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Fargo: “A Muddy Road”

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Zack: It’s hard to do the right thing after doing the wrong thing. Mistakes have their own inertia, and that goes doubly true in fiction, where entire genres have been built out of the idea of how easy it is to keep making bad choices after that first false move. That’s the situation Lester finds himself in, and while he hasn’t doubled down on the murder of his wife just yet, his ongoing lies to Molly and everyone else leave him vulnerable to the predations of the out-of-town hitmen.

But Lester isn’t what I wanted to open with this week; he gets a few good scenes in “A Muddy Road,” but the heart of the episode is Gus Grimly, and his slow, humiliating efforts to make good on his mistake. Given what we know about Malvo, it’s hard to blame Gus for letting him go in the pilot; the explanation Gus gives to Molly to try and justify himself sounds ridiculous on the surface (Malvo had scary eyes?), but we’ve seen enough to know that Malvo really is dangerous, and had Gus really decided to press the issue, there’s no telling what might have happened. Maybe, in choosing to step down and play the coward, Gus managed to prevent himself from becoming another redshirt in a genre which has an established history of bumping off cops who don’t know what they’re getting into.


Yet stopping men like Malvo is Gus’ job, and if Gus has to risk his life to do it, that’s part of wearing the badge. As Malvo’s corruption continues (this week, he takes over the blackmail operation, turning it from an inept lark to something considerably more sinister), there’s a growing need for someone to balance the other side of the equation. We see over and over how easy it is for him to be evil, and how quickly other characters fall under his sway; there’s something immediately appealing about watching a smart man or woman be so clearly above every situation he wanders into, and Malvo (apart from the deer that sent him off the road in the pilot) has yet to show any weakness or vulnerability. It’s fun to watch, and yet, on its own, it’s not entirely dramatically satisfying. A story in which a bad man does bad things to idiots has its place, but Fargo, I think, is going for something a bit more complicated.

Which brings me back to Gus, and to Molly, and to what, I think, is the show’s most quietly remarkable plot development to date. Gus realizes he’s done wrong, and admits as much to his dickish supervisor. And while Gus does offer an explanation for why he did what he did, both to the supervisor and later to Molly, he’s pretty much completely honest about the whole thing. Unlike, say, Lester (whose sins are, admittedly, rather significantly worse), there’s no obfuscation, no pretense that he’s just a victim of a bad situation; one of the better moments of acting from Colin Hanks comes when he’s trying to explain to Molly just what scared him so badly about Malvo. He clearly realizes how foolish he sounds, but he’s unable to lie about it in any way to make himself look better.

There’s something immensely refreshing about that—about seeing someone decide to come clean without having to be forced. Much of Fargo is pretty darn cynical about human interaction, but here is a sequence of pure, unadulterated optimism. Even better, it’s an optimism that builds something rather than destroys it. Gus is mocked for his mistake, but the sense that his decision to come clean is the better decision is undeniable, and there’s a lovely moment of acting from Allison Tolman, when she realizes just what motivated Gus to do what he did, that suggests that decency and kindness have just as much value as brute force.  The idea of Molly and Gus as a team is every bit as thrilling to me as Malvo (who forms his own partnership this week) running around giving people the chance to ruin their lives, and the scene at Molly’s father’s diner is my favorite things the show has done so far. Stories about the comic ugliness of humanity are common. It’s far rarer to have one suggest that there are beautiful things worth fighting for.

Todd: Yeah, that little look Molly gives Greta when she makes her way behind the counter of the police station speaks volumes, doesn’t it? The thing that makes Molly such a great heroine is the way that she’s so smart, not just about solving cases but about people. The moment when she puts two and two together about why Gus would shirk his duty is a great example of this, but so is the scene where she goes to see Lester under the guise of purchasing insurance from him but really to let him get a look at Malvo’s face on the security camera still she got during her trip to St. Paul. A lot of shows would drag out Molly figuring out who the frozen corpse in the woods was, or keep her and Gus apart, or even keep her from letting Lester know she’s on Malvo’s trail. Not this one, though, and by making both Malvo and Molly as smart as they are, the show ups the stakes on both ends considerably.


