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Truth be told, the first half of Fargo’s third season is a little hard to take. It feels like a dull, hollow echo of everything the show did in its first two seasons, with less airtight construction. The season’s initial crimes are two murders committed in comically baroque fashion: one in which a man’s nose and mouth are glued shut, and the other featuring an air conditioner dropped on someone’s head.
Fargo has always been slightly too impressed with itself, as if it’s amazed that it gets to exist on television and trade on the Coen brothers’ name. (A friend of mine once posited that maybe all Hawley truly wants is to have one of the Coens tell him he’s done a good job, and that friend might be right.) The series carries itself with a certain swagger, one that it only barely earned in its first two seasons, thanks to the careful, puzzle-box structure of its stories. Setups and payoffs were deployed with ruthless efficiency in the first two seasons, in a way that feels almost comically unsuited to season three’s messier, less-sure-of-itself plot.
But about halfway through season three, I started to wonder if all of its repetition and unearned bravado wasn’t intentional on some level, wasn’t Fargo having some fun. And then it suddenly veered off course, driving off the well-trod path of puzzle-box fun and into the snowy woods, where it promptly crashed into several trees. I kinda loved it.
The season had opened as the story of two brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by McGregor), who had found themselves at odds after Emmit tricked Ray into trading the car the boys’ father had given Emmit for the rare stamps he had given Ray. The car proved fleetingly useful; the stamps funded Emmit’s business enterprises. Their story was, in other words, a tale as old as Jacob and Esau.
Yet Fargo struggled to make Emmit and Ray even half as compelling as everything else going on around them. It was frequently exasperating to see that Emmit didn’t really bring doom down around his ears like previous seemingly upstanding citizens of Fargo, your Lester Nygaards (Martin Freeman) and your Peggy Blumquists (Kirsten Dunst). Instead, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if he didn’t understand the unparalleled shadiness of the shady characters he took a loan from in the wake of the financial crisis. His feud with Ray felt like old news both to the characters and to Fargo, a catalyst for another season of wacky crime shenanigans.
But the season ultimately wasn’t about wacky crime shenanigans. Instead, the Ray and Emmit feud proved to be a ruse, a way for the show to distract us from the real crimes going on around the two men, which turned out to involve Varga and his cronies using perfectly legal but deeply immoral means to bleed dry everybody they possibly could in order to enrich themselves.
Ray died in episode six, in an accident that Emmit kept trying to claim was a murder because he needed somewhere to put his guilt. And the only one who saw the bigger picture as clearly as possible was Ray’s girlfriend, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who might have been a small-time criminal but recognized the likes of herself when she saw them. Varga, she realized, was just another hustler. He simply had the weight of governments behind him.
On Fargo, the world ends as a whimper disguised by a bang
As Nikki slowly took over the show, proving to be the only character with a moral compass just broken enough to challenge Varga on his own turf, Fargo snapped into place. She and the deaf assassin Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard, the first actor to play a major role in two seasons of Fargo, having previously appeared in season one) launched scheme after scheme to get back at Varga. Nikki insisted she didn’t really want his money — she wanted him to feel pain.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Nikki was the season’s most notable representative of law enforcement, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon). Early on, Gloria felt like another waltz through well-trod territory; the Fargo universe has already introduced us to the good and just cop nobody pays attention to. But even though Gloria was the one character to suss out all of the season’s players and exactly how they fit together, it didn’t matter. Varga and company orchestrated an alternate explanation that forced some minor player to take the fall for the season’s string of murders, then skated away with cash in hand. Gloria might have figured out the truth, but those with the money engineered their own version of events and made it into the truth.
The notion of truth and fiction has always animated Fargo — which even in its movie incarnation was based on a “true story” that the Coens had made up. But season three took this idea to an entirely new level, with its casual insistence that since the “truth” is already a story we tell ourselves, that story can be shattered, until everyone has their own truth, their own reality.
At (or near) the start of every episode of Fargo, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” appears in text on the screen. But in season three, the individual words in that phrase would frequently fade out at different speeds, often leaving just “THIS IS A STORY.” At one point, Varga tells three “true” stories about major world events, and the third involves the moon landing being faked. He’s doing so to get a rise out of Sy, but Fargo has more on its mind. If enough people don’t believe in the moon landing, then it didn’t really happen for them. We construct our own realities inside of our heads, and if they’re true to us, then they’re true, no matter how damaging.
Which is where Gloria — the season’s most overt nod to its Midwestern roots — comes in. At first, I felt Gloria was a waste of Coon’s extraordinary talent, but by the finale, the character felt as vital to season three as Varga and Nikki. Where Varga didn’t seem to exist because he’d gamed the system to hide his true identity, Gloria didn’t seem to exist (and, indeed, she couldn’t get automatic doors or soap dispensers to respond to her and didn’t turn up in online search results) because she still believed in a kind of righteousness the world doesn’t have as much room for these days. She is who we might hope we still can be, just as Nikki is who we probably need to be, and Emmit is who we probably are. And all the while, Varga is sucking every one of us dry before we realize what’s happening, leaving the husk behind.
There’s still an immense power around the mythology of the American small town in American pop culture, but in the third season of Fargo, even the small town is broken down for component parts and subsumed into larger organizations. (Literally! Gloria’s police department is being disbanded and absorbed into the county department.) The good characters are government bureaucrats who still believe in the rule of law, be they police officers or IRS agents. But they’re specks in the ointment for the characters who see the world as something to squeeze until it gives up more money, as something that’s easily discarded.
Nikki dies in a freak encounter, because she must. Emmit gets to putter on because he’s a useless idiot, though he, too, eventually dies (the one muted moment of karmic justice that Fargo’s season three finale serves up). Varga poisons Sy, who ends up a shell of himself. Varga’s operation closes down Emmit’s business and moves on to the next, leaving Emmit behind to foot the bill. And on and on it goes.
Fargo’s third season started out more straightforwardly comic than either of the previous two, but by the time it concluded, the laughter it inspired was almost entirely hollow. The joke was on the characters and maybe on us. Something is deeply broken inside the world, it seemed to say, and even God (or at least his approximation, played here by Ray Wise) was powerless to do much. The season nodded to current events — Russian meddling here; the 2016 election there — but never overtly. It captured, instead, the feeling of being trapped in a system you didn’t invent or no longer want to be part of but have no effective means to change.
In season three’s final scene, Gloria and Varga face off in airport customs in 2016. She now works for the Department of Homeland Security. He’s going by another name. She says she has him, dead to rights, for money laundering. He suggests that someone higher up the government food chain than her will soon arrive to set him free. We’d like to think the world needs people like Gloria, but Fargo argues that the world we’ve built over the past 40 or so years is more likely to need people like Varga than we’d care to admit.
The two sit and wait for the door to open, for either Gloria or Varga to be proved right. Everything we’ve seen in season three so far, everything we see outside our own windows, suggests he’ll be set free. Fargo’s previous seasons suggest that justice will somehow, freakishly, reassert itself, and Gloria will catch her man. But the door remains closed. We wait and wait and wait for answers that never come.
Cut to black.