Showrunner: Noah Hawley
Fargo has always been a series that balances entertainment value with depth – it takes charming characters and tells their story in spectacular style, while tying them into an intricate narrative that you can both enjoy in the moment and unravel on further viewings. It effortlessly mixes dark comedy with dramatic intensity, joyfully presenting the contradictions of “true crime” in Minnesota: blue skies, friendly neighbours, and lots of murder.
In this season of Fargo, however, there is no blue in the Minnesota sky – literally, the colour blue has been bleached out of the majority of the scenes. Accordingly, season three looks far less vibrant than the previous seasons, and the same can be said of the storytelling and the characters: the “Minnesota nice” façade has been chipped away, and the plot moves at an uncharacteristically slow pace. There are still the classic Fargo elements of crime, miscommunication, and pure chaos, but the series has taken a step away from these to allow for more reflection and realism. It’s a change that will disappoint some diehard Fargo fans and thrill others: it largely depends on what you expect from the show.
Where Fargo’s first season was somewhat of a proof of concept and the second season was a bold expansion of the show’s scope and style, season three strips many of the show’s elements away to experiment with a darker tone and delve into the thematic core of the show. At its heart, Fargo is a series about truth and lies: the lies that we tell others, the lies that we tell ourselves, and, perhaps most importantly, the lies that are inherent in storytelling. Taking cues from the 1996 movie upon which the series is based, every episode of Fargo opens up with some variation of the same spiel: “This is a true story”. By now, it has become more of a mantra than a disclaimer – we’ve seen enough to know with absolute certainly that none of the stories told by the Fargo series could possibly be true. It’s almost as if the show’s insistence, repeating the line every episode without fail, is designed to lull the viewer into forgetting what they already know to be true. Season three takes that idea and runs with it; both the characters and the viewer are left constantly questioning what they know to be true.
At the center of the season is Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), a police officer who finds herself stuck in a period of unfriendly transitions. Her local police department is being folded into the larger metro area, which results in her pending demotion from chief to deputy. Meanwhile, her husband has eloped with another man. She feels completely unseen – allegorized by her near supernatural inability to interface with technology. She represents the last remnant of the old Minnesota we saw in season two, while everything around her has moved on with the times. As if she weren’t miserable enough, the season opens with her step-father – the only constant factor in her life apart from her son – being murdered in a series of ridiculous events. Finalising her step-father’s murder case is her last duty as chief, and she holds onto it closely. The truth behind the case, which she slowly unravels through dedicated police work, becomes her anchor.
Seemingly another world away, Ewan McGregor plays the dual roles of feuding brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy. Emmit is a successful businessman, dubbed the ‘Parking Lot King of Minnesota’, with his ever-faithful business partner Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg) by his side. Ray, on the other hand, is down on his luck – a parole officer desperately looking for his big break, convinced that his brother’s whirlwind success came at his own expense. The brothers’ feud is a very Fargo affair; through miscommunications, bad luck, and a touch of sheer pettiness, both characters become motivators of the story in a big way.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead puts forward one of my favourite performances as Nikki Swango, Ray’s girlfriend and parolee. She is simple and goal-oriented; she puts her energy towards pursuing a profession as a bridge player and helping Ray ‘overcome’ the bad blood with his brother. She sees the world through the lens of the card game bridge, able to reduce complex situations to numbers and odds and improvise accordingly – and through this, she proves to be a constant agent of chaos. While she’s not the center of the season by any means, her part in the narrative is by far the most entertaining.
And then there is the vile V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), another fantastic entry into Fargo’s catalogue of villains. Through some underhanded tactics, he gets his claws into Emmit Stussy’s parking lot business and turns him into an unwilling accomplice. Varga represents a different sort of crime than we’ve seen in Fargo so far – it’s the unappealing, dull sort of crime foreshadowed in the season two season finale, where badass gangsters traded in their guns and jackets for office desks and suits. There’s nothing alluring about Varga’s criminal lifestyle; he surrounds himself with filth, picks his decaying teeth with nails, and gorges on luxury food only to purge himself afterwards. In many respects, he’s the thematic counterpart to Gloria; he weaponises the truth – or the idea of truth – constantly waxing poetic on various topics with such hypnotic confidence that the facts seem to get lost in his words. In this sense, he’s the personification of Fargo’s “This is a true story” spiel, and the perfect villain for such a thematically rich season of the show.
One of my main criticisms is that this season lacks a distinctive tone and sense of setting, particularly in comparison to the show’s other seasons. While the first two seasons were firmly based in everyday Minnesotan life interspersed with jarring criminal elements, the third season’s vision of Minnesota is less personal, limited to the rather vague lives of the Stussy brothers, who are anything but typical. Even then, the focal point of the season falls more in line with Varga’s world of shadows, which is never really illuminated in a satisfying way. The crime thus seems less interesting, since it lacks the chaotic energy that comes from everyday people trying to hold their lives together as they are pushed into an unfamiliar world of crime. A few particular scenes in the back half of season three do pulse with the same energy of the previous seasons, which adds a shot of colour to the story (figuratively and literally); it’s enough to keep things interesting, though not quite enough to bring the raw entertainment quality of the season onto par with seasons one and two.
That said, the show does a lot right this season; Jeff Russo’s score is excellent as always, and the visuals are stunning in their winter dullness. For me, the season excells the most in its frequent use of experimental modes of storytelling. Episode three, for example, is set entirely in Hollywood as Gloria searches for answers about her step-father’s mysterious past as a sci-fi author. It’s a stark and welcome change of scenery for the show, including a number of Don Hertzfeldt-inspired animated segments that ultimately hold the key to unravelling Gloria’s guarded personal issues. Episode four brazenly draws upon the music of the fairy tale Peter and the Wolf, assigning a role and instrument to each of the key characters; this conceit is mostly used in episode four, but the music also sneaks into a few key moments later in the season to add a touch of significance and recognition where it’s needed most. And perhaps strangest of all, Ray Wise shows up as Paul Marrane, a mysterious dispenser of wisdom (and perhaps something more). One of his scenes can only be described as a Twin Peaks version of the famous Sam Elliott scene in The Big Lebowski, which is a combination I never knew I needed until it happened on-screen.
The season definitely puts its claim to quality in its narrative content rather than its style. Some responses to this season have commented that many of its narrative elements were disjointed or not wrapped up sufficiently, but I don’t really agree. Granted, some key narrative threads were left sorely unresolved, but I would argue that these were left open ended for clear thematic reasons. It is, after all, a season about finding solace in a post-truth world, and it’s an issue that we have no satisfying answer for. I think, on a thematic level, it works – and it works well.
If any season of Fargo was going to be this thoughtful and subdued, it may as well be the third one, which is historically the dark and winter-themed season. If the show continues, I can see season three being a deep thematic and narrative well that informs much of the show for the rest of its run – there are plenty of loose ends to build upon, and a hell of a lot left to think about. If it ends here, however, it will feel like ending the show on a slow note, which would be a shame considering the explosive momentum of season two. After the pure audacity and spectacle that was the Gerhardts, Hanzee, Mike Milligan and Lou Solverson, switching to the slow reflection of season three feels like a jarring change of pace.
So ultimately, my issues with this season lie in its inability to capitalise on the stylistic strengths of season two. As a standalone season, however, season three is fascinating narrative-based television, and I would encourage anyone to watch it. It’s not what I expected from a season of Fargo, but then again, Fargo has never been a show that caters to expectation.