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Why 'Fargo's Unsatisfying Ending Is One of the Series' Best Moments

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire June 18, 2014 at 10:38AM

The ending of "Fargo" denied fans, and some critics, the big moment they'd been waiting for, and provided something better.
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Allison Tolman and Bob Odenkirk in "Fargo"
Allison Tolman and Bob Odenkirk in "Fargo"

"Fargo," the FX TV series that concluded last night, toyed throughout its run with references to "Fargo," the 1996 movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, as well as the rest of the Coen brothers' oeuvre. So it was fitting -- perfect, really -- that the series ended with its first explicit callback to Carter Burwell's indelible main theme, which series composer Jeff Russo had spun artful riffs on all season long. It's equally fitting that Burwell's theme is itself a rearrangement of a Norwegian folk song called "The Lonely Sheep," since in the end what series creator Noah Hawley left us with was the latest version of an oft-told tale about the perennial struggle between good and evil.

What Hawley didn't want to do was turn in yet another spin on "that hero’s journey structure that we’re all so trained to expect and want -- that at the end of the day, it’s high noon between our hero and our villain -- because that doesn’t actually happen in real life." And so in the end, it wasn't intrepid detective Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) who killed the menacing Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), but her husband, Gus (Colin Hanks), a fearful ex-cop who seemed temperamentally better suited to his new job as a rural mailman. Molly didn't even get to slap the cuffs on Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), whom she'd pursued for more than a year; like the movie's Jerry Lundegaard, Lester fled town, only instead of being captured he fell through a hole in the thin Montana ice.

On a red-meat level, it was an unsatisfying conclusion -- Molly spends more than a year tracking the bad guys, then sits on her pregnant butt while others do the apprehending? Slate's Willa Paskin effectively retconned the entire series by arguing that because Gus shoots Malvo it means that "Fargo" has been about his transition from meek cop to macho killer all along. But "Fargo" has never been a show about heroes, and while giving Molly a more convention role in its denouement would have been more conventionally fulfilling, it would also have been horribly wrong.

In a structural sense, "Fargo's" finale was a mirror of its pilot, which Hawley built around a deviously clever bit of misdirection. If you watched "The Crocodile's Dilemma" cold, you'd have thought Shawn Doyle's Chief Vern Thurman was the star of the show, right up to the point where Lorne Malvo cut him down with a shotgun. (It's as if "Lost" had followed through on its plan to present Matthew Fox's Jack as the show's central character in the pilot and then kill him off at the climax.) "Morton's Fork" repeats the process, only this time it's Molly the action shifts away from.

That hardly means she's merely a passive agent: Molly may not be the one to track down Lester, but she's singularly responsible for his capture. It was her police work, her dogged determination in the face of ridicule and disdain, that put the pressure on Lester to flee in the first place, and she does get the satisfaction of finally hearing him confess, even if it's only via one of Malvo's audiotapes. Besides, as she puts it in the finale scene, she's gonna be chief. 

What's more, it seems profoundly off to read Gus' cold-blooded execution of Lorne Malvo as a moment of manly triumph: Shooting an unarmed man with a broken leg isn't exactly going out in a blaze of glory. It's true that the show presents Malvo as a predator, to the extent that the only way to ensure he won't kill again is to put him down. But the way Gus does it, and the chilling smile on Malvo's bullet-pocked face, drain the act of any sense of chest-thumping vindication. As Hawley put it, "You may see it as a victory for Gus, [but] it's also a victory for Malvo, whose driving motivation in life is to seek and turn civilized people into animals. [H]e pushes Gus to commit murder, really."

FX has yet to rule on the possibility of a second season for "Fargo," and Hawley has expressed a desire to "lay flat" and think about how, and if, he would approach one. But even if there's no more "Fargo," he's left us with a gem -- not a flawless one, but one that's worth turning over in our minds, just to see how it catches the light.

Reviews of the "Fargo" finale, "Morton's Fork"

Kenny Herzog, Vulture

Whereas "Fargo" the movie felt like more of a fable, its televised spawn is a sprawling, allegorical quilt. "Morton's Fork," per its titular namesake, delivers comeuppance without offering easy answers to the series' deeper concerns. 

Jason Hughes, the Wrap

Coming on the heels of HBO's terrific "True Detective," critics and fans were likely wary about another limited-run crime series hinting at a seasonal anthology format. But what's really surprising is that "Fargo" has equaled "True Detective" in almost every way, save media attention.

Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker

The movie’s offscreen, near-accidental wife murder becomes a closeup bludgeoning; the original small-time blackmail scam evolves into a cavalcade of glamorous massacres involving a Mob syndicate. Most striking, while the movie was a meditation on the stupidity of violence, the TV show offers up something far more familiar: a set of good-clever people who pursue a set of evil-clever people, complete with the requisite bulletin board full of pins and red strings.

Kate Phillips, New York Times

Although she does finally rebel and head toward the scene, she’s not the one who confronts Malvo, the dark lord she identified so many months ago. Instead, Gus shakily blows him away with several shots, fitting compensation, perhaps, for letting Malvo go free in the first place, back in Duluth. What’s the message here, if there is one? Would you rather have watched Molly get the satisfaction of nailing Malvo?

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

Gus's killing of Malvo is one of two elements in the finale that didn't entirely sit right with me at the time. I appreciate that it's something Gus would feel like he has to do, given all the violence that transpired because he was afraid to tangle with Lorne at the traffic stop (assuming he would have survived that), and we have ample evidence from these 10 episodes that the only way to actually stop someone like Malvo is to simply execute him when he's physically unable to fight back. And it's not really presented as a triumph, either.

Willa Paskin, Slate

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 anti-hero show, it’s a self-help anti-hero show: how to locate the alpha dog within.

Louie Schuth, Hypable

At first glance, it would seems as if Molly was given an unfair shake in this episode. After all of her expert detective work, she didn’t play a direct hand in the capture of either of the two criminals she’s been trying to nab. Gus was given the citation for bravery, which he thinks should go to her, but she recognizes that it was supposed to go to him. “I get to be chief,” she says. Molly’s the true detective, and whether or not she directly apprehended the criminals, it’s because of her and her alone that they were apprehended at all, and the police work was really what it’s all about in the end.

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club

I didn't need Molly to take Malvo down -- and I quite liked Gus saying he'd figured out the riddle before pumping bullets into the guy -- but it feels almost unconscionable that we didn’t get a single scene between Billy Bob Thornton and Allison Tolman. It’s all but a miscarriage of television justice. On the other hand, what this episode ultimately ends up with is something of the message of the original "Fargo": Decency trumps all. 

Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post

"Fargo's" plot resolution ticked all the "conclusion" boxes, and normally, I would respect the desire to provide a well-defined wrap-up, given that so many shows have trouble with endings. But it's as if the desire to wrap up the plot neatly also led the show to avoid philosophical and metaphysical complexity, which is a great thing in storytelling. 

James Poniewozik, Time

If I have a major issue with the last episode, it's that leaving Molly sidelined for the final pursuits of Malvo and Lester, after Allison Tolman made her quest for justice the emotional hook of the show, sapped some of the last hour’s narrative drive. Still, her being overcome with emotion at finding Lester's recorded confession is one of the moments I’ll remember. Yet it might make sense, given "Fargo's emphasis on the heroism of decent little people, that the job of catching Malvo should fall to Gus, someone who never wanted it, yet found himself in a certain place and felt he had to. We see a lot of killings on TV -- deserved, undeserved, logical, senseless. But what you don't see so often, in a crime drama, is someone for whom killing is hard.

Linda Holmes, NPR

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.


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