Since the day Fargo first released back in 1996, it established itself as a franchise built around the women of its world. Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her role as Marge Gunderson, a pregnant police chief who investigates the grisly murders left in the wake of Jean Lundegaard’s kidnapping, and she deserved every accolade thrown her way. This was a tradition the FX show by the same name thankfully embraced with a passion, with season 1 starring the wonderful Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson, and season 2 confirmed with Kirsten Dunst’s role as Peggy Blumquist.
At every turn, Fargo established a woman at the center of events, around who the story depended on.
Now, to display my own bias here, a big reason why seasons 3 and especially season 4 of Fargo fell short of the admittedly sky-high standards of their predecessors was because they did not live up to the standard of characters like Marge or Peggy. It should have been a slam dunk when Carrie Coon was cast as Gloria Burgle, but she was largely not utilized the way the series had come to make audiences expect. Season 4 fell even farther, and while Jessie Buckley certainly did her best as Oraetta Mayflower, no single role was overcoming the flaws of that season.
Naturally, this decline made me hesitant about Fargo’s fifth season. Then Juno Temple stepped on screen as Dorothy Lyon, and it was immediately clear that we were dealing with something special. Not only does Dorothy live up to the high standard set forth by the series, I’d say she’s battling Marge Gunderson for the title of the best protagonist in Fargo’s history.
What immediately makes her work so well is the way Dot (her preferred nickname) blends the grounded absurdity which defines Fargo. For all the attention paid to the exaggerated accents and sometimes slapstick incompetence of the series, it is the characters grounding the plot that make the franchise work. You need Marge as the reminder of how outrageous and gruesome Jean Lundegaard’s case is. You need Molly and Lou Solverson. A big reason why seasons 3 and 4 don’t work nearly as well is that the characters meant to ground the story are relatively ignored, or also pushed too far towards cartoonish exaggeration.
Dorothy Lyon somehow balances along this beam between the absurd and the grounded, where she is somehow able to sway one way or the other without ever falling entirely off. Obviously, so much of this is feat is due to Juno Temple, who knocked the role out of the park no matter what material she is given. Temple is sometimes asked to do both from scene to scene, yet never stops portraying Dot as totally authentic in every moment. She never struggles to portray both the fierce survivor side of the character or the frightened mother and wife who simply wants to make pancakes and attend PTA meetings.
Dorothy is such a fascinating character in the context of Fargo women. She’s almost like a mishmash of Marge Gunderson and Peggy Blumquist. On one hand, she is the Minnesota nice, high morals protagonist that battles the absurdity around her. On the other, she is that absurdity. Dot very much fits into the Jerry Lundegaard/Lester Nygaard role of the normal person whose central role in the inciting incident leaves them scrambling for the rest of the story.
Tell me you don’t see the similarities in Lester’s hospital stay and Dot’s for example.
For season 5, Fargo clearly tried to do something a bit different with the usual formula where the normal cop tracks the bumbling fool who got in over their head, and it worked brilliantly.
So much of this is due to how clearly this season saw Dot as a character, and how skilled a job they did of crafting the narrative around the character traits they wanted to define her. With each new revelation about her past as Roy Tillman’s abused wife and the lengths she went to in order to escape him, everything we’ve seen up to that point becomes re-contextualized in some important way that makes both Dot and the season better.
The story of Fargo’s fifth season very much revolves around Dot’s past with Roy Tillman, her efforts to get away from him, and his attempts to forcefully take her back. The season received a lot of praise for its depiction of domestic abuse, and Dot’s character is obviously the key component behind said praise. Fargo avoids the stereotypes that typically simplify the subject and how an abuse victim is “supposed” to act.
Dot is unquestionably a strong person. The lengths she goes to while fighting off Roy’s goons, as well as the skills she clearly picked up over long years on Roy’s ranch, certainly border on ultra-competent, where she could be the hero of an action-revenge movie. This is most easily seen in her fight to escape her initial kidnapping, as well as the way she defends her home from Gator Tillman and his thugs. Dot is fierce, skilled in violence, and clearly comfortable going to whatever lengths she needs to in order to protect herself and her family.
This could have meant Dot spends the season as this hardcore badass who constantly fights off Roy’s efforts with a bloody grin. You know the stereotype, where abuse victims are only “strong” if they physically retaliate and show no fear of their abusers. Dot, however, is absolutely terrified of Roy, from the second the fifth season begins in the midst of a physically violent PTA meeting.
Dot’s fear of Roy goes well beyond the rational, and basically always fuels the side of her falling more into the Peggy Blumquist side of the Fargo character spectrum. There are numerous moments where she could have said something to the police or FBI and probably had Roy taken down much earlier in the season. At the very least, she could have protected herself from any real chance of Roy and his cronies coming after her. She would have been too well-protected, and there would have been too much of a spotlight on her for anyone to try and kidnap her.
