Fargo season finale recap: Morton's Fork
As expected, the Fargo season 1 finale was casualty-filled. And just as we hoped, justice was served—in that very dark and unexpected Fargo way.
Episode 10, “Morton’s Fork,” opened with a closing: We hear deep breaths as the camera pans across a snow-filled landscape, focuses on tracks, a fallen snowmobile, mountains … and a hole in the cracked ice. Only an hour later does the significance of the scene become clear.
Until then, the deep breaths and black, icy waters transition to Lester sitting in his car in downtown Bemidji, breathless after witnessing the murder of his wife. It’s a replay of the end of last week’s episode, when Lester sent Linda into his insurance office where he believed—correctly—that Malvo was waiting to execute him. By extension, Lester has murdered a second wife, and now he needs a plan.
Lester’s breathing slows as Malvo walks away. He decides to go into the crime scene—his passport is there, after all. We’ve watched Lester progress from unintentional murderer to calculating criminal over 10 episodes, but how quickly his thought process has been able to make that switch is staggering. There is no more panic, no more fear—and definitely no more trace of regret as he devises his next moves. His biggest concern is self-preservation, and he’s getting mighty good at that.
Inside, Linda is motionless on the ground, head in a puddle of blood, surrounded by feathers pulled from her hood from the bullet. Lester unceremoniously steps over her, opens the safe, grabs the passports, and flashes back to Malvo: “Is this what you want?” But he reconsiders. He puts the passports back in the safe, places his car keys in Linda’s hand, and walks out into the cold. He looks both ways, sees a sign for Lou’s—it’s just around the corner, reads the advertisement—and begins to set in motion his alibi.
He takes a seat and tells Lou that Linda will be over in a minute, she just had to stop by the shop to pick up something. “She dropped me off, said order the grilled cheese, so I guess two of those,” Lester says, writing his script as he goes. He’d like a beer—”it would change things for the better,” he says—but Lou’s is a family place, so he settles on two ginger ales instead. And then he announces that he’s going to use the bathroom.
That tricky Lester sneaks out the side door and around the front of the diner to a pay phone, where he reports shots fired just seconds ago, sounding like they came from inside one of the shops. He slinks back to his table, making sure to open and close the bathroom door to really sell his return.
Lou comes back over and Lester repeats his “Linda had to stop by the shop and pick something up” shtick, which Lou, observant and wary, says he’s already told him. As calm as Lester is trying to appear, he’s not a professional criminal the likes of Malvo, and his cracks are showing.
Speaking of Malvo, the former cop/diner owner mentions how a fella—silver hair, little goatee—came in earlier asking about Lester. In another half-second of nerves, Lester wants to know what Lou told him. Luckily for him, it wasn’t much: The guy wouldn’t leave a number; Lou didn’t like his demeanor. Lester apologizes for the bother; Lou says he thought Lester ought to know.
Lester looks uncomfortable trying to drink his soda. He flashes back to printing the boarding passes, tucking them in his parka … which, he realizes in a moment of horror, are still in the coat on Linda’s dead body. He freaks out for a second, jumping out of his chair, but sits back down as cop cars, sirens blaring, fly by. He sits back down and bites into his sandwich, plotting his next step.
Cops have surrounded the office, and that moody Fargo theme music plays, replicating the scene in front of Lester’s house when he killed his first wife. Molly arrives, and Bill tells her she didn’t have to come. “Well we both know that’s not true,” she replies. (By the way, the scene when she gets the call about the crime is excellent—Allison Tolman’s delivery of the line, “Someone killed the second Mrs. Nygaard,” is perfect.)
Bill think it’s a headshot, but of course he didn’t actually look at the body on account of being squeamish and all. Pregnant Molly kneels down and notices Linda is wearing Lester’s coat—”meaning maybe it’s not Linda’s supposed to be lying here,” she tells Bill, instantly putting together the clues.
But before she gets any further, Lester pushes his way into the office and puts on his best Oscar-worthy performance—or Emmy-worthy, in the case of Martin Freeman—yelling “aw jeez” and beginning to weep as Bill and Molly hold him back from the body. They take him over to the waiting area, where Molly immediately begins questioning Lester as a suspect, not a man who needs consoling. Lester launches into his alibi about the ginger ales and Molly’s dad keeping the grilled cheese warm.
