Fargo: The Female Officer vs The Patriarchy

                As with the original 1996 version of Fargo, the first season of the television version features a female police officer as a primary investigator in a homicide investigation.  In strikingly similar fashion, the first instance of police work we see from either version of Fargo is of the respective female officers investigating a dead body found near a vehicle on the side of the road in the middle of winter. While watching the television series, members of the audience familiar with the original film would spot the difference once Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) begins to incorrectly hypothesize about the corpse and the car accident. Molly seems to be not quite as clever as Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), her spiritual predecessor, who had managed to sort out an outline of the entire chain of events in her first look at her version of the crime scene. This discrepancy between the two characters leads to one of the major differences between the film and the series; while Marge is perhaps the only competent officer in the film, capable of solving the case on her own, Molly’s capacity for detective work is hindered by the male authorities that surround her as the world inside the television series is decidedly more patriarchal than the one written by the Coen brothers.

                Molly’s first appearance in the television series is as an officer on the side of the road near an abandoned vehicle, evidently as a first responder waiting for her superior officer before inspecting the crime scene. The roles have been reversed from the 1996 film, in which Marge is the superior officer who arrives on scene to find a subordinate waiting for her before entering the crime scene. Marge is immediately represented to the audience as a character with a sense of responsibility, who quite literally answers the call to duty early in the morning. More than that, Marge is portrayed as a character who is evidently tougher than most other officers, as evidenced by the fact that most other officers refused to attend the crime scene because “it’s cold.”  The television series flips this situation by having Molly’s superior officer joke about thinking “of stripping down to [his] shorts and working on [his] tan” in sub-zero temperatures. By giving this line to the male superior officer, the television series is setting up expectations of patriarchal archetypes that the film sought to undermine from Marge’s first scene onward.

                In both the film and television series, female officers are in the extreme minority within their respective police departments. It is also the case that in both narratives, many of the male officers are incompetent in relation to Marge and Molly. Marge has the benefit of being the chief of the Brainerd Police Department, allowing her to thoroughly investigate with little to no hindrance from a male authority. Molly has no such benefit, in fact her male colleagues make her job more difficult as her clearly less competent colleague, Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) is promoted to chief over her. Not only is Molly being passed over for a less qualified male officer, Bill utilizes his increased status to limit Molly’s interrogations. Preferring to err on the side of politeness at the cost of the investigation, Bill commands Molly to stop asking difficult questions when doing interviews; her hardball questioning technique is something that could be expected from a stereotypically alpha male “bad-cop” character. Even Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), the one male officer that Molly could trust to be competent, apart from her late chief Vern (Shawn Doyle), ends up seriously hindering Molly by mistakenly shooting her in the midst of a snowstorm. This furthers Molly’s struggle to prevail in a situation in which the men who are meant to be helping her are inadvertently holding her back.

                Marge’s relationship with the male officers that she interacts with can be considered almost maternal. She clearly is respected by her colleagues, who have coffee waiting for her when she arrives at the initial crime scene, and there is no attempt to undermine her position of power as police chief. From the small position of power of being the one to drive the prowler with the male cop in the passenger seat, to correcting the same officer’s police work in a polite and motherly tone (that DLR is not the first three letters of a license plate, but instead a “dealer” plate), Marge has a drastically different experience than Molly within their departments. Marge’s maternal relationship with her subordinate officers can be seen a few more times in the film, twice while she eats lunch with her husband. In both situations, a subordinate male officer enters the scene to report to her information pertaining to the investigation, with Marge continuing to eat her lunch, listening and responding to the officers like a mother would talk to her child recounting their day at school.

                It comes as no surprise that Marge’s maternal position would be represented visually by her actual pregnancy. The Coen brothers combine “the mother and the law in a single figure,” with Marge carrying both her “police revolver (clichéd phallic signifier of legal authority) and a large belly containing a child (proof of female reproductive power)” (Luhr 2004). Her pregnancy is even used as an effect to tease the audience with stereotypically female behaviour, which never comes to fruition because Marge is ultimately non-conformist to the weak female archetype. A prime example of this teasing is during Marge’s encounter with the body in turned over car, when she begins to lean forward with nausea after viewing the corpse. The audience is lead to believe that she is about throw up out of disgust from the crime scene, yet Marge stands up straight and dismisses it as morning sickness which quickly passes, leaving her just as unfazed as before she investigated the grisly scene.

                Molly’s pregnancy can be viewed in an opposite manner to Marge’s pregnancy. By the end of the season, Molly has married Gus and has become a part of his small family, which is obviously soon to grow judging by Molly’s pregnant figure. Gus and Molly’s relationship is advanced from flirting to married with a baby on the way via a time jump and a “seven years later” title card. Molly remains in her role as a police officer, occupying a visually similar role as Marge in regards to the maternity police uniform, while Gus has evidently left the force. While Marge was the one to solve the mystery in her narrative, and see it through to the end down to arresting the remaining perpetrator single-handedly (even with a nearly full-term pregnancy), Molly never had the opportunity to see her case through to the end. Ultimately it is Gus who stumbles across Malvo’s (Billy Bob Thornton) hideout, sneaks inside, and shoots him dead, ending Malvo’s streak of murders. Molly, despite her work and planning, does not experience the satisfaction of closing her own case. The series ends with the news that Gus is receiving an award for his bravery in stopping Malvo, and that Molly will be appointed as the new police chief, with a final image of the family cuddled up on the couch watching television. Molly being appointed as chief can be read as an optimistic and progressive change up of the patriarchal system that had been in place and hindered Molly throughout the series, and now Molly will hopefully be able to move forward with her career in a similar manner as Marge.