In fact, it’s interesting how the two sides of the story rather balance each other out. Both Malvo and Molly represent the show’s devil and angel on the shoulder, respectively, but they’re also involved with weaker-willed men who are easily swayed by what the darker of them says. The difference between Lester and Gus, of course, is that Gus decides it’s time to make right for what he’s done wrong, while Lester tries to channel all of these new pieces of himself into something other than thinking about what happened in his house just a few days ago. But going to work doesn’t put those feelings away. Neither does looking down at the buckshot wound on his hand and squeezing pus out of it. The only time we see Lester looking almost as if he’s feeling something appropriate is in that look of sheer, unrepressed wildness that takes over his face when he fires his brother’s gun into the cold night air.

The sheer amount of balance that Fargo projects makes it all the more exciting when things rush forward helter-skelter (as when Molly shows Gus the photo of Malvo) or when unpredictable elements enter to clog up the story. In the latter category, we have those two hitmen from Fargo, while in the former, we have whatever Malvo is doing to hem in Stavros (which involves switching out his medication for Adderall and putting pig’s blood in his water supply for reasons I have yet to fathom). Yet Noah Hawley is careful to always balance out advances on both sides, so the whole thing feels like a complicated chess game either side could win—even if Molly and Malvo don’t precisely know they’re playing each other yet. (We do because we know the actors are first-billed in the end credits.) And I like how the series is scattering around clues the characters don’t know are clues yet—like the way that Molly’s friend’s talk of the spider bite that gave rise to all those baby spiders echoes that increasingly disgusting wound on Lester’s hand, a major clue if only Molly could get a look at it.


It’s been interesting to read the critical discourse around Fargo, because one of the primary lines of complaint (after the criticism that this is a weak replica of the Coen brothers’ work) is that it’s just another dark drama about a white male antihero. And I suppose one could read it that way. Malvo is certainly an intimidating, intriguing presence. But I’ll tell you that the scene in this episode that made me sit up and take notice, that made me 10 times more invested in this show than I already was (and I was incredibly invested), was just a scene of people in a diner, having shakes and burgers, and generally being decent to each other. Sometimes, all it takes is a little shove toward evil, the first two episodes of this show argued. But episode three suggests that sometimes, that little shove can point us toward kindness as well.

Zack: It’s a relief, really. Narratively, having a character who makes bad choices is always going to be easier to write, because those choices can keep a story going, and because bad choices create immediate suspense: Will the protagonist get away? And if they’re caught, how bad is it going to be? (There’s also a fantasy element, which is most notable so far in Malvo’s behavior; I can’t imagine anyone fantasizing about being Lester, but who wouldn’t want to be the guy pulling the strings?). The first two episodes suggested that Molly wasn’t going to take any of this lying down, and by bringing her and Gus together so quickly and powerfully, it feels like there’s something to actually root for.


Still, other things happen in the episode, and a few of them are worth mentioning. (Segue!) Lester’s visit to the Widow Hess seemed largely designed to put him on the radar of the hitmen, but I thought Kate Walsh did a good job of making a potentially one-note character into someone who was recognizably human. Walsh makes the lady’s “advances” on Lester so good-natured and slightly dippy that it the scene doesn’t play as particularly predatory; she’s just using whatever tools she has at her disposal to get by. (It’s still not a great scene, but it could’ve been worse, which is something.)

