Of the recently concluded third season of Fargo, Noah Hawley’s crime anthology series-slash-homage to all things Coen brothers, a wise Internet commenter sagely noted that “of all the seasons of Fargo, this was definitely one of them.”
This is deceptively faint praise, because while is may be true that season 3 did not reach the heights that the nearly perfect Kirsten Dunst-led, cops-vs-Mafia-vs-accidental murderers second season did, and may not even measure up to the more explicit Martin Freeman-as-William H. Macy remix of the 1995 movie that was the inexplicably terrific first, that is still like saying the 1998 Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls were not as good as the 72-win 1996 Michael Jordan led Bulls.
Put another way, Fargo the TV show is like sex and pizza: when it’s good, it’s great, and when it’s bad, it’s still pretty darn good.
While not quite as intricately plotted as either of the first two editions, the third may have the greatest abundance of memorable characters matched perfectly to the performers playing them. Coupled with a couple of bigger-picture themes that carry over the season as a whole (the unslakeable consumptive urge of capitalism, whether human nature is fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, and even a bit of a comment on the nature of truth that resonates with our current political moment), this season was as satisfying a season of TV as any this year.
Every Fargo season has its own riff on Marge Gunderson, the role that won Frances McDormand an Oscar in the original movie: Season 1 had Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), season 2 flashed back to the 1979 to follow her dad Lou (Patrick Wilson)’s adventures resisting the Kansas City Mafia, and season 3 has The Leftovers’ Carrie Coon as Eden Valley Police Chief Gloria Burgle. I was not familiar with Ms. Coon’s work prior to this season, and now I am determined to seek every bit of it out, as she is one of the most likeable and identifiable performers I can remember. She doesn’t get a lot of flashy Coen-esque dialogue — that is mostly spread among the other characters — but the crime that sets the season’s events in motion touches her personally, unlike previous Marges, which gives her pursuit of the Bad Guys a quiet sadness that the protagonists in other seasons lacked.
It’s also become pro forma for Fargo to pull in a marquee name or two for each season: Season 1 had Billy Bob Thornton, Season 2 had Kirsten Dunst, and Season 3 has Ewan McGregor and Ewan McGregor, playing estranged brothers Ray and Emmitt Stussy. Ray is a hard-luck probation officer with little more to his name than a deteriorating red Corvette, a sexy client-turned-girlfriend, and a long-festering grievance against his older brother Emmitt, who persuaded Ray to take their deceased dad’s ‘Vette while Emmitt took his (unbeknownst to Ray) valuable stamp collection way back when. Emmitt has parlayed those stamps into a real estate empire — he is known as “The Parking Lot King of Minnesota” — and Ray has long since caught on that he got the short end of that trade. Truth be told, McGregor’s performances as Ray and Emmitt do not stand out the way Coon’s or Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s or David Thewlis’ or Michael Stuhlbarg’s or even Scoot McNairy’s do, but that says more about all those other performers, who are all at the tippy top of their games, than it does about McGregor, who nonetheless manages to make Ray and Emmitt distinct even when Ray tries to pass himself off as his brother.
Ray’s grievance against his brother is very real, but he is egged on every step of the way by his girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a small-time criminal assigned to Ray who quickly persuades him that the rule against PO’s dating convicts is more of a guideline. Nikki’s dream is to turn Ray into the perfect bridge partner so they can turn pro, but she also knows easy money when she sees it, and expertly manipulates Ray into stealing the last of the rare stamps from Emmitt, which sets the season’s plot in motion. Winstead is another performer whose name is familiar but whose work up to now was not, but she is terrific here, self-assuredly sexy and far more intelligent than anyone wants to give her credit for. Crucially, she has a very easy way with the Minnesota accent that is also a staple of the Fargo universe — it’s there, but just barely, and she manages to make it cute. As the stakes go up, so Nikki raises her game, and manages to become the most memorable and interesting character of the season.
Winstead’s only real competition for that distinction would have to be V.M. Varga, played by English actor David Thewlis. Thewlis is one of a few performers to have appeared in an actual Coen brothers film (The Big Lebowski, where he memorably played Maude Lebowski’s giggling video artist friend Knox Harrington) prior to doing the series, and the background certainly doesn’t hurt. Thewlis makes a feast of every line of Varga’s dialogue, itself a rich buffet of bullshit meant to confuse its audiences into submission. Conjured into the story via an ill-advised business arrangement that Emmitt entered into in a moment of financial weakness, Varga arrives in unassuming clothes and slumped posture that belie his intention to use Emmitt’s company as a cover for vast financial malfeasance and to quickly and harshly deal with anyone who might get in his way. Nikki Swango may have been my favorite character, but VM Varga got the best lines.
Michael Stuhlbarg also had prior Coen experience, playing the lead in the insanely underrated A Serious Man before taking the role of Emmitt’s consigliere Sy Feltz, an accountant who likes to imagine himself a tough guy, primarily in his dealings with Ray, who he despises. Stuhlbarg is one of my favorite “That Guy”s, and his Arnold Rothstein on Boardwalk Empire was in my opinion the best character on the show — seemingly omniscient, totally pragmatic, and calm, cool, and collected (in an immaculate tuxedo, no less) at all times. Here he plays something very different, a man whose belief that he is master of his universe is severely shaken as the events of the season unfold. And without getting into spoilers, he suffers the cruelest act of man-on-man domination I have ever seen on screen about halfway through the season. But through it all, he maintains the most magnificent moustache in many a TV season.
Season 3 of Fargo is available on-demand on FX through July 25, 2017.