“Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim,” reads the Bertrand Russell quote that opens “East/West.” And as Fargo’s ninth episode suggests, it’s a contest in which the participants have very little control.
The camera pans over the ruins of a house, including a copy of The History of True Crime in the West, before settling on a stray page from that tome: “Chapter 7: Liberal Kansas, 1950. Who Shot Willy Bupor?” Entering into that page’s black-and-white image of a cornfield, we see Omie pull his car over at a plaque for the “Discoverer of Pluto.” The action is now completely monochrome. Omie opens his trunk and offers a cigarette to his captive, Fadda soldier Aldo (Joel Reitsma). Aldo confesses that Constant has loaded up on guns in order to kill someone in Liberal, Kansas; it’s clear he’s referring to Rabbi. Omie closes the trunk and drives on.
They stop at a remote gas station. The African American employee (Cedric Young) asks if Omie has ever met a Korean since President Truman wants to send his son overseas to kill them. Omie replies that he once met a woman from Thailand. Omie asks if the man has seen Constant (“real skeletal looking”); he hasn’t, but he’s sure that if the guy is traveling this way, he’ll stop there. Aldo makes more noise, and Omie strikes a deal with the attendant: in exchange for being allowed to park around back and wait for Constant, he’ll paint the station. The guy agrees, and Omie has Aldo help him with the task.
Aldo buys a Coke and Omie takes it. Aldo equates himself with his African American captor because even though he’s white, he’s a low man on the totem pole — an oppressed-by-bosses situation that he articulates via a story about a turtle king that stood on the backs of his minions (crushing them in the process) in order to see far and wide. At the sound of Constant’s car arriving, Aldo tries to flee and is fatally shot by Omie.
One day earlier, Rabbi and Satchel head down the same road, passing the Discoverer of Pluto plaque, and listening to a radio broadcast about the battle between “communistic atheism and democratic Christianity.” They enter Liberal, Kansas (“Pancake Hub of the Universe”), and drive by an unfinished billboard that reads “The Future is…” They take a left turn toward The Barton Arms boarding house.
Outside the entrance to The Barton Arms, a Kansas Historical Marker plaque for “The Mellon Mounds” recounts the story of the Mellon family, who lured unsuspecting travelers into their home, killed them with a hammer, and buried them out back. Though the bodies were found in the spring of 1894, the Mellons were never caught, prompting Rabbi to warn Satchel, “Sleep with one eye open” — a lesson he learned from Donatello, who said the same thing to Zero before sending him to live with Loy.
Inside, Rabbi requests a room from the woman at the front desk, Ina Botkins (Patrese D. McClain). She asks Rabbi whether he prefers the Old or New Testament. He opts for “the one where you get to be born again,” which she says means they’ll be on the west side of the building. As Satchel looks at photos of two elderly women, Ina explains that the owners — sisters Iola (Cordis Heard) and Picola Crumb (Linda Reiter) — don’t like African Americans, so it’s best if Satchel avoids them.
Taking them to their room, Ina explains the Barton Arms’ weird layout; the place is split between East and West — literally, with a line dividing the floor — because Iola and Picola don’t get along. On their way, they pass the sitting room as well as an upstairs bedroom where a bandaged man (Ira Amyx) is hooked up to machines and cared for by a teenage boy (Aaron Lamm). This weird sight freaks out Satchel.
After hearing about dinner, Rabbi tells Satchel that he has to retrieve some money. He leaves the boy with a knife, reminding him to aim first for the stomach, then the chest.
In town, Rabbi is disheartened by the sight of T. Woodman Catalog Sales, which sells home furnishings and appliances. He goes in and asks the owner, Beachwood Indiana (Erik Hellman), about the location’s prior feed store, and the wall that used to bifurcate the indoor space. Beachwood states that he and his brother Haskell (Sam Hubbard) bought the place at auction. Stewing, Rabbi departs.
Satchel hears commotion downstairs, as well as noise emanating from the armoire. His knife drawn, he opens it and is greeted by a friendly little dog whose collar indicates her name is Rabbit. Satchel chases Rabbit down to the sitting room, where he encounters Hunk Swindell (Tim Hopper), an aluminum siding salesman who’s sneaking a drink (which is forbidden by the Crumb sisters). Following the rules laid out in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Hunk peppers Satchel with questions. A younger man, Hickory J. Milch (Japhet Balaban), appears and asks Satchel if he’s from Texas, where Hickory hears you can make instant millions with an oil field.
