In a supremely satisfying finale, Bemidji is freed from horrors.
Buzz Aldrin was afraid of spiders — and he went into space.
How refreshing, after Game of Thrones‘s exercise in punishing bleakness, for Fargo to give us our dream ending: the good guys live, the bad guys die, and justice is served. James Poniewozik at Time.com wrote a fantastic piece a couple weeks ago about how this series has flipped the (now-stale) “morally grey antihero” formula on its head, giving us a tale of good vs. evil in which it is the forces of decency, and righteousness, that earn our affections and investment.
As the weeks have gone on, we’ve gone from being amused and impressed by Lorne Malvo, to terrified and wishing him dead. We’ve gone from feeling pity for Lester, to being horrified and wishing him more dead. But through it all, the innate goodness and root-ability of Molly Solverson and Gus Grimly have made them our stakes in the ground (but not sticks-in-the-mud — that’s critical), our center of gravity, our ports in the storm. I like that “prestige” television still knows how to do that. I wasn’t sure it did.
Thankfully, in seeing both Lester and Lorne get their just desserts (instead of the latter escaping again, as I feared he would), and Molly and Gus survive (though there is a bitter tang to it, as I’ll get to in a moment), the series shows its cards as a morality play, like one of the parables the characters are always telling each other. Creator Noah Hawley took some chances with the storytelling structure thanks to its “This is a True Story” gambit (lifted from the original film), and gave us natural lulls, a time jump, plausible coincidences, and a conclusive ending without wrapping everything up that neatly. It’s meant to be messy, like life — but unlike life, though very much like a Coen Brothers film, the universe has a way of working things out. (For more with Hawley, check out this terrific interview.)
No, Molly never gets her big confrontation with Lorne (the closest she ever came was in that blizzard, and she didn’t even know he was there), because Gus takes care of him himself in an act of foolish righteousness, not even calling his wife when he finds the cabin, instead putting him down like a rabid dog. An unarmed, injured, yet rabid dog. The question of what this does to Gus’s soul is an interesting one; he achieves no small measure of redemption, yet firing five bullets into a man who can’t fight back is a troubling thing. And the show doesn’t go out of its way to make this Gus’s Heroic Moment — he fires not out of bravery, but out of fear — even giving us a glimpse of true horror when the first three bullets fail to kill Malvo. For a few seconds, we’re wondering if he’s even a man at all, as he sits up, grinning…until another volley puts that to rest.
Though Lou gets to wait outside the Grimly home, shotgun in hand, for trouble that doesn’t come, Molly gets sidelined from the climactic sequence because Gus begs her to be (“Somedays you get forces you can’t control”). But he is less afraid for her safety than of how he would face her death, so she sits at her desk, fielding reports on the radio, going stir-crazy. She had already been told by a broken Bill Oswalt that she was going to be chief when she came back after the baby — “you’re the real deal,” he says. We admire Bill for seeing the writing on the wall; like Molly, he is a decent man, even if he was blinded by his own view of the world. He could not conceive of a universe in which these kinds of heinous crimes are committed, and where people were not what they seemed. Not until it was staring him in the face, and he finds he can’t measure up to the threat.
That Lester’s second wife is now equally murdered is the final blow for Bill; even he loses patience with Lester’s stonewalling when they bring him in for questioning. Lester’s fake grief at the crime scene, and hot air at the station (“My wife is dead!” he shouts, like Tommy Wiseau in The Room) is obvious to all, yet with no evidence, they have to let him go. Molly is half-right — “Repercussions for what you saw in Vegas?” she asks, a possibility it seems Lester will run with because it keeps the blame on Lorne — and she knows that it was that jacket that got Linda killed, but she can’t yet fathom that Lester had a hand in that, too. It’s only when her father arrives to tell her of his meeting Malvo (and getting similarly bad vibes off Lester when he came in to form an alibi) that the pieces start to click into place.
In those moments that Lester is alone, he can’t escape the guilt; he is haunted by images of his dead wife, and by Lorne asking him, again, “Is this what you want?” When he sees Linda’s body for the first time, what is he thinking? Is it shame? Is he even capable of feeling that anymore? Linda was just collateral damage in Lester’s damnable mission to save his own skin, and he is trying to handle it as coldly and monstrously as Lorne would, but Lester is weak. “I am not the person you think I am,” he stutters to Molly, who a year ago would have been angered by his lie, but now just feels heartache. She tells a story of her own, about a man who, in accidentally dropping a glove at a train station, leaves the other as well, so “whoever finds the first glove…can have the pair.” But Lester, though he can solve Pepper & Budge’s riddle, doesn’t understand Molly’s meaning: she is letting him go, and Lorne can have him.
