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What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Fargo

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Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: Fargo, morality, and lots and lots of snow.

I mean, you watched Fargo, right?

Something I’ve become fascinated with lately is “missing” culture. I haven’t seen True Detective yet, and I have to add the yet there as quickly as I can whenever I say that. Of course I’m going to watch True Detective. How could I not, with how people talk about it?

That’s what happens with shows now. People either watch the “not optional” ones or they spend time at parties telling people that they’re “a few seasons behind.” The entire premise of this series — to get you to hopefully watch a show you should catch up on — requires that you be some sort of mythical beast that doesn’t already have a few lifetimes of TV ahead of you.

Let’s assume you have the time, but you need to be persuaded to spend it with Fargo. You saw the movie at least, right? OK. Well, start there, I guess?

Fargo the show exists in the same world as Fargo the movie, but that’s essentially all you need to know. The show is interested in some of the same themes — what we deserve, especially — but it’s refreshingly its own thing. There are a handful of Coen brothers homages peppered through the season, but they are more affirming than they are distracting. They exist to bring up questions about the bigger universe of both Fargo the show and Fargo the movie. They’re meant as little easter eggs more than big “oh, that guy!” moments.

It feels too slight to just say that it’s not just a cousin to the movie, but it’s an important starting place when discussing the show. I came in skeptical; Fargo is one of my favorite movies. I wasn’t disappointed. The show looks poised to pick up just about every miniseries Emmy available, too, so people have bought into this world.

I’m not going to rundown the plot of the first season. Since the first season is self-contained (supposedly, but some members of the cast broke out so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if that gets reconsidered) this story is “over.” These people, such as they are now, are done in the world of Fargo. This is a completely closed story, and you don’t get too many of those.

Fargo is a hard show to not spoil. I don’t want to give any details here because I want you to go watch this damn thing, but it’s a show that is not uncomfortable taking risks. I’ll say that. Any show where your cast doesn’t even have to last the season — much less the episode — is a show with just an unbelievable amount of suspense. It’s not all blood and death, but man, sometimes it sure is. There’s just something about the contrast of blood and snow. It’s a really striking show, even when there’s nothing too bonkers happening.

I think you should watch Fargo. It’s not that long and you already know the world, somewhat. You don’t know Billy Bob Thornton in it, though. You might wanna check that out, no matter what else you have on your plate.

You can watch Fargo’s first season on FX’s website or on Hulu. You can also read our previous piece about Molly, the cop who subverts the trope of the evil hero in modern TV.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Bad Men Doing Bad Things: How Fargo’s Molly Solverson is the Anti-Walter White

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Mike Hannemann

(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.

Image: Philly.com