I can’t think of any example where initial instincts were proven wrong like the FX series Fargo. When it was announced, I met the news of turning Joel and Ethan Coen’s darkly comic masterwork into a TV series with ample disdain. “How could they possibly live up to the film?” I asked with incredulity. Then I watched the first season which wisely didn’t try to recreate the legendary 1995 film, but instead operated within a world of hapless criminals, noble cops, and the murderous, unstoppable forces of evil. The second season of Fargo, which took place before the events of the film and the first season, elevated the series even further in its blend of pitch black comedy and bloody violence. Though it took a bit longer, the third season of Fargo was unleashed this year adding another chapter to this twisted world of Minnesota nice and devious schemes of murder and money.
This time around, the “true story” takes place in 2010, in three little burghs in Minnesota. Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) is a parole officer who is just making by in life. His twin brother Emmit (McGregor) is doing more than well as the parking lot king of Minnesota. There’s been a longstanding rift between the twin Stussy brothers, with Ray resentful of his brother’s success and believing that his twin duped him when divvying up an inheritance; the balding and mustachioed Ray taking a Corvette and Emmit taking a valuable vintage stamp collection. Ray wants money from his wealthy and successful brother in order to purchase an engagement ring for Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ex-con that Ray is dating despite the fact that the relationship is against the law since Ray is her parole officer. Emmit refuses to give his brother any money and denies that he has any responsibility for his current lot in life. That sets Ray onto a plan to steal a valuable stamp from his brother. Ray gets Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy), a convict who has just failed a drug test, to break into his brother’s home and steal the stamp. However, Maurice is a dope fiend of little intelligence and loses the address. He looks in the phone book and finds a name similar and in searching for the stamp, kills the elderly gentlemen he mistakenly believes to be Emmit Stussy.
Ennis Stussy (Scott Hylands) was the murder victim that evening and his death sparks a lengthy investigation from Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coons), his stepdaughter and an intensely dedicated member of law enforcement. In searching for clues to the murder, she discovers a number of loose ends in Ennis’ life, including a stint as a science fiction writer struggling to get a screenplay off the ground in the ‘70s. Gloria’s dogged investigation rubs her new superior Chief Moe Dammik (Shea Whigham) the wrong way, but Gloria is relentless in her pursuit of the truth.
And yet this tapestry of murder and deceit isn’t quite complete without the troubles facing Emmit. A year prior, Emmit and his business partner Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg) took out a loan from a mysterious telephone number that rescued their business. Attempts to pay back the loan were rebuffed. The loan came due when V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) arrives, bringing with him a violent streak of mob violence and intimidation. Varga uses his leverage over Emmit to inject himself into the business and use that leverage to secure vast sums of money for him and his partners, and Varga will murder anyone who dares to stand in his way. As this quilt is woven together, the bodies pile up and the white snow on the fields of Minnesota are stained red with blood. It’s just another season of Fargo.
While Fargo remains excellent television, its third season, in my ever-so humble opinion, represented a spot where the show seemed to be spinning its wheels in place. The show is, time and time again, about regular people who get in over their head in criminal enterprises that only escalate with more and more bodies piling up and typically with a verbose, philosophically minded big bad – this time presented with aplomb by David Thewlis. More so this season than in the previous two did I feel a lack of suspense because it’s a foregone conclusion that these events will have horrible, violent repercussions. Noah Hawley’s show still is a fun piece of pulpy black comedy mixed with crime, but it seems like it’s reached a point where it’s becoming formulaic, and that’s not a good sign if this series is to keep moving forward.
Once again, though, Fargo is superbly acted led by the dual performance by Ewan McGregor, who deftly plays twins that are polar opposites with Ray downtrodden and sleazy looking and Emmit the epitome of success and class. Opposite McGregor’s Ray is a great performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead who has probably the most interesting character arc in the series, one that stands out as the thread that leaves the audience with a bit of guesswork to do about her motivations. Opposite McGregor’s Emmit is the reliable Michael Stuhlbarg who serves as a business partner and fixer, diving deep to get his hands dirty in work that is too rough for Emmit. There swirling around these characters is a delightfully sleazy and unscrupulous performance by David Thewlis, who chews the scenery with his crooked teeth and biting cynicism. As the unimpeachable force of good in this world of liars, crooks, and killers is Carrie Coons’ Gloria, bringing a sense of determination that mirrored with an emotional vulnerability about the uncertainty dominating her professional and personal life. It’s an incredibly well-acted show where the strength of the performances often mitigate what seems like a rehash of the previous two seasons.
As the show has done throughout its run, the third season of Fargo contains multiple nods to the illustrious filmography of the Coen Brothers. Sometimes it’s the repurposing of language used in previous films. Other times it’s the casting – such as Michael Stuhlbarg and Fred Melamed from A Serious Man or David Thewlis from The Big Lebowski. Noah Hawley and company have no problem recognizing that the show is indebted to the legendary filmmaking siblings, and the nods are obvious and subtle depending on your familiarity with the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre.
The third season of Fargo has plenty of what people have come to expect from the television show inspired by the great film – it has a massive body count, plenty of blood split, inept criminals, dedicated law enforcement officers, snow, and plenty of those Minnesota accents, don’t cha know? Over the course of ten episodes, Noah Hawley takes his characters up and down and all around in a world of lies and murder, but there’s still a goodness at the heart that is battling these forces of evil. It’s not as excellent as the first two season, but Fargo’s third season is still a compelling, bloody romp in the American Northwest.