[This is a review for Fargo episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]

So far, Allison Tolman’s fantastic performance as Deputy Molly Solverson has been an auxiliary thread for Fargo, which has understandably had its hands full with Lester Nygaard’s involvement/participation in the triple homicide that rocked Bemidji courtesy of the devilish Lorne Malvo. The busyness of the first two episodes essentially forced the story line to temporarily marginalize Molly, asking the audience to subsist mainly on morsels of her personality and drive, yet keep an eye on her for more than the character’s similarities to the likes of Marge Gunderson.

While Lester has managed to distance himself from Jerry Lundegaard, Molly has ostensibly remained a static reminder of the series’ inspiration. However, as ‘A Muddy Road’ demonstrates, it wasn’t that Fargo writer Noah Hawley was fumbling to find purpose and distinction for Molly, it was a matter of when the story line would allow him an organic opportunity to develop her character, and allow Tolman an opportunity to break out and showcase her talent, as well as her vision for the role.

The episode begins in the past with a long shot of an outwardly desolate metropolitan downtown that’s followed up by an equally desolate (or seemingly so) office building. The shots effectively mirror the opening sequences of the first two episodes, which focused on the barren stretches of highway in between places like Fargo and Bemidji. On the face of it, these superb opening shots are saying: Things are bleak all around. Meanwhile, the painterly depictions of cruel, lonely environments serve to color the equally harsh morality of the series.

Deserted highways and quiet offices alike are presented as having similar levels of severity; they are cold, unforgiving places where a man can be dragged down a hallway, through a lobby, and stripped nearly naked in a parking garage without anyone lifting a finger to help. They’re also where said man winds up freezing to death in nothing more than his underwear.

That alone goes a long way in explaining how the series sees the world it’s depicting. “It’s already a dog-eat-dog world,” Malvo tells the proprietor of a mobile pharmacopoeia who’s trying to up-sell him on a zombie survival pack in case things somehow get worse. The pack is intended to go along with the Adderall Malvo picks up to use on Stavros, as part of his plan to take over the poorly organized blackmail scheme from the over-bronzed Don Chumph. The intimation of both men is clear: The world is, indeed, a dark place. But as Malvo sees it, the only way to survive is to always be prepared to be the darkest.

In a way, the misanthropic misadventures of Lorne Malvo serve to establish the extremes Fargo is working in, especially as Malvo increasingly becomes the center of Molly’s investigation. The more the series focuses on the two, the more profound their juxtaposition becomes, especially as Molly’s character is made more distinct by not only her natural competence as a deputy, but her inherent decency as a human being. In that sense, then, Lester Nygaard and Gus Grimly (and their respective festering consciences) work to fill the gap between the two extremes, smartly establishing a bundle of complex motivations and character depictions that even out the intensity of Malvo and Molly’s opposition.

Despite all that transpires in ‘A Muddy Road,’ it still works out to be Molly’s breakthrough episode. While most everyone is moving in the opposite direction, either stuck envisioning the recent past, or, like Bill, literally turning his back on her, Molly is focused firmly on what lies ahead. But it’s the scene near the episode’s end featuring Molly, Gus, and Greta at her father’s diner that resonates the most; demonstrating the character’s natural decency in such a way that it begins to melt the darkly humorous permafrost that has, up to this point, kept the show a little cold to the touch.

Fargo continues next Tuesday with ‘Eating the Blame’ @10pm on FX.

Photos: Chris Large/FX