The title of this week’s episode (“Fear and Trembling”) is a reference to both the Old Testament and to philosophy. Written by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “Fear and Trembling” was one of the lynchpin texts of the existentialist movement. In it, Kierkegaard speculated and examined what was going through the mind of Abraham, who was tested by God to sacrifice his son Issac as a burnt offering to him. He wanted to examine the working out of salvation with fear and trembling as referenced in Phillipians 2:12. It’s is a dense, weighty tome that even the Wikipedia page describing it would make you go cross eyed. But the point that Kierkegaard was trying to make (although don’t quote me on this) is that in order to prove his faith to both God and himself, he had to completely surrender to God before being relinquished of the burden at hand by an angel who provides a ram in place of his son, thus leading to the Judaic culture being the first and only ancient culture to not partake in human sacrifice. How does this relate to the episode “Fear and Trembling”, the 2nd episode in a row not written by Noah Hawley but by Steve Blackman? Let’s find out.
We begin in 1951 as a younger Otto Gerhardt (with some damn good make-up and sfx work on Michael Hogan) is taking a young Dodd to a matinee of the latest (fake) Ronald Reagan film at the movie theatre. Only this isn’t a father/son outing. This is a meeting with a rival gang leader over who controls the crime operations now that Dieter has been shot 19 times in the head. After the rival tells Otto that he shouldn’t have brought his kid to the meeting, Otto gets the jump on him and the men in the theatre as Dodd stabs the man in the back of the head. Thus amidst a shootout (with hopefully no civilian casualties) and Dodd watching the cheesy 50’s sci-fi movie, we see that Dodd has always been baptized in blood and more than eager to be a part of the family business. We cut back to 79 as Charlie (Bear’s son with the palsy arm) shows Uncle Dodd that he can reload and fire a handgun with one working hand. An impressed Dodd then takes him to attack two of the Kansas City men at a donut shop to send a message. After the normal split screen montage of our characters, we cut to Lou and Betsy at the doctor’s office, hoping for good news. The cancer is spreading, but Betsy is now eligible for a drug trial of an experimental cancer medication named, get this, Xanadu. But since there has to be a control, Lou and Betsy won’t know if the pills she’ll get will be the real thing or a placebo. And as Ohanzee enters into Luverne, we check in on Ed and Peggy at the tail end of their bland, boring sex, complete with socks still on. Afterwards, Peggy excuses herself to pee, but is actually taking birth control pills as Ed hopes aloud that this will be time Peggy gets pregnant. When Ed enters to use the toilet and then shower, he goes on about the future that he thinks they’re working towards and puts the kibosh on Peggy’s Life Spring seminar trip. When she protests, he replies, “Hun, you’re so great now, not sure if I can handle it becoming better.” And then Ed says the famous last words of “Today’s the first day of the rest of our lives.”
After commercial, we see Ohanzee arriving at the Waffle Hut and then silently put the pieces together of what happened. Along the way, he notices the clock on the wall has stopped at 7:07. When he gets to the road, he finds in the snow of the road a piece of broken glass. As he pockets it, he senses something, looks up and sees unusual lights in the morning sky. On his reaction shot, he moves around as if he’s been stop-motion animated. After what he’s sensing is passed, he checks his watch again, only now it’s 9:07. So either he just lost 2 hours (and the sun is up super early given that time of year), or the UFO’s show up and stop clocks at 7 minutes past the hour. Either way, this is a big deal as we now have a somewhat prominent character if not seeing the aliens, then at least sensing their presence. As he drives around, Ohanzee spots a garage. With the piece of glass, he confirms that it’s from the broken headlight of Ed and Peggy’s car. As he begins to root around the car and finds a missed spot of blood on the upholstery and the registration in the glove box, Sonny (from the 1st episode at the bingo night) comedically blabs about Ed before telling Ohanzee to stop what he’s doing. When the topic of conversation shifts to Vietnam, Ohanzee takes a darker than usual tone as he talks about clearing the tunnels in Vietnam as he takes out a straight razor. He’s then interrupted by our local conspiracy nut Karl Weathers as he exits the bathroom and shows his gun off. After Ohanzee leaves, Karl tells Sonny to call Hank.
Over at the Pearl Hotel, we hear Mike having sex on rusty bedsprings as the Kitchen’s play solitaire in the next room. We then see that the woman Mike is screwing is none other than Simone, which given last week’s episode is no surprise as to why she’s doing this. She then laments about the 60’s and the freedom that women had then. After Mike shoots down her naiveté about where the hippie women ended up, she informs him about the compromise that Floyd is going to present Joe with as well as what’s happening with Otto. After we see Otto being taken to the hospital for a check-up, Lou brings Betsy home. After an awkward conversation about ice fishing with Molly filled with subtext, Betsy insists to Lou not to treat her any differently. This is interrupted by the police radio calling for Lou, who then goes to the garage where Sonny and Karl fill him and Hank in on Ohanzee and the Blomquist’s car. And as Lou surveys the damage to the car, he remembers Ed’s odd behaviour from a few nights ago at the butcher shop and puts everything together.