Molly asks if he thinks it’s connected to the Las Vegas murders, which she questioned him about just earlier that day. She’s showing no sympathy. But before Lester can give an answer—was he going to play along with her theory or come up with one of his own?—Bill interrupts. “She’s wearing your coat,” he says, deciding to do some police work at the most inopportune time. “Molly saw that so she’s wondering…”
Lester is pissed that they picked up on this clue so quickly. “What do you mean she’s wearing my coat? What does that mean? Her coat got a rip so I…” He runs out of reasoning and lets the emotions he thinks he’s supposed to be feeling in this moment take over. “Oooh wait, uh,” he starts. “You think?” He begins to break down. “You’re saying…”
It’s a good stalling tactic. Even better, he says he’s gonna be sick, knowing no one will force him to continue answering questions in that situation. They grab him by the arms and say they’ll take him to the station for more questioning when Lester has another flash of devious brilliance—could he just go over to the body and say goodbye? Molly doesn’t want him anywhere near that body, but Bill approves and even tells him to take his time.
Can he get into that coat without them noticing? Lester leans over Linda’s body, hand over the pocket. His fingers rest on the tickets…and Molly comes over. “I can’t have you touching the body,” she says. The camera conveniently doesn’t show his hands, making us wonder if he did somehow manage to grab them. (We later find out that he was unsuccessful in stealing the evidence.) And he’s escorted away.
The rest of our major players are slowly getting wind of the latest crime and its fallout. Malvo has found a small cabin in the woods to make his home base during his hunt for Lester (the stuffed wolf head over the fireplace is a nice touch). He’s standing over the stove making something to eat, listening to the police scanner, when he perks up at the mention of “FBI boys” now being involved. When he hears they’re being paged to the station, he grabs his weapons and heads out.
Meanwhile, FBI boys Budge and Pepper are falling asleep in the lobby of the police station, where you get the sense it’s only a matter of time before Malvo is going to take them out—now, while they’re dozing off? Molly and Bill are ready to hand Lester over to the agents for interrogation when Lou walks in, telling his daughter that Lester was in the diner when the murder happened, but that’s not why he’s here. He mentions the “strange fella,” aka Malvo, who stopped by the diner asking about Lester earlier in the day. She takes out the elevator picture of Malvo taken from the office in St. Paul. Lou can’t confirm that’s the same guy, unless he changed his whole look. But maybe…
Molly asks him to let Gus know it’s going to be a late night. Lou says screw that; he’s grabbing his gun and is going to sit on the front porch to make sure his granddaughter is safe. As Lou gets into his pickup and pulls away, Malvo walks up to a car, breaks in, and grabs a book from the glove box. He walks away from the station, so everyone appears safe…for now.
Alone in the interrogation room, Lester once again flashes back to the elevator in Vegas and Malvo asking him, “Is this what you want?” The authorities walk in.
“Bill, tell me she’s not still lying there and everyone’s stepping over her,” Lester says, trying to appeal to the sap who unwittingly helped him get away with murder the first time. Bill doesn’t respond. Molly sits down and tells Lester the two men who have also entered are with the FBI. This throws Lester…the FBI? He assumes this is about Vegas.
“Is this? I didn’t see nothing. All I did was get on the elevator…” Lester tries.
Pepper tells him they’re not there to talk about Vegas. Budge contradicts him with “we are and we aren’t” in the Key and Peele-esque repartee that they’ve brought to all of their Fargo scenes. Budge ignores that remark and places images of Malvo on the table. Molly tries to read his face. He shakes his head. Once again, Lester tries to appeal to Bill, who looks helpless. “Answer the question,” Bill tells him. And in that moment, Lester realizes he’s lost his ally.
“Um, yeah. I’m now asking for a lawyer, for the record,” Lester says. Molly opens a folder and throws another photo in front of Lester; it’s from Vegas. “He’s changed his look,” Molly says in reference to Malvo. Lester gets defensive. “I’m done answering you,” he says. “You’ve obviously made up your mind that I’m some kind of…and I’m not…MY WIFE IS DEAD!” he shouts. “And there are arrangements to see to. So you can either lock me up or let me go,” he seethes. His guilt is palpable.
Molly has one more go at Lester: “He’s not gonna stop. You know that, right?” she asks, protecting Lester from Malvo as much as she’s hoping to get a confession out of him. “A man like that may be not even a man.” Lester looks at everyone in the room; this is beyond his experience. How does he get out of this?