That feeds into what you were saying about Malvo and that “little shove toward evil.” So far, Fargo the TV series reads like a story about a bunch of neutral people—some of them kind of mean, some of them pretty friendly, but few of them the firmly aligned to one moral path or the other—and what happens when a stronger personality comes in and starts knocking heads together. Malvo clearly prides himself on being above the wrack and ruin of humanity. His short scene with the Adderall salesman (who also has a zombie survival package, if’n you’re interested) sums up his take on things: “It’s already dog-eat-dog, friend. I’m not sure what worse a bunch of zombies could do.” Whatever comes of his team-up with Don, it’s almost certainly less about money than it is about shaking things up and seeing what happens next. (Which has a bit of a Hannibal vibe to it, come to think.)


That makes for thrilling television, but, again, it’s a relief to have Molly around, and to watch her and Gus enter each other’s orbits. A world in which everyone’s a petty schmuck just waiting to be nudged to the Dark Side is a great premise for a movie, but it wears a little thin stretched out over 10 or so hours. Time will tell how much effect Molly will ultimately have on Malvo’s reign of terror, but this episode at least suggests she isn’t alone, and that she won’t be going down without a fight, and that’s a fine start.

Todd: I actually want to pivot off of what you said and return to one of my favorite shows ever made, The Sopranos, where the choice of what to do was rarely between the right thing and the wrong thing but between the hard thing and the easy thing. For as much ink as we’ve spilled about how neatly Molly lines up with Malvo—they even have five letter names starting with M in the way we’re talking about them—I think you were right to identify at the beginning the true center of this episode as Gus’ decision to finally hunker down and admit that he was wrong at its beginning. He said to his daughter last week that there was more than one kind of right thing, but what he really meant is that there are a universe of “right” choices, but there’s only one really hard choice, one choice that will lead maybe not to the best outcome but to the one that is the best for our souls.


That’s an old-school religious kind of thought, and it made sense on The Sopranos, a very Catholic kind of show. It makes sense on Fargo, I think, because it seems to arise from a hotbed of Lutheranism, even if the show doesn’t explicitly mention God or the devil (despite having several analogues). The Sopranos was a trickily moral show, and I suspect Fargo is, too, admittedly with a very small sample size. Reading the early critical discussion of this show has been interesting because those who don’t really like it see it as just another white male antihero show, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from. Malvo is the most immediately arresting character. But he’s also the guy who’s always making the easy choices, and I think we need to pay more attention to those who are willing to do what it takes to skew toward the hard ones.

Zack’s grade: A-
Todd’s grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • As a former South Dakotan, it gives me great joy to hear that Lou and Brian (Gus’ lieutenant) were apparently involved in a task force gone drastically wrong over in Sioux Falls. Maybe season two of Fargo can just be a story about East River vs. West River rivalries fought out on the mean streets of Pierre. You know this is a great idea, Noah Hawley! [TV]
  • Another great Malvo quote, this time to Don: “Here it is: You’re screwed. You made a choice, and this is the consequence. Me, I’m the consequence.” [ZH]
  • Gina Hess, on her kids: “I’ve taken shits I wanna live with more than them.” [ZH]
  • Gina’s an interesting case, because I’m not sure that I particularly like the character, but I think Kate Walsh is doing a good job with an underwritten type. In some ways, Fargo feels too overstuffed, especially knowing we’re only going to have one season with these people, and she’s a key example of this. [TV]
  • Important timeline information: Molly is 31. Greta is 12. She and Gus have been without her mother for 10 years. (I don’t actually know how important this is, but I always like getting these facts straightened out in my head.) [TV]
  • Commenter theory I love: “Lou” is actually Marge’s partner Lou from the movie. Even if this isn’t true, I’m going to assume it is in my head. [TV]
  • Your Coen brothers film of the week: Let’s go with A Serious Man (2009), a loopy comedy with heavy overtones of moral terror and existential dread. The struggle the main character (played by the marvelous Michael Stuhlbarg) faces in some way mirrors Gus’s own troubles: how can you define meaning in life when God (if She even exists) remains silent? And how do you make the right choice when the wrong one is so much easier? I’m over-simplifying it (and butchering it), but it’s a great, painfully funny film, and I highly recommend it. [ZH]

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