[Editor’s Note: The review below contains spoilers for “Fargo” Season 3, Episode 5, “The House of Special Purpose.”]
It finally happened. After four weeks of relatively harmless fun — save for the comically killed Maurice LaFay (Scoot McNairy) — “Fargo” took us to the emotional woodshed. It happens every season, at different times and in different ways, but Season 3 hit particularly hard by crossing lines on and off screen.
“The House of Special Purpose” began with back-to-back scenes of graphic, if a bit goofy, content. First, Ray (Ewan McGregor) permanently severed ties with his brother, Emmit, via a faked sex tape meant as blackmail. The only problem was Ray and Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) left the tape out in the open, and too many eyes witnessed its contents. We watch it, Emmit watches it, and, unintentionally, Emmit’s wife, Stella (Linda Kash), watched it before any of us. While devastating to Emmit, seeing Ray and Nikki in a bad wig — consummating their engagement in front of a video camera — was still funny for those of us at home.
Similarly, the following scene, in which Varga (David Thewlis) makes improper use of Sy’s favorite coffee mug, marks a squeamish moment emphasized by Michael Stuhlbarg’s impressive performance; one that only grows stronger as the episode progresses. A series of events in which Sy’s stress level dramatically increase led to a breaking point for both Emmit’s right hand man and viewers watching him. After he blew a gasket trying to intimidate Nikki, his false bravado was jarringly undercut by the real threat of Season 3: Varga and his henchmen.
And it was the ending that left a more permanent mark. Sy witnesses a beating so brutal we aren’t allowed to watch, as Noah Hawley (who wrote this week’s episode) along with director Dearbhla Walsh knowingly balance comedy and drama; what has been seen and what hasn’t; tying together both of “Fargo’s” sensibilities to create a powerful episode altogether.
Episode 5 marks the midway point of Season 3, so it makes perfect sense that this week we’d transition from a lighter, funnier first half to a darker, more intense second half. But the best part is how “The House of Special Purpose” showed we can still have both.
MVP (Most Valuable Performer)
Tempted as we are to split the crown between Michael Stuhlbarg and Hamish Linklater, who as IRS agent Larue Dollard swooped in on Elliot and stole the show with his nerdy affability, we’ve got to go with just the one winner this week — and Stuhlbarg is long overdue. As noted above, Sy went through quite the day in “Fargo”: fear, anger, resentment, anxiety, heartbreak, revenge, and, ultimately, all of the above, all at once.
Stuhlbarg played it straight throughout, knowing the comedy would play better if he stayed true to the character until the bitter end, when his showy gimmickry would collapse onto itself as Sy witnessed what we could not. It’s an incredibly precise turn for how big it can get. Think of about when Sy first called Nikki. He’s bubbling over with rage, embodying his “unchained” mentality, but Stuhlbarg’s performance hits each note perfectly — without even having a scene partner to react to. Whether Mary Elizabeth Winstead was on the line with him or not, he’s building up a disproportionate response contained by his giant yellow Hummer; Sy is trapped within himself, by his own limitations as the enforcer he wants to be, and we see this persona transform slowly over the course of the episode.
Its final iteration is one of defeat, as Sy runs away from the Nikki’s beaten body. But Stuhlbarg never shies away from his character’s many shades. He colors them all beautifully.
Continue reading for the most telling quotes and a word from Noah Hawley.