July 6, 2013 by NowhereButPop
By most accounts, treachery is considered to be a most grievous, and unforgivable act, as it represents either the ultimate in deception, or a selling of one’s soul to go against an initial belief. Even in Dante’s Inferno treachery is the most sinful of transgressions as the last few circles of Hell are reserved for traitors, with the ninth and final circle reserved for some of history’s greatest betrayers in Cassius, Brutus, Judas, and Lucifer himself. Some betrayals however, are more deplorable and unacceptable than others; paramount amongst them is treachery against family. It’s for this reason above all others that the true villain of The Godfather II is Fredo Corleone, older brother of protagonist and mistaken villain Michael Corleone.
While you can make the argument that rival gangster Hyman Roth is the antagonist of the movie, he is by no means the villain. Here is a guy whose existence revolves around the fact that he is a mobster and a thug; as such certain things are expected of him such as murder, theft, and lies. From the very beginning we are told that he is not to be trusted and because of this it comes as no surprise when he tries to have Michael killed. Even though he is the one behind the attempt on Michael’s life, a villainous act in and of itself, he is not the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing who disguises his sinister motives behind a veneer of friendship. From the onset he is introduced as a devious mind who is not to be trusted.
On top of this, his acts of villainy can all be contained within the realm of his title, so much so that we could say his title as rival gangster would dictate his behavior. Simply put, he doesn’t do anything we wouldn’t expect him to do. As a rival to Michael, it’s his job to try and eliminate or antagonize his opponent.
Michael is not the true villain of the film either because his own acts of villainy are all borne from external factors. Think about why he even became the head of the mob in the first place; it was because he had to. After Vito died, there was no one left to take the mantle. This lifestyle of crime and violence was thrust upon Michael. He has Fredo murdered because of the treachery his brother committed against the family; he has his lieutenant commit suicide after he tried to turn Michael over to the authorities, and he has Roth killed because it was Roth who was behind the attempt on his life at his house. The biggest acts of villainy that Michael commits are reactionary, bred from attempts on his own well being. While these acts do serve to expedite his fall from grace it does not make him the villain.
Finally we get to Fredo, stupid incompetent Fredo. Fredo knowingly betrayed his brother and his family to their rivals. Fredo did so not out of stupidity or foolery, which could be forgiven, but out of arrogance and anger. He wanted to get back at Michael for being passed over by the family and prove his worth as a Corleone. The problem being that he destroyed his family in the process. Fredo is a self-conscious and weak minded individual, yet he was fully aware that he was selling his brother out to his rival, and did so to show that he was smart enough to do things besides run some “Mickey Mouse night club.” He wanted to retaliate against his own family for having overlooked him so much that he was complicit in the attempted assassination of his brother. That’s why Michael’s reaction (murder) was so extreme in return. The betrayal came as a surprise to him unlike Tessio’s betrayal at the end of The Godfather.
The idea of Michael’s own brother betraying him was so unfathomable and out of the question. And yet Fredo stood there and brought his brother to Cuba in an attempt to have him gunned down by Hyman Roth. Fredo is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the snake in the grass, pretending to be at his brother’s side, but waiting ever so silently for his moment to strike out against him. All for what, for pride, to prove that he wasn’t an imbecile? He lashed out and betrayed his family all in the name of self interest. Some sins simply cannot be forgiven; treachery against blood is pretty near the top of the list.