Fargo season finale review: The never-ending story

This isn't the real ending for many of these characters — but for now, they're happy, and that's good enough

FARGO -- “Palindrome” -- Episode 210
(Image credit: Chris Large/FX)

Fargo's season two finale begins with a series of endings. Rye Gerhardt, his corpse frozen solid in the Blumquists' freezer. Otto Gerhardt, shot to death in his own kitchen. Simone Gerhardt, lying dead in a snowy field. Floyd Gerhardt, with her fatal stab wound, and her sons Dodd and Bear, gunned down with a pair of bullets to the head.

After paying our last respects to the Gerhardts, we cut to Betsy Solverson — pale and unmoving after her sudden collapse in last week's episode — just as the familiar opening monologue hits the line about having respect for the dead. And just when it seems like Betsy has reached her own tragic ending, she opens her eyes. It's a welcome relief in a bittersweet finale that's designed to reaffirm the ultimate triumph of Minnesota Nice over evil.

Betsy serves as the narrator for Fargo's final hour, describing a fever dream that doubles as a parable for the show's black-and-white worldview. On the good side, we see an idealized vision of the future, as an elderly Lou Solverson sits down to a meal with his adult daughter Molly and her husband (with Keith Carradine, Allison Tolman, and Colin Hanks reprising their roles from season one). On the evil side, we see the chaos of killers like Mike Milligan and Hanzee Dent — two characters who are ruthless and unpredictable enough to singlehandedly derail any kind of happy ending.

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"Palindrome" gives us one couple who doesn't manage to ride off into the sunset together. As Lou has repeatedly noted, Ed and Peggy Blumquist have been living on borrowed time for basically the whole season, skating by on a few lucky breaks. On the myth of self-actualization, they've been making big and ludicrous plans: escaping both the crops and criminals by fleeing to California to start a new and fulfilling life together.

Instead, Ed dies in a suitable location for the so-called Butcher of Luverne: a supermarket meat locker, where he and Peggy hide in an attempt to get away from Hanzee. "All I'm ever going to want is to get back to what we had," says Ed as he begins to slip away, as if turning back the clock is an actual, tangible option. But there are consequences for the choices they've made over the course of the series. Ed is dead, and Peggy is off to prison, where her self-actualization will truly be put to the test.

But if the Fargo finale saw some characters getting their just deserts, it saw others refusing to accept fates that felt almost preordained. Hanzee Dent, the man most responsible for the events of the Sioux Falls Massacre, wisely gives up on his pursuit of Ed and Peggy, letting the universe take over where he left off. Instead, he flees, eluding the police with the help of some plastic surgery and a very familiar sounding new identity: Moses Tripoli. (Honestly, it's a huge act of faith on Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley's part to expect you to remember all of this, so in brief: Moses Tripoli is the Fargo-based mob leader who orders the death of Lorne Malvo, in retaliation for the murder of Sam Hess, in season one.)

This backdoor origin story is one of the more unconvincing flourishes in "Palindrome." It's a little too cute to have Hanzee assume his new identity at the same moment he first encounters the young versions of Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench — children who will grow up to becomes his very own Kitchen Brothers-esque assassins. And yes, plastic surgery is plastic surgery, but actors Zahn McClarnon and Mark Acheson don't look anything alike.

Still, there's something satisfying about the cyclical path on which Hanzee is about to embark. Over the next 27 years, he'll build up a formidable criminal empire that will keep North Dakota in a Gerhardt-esque stranglehold — until 2006, during the events of Fargo season one, when he foolishly crosses Lorne Malvo and sees his painstakingly constructed operation shot to pieces in a single day.

Even more satisfying is the purgatorial fate of Mike Milligan, whose ruthless machinations have earned him the leadership role he so desperately craved within the Kansas City syndicate. Mike, like Hanzee, manages to escape from all the bloodshed unscathed — but his "reward" for all those bodies might be less appealing than a jail cell. For dismantling the Gerhardts, Mike receives his promotion: A tiny, claustrophobic office, where he'll be tasked with coming up with accounting-based solutions to earn his criminal syndicate a little more cash. (When pressed, Mike's boss helpfully gives the example of a guy who rose up through the organization when he reorganized the mailroom, saving a cool $1 million.) For Mike — whose entire identity is wrapped up in being a smooth, speechifying criminal — it's a milquetoast invitation to a fate worse than the glory of a flashy death.

Is Mike Milligan still sitting in that tiny office 27 years later? We don't know. As much as the first season gives us a lot of intriguing context for what happens to this roster of heroes and villains, there's also a lot we don't know about what happens between 1979 and 2006. How soon after the Sioux Falls Massacre does Lou get shot, resulting in the honorable discharge from his job as a Minnesota state trooper? What happens to Hank? Does Betsy eventually die of cancer — and if not, what explains her absence in Fargo's first season?

There are surely answers to those questions — and given Fargo's time-jumping structure, it may even get back to them someday. But in the end, it's up to the show's creative team to determine where to end this chapter of the story, and "Palindrome" does both the characters and the audience a kindness by giving us a happy one.

In its final scenes for the year, Fargo luxuriates in the simple, happy warmth of the extended Solverson family: Lou, Betsy, Hank, and Molly. For now, at least, peace and normalcy have been restored.

"We're put on this Earth to do good, and each of us gets the time we get to do it," says Betsy, putting a succinct button on both the season and the series as a whole. This isn't the real ending for any of these characters — but for now, they're happy, and that's good enough.

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