This review contains spoilers
The slow procession of Gerhardt bodies in the opening moments of this final episode acts as a reminder of the high cost that this season has levied on its characters. Although no one really left the series totally unscathed, the routing of the once-powerful local crime family should be regarded as the core tragedy of the narrative. A combination of stupidity and downright bad luck prompted Rye’s demise and the family continued to exhibit both characteristics until they were utterly destroyed. A failure to instigate a clear succession plan caused rifts between Floyd and Dodd, which only exacerbated the problems between Dodd and Bear, which would have been bad enough even without Hanzee acting as a wildcard angel of death. If the family was torn apart, they only have themselves to blame.
Unpleasant as it must have been from the inside, the fall of the Gerhardt empire has been a satisfying and well-executed narrative arc, deployed with thrilling action and softer reflection in equal measure. It’s a testament to Fargo’s mastery of tonal balance that neither element felt forced, unnatural or like it had been thrown in. It may be a show with stylised dialogue, certain visual trickery and a flying saucer, but it nevertheless feels true to life where it matters.
That is something that applies just as well to the Solversons, the tight-knit and supportive analogue to the self-destructive Gerhardts. Navigating their own private tragedy and public duties, the Solversons have been an ideal counterpoint to Floyd and Co, and just as naturally melancholic. Of course, they have had to deal with the presence of Betsy’s illness, its deprivations and alternating punches of hope and despair, but running through the whole season has been the threat of living without the illness and without Betsy. The strength of the writing has helped us to get to know the family in a natural way, making our emotional investment all the more complete. Although two members of the family appeared in the first season, there has been no real need to have seen this to enjoy the second and to understand the pattern of family life on display. All the same, Betsy’s touching flash forward, featuring Allison Tollman, Keith Carradine and Colin Hanks, was richer for seeing those familiar faces. Recalling a similar scene in early Coen Brothers comedy Raising Arizona, the moment was perfectly pitched and staggeringly emotionally resonant. Betsy’s self-projected absence from her own family’s future was also one of the better treatments of death to be found in TV and, again, a superb accompaniment to the shots of the dead Gerhardts. Too often, particularly in works in which death is despatched in a casual or even jocular manner (which would include Fargo) insufficient attention is paid to the aftermath. Fargo is profligate with its killing, but it never forgets the cost.
A sense of aftermath permeated Lou and Peggy’s long drive back to Minnesota, she with her face still wet from her tears of grief and he aching for knowledge of his sick wife. An understandable weariness drove his angry dismissal of her self-pity; weariness of the work he’d had to do to clean up her mess and of the particularly taxing night he’d just endured, but also a longer-term weariness, exemplified in his powerful vignette of the chinook at the fall of Saigon. It was a comforting ache, his burden but also his privilege.
There were, of course, further dualities. Acts of kindness and acts of cruelty. Bokeem Woodbine completed a season of mesmeric performances with his softly threatening disquisition on the first two responsibilities of a new king. Mike Milligan, a philosopher-enforcer had much to offer a criminal organisation and was duly rewarded for his efforts with an act of kindness (a promotion) and an act of cruelty (a non-negotiable role in a tiny office, completing quarterly reports and trying to trim a few bucks from the firm’s budget). It was an utterly left-field climax for the season’s stand-out character and a subtle commentary on the changing nature of crime. Remember Mike, the 1970s are over.
We may not have actually seen Milligan get his haircut but that is something of a running theme, as the final appearance of Hanzee reminded us. Having been interrupted in his haircut he’s since been elevated in criminal terms, the FBI’s Most Wanted list, no less and is forced to seek a more radical change to his appearance to accompany his new name and, quite possibly, his new empire too. An elemental threat comparable to a Lorne Malvo or an Anton Chighurr, the monstrous Hanzee was the season’s other stand-out character and it’s quite a powerful idea to have him out on the loose unknowable and uncaptured as things wrap up. He is, in Peggy’s words, ’the bad man’, the malevolent counterpoint to Hank’s ‘good man’ and a further example of the dramatic duality that has run thorough this whole excellent season of Fargo, now comfortably among the very best of the current crop of TV. It will return, in a timezone as yet unknown but with a heightened confidence and reputation that is entirely deserved.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, The Castle, here.