In a show with such an independent female lead in Molly Solverson — a woman who joked that she was married to her job — it seemed odd that all the other significant recurring female characters on Fargo were defined by the men they chose to associate with. Other than Molly, there was no important female character who wasn’t first and foremost a wife.
“In the kitchen.” These are the first words we hear Ida (Julie Ann Emery) say on Fargo — she calls them out to her husband, doomed sheriff Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle). “She said that I gotta make a meatloaf; I said we’d bring Jell-O salad, but Kitty said meatloaf.” These are the first words spoken by shrewish Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar), to her sad sack husband, Lester (Martin Freeman), not long before he bludgeons her to death. “Come on in; Chazz is working the ham,” is the first thing Kitty (Rachel Blanchard) says, referring to her husband, Lester’s brother. The first full sentence we hear from Linda (Susan Park) is delivered to her future husband, Lester: “You’re so brave.” Even the incredibly cheerful checkout girl working the register at Phoenix Farms defers to her colleague Dave two times in her brief, insignificant scene, while Allison Tolman as the complex, career-driven Molly was investigating circles around the cowardly Gus (Colin Hanks).
Now that the finale of Noah Hawley’s FX show — based on Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 feature film — has aired, it’s evident that the 10 episode miniseries’ aim was to redeem Gus Grimly’s manhood, which explains the lack of women in Bemidji, Minnesota. It wasn’t an oversight, really, as much as it was an effect of Fargo’s inherent patriarchal logic.
“I figured it out,” Gus tells Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo in a steady voice as he points his firearm at the ruthless villain in the final episode’s unexpected showdown. “Your riddle. Shades of green. I figured it out.”
Anyone who has been watching this show would tell you that, in fact, Gus did not figure out why humans can see more shades of green than any other color; Molly did. In Episode 4, “Eating the Blame”, Gus is mystified by Malvo’s question. When he repeats it to Molly, she answers immediately: “Because of predators,” and when Gus makes a befuddled face at her, she explains it to him. “Used to be we were monkeys, right? And in the woods, in the jungle, everything is green, so in order to not get eaten by panthers and bears and the like, we had to be able to see them in grass and trees and such.” He nods. “Predators,” he repeats. So why, now, six episodes later, does Gus say he figured it out? And why does he execute Malvo, all by himself, after telling Molly not to leave the police station until Malvo is dead? This is a riddle with an obvious answer that starts with a patriarch and ends with a y.
When Malvo asks Gus what the answer to the riddle is, Gus doesn’t say “predators”; instead, he shoots him in the chest, accepting the worldview of Malvo himself. “We used to be gorillas,” Malvo tells Martin Freeman’s Lester after he kills the leering bully Sam Hess for him. “All we had was what we could take and defend. Truth is, you’re more of a man today than you were yesterday.” Therein lies the meaning of the show: Gus has joined the Gorilla Club, and now he can call himself a man. The finale’s last shot is a family tableau — Greta leaning against pregnant Molly, Gus with his arm around his brood. “They’re gonna give me a citation for bravery,” he tells them, absolved of his prior cowardice. “Proud of you, hon,” Molly replies. He says that she should get the citation, and she rejects it — “This is your deal,” she says to him, which is strange, since she has been obsessed with solving this case for an entire year, whereas Gus left the police force and became a mailman.
After nine episodes of Molly being dedicated to her job above all else and most of the men around her — Gus included —showing relentless incompetence, in the final episode, her character is betrayed: flattened, just like the rest of the female characters on Fargo. Fargo is so complex, so wide, that even a seemingly minor character like Molly’s father has room to be a disappointed person — a life running a diner is something he never expected, but he keeps working, keeps living, motivated by his love for his daughter and an unflagging sense of decency. Supermarket mogul Stavros Milos, played by Oliver Platt, is even less significant, and yet he is a man with a strangely strict moral code who fails to meet his own standards, a hard-ass with a contradictory love for his simpleton son.
The female characters, though, are allowed no such complexity. Park’s insurance saleswoman Linda is perplexingly charmed by Lester, eventually marrying him during the one-year time jump. Gina Hess (Kate Walsh), Sam Hess’ gold-digging whore of a wife, storms into the insurance office and outs Lester for compelling her to have sex with him under false pretenses in quite descriptive language — “Don’t you Mrs. Hess me; I was picking your pubes out of my teeth 12 hours ago,” she yells at him, as Linda stands in a corner. “You knew the whole time,” Gina says, and it is perfectly true; he did know that she would not be getting the money from her husband’s life insurance, and he did mislead her into having sex with him. “I let you come inside of me,” Gina says, desperate. And yet, after Lester diffuses the situation by stapling Gina’s sons’ faces, Linda breathlessly tells him, “You’re amazing.” Not that he’s a scumbag or that perhaps he should have used a condom — no. “You’re amazing.” The world of Fargo is one in which male characters get rewarded for being “manly,” for physically subduing attackers (Lester) or committing retribution against unarmed criminals (Gus). There is no more to Linda than her dumb devotion to Lester, no hint at a personality beyond that.
Likewise, Chazz’s wife, Kitty, is angry at him after he’s falsely imprisoned for murder, not because she now believes he’s a killer, but because she now believes he cheated on her. “You don’t cheat on Miss Hubbard County,” she says, another dumb woman of Fargo. Police Chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) is also a moron, but his stupidity is explained by his humanity — Bill ignores facts about the case because he doesn’t want to live in a world where people he knows are capable of evil. He’s intensely empathetic and emotional; he wants to believe the world is a fundamentally good place. The stupidity of Kitty and Linda has no such depth; they’re reduced to being dumb women.
Even Molly — funny, lively, serious, dogged Molly — is, in the end, put in her place. The uncommonly competent deputy’s first line — “Cold enough for ya, chief?” — was a joke to her boss that reinforced no gender role. But in the end, the brave and intelligent detective becomes just a brave man’s wife. Gus tells her to stay in the station because he can’t make his motherless daughter, Greta (Joey King), go to “another funeral,” but then he risks dying in order to apprehend Malvo because, clearly, it is the woman’s responsibility to tend to the children while the man goes out to protect them. Gus’ first encounter with Malvo was in Episode 1: He pulls Malvo over, and then is frightened into releasing him because he doesn’t want to make Greta an orphan. In his second encounter with Malvo, he arrests him, but Malvo outsmarts him and the policemen who question him in Duluth, leaving Gus upset and confused by his “shades of green” riddle. In their third encounter, Gus now has a woman who can care for Greta in Molly (who is also now pregnant with his child), thus he doesn’t have to make the feminized choice he made the first time when he prioritized his family. He knows the answer to the riddle of the second encounter, so he’s learned to play by Malvo’s code. By killing Malvo, he regains the masculinity stripped from him by the last two encounters. Molly Solverson is ultimately just a prop that lets Gus be “a real man.”
She seemed like the soul of the show — her very name suggested that this crime was hers to solve, while so many men around her consistently looked in the wrong direction. Bill was convinced by one unsubstantiated theory after another; FBI agents Pepper and Budge (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) were literally looking the wrong way when Malvo massacred more than 20 people; Gus meant to shoot a murderer and instead shot Molly. But she was clearheaded and determined, and her triumph — and her centrality in the show — appeared certain. However, the events of Fargo are set in motion in the emergency room in Episode 1, when Lester says the words, “If I was any kind of man, I’d have shown that Sam what’s what.” Malvo immediately moves closer to him, drawn in by the crisis of masculinity, ready to rectify it. It was there from the beginning. It’s only logical that manhood would be the central theme of the show. But it’s still disappointing.