Does 'Fargo' Celebrate the Heroes or the Villains?

Critics are divided as to whether Fargo is a celebration of the good guys or the bad guys. 

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Critics are divided as to whether Fargo is a celebration of the good guys or the bad guys.

In a piece for the June 23 issue of the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum wrote about how she was disappointed with FX's Fargo. Nussbaum argued that the show caters at times to the "bad fan," who cheer on antiheroes, blindly refusing to acknowledge that they aren't actually the heroes. She explained that "at times 'Fargo' throws red meat to this crowd, offering naughty fantasies in the guise of subversiveness."

But in a way, her entire argument directly goes against what other critics are writing about the show. At Time James Poniewozik wrote last week that while the show looked like another take on the antihero genre—so beloved because of Tony Soprano and Walter White and Don Draper—Fargo has "managed to do something different." He wrote: "It’s telling a story of actual good people and actual bad people, one in which we have clear rooting interests, without moralizing or dumbing down its worldview."

This dichotomy in reactions to the show has been present ever since it began its run in April. Willa Paskin, writing for Slate, shared some of Nussbaum's concerns. "If you’re going to remake something as concise and self-sufficient as Fargo, there should be a reason, and pointing out that unexpected evil lurks in the hearts of men is not a very good one," she wrote. "For that we have, and I am just barely exaggerating, almost every other drama on television."

But like Poniewozik, Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post saw it in opposition to much of what populates our TV screens. "The show is incredibly, darkly hilarious, but the joke is on the people who indulge in fantasies of badassdom, not on the supposed rubes who play by the rules," she explained. Writing for this publication, I explained how pleased I was that in this show the good guys are really good, especially in the case of Allison Tolman's cop Molly Solverson.

It's true that the show's plot is set into motion by a true villain: Billy Bob Thornton's devilish Lorne Malvo, who infects Martin Freeman's schmuck Lester Nygaard with a penchant for getting his way via murder and trickery. Though Nygaard is initially bullied as soon as he commits his first heinous act, the murder of his wife, there is no cheering for him. Whereas Lester's crimes are self-interested—though in no way justifiable—Malvo seems primarily interested in shit-stirring, often to a sickening degree. Nussbaum is right when she argues that Malvo's "crimes, too, are presented as at once grotesquely horrible and utterly delicious." The show does seem to relish in his machinations, like manner in which he frames Glenn Howerton's overly tan personal trainer as a mass shooter. But while the audience is allowed to perceive his crimes as brilliant, they are also, for the most part, thoroughly disquieting.

In my mind, there's no question that Malvo and even Lester are anything but different sorts of evil, especially given the danger they poses to Molly and her now-husband Gus Grimly as the series nears his end. I get no hint that the show does not want its heroes —Molly, Gus, Molly's dad Lou, FBI agents Pepper and Budge (Key and Peele)—to prevail. It even has you sympathizing with Bob Odenkirk's police chief, who held Molly back and bungled the case. Creator Noah Hawley has given the audience people for whom they can genuinely, and without any qualifications, root. They are, as Poniewozik posited, all "decent" people. 

But that's just one opinion. Though we'll see where the show finally comes down on Malvo and his crimes in the final episode, which airs Tuesday, for critics its not clear whether the show is on the side of its good guys or its bad buys. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.