The Pretend War
Photo: Courtesy of FX
Before getting into this week’s episode, “The Pretend War,” it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the split-screen transition devices the series has been using all season. They’re both elegant and ominous, never more so than in this week’s opening, which checks in on most of the major characters in the moments after Zelmare and Swanee’s raid on the Cannon safe house in between shots of Christmas decorations. The device has featured a few dual compositions, most memorably one that positioned Josto opposite Loy, but it’s mostly employed triptychs. That’s better suited to this season’s narrative. This season is about a struggle between Josto and Loy, sure, but all these other elements keep getting into the mix, like Gaetano and Oraetta and the gun-toting Bonnie-and-Bonnie pair of Zelmare and Swanee. There’s always an X-factor throwing off the balance. It’s never just about two sides clashing.
It’s not even clear who’s in charge of each side. In another sit-down between consiglieri, Ebal and Doctor Senator make a tense effort to keep the peace before tensions between the Faddas and the Cannons get too out of control. This time it’s Ebal’s turn to monologue. Recounting his experiences as an immigrant to Doctor, he recalls puzzling over the phrase “American values,” ultimately concluding that “to be an American is to pretend.” It’s an act of roleplaying that involves sustaining an attitude that you have a right to be here, that you’ve always had a right to be here. Ebal says he has no problem with that, but he can’t pretend that the two sides are at peace when they’re really at war (an exchange that gives the episode its title).
The only problem: He doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Sure, in a memorable early scene, the Cannons surrounded a Fadda truck smuggling weapons beneath a load of oranges in a flaming ring, sent the driver off to a fiery death, and branded Constant’s face with the barrel of a gun, but they were reacting both to Zelmare and Swanee’s safe house raid and a failed hit on Loy’s jazz-loving son Lemuel. With no knowledge of how much Gaetano was flexing his muscles and trying to push Josto off the throne, Ebal came to the meeting unprepared. “It seems to be that you aren’t tracked in on all the critical goings on in your house these days,” Doctor tells him, an apt summary of the chaotic state of all things Fadda these days. Or, as Loy puts it, nobody seems to know if the “ape or the pipsqueak” is running the show.
Loy’s well-equipped to take advantage of the situation, even if he’s slow to act. Maybe he’s too concerned about the well-being of his family to lash out. Or maybe he still has designs on expanding the legitimate wing of the Cannon syndicate, even if the banks don’t seem interested in the way-out “credit card” idea he and Doctor are championing. Or maybe he’s just smart and wants to stay that way. “Nobody’s dumb and smart at the same time,” he says, and Loy’s not dumb. He quickly susses out that the safe house raid, though bloody and costly, is “just some crime.”
Instead of coming at Josto, he tries to get at him via Rabbi, a perceived weak link and a man with whom he’s developed a certain amount of understanding (even if that doesn’t stop Loy from cutting him, with both a knife and his words). It also doesn’t take him long to figure out that Thurman, as harmless as he seems, has shown up at his house with the safe house money. (Though, to be fair, Swanee’s vomit definitely looked potent enough to survive Zelmare’s attempt to clean it of blood and fumes). Will he be smart enough to survive the coming storm? TBD. After taking possession of 300 guns, he sends 200 north to Mort Kellerman, a Fargo gangster, at a bargain price in return for his loyalty. We met the ill-fated Kellerman in Fargo’s second season. Loy seems to have picked the wrong team.
While Loy sits and makes plans, Josto’s staying busy, albeit in ways that may not benefit his long-term survival. We find him, having presumably learned Oraetta’s name and where she lives, engaging in an afternoon tryst. Oraetta has decided to teach him a thing or two about breath play, and while their session goes quite well this time, she doesn’t seem like the sort of person who will always bring safe practices to the bedroom in the future. Even more concerning, though Josto seems not to notice it, she’s annoyed at his harsh language and suspects he might just be using her to get access to more “fluffy whiz-bang,” a habit that seems unlikely to help his judgement.
