is forthcoming, but on the way out of town in her Kia with DLR plates, Dot pauses at a truck stop for coffee and pancakes and drifts off into a reverie. (She first stares at a recipe for chicken piccata that is posted to a billboard, which perhaps nods to the recipe-trading that Deputy Olmstead’s husband wanted her to do in order to be a “real wife.”) After stopping to unearth a cryptic postcard from “Camp Utopia” from a woman named Linda, Dot continues on her way until she passes a sign for the place and her car stalls out on the side of the road.
The path to Camp Utopia is covered in untrodden snow leading into the forest, so it comes as a surprise for Dot to discover a large cabin filled with women, seated raptly before a puppet show. Yet it’s not the sort of whimsical performance associated with a sleep-away camp; it is a dramatization of domestic abuse, so triggering to Dot that she passes out. (This is the rare example of someone continuing to stay in a dream after passing out in it.) When she comes to, Dot announces that she is looking for a woman named Linda, only to learn that everyone is named Linda. This is women’s shelter, one Linda (Sorika Wolf) explains to her, and the generic name is a starting place from which to rebuild the identity of its residents. All these Lindas make Camp Utopia sound like a bizarro-world Barbieland.
But there’s only one Linda who matters to Dot: Linda Hillman (Kari Matchett), Roy’s ex-wife, whom Dot needs to help clear some things up so she can resume her current marriage. Linda refuses to go until Dot’s story is adjudicated by the rest of the women through another puppet show, and she has to make a puppet first, which she is told will “expel the trauma” by attaching it to this representation. What it does, in practice, is lend a strange vibrancy to Dot’s back story that recalls the stop-motion existentialism of Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa” in how it uses a familiar technique to unfamiliar ends.
Despite the unreality of Camp Utopia, it seems safe to believe that the tragic story Dot tells about herself is real: Linda discovered her as a wayward 15-year-old named Nadine and brought her into the Tillman home with Roy and Gator, but Linda subtly nudged the abusive Roy in Nadine’s direction. As Roy directed sexual attention toward the teenager, Linda used the opportunity to flee, leaving Nadine trapped in her place. Dot has reason to blame Linda for condemning her to this terrible fate, but the episode is really about her recognizing that Roy deserves the fullness of her wrath.
When “Fargo” clicks its heels together and snaps back to reality, it pulls a nasty twist on “there’s no place like home.” A freak (or not-so-freak) accident lands Dot in the hospital and back in the care of the wrong husband, Roy, who appears to have needed fate to do the job Munch and Gator couldn’t pull off. The episode ends on this cliffhanger, but knowing Dot’s back story throws Gator in a different light, casting him less as an inept baby-faced henchman than as an impressionable child who was the collateral damage in his father’s relationships. Gator is now stuck trying to impress daddy by wiping out Munch, which is almost poignant in its impossibility.
There may be some scenario in which Gator understands his father’s culpability in his traumatic upbringing and aligns himself with the abused women who have passed through their house. But Roy has a talent for pitting his victims against one another. And with Munch now waiting in the weeds, Gator may not have a shot at redemption.
3 Cent Stamps
We finally get some clarity on the old woman who has been boarding Munch. It doesn’t seem as if any formal agreement was reached between them; Munch appears to have viewed himself as a guard dog, offering protection in lieu of rent. This means hacking her terrible son with an ax exactly the way his “Fargo” movie analog, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), takes out his partner, Carl (Steve Buscemi).
Wayne’s neurologically challenged state has made him more of a softy than usual, which pleases his daughter, Scotty, who needs the companionship, and leads to incredible trade-in deals on his Kia lot. Having Wayne agree to a one-to-one trade-in for new car is a clever reversal of the scene in the movie where Jerry pretends to ask his boss for a discount he knows he will not get for a disgruntled customer.
In another Coen callback, the specific tracking device Gator uses on Munch’s car is the same one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) uses to locate Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) at a motel in “No Country for Old Men.” The show can’t come close to matching the film’s suspense, but it raises the temperature a bit.