TV Recap: Fargo, S01E09

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The ninth, and penultimate episode of Fargo is an extremely tense and absorbing experience. The show again starts off with something visually disorienting – this time it is the inside of a man’s mouth while getting dental treatment. There is muffled chat from actor Billy Bob Thornton, and when he takes off his mask we realise killer Lorne Malvo is now working as a dentist, of all things. This is an unpredictable and amusing development. Malvo has his new white haircut, like we saw at the end of the previous episode, when Lester Nygaard spied him at a hotel bar in Las Vegas. We remember in the story that a year has passed since the events of the bulk of the show.

Malvo is now seemingly a completely different man. He has a swanky 70’s style pad and lots of friends. He is engaged to his dental assistant (Helena Mattsson) who is beautiful and young and sweet. She calls him “Mikey Mike”, and promises to “stick my whole thumb up your ass”, to which Malvo responds with a new trademark gesture: pointing his fingers like guns and saying “aces”. Malvo also shares a bond with a fellow dentist also probably in his 50’s who he calls “Burty Burt” (comic actor Stephen Root who is also in the Coen brother’s No Country For Old Men). Burt reminds Mike that their workplace was dead until he arrived on the scene. “I’m a rascal, there’s no two ways about it” pipes Malvo – and this is true – It soon turns out that he hasn’t changed one bit; he is basically undercover and working Burt, who has a brother in witness protection. “Aces” says Malvo when Burt suggests he and fiancée Jemma tag along to Vegas for a secret catch-up with his brother. Next scene, however, we see Malvo listening to an audio recording he has made of a man committing suicide. Malvo looks pretty satisfied with himself, reminiscing over another death that has orchestrated.[1]

A dissolve returns us to the hotel bar from last episode, where Malvo is being charming and amusing: “a riot”. “Well, what are the odds?” asks Lester, addressing Malvo. The killer plays dumb and says he has never met him in his life when Burt asks who Lester is, and Malvo suggests they leave. “Walk away” he threateningly whispers to Lester, and this is the voice we know as Malvo, rather than Mikey Mike. Lester can’t let it go, and catches their elevator with them, grabbing the door just before it closes. “Well the old Lester, he would have just let it slide. But not this guy” he says, pointing to himself. The tension is palpable because Lester is playing with fire in pushing Malvo, especially in front of these particular people Malvo is performing for. Lester’s newfound cockiness is very misguided in this situation.

Malvo smiles in his amiable Mikey Mike mode while Lester continues, (now on his high horse), “I’ve worked too hard, I’ve come too far…” “Lester stop”, Malvo says, his grin and earlier charm gone now. “Is this what you want?” he asks Lester, with the subtle music similar to when they first met in the hospital returning. “Honey?” asks fiancée Jemma, confused. “Lester, is this what you want?” Malvo asks again, more slowly this time. Malvo now smiles again, but now it is done wryly – a different sort to the Mikey Mike version, and nice subtle acting here from Thornton. Lester contemplates his response, and you can see actor Martin Freeman’s neck muscles move as he gulps. “Yes or no?” Malvo asks. Lester finally nods, “yes”. Malvo then pulls a pistol out of his jacket, and calmly shoots Burt, Burt’s wife, and finally his fiancée all in the head, without hesitation. “That’s on you,” he tells a gobsmacked Lester.

Lester hits Malvo over the head with his heavy glass insurance sales award when Malvo asks for help to hide Burt’s body. “See you later Lester. See you soon” says Malvo in silhouette, framed by the elevator door with blood spurts on the white walls of the lift behind him, which looks very menacing. This sequence is the motivation for the rest of the episode (and series presumably), with Lester now on the run from Malvo.

In the next tense scene, Lester flees Las Vegas with his new wife Linda (Susan Park). It feels as though Malvo could pop out and kill them at any moment; especially when they ride the (now clean) elevator back down from their hotel room. Meanwhile, back in Fargo, the two FBI agents demoted from the field to the file room last episode are now going to Bemidji to follow a new lead in the “syndicate case”. This of course refers to the crime group Malvo single-handedly wiped out back in episode 7. The two men, agents Pepper (Keegan-Michael Key) and Budge (Jordan Peele) are going to contact Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), who has persistently claimed to know the identity of their killer. We now keenly await the arrival of the FBI, and for Molly to be finally taken seriously.

fargo ep9-2When we first see Molly this episode, she is having breakfast with husband Gus (Colin Hanks), daughter Greta (Joey King) and her dad Lou (Keith Carradine) at his diner. “You did good hun” Lou tells Molly – which refers to the family unit he has inherited. When Molly receives a phone call we can hear her side of the conversation: “Ah geez. Three people, huh. Killed how? In an elevator, huh. You say one’s a dentist?” – this is stated as a matter of fact and is darkly amusing. Molly’s interest is piqued because the FBI wants her to go and speak to a man they think may have been a witness to the murders: Lester Nygaard.

Lester’s new wife Linda is a bit childlike, but is smart enough to lie for the sake of her husband when Molly interrogates Lester. Linda claims it was her decision for them to leave the Vegas hotel in a hurry in the middle of the night because she was homesick. “I tend to get my way,” she tells Molly, woman to woman. When Molly leaves, satisfied with their answers, she sees Lester peering at her from behind some venetian blinds. He might now be a gun insurance salesman, but Lester is still not smart enough to fool good police like Molly.