In the morning, Molly is briefing the Bemidji squad on Malvo; they’re going to use Lester as bait. The entire force will be searching for him, along with a team the FBI is sending in. Gus—alerted to the situation after stumbling upon his gun-toting father-in-law on his porch and now on his way to meet his wife—calls Molly and begs her not to lead this search. She protests—it’s her job!—but Gus has a bad feeling. “Sometimes you get forces you can’t control,” he says. “Bad luck, you know?” He hopes she’ll let her precinct full of cops do the dirty work. “Bottom line,” he says, “I can’t make her go to another funeral, you know?”
Molly softens at the idea of Greta losing another mom and agrees to run things from the station. But why does Gus think the station will be a safe place when they’re up against a man like Malvo? Gus hangs up and slams on the breaks—in the middle of the road stands a wolf, which slowly lumbers away. And as he thinks about that close call, he notices the red BMW parked in front of a small cabin, the suspicious car he thought Malvo might have been driving when he spied it on his mail route. Gus drives a little farther, pulls over, and gets out. So he’s okay putting himself in danger? Gus cuts through the woods and circles to the side of the cabin. He crouches down and watches as Malvo gets into the BMW and drives away. With Malvo gone, he enters the cabin.
Back at the station, Molly walks into Bill’s office to confirm the plan: They’re going to take Lester home, surround the house, and try to draw Malvo out. Bill looks discouraged; she asks if he’s all right, and he says he’s quitting once this manhunt is over because he doesn’t have the stomach for it—which is both literally and metaphorically correct. The once-optimistic Bill now looks over his shoulder all the time, he admits. “I never wanted to be the type to think big things about the nature of things,” he says, which we all figured out pretty quickly. “All I ever wanted was a stack of pancakes and a V8.” It’s the most self-reflective thing he’s said all season; it’s just a shame he didn’t come to that realization a year ago when the former chief was murdered.
Now Vern’s rightful replacement—Molly—will get a shot at the job, as Bill says he’s recommending that she take over as chief. “You’re the real deal,” he says. “You got the instincts and the disposition. I didn’t see it before,” he apologizes. “Vern saw it; I know that.” He hopes she’ll take the gig after she has the baby. Molly says she’ll think about it; she didn’t see this coming, but more importantly she is focused on Malvo and setting the trap.
But Malvo is setting a trap of his own. He’s parked right outside of the precinct, where he makes a call inside. He says he is FBI and he’s looking for his agents; he manages to get their names from Cindy in reception: Pepper and Budge. He writes their names in his notebook, which he stole from the agents’ car, and hangs up to make another call. This one is to the FBI.
Using the information in the stolen notebook, Malvo gets in touch with Operations. He impersonates Budge and says they’ve hit a dead end and there’s no need to send backup because his partner jumped the gun. Operations tells him to get his s–t straight and cancels the cavalry. Can Bemidji PD handle Malvo on their own?
But that’s just the beginning of the wanted hit man’s nefarious plan. He pulls up to a car dealer eyeing a sedan that looks like “an undercover vehicle, like an FBI car,” he says to the salesman, who happens to be the guy Lester tried to sell life insurance to way back in episode 1. Malvo asks to take a test drive, and the way-too-nice guy agrees, even though they’re not technically open yet. He throws Malvo the keys, calls shotgun, and they drive off with a lingering shot of the plates: DLR for dealer (a callback to the ones on the getaway car in the movie Fargo).
Malvo seems one step ahead of the cops, whom—as he seems to have anticipated—are letting Lester go in the escort of the FBI.
“I’m not sure what you had against me since day one,” Lester tells Molly as he’s heading out. “I’m not the person you think I am, this kind of monster.” The look on Molly’s face is all “Okay, that’s how this is going to do down?” She drops her pen on the table and starts into a parable.
“There’s a fella once, running for a train,” she says. “And he’s carrying a pair of gloves, this man. He drops a glove on the platform but he doesn’t notice. And then later on inside the train he’s sitting by the window and he realizes that he’s just this one glove left. But the train’s already started pulling out of the station, right? So what does he do? He opens the window and he drops the other glove onto the platform. And that way, whoever finds the first glove can just have the pair.”
