Season finale review: ‘Fargo’ – ‘Morton’s Fork’

A review of the “Fargo” finale coming up just as soon as I get my air rifle…

“He's not gonna stop. You know that, right? A man like that, maybe not even a man.” -Molly

Much of this TV version of “Fargo” has been interwoven with both bits of the original movie (here with Malvo stealing a car with dealer plates) and other Coen brothers films. But it's also featured many of its own specific elements, perhaps none more ultimately important than Malvo's love of playing games with the many hapless schmucks who cross his path. I suppose you could compare that to Anton Chigurh's love of the coin flip, but the motivations are wildly different. Malvo does this for his own amusement, but also because he's trying to prove a point about fundamental human nature versus the forces of civilization. It's his entertainment, but it also feels like a genuine social experiment to him: can he actually turn any of these saps into a predator like himself, or is he some kind of evolutionary throwback that can't be duplicated in today's soft society? When he listens to his tapes, it isn't with any kind of malicious grin on his face; there's a curiosity there, and maybe even a desire to one day find – or, better, make – a kindred spirit.

The entire story of this season spins not out of Malvo's profession (though he winds up in Bemidji in the first place because his car crashes in the middle of a job), but this strange and cruel hobby of his. Sam Hess dies not because Lester paid Malvo to do it, but because Malvo wanted to see what would happen if he did. And so it feels appropriate in a way for the story – and Malvo's life – to end because his experiment finally produces not one, but two successes. Whether he intended to or not, Malvo turned both Lester and Gus into men capable of killing him, and together the once-hapless salesman and the once-cowardly mailman put an end to Malvo when more traditional forces of good and evil couldn't.

We've seen Lester grow increasingly clever at this game, albeit at the cost of whatever humanity he had before his path crossed Malvo's in the emergency room. (I still curse silently when pondering Lester telling Linda to put up the hood on the orange parka.) He's able to find a good use for Chazz's old bear trap, so that what we and Malvo see as panic and disarray is actually a pretty good plan for a minute there. Lester ends up with another busted nose (this time courtesy of the salesmanship trophy that brought him back into Malvo's orbit), but in a scenario where he's not only fighting back against a bully, but being the aggressor.

A few episodes ago, Malvo told Mr. Wrench about a bear that chewed through bloody bone to escape a steel trap. The show has always presented Malvo as a potentially supernatural figure, but though he's able to pull himself out of the trap, it's not without cost. He drags himself back to his hideout, and even sets the broken bone by himself, but he's in no condition to do anything but grimace and die when Gus emerges from the shadows in search of redemption for their first encounter.

I first watched “Morton's Fork” a week ago, and 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. Gus takes no pleasure in it in the way Lester does with most of his exploits, and he seems uncomfortable even discussing his officially-recognized heroism with Molly and Greta in the final scene. But it also seems odd that none of the cops seems the least bit troubled that Gus lay in wait and shot an unarmed man, without bothering to call actual cops to let them know he'd found the hideout. It probably wouldn't have saved the lives of Pepper, Budge and the car salesman(*), but you never know.

(*) The salesman appeared much earlier in the season as a customer who declined to buy a big life insurance policy from Lester, and here pleads for his life in part by noting that he has a little girl at home. As Lester said when accepting his award, “the worst does happen, and you need to be insured.”

Working hand in hand with that is the decision to have Molly sit the action out. In talking to Noah Hawley a few times in the last two weeks (including this interview), I know that he wrestled a lot with both trying to subvert our expectations based on the movie, and with trying to achieve a certain randomness to the narrative to go along with the “true story” conceit(**). So I can understand his desire to avoid having the Marge figure and central good guy play the heroine at the end. But so much of the season was about Molly's work on the case, and her dogged pursuit of Vern's killer, that to have her only cross paths with a living Malvo once, and briefly (during the blizzard shootout), feels a bit unsatisfying. 

(**) One place where I would disagree with him (in a statement he's made in several interviews, as well as at the Q&A I conducted in Austin, which you can hear the audio of at the end of this podcast) is that I think the Mike Yanagita scene in the movie isn't just there as a random thing to maintain the illusion that it's a true story, but a genuine plot point. It isn't until after the weird encounter with Mike, and then the later discovery that many of the things he told her weren't true, that Marge finally puts it together that the similarly harmless-seeming Jerry Lundegaard could also have been lying to her. That's why she goes back to his office, which in turn leads her to the other bad guys. It seems like an odd digression, until it turns out not to have been that at all. 

