'Fargo's Series Premiere Proves Molly Solverson Is So Much More Than Frances McDormand 2.0
Spoilers for FX's Fargo to follow, of course. Knowing that the Coen Brothers' Fargo would be adapted for television was enough of a pill to swallow, but trying to imagine how the minds at FX would bastardize the film's fantastic central character Marge Gunderson (played to perfection by Frances McDormand) for the purposes of serial drama was a massive concern. But after viewing Fargo's series premiere, it's clear that the series' female police officer Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is clearly cut from the same cloth as Gunderson, but isn't simply McDormand: The Redux. She's so much more.
Still, it's understandable as to why one might assume Solverson — who's basically sporting a frantically made-up "cop name" — is just a version of Gunderson. After all, while the series is supposed to take place in the same universe as the film Fargo while telling a completely different story, it's hard not to find similarities between Martin Freeman's good guy who breaks bad and William H. Macy's similarly-troubled generic Jerry (namely that both of their wives are killed and their shared penchant for nervous energy). What's more is Solverson takes to her case with Gundersonian gusto. But that's all circumstantial — a few details that lend the series an air of the 1996 film as little more than a jumping off point.
Where the original film found McDormand's Marge as a seven-months pregnant cop who follows her nose through the twisty trails of a gruesome string of crimes, cleverly playing off morning sickness as looking for a clue at once point, Molly isn't trucking through physical condition that might make her job a wee bit difficult (you try carrying a seven pound basketball around your waist while solving a mystery, okay?). Instead, she's pushing through a status quo mentality in the police department. When she and her partner Vern Thurman see a dead body found near an abandoned car in snow, he assumes the driver stupidly made a run for it and froze to death. Molly notes that there's blood on the steering wheel, but no source of trauma on the dead guy's forehead: Clearly, the missing driver isn't the guy who froze to death. It's obvious who's the better detective here.
Later, Molly works on the case of Lester Nygaard's (Freeman) adult bully Sam Hess, who was mysteriously killed at a whorehouse the day after Lester was caught telling Billy Bob Thorton's wildly suspicious Lorne about what a douche Sam was while in the emergency room dealing with an injury inflicted by Sam. Molly sees a worthwhile connection and pursues it, sending Vern to question Lester about the issue. The problem is that when Vern gets there, Lester has just murdered his wife with a hammer and called in Lorne to help him out. Lorne murders Vern and Lester wisely knocks himself out to make himself look innocent, but Molly isn't buying it. In later episodes, a male officer insists on accompanying her on a routine questioning and speaks to her as if she's a child, despite her investigating being the only sound police work in the whole department.
Somehow, Molly's the only person in this town who seems smart enough to look past the initial clues. Part of it's that she's clearly the youngest cop on the force, yet to have her eyes glazed over by years of boring police work in a ridiculously quiet town, but part of it seems to be that she clearly has a nose for clues that her counterparts don't. With that, it's easy to point her out as a "victory" for women on television: see smart young woman, give smart young woman credit for being sadly remarkable in the vast fabric of television history. But the "victory," if we can even reduce it to that simple term, is more complicated than that.
In the final moments of Fargo's initial episode, Molly goes fishing with her father. As they fiddle with gear in his truck, Molly's father offers her a position as a hostess as his diner. She stops, but doesn't seem nearly as surprised that a father would offer his daughter the cop a sad minimum wage job in place of her civil service job, which she so clearly excels at. She simply replies, "I'm a police officer, dad," with the same level of exasperation as one might give a parent who failed to notice that their son or daughter bought a new car last month. But Papa Solverson continues: "People are less inclined to shoot a hostess than a police officer," he says. "You should put that in the ad [for the hostess job]," replies Molly. She's heard this before.
In this brief moment between father and daughter, we touch on a few different elements, but chiefly, it's the idea that in small town Northern Minnesota, this average Joe father is simply more comfortable with his daughter in a seeming "gender-appropriate" role. He didn't ask her to help him run or manage his diner. He didn't suggest that she could "lend him a hand." He asked her to be his "hostess," a position that is notoriously the lowest position on the restaurant world totem pole and a job that, more often that not, pays about as well as a job slinging Crunchwraps at Taco Bell.
Still, the play here doesn't seem to be some notion that Mr. Solverson hopes to squash Molly or take her off her badge-weilding high horse. He clearly has protecting his daughter as a top priority. It's the notion that his daughter, the once and future diner hostess, needs protecting that is the real issue. In her father's mind, his daughter should be kept safe under his care, as as an employee of his establishment she'd meet that goal. The notion of flying on her own in an uncertain world makes Molly's father uneasy — it's not about her flying too high, it's about flying too far away.
The subtle articulation of this old fashioned mentality clashing with the reality of Molly's chosen path is not only important to the series as a whole, it's important to Molly's character and it proves that while she and Fargo-the-film's Marge Gunderson may match up on a chart with measurements for tenacity and thinking beyond the obvious and both seem to be lone women on their vastly unimaginative police forces, they're clearly two very different, very fascinating female characters. And as Fargo continues its run on FX, something tells me Molly just may wind up being more remarkable than her more recognizable counterparts.