“So what are you telling me?” Lester asks. He’s not sure how to take her. Does he think he’s getting away free again? “Goodbye, Mr. Nygaard,” Molly says, and goes back to her paperwork. What is Molly trying to say here? Perhaps it’s that sometimes you need to acknowledge when you’ve been defeated and make the best of the situation.
The agents escort Lester out of the precinct, and sure enough, just as a reminder, their car looks just like the one Malvo is test driving/surely stealing, which they then drive past an identical vehicle that pulls out behind them.
“I didn’t do this, you know. Any of it,” Lester tries to protest. “That deputy, she’s got a thing for me.” Budge looks at him in the rearview, isn’t buying it. No one answers him… though later, Budge asks Lester his fox, cabbage, and rabbit riddle. Lester tries to solve it: Take the rabbit, then take the fox, drop him off, put the rabbit back in the boat, then leave the rabbit behind, row the cabbage across, then go back for the rabbit. Correct!
They pull into Lester’s driveway. Incognito Malvo pulls up at a safe distance and waits, then drives off. “We feel we need to say again that your life may be in danger,” Pepper tells Lester. “Like a lot of danger,” says Budge. They inform him they’re going to sit tight for a while. Is this going to be a repeat of the Fargo incident? Them sitting outside, clueless, as a murder takes place inside?
Lester goes directly to the basement, to the box of hunting gear. He has a plan.
We get one more comedic exchange from Budge and Pepper as they’re sitting in the driveway, pondering if life is but a dream. But heads up: another undercover car is arriving. Pepper is cautious; Budge says it could be their backup. When no one exits, even after they approach the car and draw their weapons, they know something is wrong. When they get close enough, they realize the driver (the poor salesman) has his hands taped to the wheel. He apologizes to the agents as Malvo quietly approaches his prey from behind. Malvo shoots Pepper in the forehead and Budge in the neck. He walks up to the driver. “Please,” the guy says, “I’ve got a little girl.” He probably should’ve bought that insurance from Lester, huh?
Molly is on her way to the scene, completely unknowing what has just occurred. Things were too quiet and she left the precinct to check what was going down at Lester’s. Can she arrive in time to save another life?
Inside, Lester is throwing clothes out of his suitcase, stopping only when he grabs the Salesman of the Year award—the trophy that got him in this situation in the first place. Downstairs, he hears the open car door alarm coming from outside. He looks out, sees the door open, the trails of blood. The washing machine sound wracks his brain and he runs upstairs.
Malvo isn’t far behind. After pulling the bodies behind a wood pile, he breaks into the house through a sliding glass door. He pulls his gun from his coat and hears Lester on the phone, desperately asking for the police, saying, “Yes, this is an emergency.” Malvo thinks he has him. He walks upstairs.
“This is Lester Nygaard, you gotta…I think the FBI…you need to send somebody.” Malvo is quietly stalking his target, getting closer. “I need help now,” says Lester. “I need you to come, please!” he pleads, panic in his voice. Malvo walks into the bedroom, sees clothing strewn everywhere. “Lester Nygaard!” Lester repeats. “Please! Just hurry up. I’m upstairs in the bathroom, there’s no lock on the door!” His voice is getting weaker. Oh man, Lester is a good actor. He knows exactly what he is doing. “Oh, God—you’ve gotta hurry,” he says, really selling it. And then, SNAP—the bear trap!
Malvo walks right into it, buried within that pile of clothing, and it snags his leg, brutally. Lester jumps out of the bathroom and shoots, but Malvo ducks. Lester is too slow to reload; Malvo grabs the salesman award and lobs it at Lester, hitting him square in the nose, making everything come full circle: They meet thanks to a broken nose, and this is how it’s going to end. Malvo picks up his gun and Lester retreats to the bathroom. Malvo sends three bullets through the door, more. Lester reloads and it sounds like Malvo is approaching. He tries to remain quiet, stands up, and opens the door. Malvo has escaped the trap, leaving a trail of blood behind him.
Lester follows the stains, searching. The trail leads outside to where the car was parked; he has fled. The other car doesn’t appear to be there, either. Did Malvo have a moment of decency and let the young father get away? We’ll never know. But Lester looks satisfied. He scared off the big bad wolf.