Yet the more I thought about both creative decisions, the more I made peace with each of them. Because Gus's killing of Malvo is treated as a necessary evil rather than a moment of inspirational victory, it fits in well with the larger theme of civilization versus chaos, and the trade-offs of each way of living. Lester Nygaard becomes a smarter, tougher, more successful individual as a result of his interaction with Lorne Malvo, but he also becomes an absolute monster. Gus Grimly works up the nerve to kill Malvo, but it's more like putting down a wounded animal than a traditional Hollywood fair fight where he gets to puff out his chest after.

And it's not like Molly doesn't get some measure of professional satisfaction out of all of this. She gets her attaboys from Pepper and Budge in episode 9, and here Bill acknowledges what Vern said way back in episode 1: that he's not cut out for this kind of work, and that Molly should be the chief. That Gus asks her to stand down plays not as a moment of macho protectiveness, but as an expression of his own vulnerability: the ache in Colin Hanks' voice as Gus says of Greta, “Bottom line, I can't make her go to another funeral, y'know?” tells us all we and Molly need to hear. And there's a sense that no resolution to this case would have been wholly pleasing to Molly. When she listens to the recording of Lester confessing Pearl's murder to Malvo, there is no expression of satisfaction that she now has the final piece of evidence, but simply sadness at all the violence that followed this one desperate act, from Vern all the way on through Pepper and Budge. She gets the job, and she gets Gus, Greta and the new baby, and she still has Lou (who doesn't play an active role in the resolution but still seems wonderfully heroic as he stands watch over Greta), and that's ultimately a more important thing than getting to stare Malvo in the face – even if I would have dearly loved watching Allison Tolman and Billy Bob Thornton play even one real scene together.

And she does get closure with Lester, even if the thin ice ultimately claims him (a delayed version of the punishment he evaded from Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench) rather than a lengthy prison sentence. She was the one who put together what he and Malvo did, and how, she's the one who stares him down in interrogation while Bill won't even look him in the eye, and she's the one who gets to deliver one last parable about good and evil, selflessness and selfishness, civilization versus wilderness, in the story of the glove. Molly Solverson is a woman who would drop the glove out the window in hopes of turning her loss into someone else's gain. Lester Nygaard is a man who would gnash his teeth at the unfairness of dropping the first glove on the platform, then blame someone else for his misfortune and start imagining ways to punish them. And though this is not a fundamentally fair world, nor a fundamentally fair show, their respective fates at least are appropriate. Lester briefly got everything he wanted through his despicable, illegal actions, but ended up a corpsicle as a result, where Molly gets everything she wants through decency and hard work, and in a way that feels like it's going to last.

As we see the Grimly/Solverson family curled up on the couch to watch more “Deal Or No Deal,” we hear a very familiar music cue: Carter Burwell's iconic score from the film's opening sequence. Though the show borrows many elements from the movie, including that brief intersection of the plots during the Stavros Milos storyline, this in many ways feels like the most overt attempt of all to link the two. Had the show been a creative failure – as I imagine many people might have expected, given the wildly improbable nature of someone other than the Coen brothers doing “Fargo” for television and doing it well – this would have been the final, wildly presumptive nail in the coffin. Instead, Hawley and company earned that moment through a mixture of Molly's brand of hard work and Lester and Malvo's flair for brutal creativity. This has not been an exact copy of “Fargo” the movie – and it would have likely been terrible if it was – but it's been true enough in both spirit and quality that it feels utterly appropriate to hear that memorable, melancholy tune play as Gus, Molly and Greta try to return to normalcy after a year of so many violent extremes.

That was “Fargo.” This is “Fargo.” Both are great, defying all logic, and yet pleasing so many.

So go read the Noah Hawley interview and then tell me, what did everybody else think? Did the ending satisfy you? Do you want Hawley and company to try this again, or should everyone involved take a bow for pulling off such an improbable feat without trying to duplicate it?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at