If you were to boil down Fargo to one scene, it would be the scene between Ed Blomquist and Lou Solverson after hours at the butcher shop in "Before the Law," the second season's second episode.
Neither man should be there, precisely. Ed has committed the far greater transgression — he's using the meat grinder to dispose of the body of Rye Gerhardt, whom his wife hit with a car in the season premiere. But Lou is also transgressing. The butcher shop, after all, is closed. He should probably wait until morning to pick up his bacon.
Fargo lives in these spaces, these minor improprieties stacked up against major ones. Any deviation from the norm, be it disposal of a body or simply buying bacon after business hours, can cause the universe to unravel. There is no sin so minor that it can't uncork a chain reaction that brings everything to the ground.
Also, there's a loose finger rolling around on the floor.
Let's look at what makes this a perfect representation of Fargo in one scene.
It's all about the facial expressions
For one thing, this scene is exquisitely acted by Jesse Plemons (Ed) and Patrick Wilson (Lou). These two men are pals, and even if the former wants to get the latter out of there as quickly as possible, that's not going to stand in the way of Midwestern pleasantry.
Look at the expression on Ed's face when he realizes that all Lou wants is to come in and buy some bacon. Sure! Why not?
Plemons is terrific at holding this tight smile that's supposed to indicate how pleased he is to see his friend at the store after hours, but actually makes him seem all the more suspicious. When the phone begins to ring (right as he's stooped to the floor to prevent Lou from finding that disembodied finger) and Lou asks if he's going to get it, the expression is in full force.
Of course, the weight of the scene is with Ed. He's the one who has something to lose, the person who's got a back room full of spare limbs, just waiting for a highway patrolman to stumble upon them.
So it's a bit easier for Plemons to carry the awkwardness of the scene. He's the guy who's acting like he's under the floodlights, being interrogated, when nothing of the sort is happening just yet.
And yet if we know anything about Lou (largely via his daughter, whom we met in season one), it's that he's got a good nose for when something's not right. After a late-night conversation with his father-in-law, it's almost as if Lou's slowly circling the thought that something horrible has come to his town.
So why does he stop in to the butcher shop? The light's on.
I suggested last week that Fargo is, on some level, about people who are trying desperately to reestablish a status quo that they can never return to. Thus, it falls to people like Lou to realize when something is out of place, no matter how minor, and then to start tugging at that thread.
And, again, if season one is any indication, Lou will figure this all out sooner or later, just like his daughter had season one culprit Lester Freeman dead to rights from word one.
But here's the interesting thing about this scene. Even though Ed is cutting up a body to protect his wife, he's framed throughout as the victim. Lou is presented by Noah Hawley (who wrote and directed the episode) as the aggressor.
Ed is trapped, even if he hasn't realized it yet
Throughout this scene, Hawley sets up shots where Lou either symbolically or literally towers over Ed. Take, for instance, this moment, where it almost seems like a gigantic Lou could raise his hands and squash Ed's head between them.
Or look at this image of Ed, peeking out of his back room, as if Lou were intruding on something private.
Or check out this final shot of Ed, barely existent, thanks to all of the boxes he's trapped within. He's already in a jail cell, or might as well be.
There's an obvious reason for this: Ed has so much more to lose than Lou does, and having something to lose in the world of Fargo puts you at a serious disadvantage. If Lou takes a few steps toward the back of the store, he'll realize just how seriously things have gone wrong. But he doesn't, nor does he so much as graze the finger just laying there, right out in the open.
All of this allows the show to accomplish something nifty, very much in keeping with its spirit. Even though we know that the bigger sin here is trying to cover up your wife's hit-and-run by grinding a corpse into blood and gristle, Hawley's direction makes it feel like Lou being in the store after hours is a much bigger violation of the laws of nature.
The notion is only underlined by the closing narration, taken from the musical version of War of the Worlds (yes, there's a musical version). It posits Martians placing Earth under some sort of cosmic microscope, which is precisely how Ed feels when Lou enters the store. Hawley's final shot even offers a quick flash of light, as if that UFO from the premiere had returned.
The point of all of this is that on Fargo, the lines people don't cross are often the tiniest ones. Covering up your wife's crime? That's just something a good husband does, because he's forever tethered to her, something Hawley makes quite literal via the very similar positioning of the phone cord in each shot of the two of them.
But showing up after hours at a butcher shop and intruding on a poor man's private space? That's just not done. It doesn't matter how much we know that Ed is violating everything lawman Lou holds sacred. Hawley creates a scenario where we viscerally feel as if he should escape his unjust oppressor.
So when he does, we might breathe a sigh of relief. But only for now. Something will undo Ed and Peggy. Something always does.