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Fargo: “Morton’s Fork”

Allison Tolman (left), Bob Odenkirk
Allison Tolman (left), Bob Odenkirk
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Todd: Endings are tough. Everyone will acknowledge that. And that’s what I’m clinging to when thinking about “Morton’s Fork,” an episode I really, really liked but possibly not quite the finale I wanted when it came to how all involved were going to wrap up Fargo. There are some amazing moments in this episode, some I will come back to for a long time to come. But the connective tissue between them left me a bit unsure of what the whole thing was meant to add up to. Molly listening to the tape Malvo made of Lester? That was a moment that had been a long time in coming, and it had the weight that it needed. Gus stepping out of the shadows to shoot Malvo? That left me less enthused. 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. In some cases, that can mean the kinds of passive-aggression and biased assumptions we’ve seen on the parts of the characters in previous weeks, but in other cases, it means that the good in the world eventually rises up to swallow the evil and drag it back down beneath the frozen surface. The last scene we see is of Gus, Molly, and Greta watching Deal Or No Deal, and it’s amazing how there’s no condescension here. This is a hard-fought victory for our heroes. The villains are vanquished, and the good, decent folk of Bemidji, Minnesota, get a chance to watch Howie Mandel receive calls from a shadowy banker in a box.


It’s that general sense of the decent side of the world swallowing its darker side that holds much of the rest of the episode together, too. One thing I find fascinating about “Morton’s Fork” is how, well, small it feels. It all comes down to the four characters we’ve spent the most time with, and, honestly, Molly’s contribution to the story is ultimately minor. (She mostly gets to give Lester one last kiss-off, then ultimately be proved right by listening to the tape.) For me, it all comes down to whom the characters are willing to protect, what they’re willing to sacrifice their lives for. Lou’s more than happy to sit on a porch and wait for danger to come to him if it means protecting his granddaughter, but Lester’s someone who’s come to only care about his own survival, something that ultimately screws him in the end. (Molly, as always, quickly deduces that the person who killed Linda was really looking for Lester.) Decency carries with it a kind of altruism; the other side of the coin proceeds from selfishness, first and foremost.

Morton’s fork is a piece of reasoning wherein two contradictory arguments lead to the same conclusion. So much of this episode is spent with the characters weighing forks in the road, with Gus choosing to go into the hunting cabin Malvo occupies or with Molly letting her dad and husband talk her into staying in the station until it’s really too late for her to crack the case. (I suspect this is for the best, because I think she would have tried to arrest Malvo, and that would have ended disastrously.) Characters feel they’re presented with choices, but, really, the gravity of their situations and the story is always dragging them to the same place. This is Fargo. Molly is going to end up the chief, the bad guys are going to end up dead, and there’s going to be a car with dealer plates.

What I like most about this is the way that it gets, again, at how hard it can be to be a woman in this kind of field. Molly gets to be chief, sure, but she doesn’t get the recognition for cracking the case. Gus is the one who gets a commendation for heroism, all because he shot a guy. People keep writing Molly off, but she keeps being right, and she keeps quietly rising. In some ways, I was disappointed in having Gus pull the trigger to rid the world of Malvo because that felt like such a prosaic solution to the problem of real, almost intangible evil. But isn’t that how it is? People that seem like monsters are only people, and they’re stopped with bullets just as well as any of us are. What makes Molly our hero is that we know her well enough to suspect she might not have pulled the trigger, might have really tried to reason with evil itself. She doesn’t try, so she gets to live. Gus is the one who pulls the trigger because he’s the one who still can. Yet Molly gets to be chief.

I think what ultimately disappoints here is that Fargo has felt so cleverly, cleanly structured throughout—you and I have both talked about this—yet this finale feels like it deviates from that structure and starts hopping all over the place. And yet, maybe that’s why I’m growing kinder toward this finale the more I think about it. I hate to play the “but life’s like that!” card, because stories have no obligation to be like life, but, well, life’s like that. If you’re going to get to a point where watching Howie Mandel is the ultimate victory of good over evil, you need to embrace the weird unpredictability of life elsewhere, right? There needs to be a sense that sometimes, life is random, and stories don’t always pay off when they’re occurring under our noses.


Man, I might be talking myself into liking this more than I thought I did.

Zack: The Coen Brothers have a long history of telling stories that seem to build towards one climax, before ultimately shrugging and heading off in a different direction. That’s what Gus’s confrontation with Malvo felt like to me. This whole season looked like it was designed for a big scene between Molly and Malvo. They were the two most evenly matched characters, at least in terms of intelligence, and, apart from one brief moment of eye contact in the blizzard, they were kept apart the entire run of episodes. That’s a sort of thing that demands a showdown. It’s like Sheriff Moss and Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men—these are two opposing forces. Surely they have to face each other. Surely we’ll get to see which one is “stronger.”


