There are antiheroes you can't help but root for – Tony Soprano, Walter White – and then there is Lester Nygaard.
After Fargo's ninth episode, "A Fox, A Rabbit, and A Cabbage," it has become exceedingly difficult to hope Lester gets away with his crimes. He may be a success story on the outside – the one-time pushover finds his inner strength and becomes Salesman of the Year -- but he's also the kind of guy who would set up his brother for murder and knowingly send his wife to her execution. Where Tony and Walter did very bad things in the name of some greater good, Lester's actions boil down to one thing: self-preservation. And a swaggering coward is still a coward.
The season's penultimate episode played out like a mini action movie: there's the undercover hit man, the gruesome triple homicide, the witness looking over his shoulder at every turn, the dogged cop getting one step closer to solving the case.
Malvo's long con in Kansas City is a master class in covert operations. For six months he assimilated into a dentist's office to cozy up to a doc whose brother was in witness protection. Was Malvo actually a dentist in a previous life? He seems to know his way around a cavity (great, gross opening sequence in this episode, by the way).
White-haired Malvo goes by "Mick Mike" these days, has a penchant for 1960s décor, and is engaged to a hot blonde woman named Jemma. His catch phrase: "Aces," typically accompanied by some variation on finger guns. At a house party, his target, Burt (the reliably excellent Stephen Root), admits that he just loves how Mike/Malvo has spiced things up since he arrived at their office. "I’m a rascal,” Malvo admits, which is hilarious.
Burt decides it's time Mike/Malvo meets his brother; they'd get along like gangbusters, he says. One problem: He's in witness protection hiding out from these mob guys out of Chicago, but screw it – they make plans to visit the informant, who's hiding out in Vegas, the following weekend. “Aces,” says the finger-gunning Malvo.
Later, Malvo is sitting in a very retro room, complete with pink lanterns and mood lighting. On old equipment he's listening to a tape.
“You did this to me,” says an unidentified man on the recording. “I had a wife, a family. I was happy. And then you started…”
"Started what?" asks Malvo on the recording. "All we did was talk."
Now stop," says the man. "Now you said things. Jumbled me up. Told me I needed… and now they’re dead. Why did I listen to you? Why?" The man begins to cry. "Tell my wife I love her," he says, and then we hear the sound of gunfire.
It's a short scene, but it's important. It proves once again that Lester wasn't Malvo's first "apprentice." Though it's unlikely he went around converting schmucks into killers to bolster the ranks of his hit man operation, he obviously gets a kick out of planting the seed of some misguided predator mentality into the seemingly weak and downtrodden. It would be really intriguing to find out why exactly Malvo has chosen to mentor these unlikely protégés, but maybe there isn't more to it. Maybe this really is his twisted idea of a hobby, his collection of recorded conversations with desperate men his souvenirs.
In Vegas, the dentists and their dates are sharing drinks in a hotel bar, making plans for the next day, which is when Burt will finally introduce Mike/Malvo to his brother. It's a reverse shot from last week's episode as we see Lester, sitting at the bar, observing the conversation.
Lester approaches the group, taps Malvo on the shoulder. "What are the odds?" he says. Malvo looks bewildered and tries to brush him off: "I’m sorry, sir -- you must have me confused with someone else."
"Nope. Minnesota, last year. The emergency room?" How about murdering Sam Hess and the chief of police? Lester is getting slightly aggravated that he needs to apparently spell things out for the man who changed his life. "I didn’t recognize you at first either because you have a whole new, uh… but hey, so do I!" He shows off his fancy Bill Blass suit and Salesman of the Year trophy. "Gave it to me on a stage and everything," he boasts.
Malvo just nods. His party is confused. Burt wants an introduction, but Malvo insists he's never met this wackadoo. Lester finally caves, saying he's right, he must be mistaken. Malvo readies his party to leave, and as they gather their things, he turns to Lester and says in a deep, threatening voice, "Walk away."
Lester is flustered. Jemma comes up and congratulates him on his award. Lester watches them walk away, trying to figure out what just happened. He’s irritated, and he's not going to let this go. Just as Malvo's group is about to head upstairs, Lester sticks his arm in the elevator door and pushes himself in.
"No," says Lester, his newfound confidence rising. Malvo is smirking and raises an eyebrow at him. "You don’t get to… and I’m sorry to interrupt but it’s not right," he says to the other three, who are wondering what is wrong with this man. "When something’s not right… well, the old Lester, now he would’ve just let it slide. But not this guy. I’ve worked too hard, I’ve come too far."
"Lester, stop," Malvo warns.
"Oh, so now you do know me," says Lester.
Malvo is annoyed. "Is this what you want?" he asks. It's clear Lester doesn't realize how loaded that question is.
"I…" Lester struggles to find an answer.
Burt tries to tell "Mick Mike" to play it cool. Malvo repeats his question. Lester considers. Jemma looks nervous.
"Yes or no?" asks Malvo. Lester straightens up. "Yes."