♦Tripwire’s Senior Editor ANDREW COLMAN takes a look at the third season of FX’s Fargo which ended in June…
Producer: Noah Hawley
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Carrie Coon, David Thewlis, Michael Stuhlbarg
Noah Hawley’s latest chapter of the Fargo canon is a rum affair – whereas series two followed a fairly straightforward, determinist narrative, this season is a more opaque, arbitrary thing. As usual the direction and dialogue are fizzing with offhand menace, oddness and that palpable undertow of dread that we’ve come to expect – but this time the plot could have gone in many directions. That we find ourselves still wanting more is all down to the invention and wit that is invested in this anthology, not to mention the usual gallery of authentic grotesques and losers. And some expertly handled, if not virtuoso performances, of course.
The focal point of the story concerns two brothers, Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) an old-fashioned successful businessman, and his brother Ray (also Ewan McGregor) a decidedly misshapen square peg who can barely hold on to his job as a parole officer. The source of the latter’s antagonism to his brother is the apportioning of their father’s inheritance – Ray got the Corvette, and feels hard done by due to Emmit’s acquisition of the rather more expensive stamp collection. Egged on by his mercenary girlfriend and former parolee Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Ray coerces another of his clients, Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy) into stealing the most prized stamp in Emmit’s collection. He forgets all the details and in his drug-fuelled haze, murders the stepfather of police Chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), who eagerly takes on the case despite major changes in her station’s chain of command.
But the real villains of the piece are a curiously foreign mob, unlike the previous series. The serially naïve Emmit, and his neurotic business deputy Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg), are casually informed by the mysterious Mr. Varga (David Thewlis) that he has taken over the company in lieu of debt. Varga, head of a shadowy multinational syndicate, is assisted by two ruthless and psychotic underlings, Yuri Gurka (Goran Bogdan) and Meemo (Andy Yu). On the side-lines is Ruby Goldfarb (Mary McDonnell), a wealthy, scruple-free businesswoman who is also keen to merge her interests with Stussy’s.
Despite the wonderfully wretched, unpredictable characters on offer, the standard plot does not have the depth to carry ten episodes, so there are diversions – for example the episode where Gloria goes to Los Angeles to learn more about her stepfather’s past is an obvious narrative dead end to the viewer, but despite this (and the fruitlessness of her quest) it still exudes many classic Coen tropes, the pulpy, seedy hinterland of L.A. an excellent space for an interval. Gloria, the heroine and Cassandra of the series, whose powerlessness echoes that of Molly Solverson in series 1, remains on the periphery of the action. On this occasion it is Shea Whigham who provides the role of the blowhard police boss who stymies her at every turn.
Is David Thewlis more menacing, repugnant and uncompromisingly evil than Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo? As the star nemesis of the series, he certainly is as mythical a force of nature as his predecessor – all skewed, meaningless parables, gurning cruelty and passive aggressive contempt, a tyrant who is happy to ride roughshod over Emmit and Sly while gaslighting them about their sudden riches. Thewlis, a character actor who is no stranger to playing oddball roles, is superb as Varga, a hyper-stereotypical 1950s English nasty dressed in a grey mac and replete with horrific teeth, bulimia and that vicious certainty of gaining the upper hand. You wonder what showrunner Noah Hawley had in mind when he outlined such a monster in preproduction, but it works.
What might work less well is the progress made by some of the other players in this comedic tragedy – Ray’s early departure a surprise simply because he was a more nuanced character than his brother. No doubt Hawley opted to invoke the false protagonist rule with him. Even more remarkable is Nikki’s arc – nearly killed by Varga’s henchmen on two occasions, she proves to be thoroughly resourceful, teaming up with Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard, reprising his role of the deaf assassin from series 1) to exact revenge on the mob. After a long backwoods chase by her would be murderers, she ends up in a bowling alley, where she is lectured in a dreamlike sequence by Paul Marrane (Ray Wise) to “fight the evil in the world”. A bit rich considering she is at best an amoral agent of death herself, Nikki is summarily dispatched in any case in the series finale.
Overall the series theme is the sledgehammer of criminal corporate interest toying with parochial small town innocents – a mismatch that somehow ends up as a score draw. Although such a notion was heavily explored in series 2, there is enough here to captivate regardless – the hapless pawns capriciously manipulated by such towering evil while they soldier through their own little playlets makes for great television, even if it all lacks a little heart at times – you don’t feel all that much sympathy for Sy, for example, even though you should.
And as for the cast – whatever concerns one may have had with McGregor playing not one, but two roles in this instalment are cast aside after a few episodes. Like Martin Freeman before him, McGregor has no problem adapting. In fact what one can always rely on with Fargo is top draw acting, and a script that at times turns convention on its head. My qualms about the series’ opacity may have been unfair – at the end of the day this is another tour de force. Bring on series 4 – with any luck it’ll have a 60s or 70s setting. Either way this, along with Better Call Saul, is the series of the year.