Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Why Did Michael Have Fredo Killed In The Godfather Part II?

You don't need us to tell you that "The Godfather" trilogy is some of the greatest movies ever made, if not the greatest ever. (Yes, even including "The Godfather Part III.") But one way you can tell a movie (or a novel or a song or any other piece of art) is a classic is by how much fans dissect and debate it. Decades after "The Godfather Part II" premiered in 1974, fans are still pondering what it's really all about.

Take Michael Corleone's (Al Pacino) decision to have his older brother Fredo (John Cazale) killed at the end of "The Godfather II." It's shocking enough to see any character want their own sibling dead. It's especially shocking in Michael's case since he's so strongly defined by his love for his family. Given Michael's familial devotion, it might seem out of character for him to order Fredo's death — and Michael might even agree with you — but it's very much in line with who Michael has become by the end of the second "Godfather."

Here's why Michael had Fredo killed at the end of "The Godfather Part II." 

Fredo's murder in The Godfather Part II is foreshadowed in The Godfather

Before we get into that, let's look at why Michael didn't kill Fredo at the end of "The Godfather." Fredo is the middle son of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), and his many weaknesses have excluded him from being named Vito's heir. Originally, that role was designated for Sonny (James Caan), and when Sonny is assassinated by Emilio Barzini's men, youngest son Michael becomes the heir instead.

Fredo really has no purpose in the family, so the Corleones send him to Las Vegas. His job is to help the Corleones make inroads into the casino business. But instead, Fredo comes under the influence of Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), a ruthless casino owner. When Fredo isn't disgracing the family name by impregnating Vegas showgirls, he's acting essentially as Greene's lackey. That's a shameful enough position for any Corleone. Even worse, when Michael tries to strong-arm Greene into selling, Fredo takes the latter's side. 

As the Don, Michael's cardinal rule is that nobody goes against the Corleone family and lives. At the end of "The Godfather," he delivers bloody revenge to several people who have crossed him, including his abusive brother-in-law Carlo, his traitorous capo Tessio, and Greene. 

But Michael spares Fredo and warns him not to go against the family again. This is because Michael understands that Fredo wasn't trying to deliberately subvert the family's interests. He was just too weak-minded to think for himself. Fredo does betray the family by backing Greene, but it's not as intentional a betrayal as Carlo's or Tessio's.  Michael still warns Fredo never to go against the family again. And unfortunately for Fredo (and Michael), he doesn't listen. 

Michael had no choice but to kill his brother

By the time "The Godfather Part II" begins, everyone including Fredo is aware of what Michael does to people who betray him, even family members like Carlo. But Fredo's tragic flaw is that he can't accept being denied a leadership role. The second time Fredo betrays Michael, it's intentional, and that's unforgivable.

In "The Godfather Part II," the gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) wants to both avenge Greene's murder and take over the Corleone family's empire. He hatches a plot to assassinate Michael and replace him with Fredo. Crucially, he does this with Fredo's help. In Havana, Fredo feeds information on the Corleones' activities to Roth's associate Johnny Ola. This lets Roth set a trap for Michael, and Michael only barely survives.

Michael immediately knows Fredo helped Roth. But at first, he thinks Fredo was just a dupe, like he was with Greene, and Fredo lets him think that. Later, however, Michael learns that Fredo has been intentionally misleading him. And that seals Fredo's fate.

Michael doesn't want to murder his own brother, and he tries everything possible to avoid it. He's willing to forgive multiple betrayals, as long as they're unintentional. But nobody conspires against the Don and lives, even the Don's own brother.

But in the end, the decision still destroys Michael

In the mafia, Michael ordering the killing of his own brother is perfectly justified because of Fredo's treachery. But justified or not, Michael's decision has huge consequences for himself, and "The Godfather Part III" explores those consequences.

Fredo isn't the only one who betrays a family member. After Michael discovered Fredo's betrayal, he used his own son, Anthony, to form a bond with Fredo as a way to draw him in. Michael using his own son to get to Fredo was its own betrayal, and in "Part III," both Anthony and his mother Kay want nothing to do with Michael. The godfather is so shattered with guilt that at one point he confesses the murder to the (future) pope himself.

For Michael, this is a fate worse than death. Initially, he never wanted to join the family business. After returning home as a war hero, he only became involved in the family's affairs after the Tattaglias nearly assassinated Vito at a produce stand. Michael became the Don in order to protect his family. And in the end, it destroyed them.