That showdown doesn’t happen in No Country (the finale even references the reasons why, in Bill’s speech about why he’s retiring), and it doesn’t happen here. And I think that works, because it takes what usually serves as the point of this sort of story and underlines how essentially meaningless such a fight would actually be. The point isn’t to beat Malvo in a thrilling showdown that proves once and for all his violent philosophy and cruelty are hollow and self-defeating. The show pretty much already did that with Lester; Malvo created a monster, and that monster eventually came around to bite him in the ass. Sooner or later, a guy like Malvo is always going to go down. The question is how many people he’s going to take with him before he goes.

I’m not saying I wasn’t disappointed with Molly’s lack of obvious impact in the story. After all that set-up, it would be hard not to be. But I appreciated how Gus’ actions made him almost a tool of his wife, right down to his last word’s to Malvo. (“I solved your riddle.” Well, Molly solved your riddle, but you were certainly there when she did it.) It sounds trite to say she led by example, but that’s what this felt like; and more than that, in the end, Malvo felt like a mess somebody needed to clean up, and he deserved to be shot by a decent guy who caught him at a low moment. Gus was not a genius, or even a particularly good cop. The inherent deflation in having Malvo taken out in such a non-heroic way (like putting down an animal with rabies—the episode goes to great pains to remind us of Gus’ time with Animal Control) is a more effective way of critiquing his philosophy than any big showdown would’ve been.


Maybe I’m rationalizing. I liked this episode, but it’s not quite as well-constructed as earlier hours of the show have been. Little things nag at me. (How did Gus get away with just shooting an unarmed and injured man? I don’t want him to wind up in jail or anything, but everybody seemed awfully relaxed about the whole thing.) That could be the point? It could be that, like you said, endings are just hard? Because right now, there’s that feeling of watching nine episodes build to this final point, and that’s not a great way to judge anything. I don’t like the “life is random” argument, because it’s too easy to use that to justify anything. But if this finale is a little messier in spots than I was expecting, I think I can chalk that up both to the limits of my expectations, and the challenge of telling a complex story over ten hours of TV.

Because there’s a lot here that’s going to stay with me. I mentioned Bill’s speech above, but I want to single it out again; Odenkirk’s performance is just heartbreaking, and the speech itself serves to re-contextualize his earlier failings. He wasn’t blocking Molly’s investigation out of meanness, or because he didn’t recognize her intelligence. He was doing it because he couldn’t conceive of a world in which her theory was right. That makes him less equipped to be police chief, but more sympathetic as a character (and he was already pretty sympathetic). I’m a sucker for any show that encourages us to go past our first impressions of a character, no matter how strong those first impressions may be, and Fargo manages it at least twice. Once with Bill, who for all the irritation he caused was still a fundamentally decent person, and once with Lester, who for all his shy awkwardness was a loathsome piece of shit.


Back when Fargo the movie came out, I had a high school teacher who praised William H. Macy because he made his character almost impossible to root for; Lester (and Martin Freeman) takes that bar and lowers it. (Jerry was a creep, but I don’t think even Jerry would’ve murdered his wife with a hammer.) The finale does a good job of showing that cunning and cleverness can only get you so far when it comes to escaping your sins. Lester manages to hold his own against Malvo, but Malvo isn’t the whole world.

The outcome of their final fight leaves both men vulnerable, and it’s a vulnerability that comes from the basic flaw in their philosophy. Lester didn’t need to face down Malvo in that elevator, but he did because his ego was built on believing himself to be a strong man, a man who doesn’t back down for anything; and Malvo didn’t need to track Lester down to kill him, but he did, for about the same reason. Both men considered themselves superior to the society around them because they were willing to use another people to get what they wanted.  They didn’t care about anyone but themselves, which gave them an initial edge, but in the end, left them out in the cold. Or under the ice.


In  Molly’s final send-off to Lester, she offers up an anecdote that I really liked about a man and a pair of gloves. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. (Maybe I have some Lester in me. Horrifying thought.) The story is, a guy loses a glove running to catch a train, realizes he’s lost it only after it’s too late to go back, so he drops his other glove out the window, so that maybe someone else can have both gloves. Is this a story about basic decency? The idea that there’s something good in taking a loss and turning it into a chance to potentially help someone else? Not a big good, not a heroic good, but a necessary one, based on the knowledge that you are not alone in this world. Because I think Lester would’ve kept the glove. And Malvo would’ve burned it.

