Fargo Falls Into a Macho Trap at the End of a Fascinating Season

Slate's Culture Blog
June 17 2014 11:46 PM

The Macho Twist That Sunk the Fargo Finale

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Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson and Bob Odenkirk as Bill Oswalt on Fargo

Chris Large/FX

For a heady stretch in its 10-episode run, FX’s Fargo, created and written by Noah Hawley, seemed to be an unusually self-aware antihero show, one that delivered all of the pleasures of that particular genre while also attending to its blindspots. Fargo had not one but two leading antiheroes. There’s hen-pecked, emasculated insurance salesman man Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), who, in the first episode, beats his shrewish wife’s head in with a hammer and thus begins to get his groove back. And there’s the merciless, almost mythical contract killer Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a man who emanates danger, gives speeches about the nature of man, and can gin up convincing imitations of biblical plagues when necessary. Both of these men are no good and very bad and, as with most antiheroes, fun to watch be no good and very bad. Lorne kills with panache and decisiveness and Lester, the nag in his life done in, remakes himself as a big man, with revenge sex, cruel scheming, and a hot Asian wife.

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Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

But Fargo is not just a show with antiheroes. It is also a show with a heroine, Officer Molly Solversen (Allison Tolman), who has been scoping Lester and Malvo’s race toward the evil finish line, clocking their every move, stymied only by her dopey, condescending, less talented male boss. Fargo’s most decent and admirable character is a woman in the thick of things, not a woman outside of the frame (as on True Detective) or a woman getting in the way of a man’s self-actualization (as on Breaking Bad). The show’s antihero beats are matched by cop-cracking-a-case ones: The pleasure of watching Lester and Lorne cleverly do bad is matched by the pleasure of watching Molly cleverly do good. Its moral ambiguity is thus sheathed in moral certainty: The bad guys are going to get got, and they are going to get got by a wholesome female cop. The sausage fest is being monitored, judged, and found wanting.

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Or so I thought. Because Fargo is inspired by the Coen brother’s Fargo, which stars another heroic female cop with a Minnesota accent who ultimately catches the ultra-violent criminals, and because I had been watching the FX Fargo, in which Molly has, all season long, been Lester and Malvo’s only real foil, I went into the finale fully expecting Molly to nab the bad guys. That’s not what happened. Malvo and Lester both came to bad ends, but neither at Molly’s hand. Lester falls through a hole in the ice, having bested Malvo, his master-in-murder, and Malvo is killed by Molly’s very sweet husband, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a secondary character who, at the last minute, becomes the hero of the show. Instead of tracing the long arc of Molly’s professional triumph, the show was actually tracing the redemption arc of the previously insufficiently macho Gus. Fargo is not a self-aware antihero show, it’s a selfhelp antihero show: How to locate the alpha dog within.

Gus was introduced early on as a hapless, kind-hearted cop. A single dad, Gus had always wanted to be a mailman, but the post office wasn’t hiring so he became a police officer, one usually relegated to helping animal control. Early in the season, he pulled Malvo over and was intimidated into letting him go: Gus didn’t want to die and he didn’t want to leave his daughter an orphan. But his dereliction of duty weighed on him and also put him in touch with the much more capable Molly, who Gus had the good sense to start courting, even after he accidentally shot her in a gorgeously filmed, muffled, snowy fire fight. In Episode 8, when the show jumped ahead a year, Gus—now a mailman—and Molly were married and expecting a child, living a decent, regular family life wholly in contrast to Lester and Malvo’s rapacious sin.

In last night’s finale, the police and FBI finally began to close in on Malvo. Gus calls Molly and asks her to please stay at headquarters, rather than risk her own life, that of their unborn child, and the heart of her step-daughter by going after someone so dangerous. It seemed like a neat flip on the scene we’re so familiar with, a woman begging a man not to be all he can be, standing in the way of him doing his heroic duty. Except then it wasn’t a flip at all: Molly agrees not to chase after Malvo so that, minutes later, Gus can chase after him himself. Gus sees Malvo leave a cabin, and acting completely out of character, sneaks into the house and recklessly fails to alert the cops or his wife of his whereabouts. When Malvo returns, his leg cracked in half by Lester, Gus shoots him to death.

Fargo is not exactly out to shortchange Molly of her moment—it’s just that, as with so many antihero shows, it is ultimately not as interested in Molly as the men around her. The very last line of the season acts as a kind of explanation/exculpation for why it’s no big deal that Molly didn’t get to pull the trigger. Sitting on the sofa, Gus tells her it should be her getting the commendation he’s about to receive and she replies, “No this is your deal. I get to be chief.” But why can’t Molly get both? Instead, Gus gets the last hero beat. Gus, the one man on the show who lacked a certain machismo and aggressiveness without being a drip or a loser, kills the bad guy.

A real anxiety thrums through Fargo, a skepticism about the worth of a man—be he as kind, good, decent as Gus or bitter, angry, craven as Lester—who cannot physically protect himself or his family. Rather than suggest that a defenseless man might still, in fact, be a man, Fargo commits to the antihero fantasy that every man would be better served by finding the alpha-dog within. Lester’s lot really does improve after he murders his wife. And Gus and Molly have a greater reciprocity after Gus pulls the trigger. They’ve killed their way to better lives.