‘Fargo’ Gets Its Second Wind With “Who Shaves the Barber?”

By  · Published on May 28th, 2014

‘Fargo’ Gets Its Second Wind With “Who Shaves the Barber?”

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The show has had its ups and downs so far, but with its seventh episode Fargo is suddenly a series worth celebrating as a standalone entity. With “Who Shaves the Barber?” I finally forgot about all the Coen brothers blood that was pumping life into the heart of the show from the beginning. This was the best episode since the pilot, and in some ways it was even better because it didn’t rest on all that pastiche and influence. It’s a shame that we only have three more installments to go, as now I could see it actually continuing beyond its predetermined ten parts.

That’s a big change of my mind from a few episodes ago when I wondered how series writer Noah Hawley was going to stretch out the show’s two main storylines for the whole series. But now we have the introduction of comedic duo Key & Peele – sorry, that’s actors Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele – providing the next level in the never-ending mouse hunt that is the pursuit of Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). It’s a brief debut for their two FBI agents, and we’ll have to see how well they mesh with the show going further, but they sure do seem like an invigorating addition.

And yet they’re not even the breath of fresh air I mean when I say Fargo has gotten its second wind with “Who Shaves the Barber?” There’s the combination of new directions for both Malvo and Lester (Martin Freeman), the former arriving in Reno to begin his own investigation into the origins of his would-be assassins, Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, before quickly completing that task with a wonderful sequence that I’ll get back to in a moment. As for the latter, what confidence the guy has now that he thinks he’s turned the tables by implicating his brother, enough to woo the widow of his former tormenter and then take such a dominating position with her in bed.

Of course, we know that won’t last. Not with Molly (Allison Tolman) so set on getting Lester that she’s writing on hospital windows instead of resting. Yeah, she survived last week’s shooting, in case nobody guessed (like the show, she has fallen and is now restored). And aside from making her bedridden for long enough to be out of town during the to-do of “some kid” bringing a gun to school – not to mention the arrest of Chazz for the murder of Lester’s wife and Sheriff Thurman – her being gunned down by fellow officer and potential beau Gus (Colin Hanks) was swept back almost as swiftly as the TV news explanation of the rain of fish that killed Stavros’s son and bodyguard.

Speaking of Stavros, who was absent this episode, I wonder if his storyline is done. Probably not, as Malvo never got his money and merely took a little detour to Reno then Fargo before hopefully returning to give us that roasting of the Supermarket King that’s been foreshadowed. I still say that we’ll see him, Lester and Sheriff Bill (Bob Odenkirk) dead by the end. Definitely not Malvo, though. The guy continues to nonchalantly walk a fine line between just being cocky and being stupid. He severely injures his agent (yeah, I’m calling the guy he works for that) and just walks out the door, then he pulls a machine gun out of his coat in not only broad daylight but unknowingly in front of two feds and then swiftly makes his way through a building filled with mobsters as if he’s a bulletproof ’80s action hero, and finally he just walks out and away without notice by the FBI or police right there.

He is like some kind of supernatural force. Maybe that’s why we don’t get to see any of what goes on inside the building, besides the fact that it’s a clever way of showing a shootout following the two different varieties seen last week. Perhaps bullets are going right through Malvo or magically being diverted around him or he’s miraculously eluding harm through some other power. It’s a stretch to go so far as to imagine such sorcery, which is why he continues to be so mysterious. He’s unreal, but there’s no way he’s not human. The world of Fargo is peculiar but not fantastical.

The best thing about “Who Shaves the Barber?” wasn’t Key & Peele or the main characters’ deviations and detours from the straight course toward the finale or the brilliantly cartoony gunfight shot like a side-scrolling video game where they forgot to cut away the wall for the cutaway view. It was the performances.

I’m going to credit director Scott Winant, who begins his twosome of episodes with this one, partly because he also directed one of the finest Breaking Bad episodes – “Crawl Space,” which has one of the most memorable performance moments in that series. But of course his talents had to be supported by some terrific two-character scene writing from Hawley as well as strong actors like Freeman, who is so outstanding during his made-up confession that I believed Odenkirk the actor was genuinely in awe and in tears while sitting across from him – and Freeman’s subsequent walk down the hall, a mirror of Malvo’s from episode 4, was a maniacally delightful addition. I also loved the interaction between Molly and Wrench (Russell Harvard), which wasn’t a necessary scene plot-wise but which did a lot for their characters.

I even found myself loving Rachel Blanchard, who up to now hadn’t been given much to do. The scene in the garage where the cops are searching Chazz’s gun locker is great because of the stylistic choices presumably made by Winant, but Blanchard is what makes it a really strong moment for me. Hopefully she gets at least one more interesting scene before we’re through. Meanwhile, I do hope the show is done with Kate Walsh, who is fine as Gina, but the character itself was still one-note here and served her ultimate purpose.

We can’t end this week’s recap without mention of the episode’s title, which comes from the Barber paradox. This riddle, related to Bertrand Russell’s own paradox regarding set theory in mathematics, asks of a barber who shaves all and only the people in town who do not shave themselves. Does he shave himself? If so, then he is not shaved by the barber, who is himself. If not, then… It’s kind of a dumb paradox, formatted unnecessarily to make a nonsensical situation. And maybe I’m trying to think too hard about this one, but I don’t see how it fits this particular episode.

Maybe it has something to do with Thornton having played a barber in a Coen brothers movie (The Man Who Wasn’t There), though that’s all I’ve got there, and it’s odd that only the episode title would tie in with the Coens where the show has otherwise shaken away from their teat. Let me know if you have any ideas about the meaning. Otherwise, let’s just get excited about next week’s episode, “The Heap,” because it will also be directed by Winant.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.