TV: Fargo (Season 3)

There’s a scene in the third season of Fargo wherein Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg), a loyal, in-over-his-head corporate fixer, breaks down in tears in front of his wife. When she asks him what’s wrong, his response, delivered to heart-breaking perfection, is priceless:

“The world. The world is wrong. […] It looks like my world, but everything’s different.”

In this moment, I burst out laughing even as I wanted to cry. It revealed this as the season in which Fargo’s tall tales of noir violence in the upper midwest lurched brilliantly into the Trump era. This season depicts the tragic story of Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor), a down-on-his-luck parole officer who, in order to buy an engagement ring for his ex-con girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), seeks financial aid from his twin brother Emmit (also McGregor). The brothers’ past is a storied sibling rivalry that hinges on Emmit having conned Ray out of a valuable stamp collection, which he then sold to use as seed money for a successful parking lot empire. The jealous, unlucky Ray has leveraged Emmit’s guilt about this into occasional windfalls, but when Emmit finally cuts his brother off, things start to spiral out of control. Encouraged by the scheming Nikki, Ray hatches a scheme to steal the last stamp from Emmit—but makes the mistake of hiring an incompetent, inebriated parolee named Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy) to do the job. LeFay’s heist goes spectacularly awry, setting off a violent chain of events that it’s up to small-town police chief, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), to unravel.

Fargo’s third saga of slow-building dark mystery follows the same general template of the earlier two: it’s a complex, blackly comic battle of incompetent villainy, conspiratorial evil, and white-knight underdog heroism. It also further weaves together series lore, tapping into other seasons for more coincidental connections to further flesh out the show’s secret history vibe. One might be tempted to suggest it doesn’t explore enough new ground to set it apart from its progenitors, and there might be something to that: the A-story involving McGregor’s duelling twins is well enough executed, but also perhaps its least interesting aspect.

Still, my adoration for season three eclipses the earlier years, perhaps simply for how skillfully it situates itself in the zeitgeist. Emmit and Sy are emblematic of run-of-the-mill white guys who think they understand the way the world works, and unexpectedly get run over by events. Ray is a lower-class rube who misdirects his economic anxiety in tragically misguided directions. And Gloria, this season’s steely, admirable white knight, is the ultimate invisible woman: overlooked and overshadowed by less qualified superiors, fighting a frustrating uphill battle to unmask the corruption of the men all around her. The writing has its finger on the American pulse of the Trump years in a manner both heartbreaking and empathetic.

Speaking of Gloria, how much did I love this character? Carrie Coon is rivetingly sympathetic in the role, her character a beacon of competence and hope in the absurd, twisty criminal shitshow of the Fargo universe. Gloria’s the hero I needed this year, and Coon plays her brilliantly. She also gets the perfect sidekick in Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval), a traffic officer who gets embroiled in the investigation. Sandoval steals her scenes, and the rapport between Gloria and Winnie culminates in the season’s best moment. Gloria and Winnie forever.

Of course, this is Fargo, so there’s also the other end of the spectrum: the ubervillain. In this case, it’s David Thewlis delivering the goods as V.M. Varga, a ruthless British white-collar criminal who leverages a shady loan to Emmit into an international money-laundering operation. Against stiff competition, Thewlis stands out as perhaps the most repulsive, deplorable villain in the history of the Fargo universe: disgusting, morally bankrupt, utterly devoid of scruples, chewing wastefully through everything in his path. At times, Varga’s dialogue may address the wiggly reality of the Trump era a smidge too obviously, but seeing through the metaphor is highly therapeutic. Varga is the villain I needed this year, and the escalating Varga-Gloria showdown lends a much-needed black-and-white clarity to Fargo’s art, which cleverly imitates the untrustworthiness of reality in a manner that almost makes sense of it.

It has all the other goods, too: high production values, great cinematography, terrific performances from a uniformly superb cast. It even has inventive setpiece episodes, such as “The Law of Non-Contradiction,” an LA-set diversion involving Gloria’s pursuit of a procedural dead-end. This time-traveling episode is a left-field distraction from the main plot, but entertainingly so, a tip of the hat to the quirky, unpredictable artistry of the Coen Brothers, whose spirit continues to infuse this show.

Part of me is convinced I’m overrating the season, that its button-pushing messaging played on my emotional needs as a viewer. All righty, then—perhaps. The rest of me doesn’t care: in my view, Fargo remains one on TV’s modern marvels.

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