Rabbi interrupts this get-together, scolds Satchel for exiting their room, and then — upstairs — admits that he had a setback (“Only a fool thinks the world is going to stay exactly as it was”). Rabbi thinks he has a solution to their problem and shakes a rock out of his boot, which boasts a hole in its sole. The dinner bell lures them both downstairs. Sitting at opposite ends of the table are the hard-of-hearing Iola and Picola. Also joining them is Hunk, Hickory, Pastor Roanoke (Andrew Rothenberg) and his stern mother (Joann Montemurro), and Major Hamar (Gary Houston) and his young niece Millie (Alexa Nasatir), who seem to have an inappropriate relationship. Rabbi claims his name is Duffy and Satchel is his ward Colt, and bristles at Hunk’s nosy questions.
Millie asks her uncle for a story. Hunk says that, on a train, he once spoke to a publisher who remarked that in the original Goldilocks fable, the homeowners were witches rather than bears. Moreover, Hunk often thinks about poor Goldilocks, “the classic example of an outsider in search of himself,” who was cast out of the bears’ house and left to wander, alone.
Driving to T. Woodman in the morning, Rabbi stops the car at the billboard. He asks the guy who’s working on it what it’s eventually going to read. The man replies, “Wait ‘till it’s finished and you’ll see,” and then laments that once the sign is completed, he’ll be out of a job. Rabbi proclaims that it’s not right to let people live with uncertainty.
In town, Rabbi leaves Satchel and Rabbit in the car and confronts Beachwood and Haskell at gunpoint. They acknowledge that they recovered Rabbi’s money from the wall, and return what remains of the loot — which is far less than the original $5,000. He considers killing the siblings but opts not to, instead returning to the car, where he finds a cop questioning Satchel. Rabbi’s phony cover story to the officer works.
Back at The Barton Arms, Rabbi informs Satchel that they’re leaving tonight, and they can’t bring Rabbit. Satchel is sad about this since the dog is the only thing he wanted for his birthday, which is today. Rabbi didn’t know that and responds by going downstairs and asking Ina if they have a cupcake or candy bar. They don’t, but she suspects a filling station down the road might.
On his way to the station, Rabbi passes by the now-completed billboard, which reads “The Future is Now!” He asks what that means, and the guy surmises it could be a statement about “the unreliability of time,” or maybe it’s a “seize the day”-type message. Regardless, the worker is now unemployed; the future he feared has arrived, as predicted by this very billboard.
With storm clouds gathering overhead, Rabbi pulls into the station and finds the attendant dead in the garage doorway. He peers into the general store, and sees Constant standing over an injured Omie, his gun raised. Rabbi accidentally bumps into a drum, alerting Constant. The assassin shoots at Rabbi, hitting him as he tries to reach his car. Constant prepares to finish Rabbi off but is shot by Omie, who receives fatal gunshots in return. As the wind kicks into high gear, Rabbi struggles to raise his own firearm, only to have a flying plank knock the pistol out of his hand. Before Constant can kill Rabbi, a tornado sweeps him — and the entire station, and Rabbi’s car — away. Recognizing there’s no escape, Rabbi raises his arms to the sky and is sucked up into the tornado.
Satchel awakens at The Barton Arms and exits the bedroom, at which point the action transitions from black-and-white to color. He heads down the hallway and stops at the doorway to the bandaged man’s room. The creepy guy beckons Satchel inside, but fearful of this stranger — who says cryptic (devilish?) things about how the flood is done, and fire will be next — Satchel retreats to his room, falling asleep with his gun pointed at the door.
The following morning, Satchel and Rabbit hit the open road on foot, stopping to stare at the billboard.
The Barton Arms is an apparent reference to the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, while the tornado is a nod to the filmmakers’ A Serious Man.
The Discoverer of Pluto plaque begins, “On this spot in 1906 stood the boyhood home of Dr. Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto...”
Abandoned and alone, Satchel is the Goldilocks of this storybook episode.