‘Fargo’ recap, episode 9: So enters Paul and Babe

Jordan Peele as Agent Pepper, Keegan-Michael Key as Agent Budge, Bob Odenkirk as Bill Oswalt, Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson (Chris Large/FX)

Quick recap: What happens in Vegas refuses to stay in Vegas, after Lester fails to take Malvo's hint until far too late.

Previous episode recaps

Photos: 'Fargo' in still life

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Real good?

Probably the best episode yet. Fargo has taken its time, and then some, but there's no question that it's used that time to establish its deliberate tone and pace. Now that same tone and pace, often so maddeningly slow, is put into the service of creating powerful, sustained suspense. And gosh golly if it doesn't work, from the narrow hallways of a Vegas hotel to the deceptively homey environs of Bemidji. Four and a Half North Stars.

Minnesota bona fides

The disclaimer at the opening of every episode is even less accurate than ever. Even though it's now 2007, it still says the events shown took place in 2006. As for taking place in Minnesota, we spend the first seventeen and a half minutes in three other states before returning to the frozen north. The effect is not unlike returning from a vacation in a warm locale.

But not in the way Lester and his new wife Linda do. Lester has upgraded his whole life in the last year, other than still living in Bemidji. Yet he's not above enjoying some leftover pea soup thawed from the freezer.

Talking Minnesota

Linda's probably sporting the broadest Minnesota accent of the episode. Every time she pronounces "go" as "gooouw" I smell lutefisk. And there is, of course, the standard complement of "oh jeez" and "you betcha."

Plus there's plenty of Minnesota nice. Malvo tells the new occupant of Lester's old house about the grisly murders that took place there, and convinces his kids that the place is haunted. The guy just lets Malvo go on topping up his sons' heads with high-octane nightmare fuel, because it would be rude to interrupt.

Also, Molly finally receives vindication of her theories from FBI agents Pepper and Budge, and in front of Bill no less. But rather than gloating over him she looks embarrassed at having made him look bad. People claim they hate to say "I told you so," but Minnesotans mean it without even having to say it.

There's a stereotype about Midwesterners being naïve gulls, which the 1996 film probably contributed to. But wow, Linda takes it to new extremes. Uff-da.

Looks like home

Hey, look, it's the statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox! The famous Bemidji landmarks finally make an appearance…sort of. The real statues are rather bigger and they back up to Lake Bemidji rather than the railroad tracks, but I must give credit where credit is due. Especially since the show positions them near Third Street, just like in real life. It couldn't have been easy for the set dressers to come up with such good facsimiles. It was nice to finally see them after looking for them all this time, but viewers from out of state who didn't know about them must have thought they were a pretty surreal touch. Particularly in such a suspenseful scene.

One geographical quibble: Lester gets tickets for an 11:00 PM flight out of Minneapolis-St Paul airport and tells Linda they should be on the road by six. According to Google Maps that'll get them to Terminal 1 at 9:48, which is cutting it pretty close, especially for an international flight. It would be a shorter drive to Hector International Airport in, you guessed it, Fargo.

Full recap

Has Lorne Malvo switched careers? It certainly seems that way, as he confidently leans over an open mouth and repairs a dental crown while holding forth about sleep deprivation and dental school. In his new life as a Kansas City dentist, he's become friends with another practitioner of the oral sciences, a charmless specimen with whom the silver-haired ex-hitman exchanges dull banter. Malvo the dentist even owns a house, throws parties, and has a beautiful blonde fiancée. Does he also have a head injury? Has he reformed? Turns out no, because his dentist buddy is actually the brother of someone in witness protection, and he invites Malvo to Las Vegas for a visit the following weekend. Ah, so that's it.

So when Lester spotted him at the end of last week's episode, it was a total coincidence. Not that this show is remotely leery of coincidences. Now Lester not only overcomes his initial alarm at sighting Malvo, he comes over to say hello. Malvo tries to blow Lester off without blowing his cover, but this is Lester 2.0 we're talking about. He forces his way into the elevator with Malvo and his friends, so Malvo carefully asks him, "Is this what you want?" Lester isn't about to back down, so Malvo obligingly produces a hand cannon and splatters three brains on the elevator walls: those of his friend, his friend's wife, and his own fiancée. "That's on you," he tells Lester. Which it is, literally.

Rather than hanging around to help Malvo with the corpses, Lester clubs him on the head with his Insurance Salesman of the Year award and runs for it. He rousts his wife out of bed and rushes them back home to Minnesota with a pack of lies and excuses, then proposes they turn right around and get out of the country. All this without Linda asking any awkward questions. But Lester's escape plan hits a couple of hitches. One is a visit from Molly, who has been asked by Vegas PD to interview Lester about the killings. Lester stonewalls, with Linda's help even, but Molly isn't fooled. Not that she can do anything about it this time either, at least not yet. As for the second hitch, we'll get to that in a minute.

Agents Pepper and Budge continue to serve their time in file room purgatory until another agent pops by with a mention of all those calls the Fargo field office has been getting about the shooting that Pepper and Budge failed to even spectate. The calls have been coming from one Deputy Solverson. They head over to Bemidji to meet Molly and view her conspiracy board, and are quite impressed with her. With Bill, not so much.

Keith Carradine as Lou Solverson, Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo (Chris Large/FX)

Malvo didn't bother chasing after Lester in Vegas because he figured he'd know where to find him in Minnesota. Sure enough he returns to Bemidji, passing Gus on his mail route while driving into town, though Gus isn't sure it was him until much later. Malvo starts hunting Lester at his former house and his new office -- Nygaard Insurance, it says over the door all fancy-like -- before stopping in at the local diner to see what he can glean from someone who hears all the town gossip. That would of course be Molly's dad Lou. Malvo doesn't learn Lester's whereabouts, but he does notice the wedding photo of Gus and Molly that Lou has behind the counter. Something about Malvo pings Lou's radar, and Lou again starts talking about the dark deeds he saw in Sioux Falls back in '79. As this already tense scene slowly ratchets up, Molly and the two FBI agents are approaching the diner for what seems like an inevitable chance encounter with their shared obsession. But Malvo's out of there literally seconds before that happens. One wonders how things might have played out if Molly had ever shown Lou her conspiracy-wall.

That night, on the way to the airport, Lester has to stop at his office to pick up their passports. But there's a lamp on in the window that maybe wasn't on before. Lester senses danger, and rather than going in there himself he sends in Linda -- wearing Lester's old red parka, with the hood up, just the way Lester asked her to wear it. In fact, he grabbed that old tomato off the hook hours ago, as though he might want to do just this. Clearly Lester not only doesn't care about his old wife or family, he doesn't care about anyone but himself. Now Lester watches from across the street as Malvo appears and shoots the persistently oblivious Linda through the back of that bright red hood. Then he holds his breath in his darkened car, with Paul and Babe offering him precious little protection. Having realized his mistake, Malvo steps out of the office, lights a cigarette, and strolls off up Third Street. Chilling. Does Malvo realized he has underestimated Lester? If "underestimated" is even the word?

Next week: It's the finale, ninety minutes long as opposed to the usual seventy-some, and it's liable to get violent. Hold onto your Floyd R. Turbo hats.