There may never have been a worse idea in the history of television than turning Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 Oscar-winning masterpiece Fargo into a weekly TV series. Centered around a goodnatured, pregnant Minnesota small-town sheriff (Frances McDormand) and her investigation of a fake kidnapping that spirals into a bloodbath, thanks in no small part to its ineffectual mastermind (William H. Macy) being unable to stand up to the same father-in-law he’s trying to extort and his accomplices (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) being far more ruthless than he bargained for, Fargo was the Coens’ breakthough film, earning universal praise for its juxtaposition of Midwest manners and brutal, nihilistic crime. It also gave its performers rich characters to sink their teeth into, bringing McDormand an Oscar and Macy a nomination while the Coens were nominated for Best Director and won Best Screenplay.
Though it’s the most natural thing in the world Hollywood would want to franchise the rare blend of artistic and commercial success, the planned TV series with Edie Falco (The Sopranos) stepping into McDormand’s duck boots never made it past the pilot and the idea of Fargo being a TV show was buried in the snow.
That is, until 2014, when novelist Noah Hawley revived the property with the novel approach of setting an entirely new crime story with an entirely new set of characters in the same region, borrowing and tweaking elements not just from the original film but from the Coens’ whole oeuvre, adopting the distinct use of language, camera style, and — let’s just say it — quirkiness of the most idiosyncratic filmography in Hollywood history.
The decision to make Fargo (the TV show) an anthology series, making each season totally distinct from the others — apart from the general geography — freed Hawley up to really go nuts with each season. With no need to continue any of the characters from season to season, he could focus completely on the story at hand without having to do the peculiar dance that TV creators have to do: find an ending for every season while leaving all the characters’ stories open-ended with room to continue. Through its first two seasons, this has made for two cracking good crime stories, first with Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Hanks, and Allison Tolman, then with Kirsten Dunst, Ted Danson, Patrick Wilson, and Jesse Plemons. The only link to the movie came midway through season 1, when it was revealed that one of the characters had built his fortune on the bedrock of the $1 million he found buried in the snow; Season 2 linked to season 1 through Patrick Wilson’s character, the younger version of the retired state cop David Carradine played in season 1.
Now comes season 3, and Fargo has landed its biggest movie star yet: Ewan McGregor, who plays the dual role of brothers Ray and Emmitt Stussy. Season 3 takes the very general framework of a premise from the movie — someone feels aggrieved that a family member is not being more generous with his good fortune and decides to deploy extralegal means to get what he feels entitled to — and spins a completely different story out of it, with echoes of various Coen projects abounding and the sure hand of Hawley’s storytelling at the wheel.
It seems when their father died, Emmitt traded his red ‘70s Corvette to Ray for their dad’s stamp collection, which turned out to be very valuable and allowed Emmitt to build an empire of parking garages, while Ray became a parole officer with a cool (but decaying) car. When Ray and his new girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, effortlessly manipulative) ask Emmitt for a small loan and get the brushoff from him and his consigliere Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), in an echo of the movie, Ray decides to hire one of his parolees (Scoot McNairy, Halt and Catch Fire) to steal the stamps, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that all does not go as planned.
Meanwhile, after hearing there’s no need to pay back a $1 million business loan he took in a desperate moment he’s since climbed out of, Emmitt is visited by his creditor, a British man with awful teeth (David Thewlis) insisting that the $1 million was an investment, not a loan, and that like it or not, Emmitt now has a partner whose business practices may not meet Emmitt’s own ethical standards.
I’d hate to say much more about the story as one of the principal pleasures of Fargo has always been its plots are full of darkly delightful surprises that make total, organic sense. Suffice it to say, like the first two seasons, this season is brilliantly cast from the big roles to the small: McNairy is particularly effective as a none-too-bright stoner crook; Winstead is sexy and just patient enough with the intellectually inferior Ray, who she’s trying to groom into her professional Bridge partner; Carrie Coon is terrific as the single-mom small-town police chief whose department is being absorbed by a bigger one; McGregor really sells both of his roles and makes them each feel like distinct performances by different actors; and Stuhlbarg and Thewlis are the first actors from actual Coen brothers movies (A Serious Man and The Big Lebowski, respectively) to turn up on the TV show, which feels like a blessing of sorts.
The show reveals its link to the Fargo mothership with the mention of Stan Grossman, consigliere to the murdered father-in-law from the movie, in relation to a prospective parking lot deal, which may seem like a small thing but to a Coen obsessive like myself was like a whole basket of Easter eggs.
Above all, this series continues to do the impossible by continuing to inhabit a filmic sensibility that has previously seemed unique to the Coens themselves; in every choice, their presence is felt, despite the fact they have had no involvement in the series at all apart from their decision not to stop it from happening. It amazes me how closely Hawley has captured their distinct voice, and I’d like to close with a selection of lines that won’t make much sense out of context but will show what I mean:
“We are not here to tell stories, we are here to tell the truth.”
“You and me, we’re simpatico, to the point of spooky.”
“You ever notice how they never put the morgue on the top floor of the hospital?”
“You’re confusing the word singularity with the word continuity.”
“I’m thinking about deniability, what they call plausible.”
“The brunette with the nutcracker caboose.”
“What possible solve is there besides unfathomable pinheadery?”
“Basically, this is my only non-micturated footwear.”
Season 3 of FARGO premieres 10pm ET Wednesdays on FX; new episodes will be available on-demand Thursdays.