Fargo’s Lorne Malvo and the Enjoyable Villain
He is capable of murder, blackmail, and chaos in general, and though he has the power to disgust and shock the audience, the antics of Lorne Malvo are still enjoyable. As the primary antagonist of FX’s Fargo, he has killed two people and a dog, kidnapped a man who ended up freezing to death, and has so far thwarted the police and two hit men. Despite the amount of violence he is able to commit, Malvo also has a sense of humor, albeit a dark sense of humor. His sarcasm and high degree of intelligence separates him from stereotypical and “flat” villains. With Malvo, though he is the main antagonist, he is just as intriguing and developed as the protagonists in the show. Malvo bends the mold of the stereotypical man-for-hire, and this is what makes him a good villain. Not “good” in the moral sense (good vs. evil), but “good” in the sense that he is a truly challenging adversary.
An example of a “bad” villain would be most of the villains from the James Bond movie franchise. Though there are some exceptions, these villains usually have grand and banal schemes of world domination and insist upon hiring inept henchmen. Their use of violence does not shock us nor are we particularly frightened by them. Of course, villains like Blofeld or Goldfinger might seem “frightening” in the world of James Bond, but they lack the depth and complexity that makes them “good” villains. On the other hand, Malvo’s use of violence juxtaposed with his intelligence and humor makes him interesting enough for people to tune in to see what he will do next and how (or if) he will be defeated. Using Malvo as the main case study, this article intends to explore what makes a villain “good” and will compare Malvo to other “good” villains, such as Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men and Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello.
Malvo is able to break the stereotype of the mindless and violent man-for-hire. Though no one would dispute that he is able to kill without batting an eye, his motivation for killing varies and therefore makes him more than a stereotype. There are Fargo spoilers ahead, so please read at your own discretion. In the first episode “The Crocodile’s Dilemma,” Malvo inspires hen-pecked and bullied Lester Nygaard to take matters into his own hands, which leads to the deaths of Sam Hess and Bemidji Police Chief Vern Thurman. Looking at the body count in the first episode alone, it appears that Malvo is a cold-blooded killer. Malvo offers to kill Hess for Lester, but Lester does not give him a solid yes or no answer. When Hess turns up dead anyways, Malvo tells Lester that he did not say no to the offer. Malvo interprets Lester’s hesitance as an open invitation for murder, which suggests that he enjoys killing for the sake of killing. There is no reason for Malvo to kill Hess, a man he has never met.
However, the death of Chief Thurman is of a different nature. While Malvo’s motive for killing Hess is remains unknown, he kills Thurman as an act of self-preservation. Since Lester calls Malvo for help after he (Lester) kills his wife Pearl, Malvo needs to cover his tracks as best as possible. After killing Thurman, Malvo asks Lester if he has called anyone else. As a “good” villain, he needs to protect himself. But by the end of the same episode, we have a different impression of Malvo. After Officer Gus Grimly pulls him over for failing to stop at a stop sign, Malvo warns Grimly that there are some roads he shouldn’t go down. While the delivery of his initial speech is ominous, as soon Malvo hears the voice of Grimly’s daughter coming through the police radio, the stakes are raised. Malvo then asks Grimly how old is daughter is, and he asks not because he is making polite conversation but because the daughter can be used as leverage. A perturbed and frightened Grimly lets him go, and now we know for sure that Malvo not just as a mere mercenary: he is cunning and intelligent. He knows how get people to act in accordance with his wishes with a few well-chosen words or icy stares. He wants others to know that he is capable of great violence, though he does not always resort to it. Because he does not always resort to violence and uses his intellect instead, he breaks the mold the mindless, angry mercenary who uses violence as the only means of intimidation.
Malvo embodies a blend terror, humor, and intelligence, which further separates him from stereotypical villains. In episode two “The Rooster Prince,” Malvo goes to pick up a package from the post office, saying the package is addressed to Duluth. He refuses to show the mail clerk his ID and threatens to go back behind the counter and find the package himself. He might simply shove the clerk aside and snatch up the package, but his dark eyes and scowling face suggest that he might do something much worse. The cold, dark stare he gives is enough for the clerk to acquiesce and hand the package over. The audience shares the clerk’s terror: Malvo is liable to do anything, and he might become violent. However, in the next moment, when the mail clerk remarks that it is highly irregular that a man to be named “Duluth” like the city, Malvo replies “No, highly irregular is the time I found a human foot in a toaster oven. This is just odd.” His snarky remark breaks through the tension built up. The clerk is still frightened but is also confused, as is the audience. Furthermore, the package contains a wallet that provides Malvo with a fake identity as a priest. Upon learning this, Malvo crosses himself and tells the mail clerk to have a blessed day. The fear factor has been lowered through the use of humor and the ironic juxtaposition of violence and religion, broadening the scope of Malvo’s character and further proving that he is not a mindless mercenary.
Also, in episode one, Malvo manages to convince a young man who is belittled by his mother to urinate in the gas tank of her car. However, Malvo alerts the mother to her son’s actions and then watches her punish her son. In this instance, he is shown to be creating chaos for his own amusement. No one is seriously hurt, and maybe we are just as amused as Malvo. Perhaps we are amused because we are both in awe and unnerved at the ease at which Malvo is able to control the situation, to turn the son against his mother and the mother against her son. He has a way of reading people, knowing what to say in order to make them act a certain way. He inspires Lester to kill his wife, and he identifies Grimly’s pressure point and promptly exploits it. Malvo knows how to use people to his own end, whether that end is entertainment, chaos, or business.