When we next see Malvo, he is driving a red BMW – a true dentist’s vehicle. Gus Grimly sees the car arrive in Bemidji as he delivers letters, but does not realise whom the driver is until later in the episode. Malvo visits Lester’s old house looking for his target, but it has been sold to another man with a young family. The man helpfully tells Malvo to try Lester’s new business, and before leaving Malvo proceeds to tell them that their house is haunted, then says cheerily: “you have a nice day, have fun kids,” smiling at the man’s two young boys. This is one of Malvo’s finest ‘evil’ moments of black comedy in the series.fargo ep9-3

Malvo next arrives at Lou’s diner, and this is like two worlds colliding – who could have predicted the paths crossing between these two very interesting, and very different characters in Malvo and Lou? Throughout the scene there is foreboding music as well as cross-cutting between the diner and to Molly driving her squad car on route back to the diner to meet the FBI men.[2] Malvo correctly guesses that Lou was a former cop, and explains that he is “hoping to surprise” Lester. “That’s a pickle,” says Lou, unsure of the man and not willing to give too much information away. Lou tells Malvo a story about his time as a cop – and this is one of the first times Malvo has had to listen to someone tell a story, as normally he is the storyteller, and in control of the situation. “I saw something that year, I ain’t ever seen, before or since. I’d call it animal, except, animals only kill for food. This was…” he trails off, but looks at Malvo pointedly. A few seconds later, in a wide shot of the two men, Malvo says “you didn’t answer my question”. This shot is punctuated by the arrival of Molly’s squad car in the background of the frame, accompanied by atmospheric deep horn music. In the nick of time, Malvo leaves through the front while Molly enters through a rear door. “Everything ok?” she asks her Dad. “Sometimes you just get a weird one,” he says, as the two FBI guys also arrive on the scene. When they come inside and introduce themselves to Molly, in the background we see Malvo drive off in his red BMW. In terms of screen direction, this shot seems to explain the reason for the choice of such a conspicuous vehicle for Malvo, because the red colour stands out beautifully in the background of this shot.

The FBI guys, like an old married couple, talk over each other and finish each other’s sentences. “We’re invested, personally” they explain to Molly. A cut to the Bemidji police station has Molly showing the two men her whiteboard with the case against Malvo and Lester set out visually. “This thing’s been giving me nightmares,” says buffoonish sheriff Bill (Bob Odenkirk) when he arrives, also pointing out they have already caught a killer, “the brother Nygaard”. “So” says one of the agents, “you don’t care about the fact that this Malvo character was seen with Lester at the hospital? Or that he ended up in Duluth, in direct conflict with these other two?” (the two killers Mr Numbers and Mr Wrench). While Bill umms and ahhs one of the men tells Molly her work is “tremendous”. She looks a bit chuffed at the compliment, but sneaks away leaving Bill to look at the board, exasperated and perhaps defeated.

In the stunning final scene, Lester has booked airfares to Acapulco for he and his wife, shocking her with the news. As he steers her out of the house, Linda asks “What about my coat”? Lester tells her that she “won’t need a winter coat where we’re going”. Linda smiles lovingly at Lester, and is a nice, somewhat ditzy person, who simply enjoys the domestic peace she has with her husband. She doesn’t deserve what happens next. Instead of stopping at his insurance shop to get their passports from a safe, Lester drives past and parks across the road from the building.[3] He looks at the shop worriedly, and then reveals again the true nature of his character.

Lester lies to Linda and says he has injured his back, “you think you could run in?” As she gets out of the car Lester stops her. “Linda, it’s cold out there,” he says, handing her his easily identifiable old red jacket. “You’re sweet,” she says, not knowing that he is using her as bait, just in case Malvo is waiting inside the shop. Lester keeps looking at the shop and there are lamps on, but otherwise it is very dark. “Put your hood up, huh, I’d hate for your pretty face to freeze” Lester suggests, sending his lamb to the slaughter. He watches her journey intently: she enters the store, turns on a light, but as she bends down to open a safe, we see Malvo’s shadowy figure rise up from the darkness. The sound of a nearby train passing is heard, while we see Lester’s face looking shocked as Malvo shoots Linda in the back of the head with his silenced pistol; stuffing from the red jacket flying upwards from the force of the bullet. Lester gasps. Malvo checks the body, then instantly looks around and leaves the shop. He looks at Lester’s car, but from his perspective the car looks unoccupied – Lester is also in shadows. It is unclear if Malvo has noticed him, but he soon lights a cigarette and walks away. The episode ends with Lester’s heavy breathing in the car.

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This was an incredibly tense episode, and very well made in all respects. If only Lester had left Malvo alone! Anyhoo, bring on the finale!

Fargo airs Thursday nights on SBS1. See more episode recaps here.

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[1] Then it cuts to Vegas, and foreboding string music plays. A tracking shot down a hallway is a bit creepy, and reminds one of either The Shining or the end of the Coen brother’s Barton Fink. This dramatic introduction to the new setting ends on a shot of an elevator opening, which is empty. An almost unbearable tension is built within the audience through the cumulative effect of these disquieting, uncertain moments.

[2] Cross-cutting here is used as a storytelling device to build up tension and hasn’t really been employed before in Fargo. One has a feeling of dread from multiple sources during this scene, as it is structured to seem as though Malvo might kill Lou if he doesn’t give up Lester, while if Molly runs into Malvo anything could happen.

[3] He parks next to a statue of Paul Bunyan with Babe the Blue Ox: the folkloric American lumberjack and his companion. This is an iconic reminder of the movie Fargo.

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