A review of tonight's “Fargo” coming up just as soon as I buy a zombie kit…
Because “A Muddy Road” concludes with Lorne reciting a Bible passage about baby Moses being placed in a basket, followed by him unleashing the first of the Ten Plagues from the story of Exodus (and because the Passover holiday wasn't too long ago), I was briefly tempted to dust off my old dayenu gimmick (most recently deployed, and explained, in this “Parks and Rec” review from the fall). You know: “If the episode had only featured Lorne explaining things to Don in the supply closet… dayenu.” Or “If the episode had only featured one of Sam Hess's idiot sons shooting the other with a crossbow bolt while the widow Hess tried to seduce Lester… dayenu.” But while “A Muddy Road” is another excellent episode of what's been an excellent series so far, it doesn't have that transcendent quality I usually want before going there.
Instead, I want to talk about Molly Solverson, and about Allison Tolman.
Of the show's major castmembers, Tolman's easily the least well known. You've got Billy Bob Thornton, who has an Oscar on his shelf, a public life that was once hugely prominent, and a long career with significant acclaim. You've got Martin Freeman, who's at the center of a trilogy of very expensive fantasy films, who's much more than just Sherlock Holmes' sidekick, and who was Tim on the original “The Office.” Bob Odenkirk, Colin Hanks, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Keith Carradine, Kate Walsh… these are all very familiar faces. Tolman's pretty much brand-new, and I imagine it would be easy to disappear in that company like someone wearing a white parka in the Bemidji winter.
Tolman has done the opposite of that, though, especially starting with “A Muddy Road,” where Molly really starts pressing her investigation into both Lorne Malvo and Lester Nygaard. She isn't playing an exact copy of Marge Gunderson, even if she keeps winding up in similar situations. (The lunch with her old high school friend was very reminiscent of Marge's awkward encounter with Mike Yanagita, though we'll have to see if this one winds up having the same plot significance that the earlier one did.) But she's a deputy and not the chief, and her boss has no interest in her theory of the crime and has stuck her with what he thinks is an unrelated investigation. So Molly doesn't have the calm authority that Marge was able to bring to her investigation back in the film, nor does she have the secure personal life. She's out on an island here, with only mild support from her dad (who recognizes her abilities as a cop but would rather she was doing something safer and less emotionally scarring), and she has to scramble through some narrow investigative windows, but she's doing it. She is tenacious and keeps going after Lester (even saving him at one point from a potential ice fishing trip with Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench), and she and Gus Grimly eventually connect on the matter of Lorne Malvo.
Tolman is so good here, playing a very muted character in a project full of colorful ones. She's not the deadpan assassin, not the hen-pecked salesman searching for his inner gorilla, not the deaf hitman or his twitchy partner, not the bitter ex-stripper or the smug rich guy. She is just a quiet, decent young woman who is very good at what she does, even if nobody seems to notice but us and the late Vern Thurmond. Making the good, normal character into somebody compelling is no easy task, but Tolman handles it beautifully. She holds the screen in a way that's rare for a relative newcomer, she never seems intimidated by her co-stars, and she has this wonderfully expressive face that says so much even when Molly's not speaking at all. Just watch her reaction to hearing Gus talk about his life with Greta, and you can see her instantly understanding everything about this man and his daughter, and about why this man would have done such shoddy policework on the Malvo traffic stop. It's a great moment in an episode where Molly really moves to the forefront of the narrative, as we seem to be setting up for this ordinary cop tracking down this extraordinary killer.
There have been some rumblings that Tolman is going to submit as a supporting actress at Emmy time, which seems silly to me. By this point, she's at least as much of a lead here as Thornton and Freeman, if not more. The only reason to stick her in supporting is because she's not a name and she might have an easier go of it there. But she is a major part of “Fargo,” both in terms of her prominence to the narrative and in terms of how good she's been to this point. She deserves all the recognition she can get, but preferably in the right place.
Some other thoughts on “A Muddy Road”:
* We open with a flashback to how the man wound up in Lorne's trunk in the series' opening scene. The most striking thing about the sequence is how Lorne doesn't seem the least bit troubled that he's being seen by so many of the man's co-workers (when at first the scene seems as if it's taking place at a time when no one else is in the office), or about being caught on the surveillance cameras. Every action he takes is done with the attitude that no one can get to him.
* As I mentioned earlier, Lorne and Don in the supply closet – with the calm and wise Lorne trying to explain things to the idiotic Don – was a comic gem. (“Me. I'm the consequence.”) And in his torment of the God-fearing Stavros Milos, we see that he's more than just a killer and amateur trouble-maker. Lorne appears to have a boss, or at least some kind of agent who contracts out his services; I wonder what the reaction will be to him turning against his client so baldly.
* Lester visiting Sam's widow was also a lot of fun, and a reminder of what a vibrant performer Kate Walsh can be. When a performer you like winds up spending six seasons on a show you don't watch (as I didn't with “Private Practice”), it's easy to forget their skill level.
* Interesting that when Wrench and Numbers are hassling Lester at the insurance agency, it's the silent Mr. Wrench who begins the interrogation.
* After Adam Bernstein directed the first two episodes, this one featured the work of Randall Einhorn, an FX veteran who's worked with Glenn Howerton a lot on “Always Sunny” and has been the chief director on “Wilfred.” This is, believe, only his second hour-long episode of TV ever, after a “Shameless” episode from last year, but that show as well as this one blend comedy and drama together so much (as does “Wilfred,” for that matter), that it's a natural fit.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com