Fargo season 3 review: Making sense of ‘unfathomable pinheadery’


With this week’s finale, Fargo brought clarity to a muddled season. We examine the ups and downs of the third installment of FX’s anthology show.

“And for what? For a little bit of money?” Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson utters those lines at the end of the Coen brothers’ original 1996 Fargo, casually taking the air out of the silent murderer in the back seat of her police car. It’s important that she phrases the latter as a question rather than a statement. Questions express uncertainty – they acknowledge the possibility that the speaker doesn’t know something.

In a way, Fargo the TV series has been an ongoing investigation of Marge’s lines, bit by bit teasing out that underlying uncertainty. Season 3 turned out to be its most elusive installment yet, a sprawling postmodern brainteaser that deconstructed the show’s moral universe with at times excruciating rigor. Only after Wednesday’s finale, rather puzzlingly titled “Somebody to Love”, did the pieces start to fall into place, coalescing into a (semi-)coherent whole. I’m not sure if it’s brilliant or ridiculous, but either way, I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

All that for a stamp

Season 3 got off to a slow start, taking a couple episodes to lay out its myriad storylines. We had a pair of brothers (not twins, it must be noted) ensnared in a decades-long feud involving a rare stamp. A marijuana-smoking ex-con got roped in, which led to a case of mistaken identity and a homicide, which led to the discovery of a false identity and another homicide. Then, there was Varga, shady business deals, multiple instances of blackmail, tax evasion, more homicide, and so on. By the time it was over, it was difficult to remember how it began.

For a long time, it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Several elements bore a suspicious resemblance to season 1: the sibling rivalry; the silver-tongued stranger; the dogged female cop; the smug, dismissive superior officer; the taciturn henchmen. Compared to season 2, with its split-screens and scathing political commentary, it felt frustratingly safe. Perhaps, three seasons in, the formula had run its course.

The timing did it no favors. Amid a world teetering on the brink of chaos, watching hapless dimwits engage in petty crime had lost some of its charm. (Of course, for various people and in various places, the world has always been teetering on the brink of chaos; now, it’s just more noticeable.) What was the point of these high jinks? The whole thing came across as empty and kind of silly.

Still, at least it was entertaining nonsense. One of the many advantages to having a sense of humor is that it allows you to get away with things that might prove fatal to a more straitlaced show. Even when it meanders, Fargo never feels sluggish, buoyed by its brisk dialogue and darkly whimsical tone. It also helps to have a cast as vibrant as this. Wobbly accents aside, all the actors, from Ewan McGregor (virtually unrecognizable as Ray or Emmit Stussy) to Andy Yu, inhabit their roles as if born into them. Together, they lend humanity to the frigid milieu.

Conspiracy theories

On the surface, “The Law of Non-Contradiction” appears to be a detour. It leaves the Midwest behind for sun-soaked Los Angeles, following Gloria as she searches for clues to her stepfather’s identity. Her search turns up no useful information; Thaddeus Mobley’s life and Ennis Stussy’s death remain mysteries. At one point, Gloria visits Howard Zimmerman, a former film producer and con artist, and he embarks on a tangent about quantum mechanics:

"It talks about how we’re all just particles… we’re floating out there… we’re moving through space… nobody knows where we are. And then every once in a while… BANG! We collide. And suddenly, for maybe a minute, we’re real. And then we float off again. As if we don’t even exist. I used to think it meant something – these collisions, the people we found."

Eventually, it becomes clear that Howard’s speech wasn’t a tangent at all. In fact, it’s the key to the season, tying together all three of its overarching themes: fate vs. coincidence; the fragility of reality; and the transience of human relationships.

At heart, this is a story about collisions – Ray and Nikki, Maurice and Ennis, Maurice and Nikki, Emmit and Varga, Gloria and Paul Marrane, Gloria and Winnie, Nikki and Mr. Wrench, Gloria and Larue Dollard, Nikki and Emmit, Gloria and Varga. People are constantly colliding. Most of the time, they don’t pay attention to it; sometimes, they don’t even know. Two men living within miles of each other share a last name; a marijuana-smoking ex-con tries to rob one but murders the other instead. Each man has had a profound effect on the other, yet each remains oblivious to the other’s existence.

What does it mean? Do these collisions mean something? With every season, Fargo has grown progressively more cynical, more skeptical of order. The first season, like the original film, embraced Old Testament-style poetic justice, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. In season 2, God was a distant observer, dealing judgment indiscriminately. In season 3, there is no order – just structured chaos. Life is a game governed by arbitrary, arcane rules that people obey out of habit, self-delusion, or apathy; you win by developing a deep enough understanding of the rules to cheat or by getting lucky.

The season’s structure mirrors its philosophy. At first, it seems random, a collection of dots, but then, you start to connect the dots, and when you step back, you see that the connections form a pattern – a narrative. Maybe it’s an excuse, saying a work of art’s flaws are deliberate, part of the plan. But it’s comforting. It means that they mean something. There is order after all.

Here be dragons

Another collision occurs in Fargo season 3, one none of the characters are aware of: fiction and the real world. Far from insular and out-of-touch, this silly small-town crime tale revealed itself to be stealthily, scarily relevant, touching on everything from immigration to fake news (“People see what they believe”). It pinpoints the mood of helplessness and instability that defines 2017.

Then, there’s V.M. Varga. Seemingly conjured out of thin air, he’s a consummate capitalist. He cares about nothing but money, power, and himself. Lying for him comes as easily as breathing. He seduces the greedy and naïve with fantasies of unlimited personal wealth. He sows paranoia, exploiting anxieties about foreigners and the poor. Despite his grotesque appearance and borderline-unintelligible speaking style, he’s bizarrely persuasive. He uses phrases like “mongrel hoards”. Sound familiar?

Labeling a piece of pop culture as relevant nowadays is basically like saying it exists. Name a show or movie, and chances are that someone has written a think-piece explaining how it speaks to Our Times. Even so, Fargo feels like lightning, hitting the zeitgeist as if by accident. BANG! But something tells me that it won’t float off just yet.

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Stray observations:

  • If I were forced to single out an actor, it would probably be Carrie Coon. She conveys so much of the melancholy beneath Gloria’s stoic façade just with her eyes.
  • Speaking of Carrie Coon, the similarities between Gloria and Nora Durst, her character on The Leftovers, are uncanny. They both encounter unresponsive technology; spend a lot of time interrogating other people; and are occasionally accompanied by the sound of cascading violins. Coincidence?
  • The soundtrack this season was exceptional, eschewing pop songs in favor of classical pieces (most notably, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf) and obscure folk tunes.
  • Fargo always has great cinematography, but it was especially lovely in the season finale, from the rays of light in Emmit’s foyer to the wide shots of desolate roads.
  • Mr. Wrench’s return was a delightful surprise. I miss Mr. Numbers.
  • How can you not love a show that includes two random security guards named Mike and Michael?
  • “I am not food!”