As Otto is getting examined, the Gerhardt’s arrive at the Pearl Hotel and are lead down to a conference room in the basement as Mahler’s “Das Lied von Der Erde” (The Song of the Earth) plays on the soundtrack here, as well as throughout the rest of the episode. And in the moment that’ll probably get Jean Smart all the acting awards, Floyd faces off against Joe and offers up a partnership instead of a sale. During this, she mentions that she has had six children and three miscarriages. Her oldest son was killed in the Korean War and two of them were stillborn. But just because she’s an old woman making this offer, it doesn’t mean they won’t fight to the last man. If it were up to Joe himself, he would accept the offer. But because it isn’t, as well as Dodd’s activities this morning and his short tempered tone at the meeting as well as the unreliable nature of family businesses, Joe declines the offer. They either accept or be wiped out. As this meeting goes on, Mike and the Kitchen’s ambush Otto’s helpers as he’s being wheeled away from the hospital. They kill the helpers, but leave Otto in the parking lot, covered in blood. “Joe Bulo says hi.”
At Bud’s Meats, Bud informs Ed that not only is the grinder making a funny noise, but that the check that he wrote as a down payment for purchasing the shop has bounced. And that unless if he can get the money by Friday, Bud will sell to another buyer looking at the place. When Ed confronts Peggy about the bounced check, she confesses to writing a separate check to Constance for the Life Spring seminar. As they argue about talking and listening, Ohanzee ominously drives past them. And when Peggy asks Constance for the money back, Constance goes into a feminist pep talk and convinces her that the seminar in Sioux Falls will make her the best Peggy Blomquist she can be.
In the final act of the episode, in a moment that goes from hilariously awkward to surprisingly touching, we see the Gerhardt’s head home. Dodd puts his head on Floyd’s shoulder and puts her hand on his cheek twice. Twice she pulls her hand away before she sadly puts it there herself. At the Blomquists, Ohanzee sneaks into the garage and notices the smell of bleach on the concrete floor. He then enters into the house and pokes around in the fireplace. He then finds Rye’s eagle belt buckle in the ashes before seeing the light from the headlights arriving. Which belong to Lou as he waits outside for Ed and Peggy to arrive home. After asking if he can come in, he asks Ed if he’s ever been to war. On account of his heart, Ed was 4-F, so he hasn’t. Lou tells him about “the look”. The look that a soldier who’s been shot or had his legs blown off has when his brain hasn’t caught up with the fact that they’re about to die and that only other soldier’s can recognize. And Lou sees that look in their faces. Knowing what’s in store, Lou gives them one chance to come clean about Rye. It’s their “Come to Jesus” moment, which they respond with denial and asking Lou to leave. As the weight of what they’ve gotten themselves into hits them, Floyd hugs Otto’s body as he lays in bed before telling Dodd and Bear, “It’s war.” In her kitchen, Betsy stares at the bottle of Xanadu in front of her, unsure if it’s the real deal or sugar pills. And we end with Lou sitting outside with his knots telling Betsy that he thinks she has the real pills. “You hope or you think?” she asks. Lou then admits that he thinks the whole world is out of balance. “Used to know right from wrong. Moral center. Now? You should go to bed. I’m gonna sit out here for a while. Make sure we’re, I dunno, safe.” Thus we end with Lou in the same position we saw him in “Morton’s Fork”. A man sitting outside, protecting his family from a malevolent force in an uncertain world.
So how does “Fear and Trembling” the book relate to “Fear and Trembling” the episode? Well, this is a huge episode in terms of our characters at their various crossroads coming up against God-like figures that can give them either their salvation or their destruction. With the Gerhardt’s, it’s Floyd sitting face to face with Joe offering contrition while not being contrite. With Betsy and Lou, it’s them at the mercy of the medical community for something that may or may not save her in the end. For the Blomquist’s, it’s not only the mercy of Lou that makes them tremble, it’s also the cracks in their marriage that’ll ultimately bring their destruction. And for Lou himself, his final scene is straight out of not only No Country for Old Men, but Kierkegaard himself. The mindset “Fear and Trembling” the episode leaves him in is exactly what “Fear and Trembling” the book explores. The question now is whether or not Lou will have to make a sacrifice or be spared at the last second. Just because we know Lou makes it out alive and Molly grows up doesn’t mean there’s nothing at stake for them.
"Fear and Trembling" brings our story and characters to the moment of surrender before salvation or destruction and becomes one of the best episodes in an already stellar second season.