Jun 17, 2014

Fargo: Season One

By Josh Oakley

Structural ambition, a vital female lead and the primal battle between good and evil defined the first nine episodes of Fargo’s largely astonishing first season. This was Biblical TV, crashing the sweeping nature of evil against the logical exactitude of good. This was a show obsessed with the balance between the abstract and the detailed, portraying some people as sentient ideas and others as heartbreakingly human. Then the finale tossed all of that into the air, and posited something far more complicated: does any of this matter?

The story ratcheted from beginning, finding respite only in the basics of calm interactions. Lorne Malvo, Lester Nygaard and Molly Solverson seemed to be pieces of the puzzle that Fargo was constructing. Malvo was the writer, believing his words could forever form the path leading to immortality. Lester was his puppet, railing against the confines of the story, pleading to the very end that he had no idea what was going on. Molly, then, served as the editor, attempting to curb the landscape before her back to the side of good, trimming Malvo’s story until Gus closed the book.

Of course, in the end, as also happens in real life, the editor didn’t get her due credit. Molly was a magnificent character, made up of one part Marge Gunderson and one part something else entirely. She found herself in a constant struggle to prove what she knew as fact to those who dismissed it as ravings. Finally, she found a victor in two FBI agents, but at this point the collapsing dominoes were too far along. It’s amazing, in retrospect, how little Molly did ultimately mattered. Much of her importance, in those closing moments, stemmed from her convincing her husband that Lorne was evil. Her police work (much better than Lou’s from the film version) was intelligent, well-reasoned and persuasive to what should have been the right people. In a perfect world, in one driven by structure and pay-offs and craft, this would have led to an ultimate confrontation between her and Malvo. But life has a way of being less satisfying than stories.

Malvo and Lester certainly know the way of mice and men. Lester makes one mistake after another in the finale, set off by his callous and heinous act at the end of the penultimate episode. These installments perfectly differentiate him from the anti-hero abundant on recent television. Even Walter White wouldn’t have done what Lester did, either because of his raging ego or some deadening love for his wife. Lester in other words, is a shit. He’s an insect that crawls along and gathers enough food for awhile, but he is a pawn in somebody else’s game and can’t seem to comprehend that. What’s remarkable about Lester is how stupid he is, no matter the logic that saves him at certain times. The finale of Fargo brings up the idea of luck, and Lester happened to have good luck when it mattered, but not enough to save him. Yet even his takedown isn’t tidy, resulting from his own stupidity and timidity rather than an act of god. In another story, in any story, really, Lester would have been a victim of narrative mechanics. He didn’t deserve something quite that succinct.

Even Malvo isn’t brought down by the obvious suspect. The show seemed to set him up against Molly, two opposing forces of good and evil. And while Molly’s basic work may have helped Gus arrive at Malvo’s house, the husband was the only one pulling the trigger. Now, Molly wouldn’t have done the same, obviously. Her end would have likely been akin to that in the film, questioning how such evil could exist on such a beautiful day (though perhaps not precisely the same way; Molly seems to understand this inevitability). Regardless, it was a man looking to protect his family, and killing another man to do so. I don’t think Fargo’s gender politics are as simple as “men kill and women don’t”, but it’s certainly getting at something about the perpetuity of violence and the pacifying nature of logic. Molly would have known that she could have gotten more out of Malvo, perhaps other criminals or some semblance of an explanation. The possibility for answers are ended by an unnecessary gun. The more I think on the finale, the more Gus’ killing of Malvo doesn’t read as “the right thing to do”. He had other options that, despite the finale’s title (“Morton’s Fork”), could have ended with a different outcome. Gus may have taken down a force of evil, but it’s unclear exactly how much he won.

Or, more honestly, how much he won in a narrative sense. He is receiving an award for his kill, something revealed in a sneakily powerful final scene. Gus, Molly and Greta are watching Deal or No Deal, cuddled as a family. The father and daughter seem to be enjoying the show and not thinking much on the consequences of the events of two weeks prior. But Molly, when she learns of Lester’s death, when she congratulates Gus and when she says that she gets to be chief, isn’t smiling. She takes no solace in the events or how they unraveled, troubled by the nature of the world and her place within it. Her behavior in the finale seems purposeful, in retrospect, removing her from the story that was rightfully hers. This may come across as troubling, at least in a social equality sense, and it certainly is to some degree. But it also says something about how women are treated in the police force, and how their stories do not get easy pat endings. Molly is the hero of this story, that much seems clear. She is a pervading force for good, the kind we don’t get much anymore. She has no dark secret or psychotic snap. She is a good person, working hard to put more goodness out into the world. In the end, that only mattered a little. But at least she gets to be chief. A hero deserves a hero’s ending, but Molly receives no such thing. Instead, she just gets a promotion she should have had a year ago. This is not the progress of stories, but the slog of real life.

Throughout much of Fargo, I considered it to be a show about parables. Every episode was named for a riddle, paradox, or some kind of conclusive statement on humanity. These are the explanations we turn to when the questions of life become too elusive. When is a heap not a heap, or a file room no longer a file room? These questions may not have answers, but they all serve a purpose. Meaning, though, is such a tricky thing to clamp down on. We have the stories, and we have what they tell us, but around those are the daily encounters and realities faced by people, not characters. There is no way to sum up a life, or even an experience, really. Fargo pretended that a conclusion would arrive, placing its pieces at precise spots. And then none of that mattered at all. What mattered was Gus happening to be in the right place, and angry enough to pull a trigger. What mattered was Lester setting a bear trap and Lorne not looking down. There is so much coincidence in the finale that the rest of the show lacked, and while that may sound lazy, it wound up proving a larger point. Fargo appeared to be a show about parables. In the end, it revealed itself to be a show about the folly of trying to say anything at all.

Grade: A-

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