Todd: I like your read of this episode, Zack, mostly because No Country is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I’m always looking for reasons to think about it. But I think where the difference between that and this lies is in the fact that Molly voluntarily takes herself out of the action. If she was closing in on Malvo or even following some false lead or trying to take down Lester, then Gus’ dispatch of the main villain would have worn a little better with me. As it was, Molly was sitting in that police station for much of the hour, and even if this made sense in terms of logic—she is really damn pregnant, and Gus’ words about how he didn’t want Greta to have to attend another funeral would surely have found their mark in Molly’s unfailingly decent soul—it cut so broadly against the Molly we’d gotten to know over nine hours that I found myself frustrated by it. That frustration was mostly a good tension, I think, but it also led me to wonder why she wasn’t the one to take out Malvo, even if it’s a little more interesting to have Gus acting as an instrument of her wrath, as you point out.


But even those quibbles aren’t going to be enough to diminish Fargo in my eyes, because the finale continues to zig where it could be zagging, something that marked the show throughout its run and something I shouldn’t come down too hard on any given episode of it for doing. I interviewed Hawley for a piece that will be going up tomorrow morning, and he talked about wanting to capture the feel of a “true story,” even in a fictional creation, and “Morton’s Fork” has moments like that in spades, be it Greta joining Lou out on the porch with her BB gun, or that amazing, bestial image of the wolf amid the snow, first alerting Gus to Malvo’s presence, then alerting Malvo to Gus’ presence. This was a damn wonderful TV show, and even the stuff I didn’t like is stuff I like much more upon thinking about it.

Zack: This is an episode that I wish I had more time to think about, and more space in which to think. That’s not how this job works, and it’s also not really how we watch TV; but while I wouldn’t argue that this is a perfect ending, I do think that the episode’s refusal to give me what I thought was coming is coloring my opinion of it. That’s keeping me from thinking clearly, and that means I’m probably under-and-over selling it in my head. At some point, I’d like to re-watch the whole series. Not because I believe the finale will suddenly snap into focus, but just to get an understanding of the whole thing without having to worry about my assumptions getting in the way.


But that’s in the future. For now, this finale gave me mostly what I wanted, and the stuff I didn’t get, maybe I didn’t need as much as I thought I did. I have criticisms. There was a certain amount of compression that didn’t always work, and some of the stories were noticeably truncated; Lester fleeing over the ice on a snowmobile was a terrific image that felt like something more reverse engineered than an organic conclusion. It worked, but it wasn’t as elegant as the show had been in its best moments. Malvo’s fate handled the set-up better, but while I think I understand what Hawley was going for, I still miss the chance to see Molly face him down. (What’s weird is that Molly actually decided to go back out to Lester’s house after Budge and Pepper were killed, although she didn’t know they were dead yet. She must’ve gotten the call about Malvo and Gus on the drive over?)

Maybe that’ll play better in the months to come. Maybe it won’t. I can say for sure that what’ll stay with me from this story is the warmth. I’ve seen and loved plenty of shows about vile men and their vile deeds. But Fargo is one of the first new shows in a long time to make me care more about the decent people who stand in their way.


Todd’s grade: B+
Zack’s grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • You talked a bit about the parable of the glove, Zack, and I think what I liked about it—and I thought it was the best moment of the finale—was the way that you can read it almost any way you want it, but also that you can imagine any of the characters dealing with the situation very differently, as you pointed out. [TV]
  • Goodbye, Budge and Pepper. In the end, you didn’t really accomplish a whole heck of a lot, although you did recognize Molly’s good work that one time, which was nice. [ZH]
  • If nothing else, “Morton’s Fork” reminded me that I always found Deal Or No Deal perfect TV to turn your brain off to. Bring it back, Mandel! [TV]
  • I like Molly’s last line: “I get to be chief.” Seems fitting. [ZH]
  • Visual gag that’s so bad it circles back around to being good: Lester runs out on literal thin ice. [TV]
  • Your Coen brothers movie of the week: At the Austin TV Festival, Hawley joked that he had a lot of ideas for the universe of The Ladykillers, should he get to adapt a different Coen film for TV. And while I don’t think that’s a very good idea and agree with the general consensus that Ladykillers is one of the brothers’ weaker films, I still think it’s an enjoyable movie, and it boasts a really great Tom Hanks performance at its center. It’s worth a look if you’ve never seen it. [TV]

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