Molly Solverson, played by Allison Tolman, is a police officer from the town of Bemidji – a place which is home to season one of Noah Hawley’s television series Fargo. From start, Solverson is proven to be a capable, unflappable officer who is growing into a exceptionally talented member of the Bemidji police force. She is still learning, especially from her mentor Vern before he is murdered, but she has a confidence in her abilities that is rare to see from a woman in such a male dominated career.
When strange events (namely, murders) start occurring in Bemidji and the neighbouring town of Fargo, it is the Bemidji police force who are put on the case. Fargo begins with three victims – Sam Hess (a local ‘big-man’), Pearl Nygaard (wife of main character Lester Nygaard) and Vern (esteemed Chief of Police, and friend of Molly). Right from the start, Molly (rightly) suspects that Lester Nygaard is the culprit, or at least involved in the murders.
Molly constantly perseveres throughout the season, pleading with Chief of Police Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) to see her reasoning. For a multitude of reasons, Bill refuses to entertain her theories. The main issue for Bill seems to be that he knows Lester Nygaard and he believes that Lester could never do anything like this. They went to high-school together, grew up together – it’s a version of the ‘old boys club’. Molly rejects this notion because she is an outsider – she isn’t ‘one of the boys’. She is able to see past friendship and emotion to work out what is really going on in Bemidji – a skill that is stereotypically linked to masculinity.
Despite claims that Molly is based on Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand from the Coen brothers original film of the same name), the only things that the two characters really have in common are their professions and that they both become pregnant at some point. The similarities, largely, end there. Marge is a no nonsense police officer, wise and calm. She isn’t hassled about being a woman in the force, she isn’t undermined and there is no sense that she is in a ‘man’s world’.
Molly, on the other hand, is the one lone female face in a male dominated television series and police precinct. Vern makes it clear to her in the first episode that he thinks she is more suited for the Chief of Police job than Bill Oswalt, yet Bill is promoted without a second thought when Vern dies. Molly’s tough and determined, but the society in which she lives in shown to be full of sexist comments and patriarchal systems. This is a far cry from Marge, who is allowed to be a person in her own right, rather than being categorised as a the only woman in a room full of men.
I think it’s pretty important that we do recognise Molly breaks certain conventions that we expect of women on screen. She’s not thin. Molly is a bigger woman, but this is never commented on by herself or anyone else. Molly’s physical attributes are irrelevant, as Allison Tolman was swift to point out to some fat-phobic jerks on twitter.
The biggest crime against Molly (I mean, apart from the actual illegal crime of being shot), came in the final episode of season 1. Gus, Molly’s lovable but useless husband, pleads with her not to go after Malvo. He begs her to think of their unborn child and their future together. She concedes. She will stay at the station and miss out on catching the serial killer that has evaded her for over a year. In the meantime, Gus himself stumbles upon Malvo’s hiding place and take it upon himself to wait for Malvo to return home. Gus, the ex-police officer. Gus, the ex-police officer that let Malvo get away in the very second episode. Gus, the man who preaches safety to his wife, but goes completely gung-ho and kills Malvo himself.
Molly has been on this case, and right about this case, from the very start. To take that moment away from her feels cheap and nasty. It was Molly who deserved the praise and respect for solving the case because it was Molly who never gave up, even when she was told to stand down. To rub salt into the wounds, Molly even agrees that Gus should take the commendation he has been awarded for killing Malvo – even though they are both perfectly aware that trophy should belong to Molly and Molly alone.
Perhaps there is a wider point about gender dynamics at play here, and maybe I am not giving the writers of Fargo enough credit. It’s reminiscent of that age old phrase, ‘behind every successful man is a woman who put him there’ – except Molly actually did ALL of the groundwork, with Gus stepping in at the very end. Perhaps it is a comment on egos; Molly is humble and focused solely on doing her job, whereas Gus feels that he still has something to prove after failing so badly in the force.
I guess one of the reasons why Molly Salveson appears to be such an interesting and complicated character is that all of the other women in Fargo are little more than cardboard cut-out tropes.
Gina Hess, widow of the late Sam Hess – a character whose death sets off a domino effect in the first season – is a golddigger. Ida Thurman, widow of the late police officer Verne Thurman, plays the role of grieving widow and not much more. It’s interesting that the two other female characters after Molly are both categorised by their relationship to men. Gina and Ida are only involved in the events because of their husbands and neither of them have their own narrative arc.
In fact, Gina’s screen time mostly revolves around her seducing, shagging and being screwed over by Lester Nygaard – a man who has killed his wife.
The events of Fargo are set in motion after Lester kills his own wife – Pearl Nygaard. The two have a difficult relationship (and by difficult, I mean that we see Pearl ask Lester to do some jobs around the house and she mentions how successful his brother is) and Lester ends up smashing her brains in with a hammer, in the basement of their house. Fargo is all about it’s characters, and Lester killing Pearl is the catalyst for Lester’s transformation from bullied insurance salesman to successful, jail-avoiding business owner.
What makes me slightly uncomfortable about Pearl’s death is that she is never really treated as a human being. Pearl wasn’t a nice person (“I married the wrong Nygaard”) but her death is not seen as a terrible thing. We spend little time with Pearl before she is murdered, and there is very little conversation about her afterwards. In comparison to the grief expressed about Verne’s murder, or the way we are encouraged to feel sorry for the countless people that Malvo kills, Pearl isn’t really mourned at all.
Though Fargo may not be as progressive in terms of female representation as the movie that was released over 20 years ago, I am still going to be sad to say goodbye to Molly when I move on to season 2. Here’s to the women working hard in a man’s world, and here’s to Fargo hopefully channelling some better characters for women.