But fear is not rational. Responses to abuse and trauma are not rational. In this way, Dorothy Lyon is one of the most authentic, if obviously exaggerated, depictions of an abuse survivor that I have ever seen. There’s the idea out there that the fear just stops once you leave an abusive situation, but it’s not that simple.
Fargo did a wonderful job portraying Dorothy Lyon as a person who had the strength to escape Roy Tillman, but never escaped the fear of going back, which is a more honest depiction of abuse than I’m used to seeing on TV.
Dot’s arc throughout the season sees her both coming to terms with this fear while also learning to cope with it.
In isolation, the episode where Dot comes across Roy’s ex-wife, Linda, and her camp of women who have all suffered violence from their spouses, seems a bit strange. We find out in the end that it was all a dream Dot had after falling asleep at a diner, which is always going to be divisive in the TV world. However, this episode is transformational in multiple ways for Dot. For one, it helped her come to terms with Linda’s role in everything, which we find out led to Linda’s murder, since Roy became infatuated with Dot instead.
Dot was in denial over what happened to Linda, believing instead that she had run away, while also blaming her for bringing Dot into the situation to begin with. It’s a complex knot of emotions for her to work through, as any truly honest depiction of domestic violence tends to be, with all kinds of contradictory thoughts involved. On the one hand, Dot probably had some sort of buried, subconscious guilt over “stealing” Roy from Linda because of Linda’s death, which is likely why she denied it. On the other hand, she clearly resents Linda at the same time.
And ultimately, it was an episode that showed why people like Dot and Linda need help and support to escape their abusers. Really, that is what Dot wanted from that dream more than anything. She was desperate for another voice who experienced the same trauma she did, who could validate how she felt, and could help her end the conflict at hand.
Fargo has always been brilliant about writing its women with many layers to exist upon. Marge Gunderson wasn’t just a badass sheriff, she wasn’t just an expecting mom, she wasn’t just a supportive wife. Scenes like the one with Mike Yanagita are vital to the movie and her character because they flesh her out as a person with a history and options that her life could have taken besides the one she currently lives. They give us a glimpse of the person, not just the plot device.
By that standard, Dorothy Lyon easily lives up to the franchise’s history, while also existing as her own unique amalgamation of many things Fargo is known for.
It’s impossible to really talk about this character without discussing the final scene of the season, which has deservedly been discussed as possibly the best final scene, and certainly one of the best, period, of Fargo’s rich history. The way in which Dot and her family break through to Munch exemplifies how Dot copes with and overcomes her past; she found true honest love and support through others.
Munch is another pained, wounded, traumatized victim of a life that did him wrong, only he took another route. He blames himself for his pain, and believes he deserves it. This is another common trait in abuse victims, where they are gaslit to believe that they deserve what their abusers do to them. He comes for Dot because his life involves lashing out at others as a way to cope.
And so Dot shows him another way.
While I don’t have the best opinion of how Fargo handled Lorraine Lyon, she is also an important factor in Dot’s defensiveness throughout the season. Lorraine’s suspicion of Dot and determination to end her marriage keeps Dot fiercely protective of the life she built after leaving Roy. Fargo draws parallels between how Lorraine and Roy treat her, with probably the most explicit example being how Lorraine having Dot forcefully admitted to a mental ward strikes similar to Roy later imprisoning her in a cabin.
You can argue that Lorraine’s later acceptance of Dot, though, is the final piece that breaks through and lets Dot truly feel secure in her life with her husband, Wayne. Lorraine was the most prominent threat to that life, and with it finally gone, she can finally relax, knowing she has love and security with a good partner and loving daughter.
Everything defining Dot shows prominently in the final scene. She is fiercely protective and brave in the face of the threat Munch poses, but kind and patient as she tried to show him another way. Her family easily falls into the same practice, as Wayne and Scotty effortlessly show Munch the kindness that separates them from the life Dot escaped. It’s funny to see Munch try and understand the Lyon family as they run him over with unrelenting positivity.
I can imagine Dot being in the same position once, wary and distrustful until Wayne’s pure, honest goodness cut right through all her natural suspicions.
In many ways, Fargo’s fifth season ends on the same note as Marge Gunderson’s final moments in the 1996 movie, where she wonders why people could be so evil simply out of greed, rather than be content with what they have. Maybe Norm didn’t win the stamp picture contest, but he still got the 3 cent stamp. He and Marge are happily married, with a child on the way. Everyone responsible for the murders she investigated are either dead or in prison due to their inability to control their greed.
Dorothy Lyon will likely never fully move past the trauma of what Roy Tillman did to her. Munch, supernatural or not, will always struggle with the sins of his past. But maybe with a little love and joy, they can choose to not let their past define them, and move forward as better people, content in being better people.
Images Courtesy of FX
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