‘Fargo’ Concludes With a Finale That’s Barely Satisfying For Both Its Viewers and Its Characters

By  · Published on June 18th, 2014

FX Networks

There were few surprises in tonight’s series finale of Fargo. Maybe the biggest one was how Agent Budge (Keegan-Michael Key) repeated the riddle of the previous episode’s title, “A Fox, a Rabbit, and a Cabbage,” rather than moving on to address the meaning behind “Morton’s Fork,” as this installment was called. But maybe that served its own purpose. Morton’s Fork is a matter of choice in a situation where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. For instance, if the show had Budge go over the meaning of the episode’s title, I probably would have criticized its consistency, yet with the discrepancy I question the reason.

On a larger scale, the fork applies to a number of outcomes that a show might have where fans will be disappointed. Most television series these days have to deal with the dilemma when finishing up. Audiences are so hard to please at the end of a long-term investment, and at 10 episodes Fargo might have been just long-term enough to face that kind of scrutiny. Plot-wise, what might have satisfied the majority of viewers? Deaths of certain characters? Answers to questions about a particular character’s mortality? Do we ever have expectations for heroic outcomes anymore? The conclusion of this series is more interested in resolving the arcs of its good guys, and those resolutions are only satisfying on paper.

Yes, it was a bit of a surprise that Gus (Colin Hanks) killed Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) in the end. But this is mainly because the character had been sort of unimportant for a while. In the big picture, the show has swerved away from expectations in a way we shouldn’t really care for. Molly (Allison Tolman) is our hero and she deserved to get her man (men, really). Gus might seem to have a need for redemption after his initial mistake and subsequent inability regarding the arrest of Malvo, but has the regret continued to weigh on him? The show didn’t really go there enough if so. And within the episode itself, the surprise wasn’t a shocker because of how Gus’s stakeout of Malvo’s place was so stretched out.

And should we even be happy for the guy for being so brave after he’s just told his police deputy wife not to do her job because he can’t let his daughter go to another funeral, yet he’s going to attempt an unarmed sneak attack on a man who seems to be evil incarnate? There’s something annoyingly sexist in his actions there, never mind if Molly represents two lives at the moment and also never mind his sudden thoughtlessness towards his daughter’s feelings by putting himself in danger. The show may have always been “a tragicomedy about emasculation avenged,” as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum puts it, but at least we’d always had the strong female character of Molly to balance things out, until now.

What is her prize in the end? She gets to be Chief of the Bemidji Police Department, as we’d assumed she would from the start. But the way she gets the honor is unfulfilling, only because Bill (Bob Odenkirk) is stepping down out of his own distaste for the job, not because she deserves the job more than he does. He recognizes that she deserves it, but he also acknowledges that the late Chief Vern had viewed her as a worthy successor even before she proved herself with the intricate detective work tied to Vern’s murder and the rest of the town’s bloodshed. It seems so long now since I pointed out in my recap of the second episode how daughters (women) in this world are so smart and sons (men) are so dumb. Not that they aren’t, ultimately, but it doesn’t seem to matter, ultimately.

There was a lot to like about “Morton’s Fork,” especially all the scenes featuring Lester (Martin Freeman) – the bear trap was a great callback. Mostly, though, I appreciated the way the series ended in sort of a mirror of how it began. Lester fleeing through the snow to his own demise was reminiscent of Phil, aka the once unidentified accountant who escaped Malvo’s trunk only to freeze to death in the woods at the opening of the pilot.

Before that, the scene of Gus and Malvo in the cabin recalled Lester and Malvo in the hospital, especially since this time Malvo is treating himself with his own makeshift surgery tools. Whereas in the first episode that encounter initiated a new chapter in Lester’s life, eventually a boost in self-esteem leading down a negative track, tonight’s scene might have been the start of a new chapter in Gus’s life, leading to a boost in self-esteem leading down a positive track.

And before that, we had the Lester and Malvo showdown in Lester’s new home, a retake on what could have gone down in Lester’s old home when Malvo came over to help with Lester’s murder mess and Lester had intended to shoot Malvo to blame him for everything. There is even death of law enforcement personnel involved. That said, there is a case to be made for why true paralleling would have seen Gus shot in this scene since he’s now the one with a pregnant wife.

Maybe there’s not enough there to make it totally interesting or mean anything, but now that the series is over it’s hard to see a lot of meaning in much of it. There was a lot of neat stuff, some very clever and well-directed sequences, some great performances in fairly thin roles and an engaging story while it lasted. Did we need any of the Stavros and Don subplot? Looking over the entire thing, probably not, in spite of it giving us more Malvo wickedness to relish at the time. I feel that’s how most of the show was, though, good at the time and not likely something I’d revisit once, let alone over and over the way I do with the Coen Brothers’ films.

There’s something unfaithful to their work in how neatly wrapped up the show is. Not all of the Coens’ films have open endings in a big way but they all leave with a sense that their characters go on with life after the credits roll. Here the characters seem to be done as people at the end of the finale, much like how Stavros and Chaz and Kitty and Gina and many other minor characters are so easily forgotten about. Did Malvo, unlike his inspiration, Anton Chigurh, in No Country For Old Men, have to die in order to drive home that there was no second season of Fargo? His death makes all the mystery of his character’s being go out the window in a way that should ruin him for repeat viewings.

I don’t mind that Fargo turned out to be a nice ride with a few memories and nothing deeper or lasting in my brain to ponder. It was a temporary weekly entertainment that I’d still push for accolades when those are up for the taking. There were a couple fully enjoyable episodes that deserve recognition as only a TV series can allow – awarding pieces of the pie even if not the whole. And there was a lot to question and criticize along the way, as well. If nothing else, I look forward to what showrunner Noah Hawley does next and would welcome another similar adaptation/continuation of a movie, Coens’ or otherwise.

At the end of the track, I prefer to look at the show in relation to one of its many parables, puzzles, etc. In the finale, Molly tells of another situation involving choice, this one where a fella drops a glove on a train station platform and only notices once the train has begun its departure. Rather than holding onto the leftover glove, he decides to drop that one, too, so that someone may find a pair. Well, I see it differently for this point, where I label the pair of gloves as a perfect show. One good half is gone and we’re left with another, and I’d rather have that good half than nothing at all.

I guess had I not seen any of Fargo and missed that good stuff then nobody would have gotten a complete perfect show as a result, so the analogy doesn’t totally work. But I never did see any of these little stories, both the ones tied to an episode title and those that weren’t, as having exact relevance or pertinence anyway.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.