To understand what happened with Fargo’s third season, we have to go back.
When Fargo the TV series first premiered in early 2014, it adopted the single crucial premise driving the film that inspired it – the words ‘This is a true story.’ In the first two seasons, the show seemed to understand why this element was so important to Fargo the film. By drawing from the patterns of true crime real life narrative, Fargo was pointing to the strangeness of reality – to the coincidences and misunderstandings that occur every day, to the evil disruptive folk who destroy lives, and to the commendable mundane contentment of those who resist them.
You’ll forgive me if that summation sounds either simplistic or pretentious, but it’s a crucial factor to understand when addressing the third and most recent season of Fargo, and in identifying how it failed to capture that essential idea. Season 3 of Fargo has some great moments, but they’re obscured by a poorly-executed overarching theme that fails to cohere its key narratives together into anything meaningful.
Let’s look at what makes this show work. The first season of Fargo used two plotlines from the film – one in which a struggling spineless salesman is tempted into committing some horrible selfish deeds, and another in which an ordinary officer investigates and discovers his crime. The TV series pushed these premises far further the film – the salesman plotline had a far deeper and darker descent, and the officer built a family as her investigation faced resistance from a superior officer.
But the season also added a third element, one drawn not just from the Fargo film but from an archetype seen across other Coen Brothers films – an unstoppable sinister force of a man who knowingly commits evil deeds. Lorne Malvo is a satanic Anton Chigurh type who tempts the salesman character into a selfish life, until he is at last defeated in the finale. There are other elements in play in Fargo’s first season but they always feel tangential to these three plotlines, and often don’t work as successfully.
In the second season, the officer plotline remained intact, although now our officer was male and had a partner and a dying wife, which combined with Patrick Wilson’s excellent performance was more than enough to elevate it above a re-tread. The salesman was replaced by a housewife who commits a hit and run, and together with her husband must fight to avoid consequences. And Lorne Malvo evolved into a war between two criminal syndicates that places everyone in danger.
Once again, the three narratives were connected by a single event in the opening episode, and by the end dissolved into a single climax in which all characters find themselves under fire at a remote motel – the Sioux Falls Massacre foreshadowed in the first season. This second season was more ambitious and epic, and it was risky, but everything was kept connected and coherent – and it was utterly brilliant, the epitome of the ‘This is a true story’ mantra.
‘This is a true story’ is about recounting the kind of real life tales that could happen but are so unlikely that they could only happen once. It’s a phrase that tells you ‘You won’t believe this really happened!’ as it recalls what Lester Nygaard was secretly capable of, or the mistakes and coincidences that brought the Blomquists into contact with the Gerhardts, or what Lou Solverson’s wife was going through at the time.
So I suppose warning bells should have been going off when the opening scene of the third season dissolved the word ‘true’, giving us ‘This is a story’. This choice suggested perhaps a deeper dive into the false docudrama format, but by the end is only indicative of the removal of the show’s unique selling point. Fargo’s third season no longer felt like it was thrilled to be telling us an exciting thing that actually happened, so busy asking ‘but what is real?’ and ‘what is truth?’ that it failed to cohere the elements that make this show work together.
The season tells three key stories – the first concerning a feud between two brothers, the second a company being taken over by a sinister organisation, and the third following the officer investigating a murder accidentally caused by the feud. It takes far too much of the season to begin connecting these plotlines and they don’t come together in a satisfying manner. The brothers’ feud is a classic Fargo human morality tale, but the other two are too abstract and conceptual to feel like they belong in the same show.
While V.M. Varga at first seems a logical successor to Lorne Malvo or Mike Milligan, the show fails to recognise that those two characters worked because they were wild cards. Varga is two-dimensional, a vague outline who’s not as fun as previous villains because he’s too predictable, though David Thewlis makes a valiant effort. Varga sits there being invincible until the last few episodes, and then he’s kept around to make a point about truth. It’s a classic example of the season serving its central concept rather than making the story interesting.
Other examples appear elsewhere, such as in the inessential third episode or through Ray Wise’s fantastical appearances as ‘The Wandering Jew’. In the second season, the flying saucer and flashing lights no doubt raised some eyebrows, but their existence could be justified by the argument that a) they were introduced early enough on to establish the supernatural, and that b) they could be explained away as a rumour told by those involved in the true story, exaggerated from some strange blinding light in the sky at the motel.
There’s a tendency (that I know I am especially guilty of) to welcome surreal elements as exciting and innovative deviations from a conventional narrative, but in the stew of Fargo’s third season, and indeed the show in general, they aren’t a comfortable fit. It could have remained ambiguous whether Wise’s character was real or omniscient, but instead he’s quickly established as an impossible creation, purposefully jarring with everything Fargo is about. The scene in the bowling alley is undeniably impactful, but it’s another mismatched patch in the context of the overall narrative.
It’s possible that if the season as a whole amounted to a powerful message then these steps would be forgivable, but in the end the message isn’t as profound as the show thinks it is, and the best bits of the season are the returns to more classic true story Fargo. The Stussy misunderstanding is vintage Fargo, as is Emmit accidentally killing Ray, or the surprise appearance of Mr. Wrench, or the whole Nikki Swango revenge quest. These thankfully remain unrelated to the whole ‘this is a story’ mess and provide the improbable but realistic characters and occurrences that make Fargo so great.
On seeing the final scene in which it’s left ambiguous whether Varga or Gloria will emerge victorious, it felt like the show had succeeded with these characters in its aim of removing the ‘true’ from ‘this is a true story’ but lost something wonderful as a result. This was no longer a show musing at the lengths that evil people will go to, or at the coincidence of the world, but one enamoured by its own smartness. It’s hard to care who wins when the characters were only abstract ideas to begin with. And for that reason this season for the most part left me cold and frustrated, like Nikki Swango out in the woods or when eating ice cream on the toilet.
Score: At least they tried to do something different I guess.