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.

Malvo telling Lester that if he was in Lester's place, he would have killed Hess for bullying him.
Malvo telling Lester that if he was in Lester’s place, he would have killed Hess for bullying him.

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.

Malvo disguised as Father Frank Peterson, while in police custody.
Malvo disguised as Father Frank Peterson, while in police custody.

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.

Chigurh as he tosses the coin with Carla Jean.
Chigurh as he tosses the coin with Carla Jean.

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.

Works Cited

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I really like this show and I didn’t expect to at all. I think the writing is sharp, the delivery is always on target, and the actors all play their parts so well.

    It’s really clever and catches the strange feeling of the movie so well. FX continues on their streak of making really interesting TV shows.

  2. Noel Ramon

    Each week is better than the last. I couldn’t decide if the first born son realizing the truth about the plagues was supposed to be an out of the mouths of babes moment or Starvos Jr. revealing his true competent, intelligent, underrated self. I thought Starvos might have figured out the truth as well and that’s why he dismissed Malvo. I can’t wait until next week to see if he delivers the money or not. I wonder how many people like myself had to rush to google “Se Irim”! If Malvo kills Greta or the Jewish neighbors, I really will believe he’s Se Irim. The only head scratching moment for me was Molly not asking the doctor for that shotgun pellet. Can you not get evidence from a shotgun shell like they do with a bullet?

  3. I think Malvo has supernatural powers. Perhaps he is the Devil himself. How did he know King’s backstory?

  4. Damn this show is sooo good. I thought is was awesome when he found the money though I thought it was a little too coincidental. The guy’s laying down on the road and he sees an ice pick in the background and decides to start digging. How’d he know something was buried there?

  5. I didn’t think I would like this show as much as I do. Lorne Malvo is a great TV villian. He’s mysterious and scary, but funny at the same time. I love how Billy Bob Thornton interacts with Martin Freeman. This is such a great show.

  6. The Ogle

    It’s awesome that this show takes place in Minnesota, because I am from there, so I recognize a lot of locations that this show represents. It’s weird though, because I don’t remember ever hearing about any of this on the news.

    • I love this show and the original film is one of my favorites of all time. Being a Minnesotan, I can say that not alot of people talk like that, but it is hard not to laugh when I do meet someone in real life who has that accent. I really like the human nature predator vs prey themes in the show, it’s really fascinating to see a character like Lester learn to embrace that primal side to him and slowly become a predator like Malvo

  7. My favorite new character on TV expertly played by Thornton! Love me some Malvo & love Fargo!

  8. Wava Nesbitt

    Imagine a conversation between Malvo and Hannibal or Rust Cohle or Will Graham.

    Come to think of it there’s been a lot of interesting eccentric characters in recent years.

  9. I too find Lorne Malvo to be an intriguing villain, but then again I also find Bond baddies like Goldfinger and Max Zorin to be intriguing (I think both have a sort of bizarre comedic persona that is captivating in its own way) — I’m not sure I quite understand how you’re defining “good.” You mention at least two marks of a “good” villain: a “good” villain is (1) a truly challenging adversary, and is (2) someone who captures just as much of our interest as a “good guy.” But on those counts I’d say that Bond villains would make the cut, so it may be that your criteria for “good” villains is just subjective, which would make your and my perceptions of villains equally of value. Am I missing some part of your argument that would devalue my perception of Bond villains as equally intriguing (i.e., “good”) as characters like Malvo or Chigurh?

    • S.A. Takacs

      Maybe my definition of a “good” villain is subjective. In the world of Bond, the villains work well, but I don’t find them as intellectually stimulating or as interesting as villains like Chigurh or Malvo, but I think a solid argument can be made that Bond villains are “good” villains but maybe in different ways than other villains.

  10. Matthew Sims

    I do not know how to feel about this show. I have no idea why I am still watching it. I have no connection to any of the characters, except for Molly, perhaps. Still, I acknowledge the appeal of Malvo. But, it might all tie up well at the conclusion. Still gotta love Adam Goldberg and to see Colin Hanks after Season 6 of Dexter is cool. However, I do not see why this is getting the amount of praise that it is receiving. I mean it is cool and all, shot well, fine acting, but the plot just seems a bit derivative, hopefully there will be some twists and turns at the end. Still, an interesting show with interesting (enough) characters.

    • “derivative”???? Of what exactly?????? It’s honestly one of the most creative and original shows I’ve seen on television, even with it loosely being based on Coen brothers films.

