(Note: This article, outside of character names, contains no spoilers for the show Fargo. There’s a minor one about Dexter, but you probably weren’t going to watch that anyway.)
Before I jump into the point I want to make, I’d like to walk you through my thought process of getting there. I sat down to watch the series finale of Dexter, hoping to find some angle to discuss about jumping into a series-ending episode after not watching the three seasons prior. About halfway through, it dawned on me that the end-game scenario most fans were rooting for was for two serial killers to get out of the country. These people literally hacked their victims into bits and the audience was rooting for them to escape? Something’s wrong here.
It’s not news that television audiences are enamored with the genre “Bad Men Doing Bad Things.” We have Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad…the list goes on and on. What makes these stories work is that, despite their reprehensible actions, the actors portraying the leading men bring enough to the roles where it doesn’t feel wrong to root for Don Draper as he cheats on (another) wife or to hope that Walter White becomes the drug kingpin he aspires to be. For as perfect as those shows are (I’m not including you on this list, you know what you did, Dexter) they have one glaring flaw: For the most part, the female roles are pushed aside due to the intrigue of the Bad Man Doing Bad Things.
Take Breaking Bad for example. I fully admit that it’s my favorite show of all time. However, the fan base was furious at the lead female character because she…wanted a drug dealer away from her kids? The only imperfection on this show was its fans. How could you honestly judge someone for wanting to be out of a bad situation? All of her actions were natural, ones any normal person would have, but because she was in the way of the hook of the show the fan outcry was overly negative and completely unjustified.
But…then there’s Fargo, a show very loosely tied to the movie of the same name, but it also falls into the aforementioned genre. There are some very bad men and they are doing some very bad things. It could easily be another show where the performance of the leading villain (in this case, Billy Bob Thornton’s character Malvo) is the hook. Seeing the next step of his plan, and the gruesome trail of death that lies in his wake, is gripping. It’s addictive. It isn’t why I come back to it week after week, though.
Fargo breaks the mold by finally introducing a strong female character that overcomes the appeal of the bad man doing bad things. Allison Tolman (a name I’d never heard before) plays Molly Solverson, one of the only characters thus far to be the moral compass of the show. When I watch, I don’t care what the villains are up to. I want to know more about Molly’s story. I want her to win. She’s a wonderfully written, fully realized character. She overcomes the hook of the show, the black comedy and murder, as a shining beacon of justice and morality.
I sincerely hope television writers take notice. The female role doesn’t need to be the put-upon wife or just used as a plot device to make the protagonist’s story more complicated. Molly surely does this on Fargo but it’s not done in a way to make the villains have to change their plans. Her story is the more important one. You sympathize with her more than whatever the stereotypical “cool” characters are doing (and, granted, they do some pretty interesting things in their own right). She’s a roadblock, and damn right she is.
This isn’t to say other female characters on television aren’t well written – that’s not the implication. There are amazing performances, but in the eyes of the masses they get overlooked. Don Draper is a household name (even my parents know who he is), even though I would argue that Peggy Olsen should be, too. I hope this is finally turning the corner on televised dramas. Bad men will still be doing bad things, but more empowered women will be a part of the story and not just a plot device to be overlooked by the immorality if the leading man. In comedy, the male performances often unjustly overshadow the female ones. Sitcom characters Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope were able to overcome this and change TV comedy. If people pay enough attention, I have a feeling Molly Solverson is going to do the same for drama.
Something, I may add, that is long overdue.