But what demonstrates Malvo’s depth as a villain is (so far) embodied best in the riddle he tells Grimly in episode four, “Eating the Blame.” He asks Grimly why the human eye is able to detect more shades of green than any other color. While the riddle itself does not shed much light on Malvo’s character, the answer reveals much more. The answer, as revealed by Molly Solverson, is predators. Early in history of our evolution, the human eye needed to distinguish between different shades of green in order to hide and escape from predators. Malvo is able to disguise himself easily as a priest not only because it provides him with an alibi and a way to fool the police but because it is a defense mechanism. Until now, we have viewed Malvo as the predator, leaving a trail of death and chaos in his wake. But since he views himself also as the prey, we are introduced to a new dimension of Malvo. His seems to be aware that he is not invincible and needs to take the proper precautions, in order to complete his assignments and protect himself. The viewer now knows what Malvo has known all along: he is both a predator and the prey. We will have to wait and see how he functions as both the hunter and the hunted in the next episodes.
Like Malvo, Anton Chigurh not only has a bad haircut (in the movie), but also displays a high level of intelligence and ruthless nature. What makes him as memorable as Malvo is his propensity to flip a coin to determine whether he kills or not. In the novel, Moss’s wife Carla Jean loses the coin toss (in the movie she refuses to call it). Chigurh rationalizes leaving her life up to chance by calling it fate; her path in life was already chosen, and though, hypothetically, it could have turned out a different way, it did not. Her death at the hands of Chigurh is inevitable (McCarthy 259-260). The fact that Chigurh philosophizes her death and the coin toss suggests that he is not a mindless killing machine. He has thought deeply about what he does and because he is shown to be a thinker, it makes him even more dangerous than a stereotyped assassin, like Oddjob from the Bond film Goldfinger who does not talk or seem to think for himself. Additionally, Carson Welles describes Chigurh as having a set of principles “that transcend money or drugs or anything like that” (McCarthy 153). Chigurh does not operate under the same constraints as the rest of us. He is terribly good at what he does, just like Malvo. Though Malvo admits to being both the predator and the prey, Chigurh does not view himself as prey. He admits that he allowed himself to be arrested after he killed a man because he “wanted to see if [he] could extricate [himself] by an act of will” (McCarthy 174-175). Indeed, Chigurh is seen by others as being near invincible (McCarthy 140). Though we know that Chigurh is not arrested or killed by the end of the novel or the movie, we have yet to find out what happens to Malvo, if he succeeds in his various endeavors or if he meets his demise.
Another trait that is shared between Malvo and Chigurh is their ambiguous or ill-defined motives. We do not know why they are in their line of work or why they kill. But even if a villain’s motive is known, that does not guarantee that he or she is a “good” villain. For instance, we know that Bond villain Goldfinger loves gold and plans to irradiate Fort Knox so that the value of his own supply of gold will increase and make him wealthy and powerful. Simply, greed is his motive, but he is not a particularly interesting villain. An example of a “good” villain whose motives are known but questionable is Iago from Othello. At the beginning of Act 1, he plots Othello’s downfall because he claims to be angry that he was not made Othello’s lieutenant. By the end of the first act, however, Iago also claims that Othello has slept with his wife Emilia. Throughout the play, Iago carefully orchestrates Othello’s mistrust of his wife Desdemona. He pretends to be faithful and loyal to Othello, while planting evidence to make Othello think Desdemona has been sleeping with his lieutenant Cassio. Iago’s deception is barely suspected, and he is referred to as “good Iago” by many characters. In the end, Iago tries to kill Cassio and causes Othello to kill Desdemona. When his treachery is revealed, Iago also kills Emilia and drives Othello to suicide. By the play’s end, Iago refuses to reveal why he sought to destroy Othello, though he gave two reasons earlier on: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./From this time forth I will never speak word” (5.2 311-312). His silence says more about him than anything else. Whatever we know, we know. We will not receive any further explanation as to why Iago hated Othello, which suggests that the motives he gives at the play’s beginning may not be the entire truth. Like Malvo, Iago is a type of chameleon, disguising his true nature in order to reach a particular end.
Malvo, Chigurh, Iago all have a propensity for violence, control, and a lack of remorse, but there is more to them than being antagonists or villains. As people, they have a degree of emotional depth that allows us to take an interest in them. We want to know what drives them, where they come from, why they are the way they are. A villain who is more than a stereotype or an embodiment of pure evil, like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, allows us to learn something about the dark sides of humanity. These villains ask us to go deeper and ask why we call them evil or heartless. The goal is not to necessarily feel sympathy for these people (after all, villains are villains for a reason) but to understand their character. Lorne Malvo has viewers eagerly awaiting each episode because we want to see what he will do next. He proves a challenge to the protagonists, which keeps us interested, and we are just as invested in him as we are Molly Solverson and Lester Nygaard. And that is a sign of a “good” villain.
McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men. New York: Vintage International, 2005. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Kim F. Hall. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.
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