The wolf is not in good shape. If you’ve been following the entire series, you were likely thinking about the story Malvo told Wrench about the bear who chewed off his own leg to escape a trap and die on his own terms. As Malvo drives to his cabin, we see he didn’t have to sacrifice his foot to set himself free, though his leg is badly injured. He made a tourniquet out of a belt and hobbles into the cabin…where Gus may still be lingering.
Malvo struggles to the couch, grabbing what looks like a doctor’s kit along the way. (Is he going to chop off that leg now?!) He takes out that nasty curved knife and cuts away his pants. He injects the wound with local anesthesia or medicine and makes a pulley system out of string so he can—oh, gross—set his bone back into the skin. (Makes you wonder, not for the first time, where Malvo received all of his survival training.) Malvo splints and bandages the leg, and then we see it: exactly how pissed off he is that this happened. That for what must be the first time, the protégé outsmarted the master. The wind, wolves howl outside. A wolf appears outside of the window. Is this his pack, calling to him? There are footsteps… and a gun.
“I figured it out,” says Gus. “Good for you,” says Malvo.
“Your riddle, shades of green; I figured it out,” Gus replies, though technically Molly gave him the answer. Malvo turns, stares at him. “And?”
Three shots. Malvo’s head falls back. Gus shot him three times in the chest, and the blood is beginning to blossom out of the wounds, staining his white sweater. Malvo coughs, but is not dead. The sound of the living rattles Gus, who is shaking and bumps into a table. Blood has stained Malvo’s teeth. He struggles to get up, to prove he’s not defeated. He smirks. Gus shoots him in the side of the mouth, in the temple. Malvo stares down Gus until he finally goes. And then Gus nearly collapses under the weight of what he’s done. He grabs Malvo’s hooked knife (as some kind of trophy?) and walks away.
Molly arrives at the scene and she and Gus embrace, wordless. He takes her inside where she studies the man who turned her life upside down, for better and worse, now motionless. She looks around and notices a briefcase; it’s Malvo’s tape recorder and cassettes. One tape is labeled Lester Nygaard, which she plays. It’s the phone call from the motel, essentially the evidence she needed to connect Lester to the murder of Pearl, which led to the slaying of the chief. She was right all along.
But Lester had one more scheme to get away with it all. Two weeks later, in Glacier National Park in Montana, Lester is enjoying a snowmobile ride in a new orange puffer jacket. He comes to the edge of a trail swarmed with cop cars. Lester veers back into the woods, the cops following on their snowmobiles, vehicles they’re likely much more capable of handling than Lester. He drives into a clearing, a lake, actually, but hits a bump and the machine falls on its side. He runs, ignoring the sign that reads: DANGER THIN ICE.
The cops yell for him to come back, but that one thing that is making Lester run, that one thing that has kept him a free man for this long—that selfish, self-preservation instinct—has taken over, and he is oblivious to everything else. That includes the giant cracks that begin to form over the lake with each step he takes.
They become thicker, longer…and Lester realizes it too late. He stops, and the cracks continue in front of him. He falls in. There is nothing but the sound of water and the wind. The camera pans down, his hat remaining on the surface. Lester escaped this fate once before, when Numbers and Wrench were planning on sending him down an icy hole, but it became his ultimate demise, by his own hand.
Molly takes the call. “Are you sure?” she asks, then nods. “Okay, well, let me know what the divers turn up.” She returns to the living room, where the family is watching Deal or No Deal again, arguing over the contestants’ playing techniques.
“What’d I miss?” Molly asks, not bothering to pass along the information about Lester she just learned. She sits between them, arm around Greta, hand on Gus’ knee.
Gus got an interesting call, too, one informing him that he was getting a citation for bravery. “You? You’re afraid of spiders,” says Greta. “Buzz Aldrin was afraid of spiders, too, and he went into space,” says Gus.
“Proud of you, hon,” says Molly.
“They really should be giving it to you,” Gus concedes. “No. No, this is your deal,” says Molly. “I get to be chief.” And so another kick-ass mom-to-be carries on in the tradition of Marge Gunderson.
As with any finale, there are lingering questions: What happened to Milos? To Wrench? Will Chazz be released from prison? But it’s a satisfying closing with justice served. Life ends, life goes on; just as in the film, Molly/Marge has done her job and isn’t dwelling on it. She’ll continue as chief, Gus will deliver the mail, and they’ll welcome a new addition to their family. They won’t live happily ever after—no one does—but for now, they’re happy. And that’s all we could have asked for.