      • Matthew Sims

        Hey man, I regret making this comment and I apologise for making such an unqualified statement. I suppose I was considering it derivative of the Coen Brothers’ films at the time, but I had a lot more problems with Season 2 than I do with Season 1, speaking retrospectively. To try to qualify the statement, I only said that it was a “bit derivative”, which is inevitable in any medium which is inspired by its predecessors or is expected to make a profit by being worth banking on. So, you could say any small thing was derivative, such as the outsider villain, the endearing and well-intentioned person who can’t catch a break. I wasn’t trying to say that it was ripping anything off or anything, but I guess it was just my cynical and overly critical mind repelling anything I had seen before. Like I said, I understand the appeal of both seasons, and I like some certain aspects, but I think I was just becoming disillusioned when the veil of what made up these stories fell, and I couldn’t look behind certain plot holes or general suspension of disbelief. Anyway, just wanted to qualify what I said, and try to affirm that I wasn’t trying to objectively discredit the show, just saying that I was subjectively indifferent. I elaborate my thoughts on Season 2 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4xNnlsoOM8

  11. I think Billy Bob Thornton “Lorne Malvo” to be too plot shielded and inconsistent, first off shielded because he can get away with anything he does in the most unrealistic ways, and inconsistent because he was introduced as some ruthless badass who would kill anyone who might incriminate him or rub him the wrong way, but he ends up walking around all forgiving and being a nice guy preferring to trap a guy in a closet with a power drill, instead of drilling his brain, this is the same guy who killed a man with a family just because he was mean to Lester, all this makes his character looks campy and cartoonish.

    • I think you are missing the point. He never walked around “all forgiving” or “being a nice guy.” When did he do that? He wasn’t nice by locking the guy in the closet, he did that so he could come back the next day and wreck havoc, distracting the cops and killing him at the same time in a “fun and amusing” way to him.

      Same thing with killing Sam Hess. He didn’t just do it because he’s nice and someone was “mean” to Lester, he did it for fun. He even told the guy he was working for in Reno that it was a “personal errand.” Do you not understand that Malvo likes to create chaos and kill for personal amusement? It’s the heart of his character and what make him so interesting.

  12. Liz Kellam

    Malvo is definitely one those “watch the world burn” kind of people. I think that’s why he is so entertaining; he is unpredictable as a villain, and that keeps me coming back to see what he will do next.

  13. poexgirl

    I love Malvo as a villain almost as much as I love Fargo.

  14. I think a good part of what makes Lorne Malvo’s character so memorable, is Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as Malvo. After watching a few episodes of the show, I couldn’t see anyone else fitting the role.

  15. Your claim that “These villains ask us to go deeper and ask why we call them evil or heartless” makes an especially keen point about how villainy functions thematically in the three works you discuss. At the end of the original Fargo, the police chief Marge arrests and hauls off the most cold-blooded villain in the movie. She asks why he would do such horrible things and land himself in jail on such a “beautiful day” as a blizzard rages on outside (typical Fargo humor). Her last words are something like “I just don’t understand.” Maybe Malvo is such an interesting villain because he defies our understanding and that seems to be a good thing. At the same time, we identify with Malvo to a certain extent, revealing our own capacity for evil. I think Fargo challenges us to be the sort of people who can say that it is a beautiful day in the face of negativity instead of resorting to cruelty and brutality, but it also shows us how paradoxically simple and difficult it can be to fully meet that challenge.

    • S.A. Takacs

      I agree with you completely. If I could add on to my article, I would add that while the villains ask us to go deeper, we may not come up with any reasonable, logical, or satisfying answers or solutions to the issues raised by these villains.

  16. This was a really great write up of the character. I recently started watching Fargo not too long ago and Malvo character did indeed cause me to realiz he was very deep with his motives. I look forward to his character development

  17. I read this article mostly for your analysis on Malvo, since even now it’s hard to find a good analysis on him. Your article is fantastic and I agree that Malvo is not just a successful villain, but a humorous one as well. I still watch the show often and he still makes me crack up, particularly the part when he tricks the motel owner’s boy to urinate in the gas tank of her car, and when he sets the crickets loose in Phoenix Farms and he stands on the roof looking proud of himself. I understand that this was written several years ago but I wish you had embellished more on the rest of the season in another article, however, as I would’ve liked to have read what you had to say about Malvo in the later episodes, particularly the final one.

  18. There is a bit of foreshadowing-hinting with the name Malvo (sounds similar to “malo”, the Latin for evil). Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night implements a similar device.

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