Everybody exists with the belief that they can exit their circumstances if the need arises. Maybe you run away, maybe you leave someone, maybe you steal something. It may be difficult, but there’s always a way out. Only that’s not always true. Power structures operate in a way that cages, that deletes options for the sake of obedience. That delusion that everything will be okay is a result of programming from those power structures. If you believe that you can escape, then what is the point of revolt? You already have the free will you need. It’s when people understand the truth, the reality that they’re screwed, that they begin to revolt.
“The Gift of the Magi” has characters slowly coming to terms with the dismal truths in their lives. Lou is coming to the understanding that his wife is going to die and that there’s nothing he can do about it. Simone is coming to the understanding that Mike has her under his control. Charlie is coming to the understanding that he doesn’t have what it takes to be violent and commanding like Dodd. Ed and Peggy are coming to the understanding that the Gerhardt forces are stronger and more violent than they could ever be, that they’re now trapped by these forces. Nobody is quite in revolt yet, but they’re getting closer with every new wall they see in their cage.
What makes “The Gift of the Magi” the best episode of the season isn’t necessarily the caliber of the violence, but how the violence shifts the status quo, creating new realities for the characters to face. The first big violent scene has Hanzee and the Gerhardts gunning down a group of Kansas City Syndicate members, with one of the Kitchen brothers and Joe Bulo losing their lives. It’s a bloodbath on both sides, but Joe’s death signals an escalation in the war between the two factions. It’s a win for the Gerhardts, but we know that Kansas City has far more resources than the Gerhardts, and that it’s only a matter of time until they come back even harder. This is also complicated by the infighting within the Gerhardts, how Hanzee is willing to lie about the “Butcher of Luverne” in order to push Floyd into escalation, how Dodd and Bear are at odds, and how Mike has control of Simone. Joe may be dead, but there are a great many things pushing the Gerhardts back, control still out of their reach.
The second sequence is even better than the first, with Ed and Noreen under fire at the butcher shop as Virgil and Charlie attempt to murder them. “The Gift of the Magi” does a brilliant job first establishing Charlie’s character, then establishing Noreen’s existentialist character, the juxtaposing the two in order to show how Charlie isn’t able to be the kind of man he thinks he should be. Of course, events are out of his control, as Charlie is pushed by Dodd, Virgil, and his existence as a Gerhardt to try to carry out the assassination. But when he screws up and Virgil has to step in, the hit goes bad, the butcher shop catches fire, and Virgil takes a butcher’s cleaver to the head. Ed knows that there’s no escape from the Gerhardts anymore, that all they can do is run, but it’s too late for that too. Peggy sold the car to buy the butcher shop (which is gone), and the cops are at their door. For the two of them, they’re in it, and there’s no turning back.
It just goes to show the audacity of the show’s plotting, how the first four episodes were largely set-up, with the fifth episode knocking down most of the tension in favor of shaking up the status quo. Since there are only ten episodes in a season, and each season has its own storyline, waiting until the end of a season to shift the status quo would do a disservice to what the season could be. It’s important to shift things around to explore characters in new scenarios and situations, as it evolves our understanding of them. Shifting the status quo here pushes forward Ed’s character, as he now has to contend with committing more violence, deluding himself that he had no part in it. After seeing the butcher shop go up in flames, he tells Noreen that it was self-defense, as if asserting to himself that he had no part in the men coming to the shop. The longer Ed remains passive, the longer this violence will come to him. This echoes how passivity impacts everybody on this show. Lou and Betsy assume that the world takes care of them, so she just takes the pills and hopes for the best instead of actively looking for a better option. Joe assumes that Floyd will call for another meeting, but ends up dead instead. People operate under the assumption that they’re being taken care of, when the world is simply sapping their strength instead.
There’s a scene near the end of the episode, when Lou is talking to Reagan (played brilliantly by Bruce Campbell) in the bathroom. He tells him that sometimes he believes that the darkness of the world has manifested itself with his wife, creating her sickness. He wonders how to fix it. Reagan simply tells him that there’s nothing a hardworking American can’t fix. But when Lou inquires further, asking “how”, Reagan shrugs and walks away. People live by their beliefs, assuming that they will be saved as a result, but underneath those beliefs there’s a big nothing, an emptiness where no answers can save you. Sometimes the answer is that you won’t be saved, that the world is conspiring against you. Sometimes forces that you don’t understand, like the UFO in Molly’s drawing, are out there, impacting life in ways you can’t even begin to understand. And what can you do about that other than shrug and hope for something better?
“The Gift of the Magi” does a brilliant job pushing the narrative forward, shattering the status quo, and reminding us about the cages that every character is trapped within. It brings these characters to the edge of revolt, but never quite dips over. And it’s because everybody still believes that they have hope on their side, that things will look up for them eventually because they have to. Revolt only happens when that hope is replaced with desperation. The question now is whether or not these characters will revolt before it’s too late, before they’re too trapped by the forces that conspire against them. As of right now, it’s certainly not looking good.
So what did you think of this latest episode? Would you say that it’s the best yet? Let me know in the comments!