Meanwhile, Lorne’s reign of terror continues, and he is not leaving Bemidji without exacting his price in blood. Now he’s holed up in a cabin with his usual array of weapons; now he’s breaking into Pepper & Budge’s car and impersonating them to the FBI, canceling their backup; now he’s kidnapping a used car salesman (and, like the film, committing his final crime in a car with dealer plates — “Shotgun!” the guy calls, ironically) and stalking Lester’s home. Before, it was entertaining to see Lorne wriggle out of these situations, using his droll humor and gift for allegory; he’s the kind of man who could vanish out of a locked room and make you smile while doing it — now, all that charm has melted away. I came to realize I didn’t want Lorne to “get” Lester, even if it meant Lester’s well-deserved death, because for once I didn’t want Lorne to win.
And for a few minutes, it seemed like that was the way it was going to go. Lorne ambushes Pepper & Budge, and shoots them both dead (farewell, Key & Peele, who almost seemed like they wandered in from one of their sketches but were never granted the final punchline.) But when Malvo follows the sounds of Lester’s frantic phone call, for the first time he’s stepping right into a trap — quite literally, as one of Chaz’s old bear traps closes around his leg, hidden in a pile of clothing. The ensuing fight is brutal but short, and ends inconclusively; Malvo hits Lester in the face with his precious salesman trophy, Lester is cornered in the bathroom and fires wildly out the door, but when he steps out again Lorne is gone.
From here, things unfold slowly, almost dreamlike, as Lorne returns to his cabin, gruesomely re-sets his leg — though is more annoyed about it than in pain — and finds Gus lying in wait. (That Gus, a mailman, took this thing upon himself after trying to keep his wife out of it is never brought up by her, at least not that we see.) Twice in this episode we see a lone wolf in the treeline; first it alerts Gus to Lorne’s presence, then, after what feels like a lifetime, it alerts Lorne to Gus’s. But who is the wolf? “I figured it out. Your riddle,” Gus says, struggling to hold the gun steady. “And?” Lorne asks. Then gunshots, and, eventually, it’s over. What’s more, Gus later leads Molly to Lorne’s briefcase of tape recordings, all the evidence she would ever need to wrap this thing up for good.
But just like how Molly couldn’t be the one to take down Malvo, she isn’t there for Lester’s end, either. That comes while he’s on the lam in Montana, when a snowmobile police chase — echoing that terrific overhead shot from earlier in the series, that safety orange on the run in a sea of white — culminates, literally and metaphorically, with Lester on thin ice. Then he is gone, too; a fitting end, a coward’s end. It was almost his fate back with Numbers and Wrench, but it is unavoidable now. And when Molly, once again, gets the call, she doesn’t celebrate. She just goes back to her family, watching the thoroughly undemanding Deal or No Deal, and back to her life. Gus is getting a citation for bravery, an award that he thinks — knows — should go to her, but Molly’s okay. “No, this is your deal,” she says. “I get to be chief.” Then, finally, she allows herself the tiniest of smiles, piercing through the melancholy just enough. Then it’s gone.
What Noah Hawley has done — more than taking what could have been terrible, a TV retread of the Coens’ film, into something that completely stands on its own — is give us a remarkable, close-ended piece of storytelling, with indelible characters, black humor, and flashes of weirdness that actually add to the content instead of simply distract from it. Allegory, Tragedy, Comedy, and even the Supernatural all found a place. Characters came and left the narrative at will — we never saw Stavros again because we didn’t need to, and though we can assume Chaz is sprung from prison with all speed, he doesn’t reappear either — all part of a complex mosaic, designed down to the detail and wound like a Swiss clock.
The cinematography was starkly beautiful, more cinematic than most of cinema; the performances were universally brilliant, especially our four leads. Martin Freeman found depths of evil we’d never seen him play before, balancing several layers of performance at once; Billy Bob Thornton was magnetic, inescapable, primal; Colin Hanks took what could have been an aw-shucks sourpuss and made him real and lovable; Allison Tolman was a REVELATION. Most of them will earn Emmy nominations; all of them deserve to win. More than anything, the series was just incredibly entertaining, giving the kind of visceral pleasures that each week made it more and more “appointment viewing.” I can’t wait to watch it again from the beginning, and look for the clues that had been sewn throughout. One of my top 3 shows of the year. You betcha.
Season Grade: A
Shot of the Week
I can’t say enough about how well this show used light. Images like this have mesmerized me all season, and while early episodes gave us some truly gorgeous exteriors (that wide shot out on the lake in “Eating the Blame,” for example), as the series moved more indoors, it didn’t get any less memorable.