[This piece about the first season of the TV show Fargo will discuss events that took place on the first season of the TV show Fargo.]
The biggest difference between the movie Fargo and the TV show Fargo (which ended its first season Tuesday night) is the devil. One of the charms of Fargo the film is that it has no devil — it focuses on the follies of the weak, the empty, those who have stuffing where a conscience ought to be.
Fargo the show, on the other hand, introduced us to the devil — Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is a manipulative, interrogating thing that goes spelunking in the hearts of those whose inhuman tendencies are hidden in the shallowest of caverns and chases them to the surface. In the film, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is animated by sheer cowardice and resentment; in the movie, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) has far greater malice and cunning waiting to be awakened by his encounter with Malvo.
The film's greatest scene may be Jerry's return to his home after the arranged kidnapping of his wife; his shame is palpable as he looks on the mundane remnants of her terror, like the torn shower curtain she fruitlessly tried to hide behind. It takes a scene that the film plays for slapstick and instantly illuminates its genuine awfulness — the way a woman in that situation would not find it funny or wacky, but terrifying and later fatal.
Lester, by contrast, gets worse after realizing what he's done to his wife. He is emboldened, not shamed. He later kills another wife — this one a loving innocent, not that killing a nasty piece of work by bludgeoning her with a hammer isn't an act of evil. His second wife dies because he sends her off to be murdered by Malvo in his coat, in his place. It is perhaps the purest distillation of cowardice he could have conceived, making his undignified, inglorious exit all the more appropriate.
[I should note here, as a former Minnesotan, that there is a special sort of eye-rolling that people, fairly or unfairly, often direct at grown adults who through carelessness alone fall through the ice of a frozen lake, particularly after running past the "DANGER: THIN ICE" sign. It is a thing that happens not infrequently and is presumed to be, in those cases, the work of a fool and, worse, an amateur at the business of navigating the terrain. A snowmobile enthusiast who was a dear friend of mine used to shake his head at the way snowmobiling was so often ruined for everyone by, as he put it, "some idiot who dunks his sled."]
It is perhaps the most surprising thing about the show Fargo, given the current state of dramatic television, that Molly (Alison Tolman) did not die. Gus (Colin Hanks) did not die. Molly's father (Keith Carradine), shown in agonizing, brilliantly executed peril in the previous episode as Malvo sat in his diner, did not die, and neither did Gus' daughter Greta (Joey King) or Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk), the man who learned he was not cut out to be chief. We did lose FBI agents Pepper and Budge (played by comedy duo Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele), but our core team of decent folks made it, once we cleared that first episode.
So it reads, on the surface, as a happy ending. Molly and Gus are married, she's roundly pregnant, Malvo is dead, Lester is dead and humiliated.
But it's not a happy ending; it's the work of the devil. The devil — not just in a literal religious sense, but in the nebulous sense in which we can loosely personify temptation and wickedness — works in ways more complex than blowing your head off. Gus effectively executed Malvo, on his own initiative, in part to assuage his guilt at letting Malvo go the first time. He lied to Molly, appealing to her love of him, Greta and their unborn child (not to mention her feeling of responsibility to the memory of Greta's dead mother) to persuade her to stand down and not chase Malvo, when really, he wanted to do it himself, for his own reasons. It was not really a selfless desire to keep Greta from "another funeral," or he couldn't have gone either. It was shame, and guilt, and pride, and fear, and the weight of an unfinished obligation.
Gus killed Malvo himself because he decided at some point, "I will kill him myself." He'd seen Malvo slip out of police custody before, but perhaps more than that, he was angry at being taunted — at losing. He is a decent person and a good man and a good husband and father, but he too has a dash of Jerry Lundegaard's fear of being ineffectual.
And yes, Molly was denied the confrontation with Malvo that many of us assumed was inevitable. Willa Paskin at Slate reads this as the show being less interested in her than in Gus; similarly, Tara Ariano at Previously.TV was left unsatisfied by Molly's decision to let Gus take the wheel at the end.
But to me, the ending reads as far more ambiguous than it did to many. Yes, Gus and Molly are together, they are snuggled up with Greta, they are going on. But her affect still seems shot through with melancholy. She isn't really satisfied with all this, with how it ended. She feels the imperfection of it, and she knows — she must — that Gus misled her and took this from her.
When he says she deserves the commendation he got for filling Malvo with bullets and she says, "That's your deal; I get to be chief"? You can read into that a sense of peace, but you can also read into it a desire on her part not to be involved in the way he chose to end that story, despite the fact that she says she's proud of him. She says that out of love for him, because she knows he's not happy about having done it, either. But she's not happy — she's just learned that she will not have the satisfaction of catching Lester either. She has missed her chance at a traditional hero's ending, and at her chance to avenge her friend and mentor. She has missed her chance to look Lester in the eye, or look Malvo in the eye, and say, "Got you." She beat them. Neither of them would have been taken without her. But she didn't get to see them know she beat them, which is fundamental to essentially every hero's ending.
We have watched Molly long enough to know that what Gus did is not what she would have done. She would not have shot Malvo as he sat, wounded, in a chair. She was not frightened enough of Malvo to give up that much of herself. Gus was less brave than she is, and they both know it. They both know his decision to shoot Malvo was one made out of fear, not courage. The finale isn't about how macho he is, but about how afraid he is.
There is a deep indentation on this couple, on this family, in that last scene. The easy way out of a story — the easy way to give it weight — is to put a bunch of good and decent people down in a hail of bullets. The hard way to give it weight is to acknowledge that the devil doesn't do anything so simple as blow your head off. The devil, in the worst sense of a devil, burrows in and makes you do things you wouldn't do otherwise. Malvo could never have gotten Gus to do what Lester did, but he got Gus to do something Gus and Molly now will have to live with. They have escaped with their family, with their kids, with her father. Lester and Malvo won't kill anybody else. It's a victory.
But it's a flawed victory at best, and that's by design. Battles with monsters in stories often end with a one-sided slaying; battles with monsters in life often involve walking away scarred but still walking. What made Fargo thoughtful and terrifying (it's one of the few shows the tension of which I've ever been physically unable to tolerate to the point where I jumped ahead at one point and then looped back) was its willingness to engage deeply human and decent people in encounters with real evil — not to show how they then became evil and corrupted by it, but to show how it forced them into combat on terms that they didn't want. Molly and Gus escaped with their souls, I think, but they're not fine. Everything is not fine.
But then, everything is rarely fine; that's why you snuggle on the couch in the first place.