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FX’s ‘Fargo’ was ultimately a study in cowardice

If you haven’t watched the season finale of FX’s Fargo, you might want to pass on this. This post will have plenty of spoilers, as I don’t see how it’s possible to write about the final episode, nor the series as a whole, without mentioning what actually happened. But after you watch, we hope you come back and give this a read. Thanks in advance! 

FX’s Fargo certainly didn’t end the way I expected. But that’s a good thing. Had the series played out as I predicted, that actually would’ve been a bit of a letdown. (Of course, there would’ve been at least 10 seconds during which I’d have felt smart and self-satisfied.)

Since the season finale (or series finale, depending on whether or not FX picks the show back up), I’ve read a few criticisms of the last episode being unsatisfying. And I get that — especially if you were expecting Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) to be the hero and have a direct role in the story’s final outcome. Or if you were hoping for one of the series’ two villains to get away at the end.

But if you were looking for Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) or Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) to “get his,” it’s difficult to imagine you were at least somewhat satisfied by how their stories ended. The same goes for Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), who arguably conquered his demons and found redemption — though not in the most heroic circumstances.

The show’s creator and writer, Noah Hawley, has been forthright in interviews — such as these with HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall and NPR’s Fresh Air — about having little interest in taking his characters on the typical hero’s journey devised by Joseph Campbell. Following that narrative, the story would’ve climaxed with some sort of standoff between Solverson and Malvo. And on some level, maybe it would’ve been fun to see a pregnant woman take down a cold-blooded hitman.

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But the 1996 Coen brothers film that inspired this series didn’t end with Marge Gunderson arresting Jerry Lundegaard or shooting down Carl Showalter. (Though she does shoot and arrest Gaear Grimsrud after he stuffs Carl in a woodchipper.) So Hawley was true to the original source material and his core storytelling beliefs. The cop doesn’t typically take down the bad guy by himself — or herself, in this case. Other people are involved. The criminal is often responsible for his own downfall.

Yet both Malvo and Nygaard receive their comeuppance because Solverson never gave up and kept pushing. (Even if it took more than a year for the ultimate resolution to unfold after the story’s wholly unexpected time jump to 12 months later.) She eventually gets affirmation for her deft police work from the FBI agents hunting Malvo. And even the bumbling police chief who dismisses Solverson’s theories because he can’t bring himself to believe that people could be so awful acknowledges the truth.

Eventually, Solverson wins. The bad guys pay for what they’ve done, though they don’t face legal justice. The best cop in the Bemidji, Minn. police department becomes chief. Perhaps best of all, Molly has found love and is building a family. Everything turns out all right. (And this is why a subsequent season of Fargo can’t involve these characters. It wouldn’t be believable to put them through another crazy set of murders.)

So what was Fargo ultimately about? Hawley told Fresh Air that it was about “the best of America vs. the worst of America.” He’s the creator and showrunner, having written every one of the series’ 10 episodes, so I’m not going to argue with him. The story certainly involved a few characters who do the right thing, others who pursued their own self-interests, and at least one force of nature that encouraged the worst impulses in people, someone who simply liked to watch the world burn.

Of course, art is a subjective enterprise. Not everyone gets the same thing from a TV show, movie, song, painting or book. Hawley was answering a question (and has a show to sell to viewers), but wasn’t necessarily telling us what we had to see in this series. Maybe this is just saying what Hawley said in a different way, but I feel like Fargo was truly about cowardice.

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Lester Nygaard had been a coward through all of his life. He didn’t stand up to bullies in grade school and let that influence him long after he should have moved on from such things. But even as an adult, Nygaard is bullied by his younger brother and most especially by his wife. He stands up for himself and lashes out in the worst way possible, led down that dark path by Malvo, who’s shown him that he doesn’t have to play by any sort of rules.

Yet he almost gets away with killing his wife, being an accessory in the murders of Police Chief Vern Thurman and Sam Hess, and framing his brother. The one-year time jump forward shows that Nygaard got everything he wanted by indulging the worst of himself. However, he just couldn’t leave well enough alone. He needs affirmation from the one man who truly exposed his cowardice and showed him there was another way. And that insecurity leads to his ultimate downfall.

Fittingly, Lester dies while fleeing the police, falling into a frozen lake.

Gus Grimly was a feeble cop who took that occupation just because he needed a job. He wasn’t answering any higher calling or fulfilling a need to help people. He preferred to be a mailman. But when he was faced with the biggest collar of his life after pulling Malvo over for speeding, he gets intimidated out of making the arrest. He thinks about everything he has to lose and chooses not to take the risk. But giving into that fear eats away at him.

In many ways, Grimly trying to make up for not doing the right thing fuels the rest of the story. Though he seems to move on, he carries the shame of letting Malvo go. Grimly eventually faces his worst fears, and again, he’s thinking about what he could lose. If Malvo isn’t killed, he could come after Molly and his daughter. No one is safe.

Grimly kills Malvo when the hitman is essentially powerless to resist, having his left leg broken in gruesome fashion by a bear trap Nygaard lured him into. Had Malvo not been incapacitated, could Grimly have shot him dead? Probably not, even with the element of surprise. In the end, Grimly knows what he did wasn’t heroic. But it was just, and his wife knows that, along with how important it was for him to face up to his personal boogeyman.

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Police Chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) is too afraid to acknowledge the worst in people, that a childhood friend he’s always viewed as a nice guy could be capable of doing horrible things. He’s a terrible cop, but up until Malvo came to Bemidji, it didn’t matter because he was a policeman in a small town where the worst crime might be shoplifting or a drunken bar fight.

Oswalt finally admits that he can’t do this job in a world where someone like his old buddy Lester could kill his wife. But because he’s too cowardly to see the worst in people, both Malvo and Nygaard continue their crimes far longer than should have been allowed.

The characters who win at the end of the story are the two who showed true courage. Solverson persists in what the facts tell her, that Nygaard killed his wife and got Malvo to kill Sam Hess. Because of her doggedness, the FBI is in position to capture Malvo, even if inept agents Pepper and Budge (played in a brilliant bit of casting by comedy duo Key and Peele) aren’t up to the task.

Yes, Malvo dies — taking multiple gunshots to the chest and head after having his leg snapped open by a bear trap. Can we really say that he won? Well, I’d make that argument because he turned meek Lester Nygaard into a murderer and narcissist. He turned good ol’ Gus Grimly into a killer too. He ruined the lives of everyone he encountered, from grocery store maven Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) to personal trainer Don Chumph (Glenn Howerton) to Nygaard’s innocent second wife, Susan Park (Linda Park).

Amazingly, Malvo doesn’t ruin the life of Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine), Molly’s dad. The two do face each other at Lou’s diner, in one of the most tense, yet quiet, scenes of the entire series. But earlier on, the story seemed to imply that Lou and Malvo may have encountered one another earlier in life, when the elder Solverson was a state policeman. If so, Malvo may have been the one to show Lou how dark people can truly be. Another innocent lost.

If Fargo does get a second season, it’ll be intriguing to see if Hawley explores the same themes. Will he create another story in a different setting that shows the best and worst of America? Will more people see the dark side of their community? Will we get a further study in cowardice? Hawley doesn’t seem like the kind of writer who would tell the same story again. But perhaps these are concepts he can’t stop looking into.

What I do know is that if Hawley writes that story, I’ll be there to watch (or read) it. He created 10 great episodes of television, maybe the best we’ve seen this year.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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