It might be a factor in his decision to go confront Gaetano after Rabbi tells him of the failed hit Josto knows he didn’t order. He stands his ground against his younger brother, who backs down. (Having a gun pressed against your testicles can make even the biggest, toughest man reconsider his choices.) But it feels like a temporary retreat. Josto’s making his family members choose sides and Rabbi, whatever his flaws, stands by Josto in the standoff. When it ends, most of the Faddas leave with Josto, but his grasp on power seems more tenuous than ever before.
It doesn’t help that Odis, his man in the KCPD, fails to lose Deafy by giving him the hot tip that Zelmare and Swanee have skipped town for Chicago. Deafy doesn’t buy it. (The “informant’s” poor performance certainly doesn’t help.) “Kansas City was my mandate and Kansas City is where I’ll stay,” he tells Odis, while also pointing out that being a federal marshal means he can always call someone in Chicago to handle it. Beyond that, Odis takes him directly to Fadda headquarters with the excuse of talking to a different tipster, Rabbi (who’s everywhere this week). That Deafy stares down both the now-marred Constant and Gaetano while recounting a story of what happened to some Italian criminals who dared to set foot in Salt Lake City doesn’t bode well for the prospect of the Faddas staying under the radar thanks to Josto’s relationship with Odis.
Their discussion also feels like an appetizer for a bigger blow-up down the line, but it’s nowhere near as ominous as what happens to Ethelrida when she reluctantly takes Oraetta up on her offer to help organize her apartment for some spare cash. The Smutney family needs every extra dollar it can get and, hey, the offer of French music and a chance to borrow some books has its appeal. Oraetta, of course, continues to be a condescending nightmare, but she accepts Ethelrida’s proposed rate and lets her be, only warning her off looking into one of the hall closets.
It’s all going just fine — until Ethelrida, maybe forgetting the story of Bluebeard, looks into that hall closet. There she finds a stash of drugs, newspaper clippings discussing a string of seemingly unrelated deaths, and rows of eyeglasses, medals, and other ill-gotten goods. It’s the trophy case of a serial killer, even if Ethelrida has only started to put that together by episode’s end. Even worse, she’s absconded with the worst possible trophy she could have taken — Donatello’s ring — and left her journal behind in the closet. This could turn ugly quickly.
If so, it’s unlikely to be the only trouble soon visited on the King of Tears mortuary. Dibrell knows right away how her husband has paid off their loan, and knows it could lead to a disaster for the family. (Their exchange gives Anji White her best moment yet after several episodes of providing strong support from the margins.) “It’ll all blow over soon enough,” Thurman says to Ethelrida, but he doesn’t sound like he believes it. And, even if he’s right, that doesn’t mean the blowing over won’t leave plenty of destruction behind.
• We learn a bit more about what makes Oraetta run this episode. She’s a romantic who dreams of travel to Istanbul, an exotic place that is maybe where they shot Casablanca? They shot Casablanca in Casablanca, Josto tells her. (He’s wrong but he’s at least a little less wrong.) Nonetheless, she’s emerging as a person who’s confused her yearning to experience life in its fullness with a sense that she doesn’t need to follow the rules of conventional society. (She does not like swearing, however. She and Deafy would probably get along.)
• A couple of non-Coen homages this week. Zelmare hanging all that money on a clothesline after washing it out in a tub recalls the Wachowskis’ great Bound, in which Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly find love while ripping off some gangsters. The ringing telephone that keeps ringing even after the image shifts elsewhere gives a little nod to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. The oranges in the truck and later on Loy’s table echo the use of oranges as a symbol of death in each of the Godfather movies. Clearly Hawley and the rest of the Fargo crew spent some time watching classic gangster movies to prepare for this season.
• A lingering question: What did Oraetta want to accomplish with the ipecac-laced pie? Presumably sickening the whole Munson family to a much lesser degree than poor Swanee is experiencing. She couldn’t have thought one of the Munsons would have gobbled up the whole pie. Also, why she sent the pie in the first place remains a mystery, unless it was simply out of spite at Ethelrida’s understandably less-than-respectful attitude.
• Oh yeah, there’s apparently now a ghost in the mix. Ehelrida sees it in the King of Tears. Zelmare sees it — assuming it’s the same one — in the hotel room. Her line about people, not places, being haunted seems even more significant now.
• That sex scene should probably have come with a “Don’t try this at home” warning.