The season finale of Fargo airs tomorrow night on FX, and I’m already dreading its departure. If you haven’t been watching TV’s best thriller, the 10-episode series is a nontraditional reboot of the Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winning 1996 film. It inherited the movie’s themes of violence and duplicity, its desolately snowy Minnesota setting, and its offbeat sense of humor, but dispenses with the specifics of the plot (although there are a number of goosebumps-inducing direct references, like a certain memorable red ice scraper). If the show’s Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is meant to represent a character from the original film, he’s a combination of the two hired kidnappers (Steve Buscemi’s talkative “funny-looking” fella and Peter Stormare’s silent psychopath) crossed with their wood chipper. But he’s much, much more than that.
Unlike many of the critically acclaimed bad guys on our TV screens, Malvo is not an antihero. The hitman is pure evil made flesh, like a mythological creature whose only purpose is to bring pain to the world. Think Loki with a terrible haircut.
Malvo is a gifted manipulator capable of tremendous violence. When he isn’t too busy slaughtering innocents, he openly delights in even the non-fatal chaos his presence catalyzes. He gladly informs a pair of children that their new home was the site of not one, but two murders. He encourages a teenager to pee in someone’s gas tank, then promptly rats him out to the car’s owner. Malvo reminds me of a friendlier Anton Chigurh, the cattle gun-toting monster at the heart of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, with an equally ruthless nature and possibly even less flattering bangs.
It’s key that we know virtually nothing about this man, save that he’s a killer for hire. Unlike Don Draper, Malvo’s mother was not a prostitute who died in childbirth, leaving him to be raised in a brothel by his wicked stepmother. Unlike Tony Soprano, Malvo did not witness his mobster father settle a debt by slicing off a man’s finger in the back room of a pork store. Unlike Walter White, Malvo is not doing all of this to support his family, spurred to crime only by a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. Even if he was, Fargo wouldn’t care. Malvo isn’t conflicted about his sadism; to him, morality is irrelevant. As he tells supermarket king Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt), “There are no saints in the animal kingdom. Only breakfast and dinner.”
It’s surprisingly easy to forget that, once upon a time, we didn’t feel compelled to humanize our villains, nor to rationalize their bad behavior with a moving backstory. More than any recent TV antihero, Malvo makes me think of Robert Mitchum’s soullessly slick, child-stalking preacher in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Nearly 60 years later, this scene is still unsettling as hell.
Malvo isn’t an anomaly in the the Fargo universe, either. The show makes a further case for evil in Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), the milquetoast insurance salesman tormented even now by his high school bully and emasculated by his viciously nagging wife. If Freeman himself has a personal brand, it’s likable. The British actor is best known for his non-threatening good guy roles as Tim (the UK equivalent to, you guessed it, Jim) on The Office, Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, and Dr. Watson on Sherlock. When Lester bludgeons his wife to death with a hammer in the first episode, it’s nothing short of horrifying, but we’re asked to — if not forgive him — at least partly sympathize. The murder, while brutal, could be interpreted as a crime of passion, an act of desperation by a well-meaning, downtrodden man pushed to his breaking point. As the newly blood-splattered inspirational poster in the Nygaards’ basement asks, “What if you’re right and they’re wrong?” Maybe, just maybe, this all could be justified, and Lester could be redeemed. Right?
Sorry, wrong — the rest of the season has systematically proven that he can’t be redeemed. Meeting Malvo didn’t make Lester evil, but it helped him realize that he already was.
As Lester discovers just how good he is at being bad, he deftly frames his brother for his crime and fucks his bully’s widow (Kate Walsh) in exchange for an insurance payout he knows she’ll never receive. Just last week, we watched Lester sacrifice Linda, his (second) wife, to Malvo in cold blood. When Lester suspects the killer is lying in wait for him, he gives Linda his unmistakable orange coat to wear and tells her put the hood up — a calculated gesture to obscure her face, disguised as affectionate concern — and sends her into his darkened office like a canary into a coal mine. As usual, the canary doesn’t make it.
Malvo and Lester have a perfect complement in Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). She’s the TV series’ answer to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson: a smart, ethical, and (as of an unexpected time jump in the most recent episode) very, very pregnant cop. If Malvo is Evil, Molly couldn’t better exemplify “good” without a CGI halo floating above her head.
Fargo puts aside zeitgeisty complexities of character so that its plot can transcend into something epic, like a folk tale or a legend. This is not to say its characters are in any way one-dimensional, stock, or unsatisfying: Molly and Gus (Colin Hanks), her bumbling cop-turned-mailman husband, only get together after he accidentally shoots her in a blizzard. But the innovation of Malvo makes this a good versus evil story of biblical proportions — the Old Testament-style plagues visited on Milos may be engineered by Malvo, but then again, they’re engineered by (who else?) Malvo.
If the age of the antihero is over, can we embrace the age of the good old-fashioned villain?