Fargo Gives Us The Solversons As A Reminder That Families Can Be Better Than Merely 'Functional'
Which is important, because all the other families this season are past 'dysfunctional' and actively devouring themselves.
We all know, and have known since last season, that Betsy Solverson is facing down a hard end. When we met her daughter Molly -- grown up and having followed her dad's and grandfather's footsteps into law enforcement -- we found out early on that she had lost her mother many years earlier; when we met Betsy in the Season 2 premiere, she had already been diagnosed with lymphoma at some earlier time and begun a course of treatment. Betsy has since been enrolled in a clinical drug trial knowing that she may or may not have been given the real medication or a placebo; though she's trying to stay hopeful, she seems to have a pretty good idea that it won't be long before her daughter and husband and dad are going to have to figure out how to get along without her. And because her relationship with each and all of them has been portrayed with such care, the viewer may have already started mourning her with them.
Season 2 has been the story of three families: the Gerhardts, the Blumquists, and the Solversons. Though the Gerhardts have apparently been at the centre of a revered criminal organization, we are meeting them as their empire has entered its steep decline: no one seems to expect that patriarch Otto will recover from his stroke and regain his position at the head of the family, and though Floyd would be more than capable of taking over for him if she had all the facts, Dodd has opposed her leadership from the start and, as of the latest episode, is undermining it more actively than ever. When Hanzee returns from Luverne with the accurate report that the local butcher killed Rye, Dodd smoothly interrupts: "That's his name. 'The Butcher Of Luverne'....A contract man out of Kansas City." As "Dodd's man," Hanzee corroborates Dodd's opportunistic embellishment; Dodd having already scuttled any chance of peaceful, businesslike negotiations in the last episode, now he's escalating hostilities in a way he knows his mother won't be able to resist: pinning her baby boy's death on the Gerhardts' rivals.
But that's not the only way Dodd scumbags his closest relatives in this episode: he also lets Charlie join another Gerhardt henchman on the trip to Luverne so that Charlie can be the one to assassinate Ed. We knew last week when Charlie proved to Dodd that he could both shoot as well as load his gun one-handed that Charlie's hero-worship of Dodd couldn't end well, and as soon as Charlie enters Bud's and strikes up a conversation about The Stranger with Noreen, he obviously loses his nerve and changes his mind about being a gangster like his cool Uncle Dodd. Confronted by the reality of getting out his gun, killing Ed, and then killing Noreen because he's been instructed to leave no witnesses, Charlie decides he'd rather just buy some meat, actually, and also call home and let his dad know he wants to finish school after all. But apparently there's no take-backs in organized crime, and Charlie's driver/Dodd's muscle forces him to do what he came to do...which, one fiery conflagration later, ends with Ed burying a cleaver in the henchman's skull, Charlie struck in a ricochet, and the shop consumed in flame. Charlie is still alive when Ed flees the scene, so maybe he will live to walk the stage at his graduation and make Bear proud...but if it's wrong to hope that when Bear hears about all this he turns Dodd inside out, then I guess I'll just be wrong.
Back to Ed, fleeing the scene. One could argue that the seeds for the destruction of Ed's family were planted when he married Peggy, who in the previous four episodes and through the bulk of this one hasn't seemed to be interested in Ed at all, never mind not loving him. But as soon as Ed agreed to help Peggy get away with a hit-and-run by grinding up the corpse that resulted, he started learning the hard way that being a good partner to one's spouse doesn't necessarily mean doing whatever she says so that she'll continue letting you look at her boobs -- and, more rarely, touch them.
When Peggy's reaction to Lou's dark warning about the danger the Blumquists are in causes her to put back in motion her plan, from the premiere, to run to California, Ed is unmoved; he has a plan too, and it involves buying the shop (regardless of her having spent the money, behind his back, on the admission to her stupid Lifespring seminar) and starting a family and being whatever version of "happy" he thinks he can hope and/or settle for. But since he doesn't know what the viewer does -- that Peggy's already making sure the "starting a family" part is forestalled by staying on the Pill -- it's not a huge surprise when Peggy waits for Ed to leave, (poorly) packs a couple of suitcases, and goes to pick up her now-repaired car so that she can blow town in it. What is a huge surprise is that she doesn't just change her mind, but sells the car to Sonny to replace the money she had spent on herself. And when Ed comes home and she greets him, eager to tell him how she fixed their lives, he has to tell her that the shop is gone along with his dreams of ownership and that they do have to leave after all, since he hasn't just seen the proof of how right Lou was but almost been killed by it, and we learn why the episode is called "The Gift Of The Magi."
If these were our only examples of what families are like this season, one would have to conclude that Fargo is very cynical. But the example the Solversons collectively set shows us that members of a family don't have to scheme for power against each other in a zero-sum game, like the Gerhardts (or, really, just Dodd and Simone); they don't have to be made up of queens and patsies, like the Blumquists. Families can actually be made up of people who don't just wish the best for one another but work for it; they can love each other so deeply that they feel each other's pain as their own.
Betsy's lymphoma is a test not just for her but for the Solverson/Larsson clan, and while they're bearing up bravely in a way we'd expect of midwesterners, it's hard to stay reserved and laconic all the time. In the premiere, Lou talked about Betsy's treatment to Karl and Sonny at the VFW; here, the low-key-stressful disruption of a day spent protecting presidential candidate Ronald Reagan finds Lou getting philosophical about not just Betsy's illness but his experiences in Vietnam in the men's room, to The Gipper himself.
Lou: My wife's got lymphoma. Stage 3. And lately, the state of things, uh-- Well, sometimes, I-- Late at night-- Well, sometimes, the sickness of this world, if it isn't inside my wife, somehow. The cancer. I don't, I don't know what I'm saying, except do you really think we'll get out of this mess we're in?
Reagan: Son, there's not a challenge on God's green earth that can't be overcome by an American. I truly believe that.
Lou: Yeah. But how?
Reagan: [pats Lou's shoulder; leaves]
At home, Betsy regards her bottle of TRIAL DRUG and no sooner has she dutifully taken her dose than Hank stops by. He's as gentle as ever, asking if she's feeling okay; he's heard from Lou on the radio and knows he'll be a couple more hours, so Hank thought he'd just "stop by" and "make [himself] a nuisance." He tries to be of use to her by offering to make her something to eat, to which she says she's trying to decide whether she's hungry or needs to throw up. "Don't normally confuse the two," says Hank, looking down. Betsy wryly says it's a side effect of the drug -- which is good, because it means she's actually taking medication and not the placebo. "So we're rootin' for nausea, then, huh?" says Hank heartily. Betsy doesn't answer, but regards him fondly, and after looking down at the kitchen island for a while, he finally meets her eye and ruefully chuckles, "I'm all left thumbs when it comes to this stuff." Betsy quietly laughs, "You're doing great." We've only known these characters for five episodes, but we know Betsy means it: Hank is trying, but trying not to look like he's trying, and Betsy is comforted to see the clumsy dad she obviously adores tripping over his feelings, but doing it in a way she can recognize as particularly him.
In the premiere, when Lou told Karl and Sonny about the latest in Betsy's illness and Karl got angry at the world for letting such a good woman be stricken in this way, he wasn't wrong: it's awful to watch a smart, funny, loving woman have to face her own decline, and her own mortality. But seeing her do it surrounded by a family that treasures her, and that she completely adores, is giving her struggle meaning. Floyd and Peggy might both survive the season while Betsy doesn't. But either of them might trade survival for a life as well lived as Betsy's.