David and Chase debate the third installment of Noah Hawley’s frigid crime series. Did a late surge salvage an unremarkable start? Where does Nikki Swango rank among its best characters? And what would a fourth season look like?
Science has this thing. It talks about how we’re all just particles. We’re floating out there. We’re moving through space. 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.
DAVID: Last night Fargo came to an end in a surprisingly ambiguous fashion: staring at a door, waiting to see whether the worldviews of Gloria Burgle or V.M. Varga would be proven correct. It was a season that put extra emphasis on the “story” part of its weekly “This is a true story” opening card, even more so than the parable-soaked first. Every character had their own ideas about the way the world worked, the way it was supposed to work, and one by one, they were made to reckon with forces out to upend the natural order and even the meanings of words. When Sy Feltz moaned that it’s “the world” that’s wrong, and all he could do was sputter in the face of the man who created his own reality with every syllable out of his hideous mouth, it was impossible — given recent events — not to feel a pang of recognition. The morality of this Coen-inspired universe usually leaves the righteous victorious, even with a high body count, but there was little comfort to be found in “Somebody to Love.”
For a series that has been no stranger to “magical realism” — the UFO, the rain of fish, Ray Wise’s bowling alley — this third season felt the most grounded in mundane reality. The villain’s grand plan was simple money laundering; the brothers’ conflict began over stamps; the hero cop’s main struggle was against automatic doors. As a result, and without a truly elemental figure like Lorne Malvo, or the style and precision of the second season (a masterpiece), the Eden Valley saga played as…workmanlike. The characters didn’t pop as vibrantly, the twists weren’t particularly twisty, and it felt like we were consistently about to go somewhere, but didn’t quite. The messiness of real life manifested itself on screen. It was only the shift in the season’s second half, where Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki took center stage, that kicked things into gear and felt like the Fargo of old — but did it come too late?
Don’t get me wrong: I immensely enjoyed every hour of this season, and I hope to get to talk about everything I loved about it as we continue. I rejected the claim of “diminishing returns” in my recap of the premiere and advocated for a long leash, and I stand by that to some degree. If Fargo is formulaic, it’s a formula that I enjoy and would return to over and over again. But I also admit that for many, its best elements may have been outweighed by the half-baked and familiar. Where do you land, Chase? Did these last few episodes win you over, or did a stretched-too-thin Hawley irrevocably damage the brand?
CHASE: I’m certainly further out on this season of Fargo than you are. My personal life has been so busy over the last few months with work and constant travel that it’s been much more of a struggle to fit television into my life than it ever has before. What I found interesting was that I never really missed Fargo. Whereas I’d eagerly await my opportunities to get home and catch up on Better Call Saul and The Americans, Fargo felt like a chore this time around.
Part of that was the sheer amount of time that Fargo asked for. Mr. Robot was recently criticized for a second season that strained viewers’ patience and attention spans. Fargo learned little from those criticisms. Multiple episodes clocked in at seventy-plus minutes (with commercials). There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Don’t overstay your welcome, Noah Hawley. Leave us wanting more!
You wrote briefly about formula in television, and I want to run with that thread. The great thing about an anthology series is that you get the opportunity to start fresh each season and tell whatever story you want. The problem that goes hand-in-hand with that is opportunity is that your audience may not stick around when their favorite characters don’t. Fargo tried to resolve that issue by substituting recurring character types, and I think it finally yielded diminishing returns in season three.
Each season of Fargo is the story of dumb criminals who get in over their heads in a Midwestern small town when they come face-to-face with a figure of otherworldly evil. The crime is investigated by an incorruptibly straight-laced small-town cop, and the resulting violence forces the cop to confront a darkness they’ve never considered beyond his or her small town. That’s every season. Formula and familiarity certainly have a place in television, and there’s undoubtedly something to the idea of “comfort” TV. It’s why I’ve seen every episode of The Big Bang Theory and you’ve seen all 34 seasons of Survivor. But isn’t the best of what we consider “Prestige TV” supposed to be beyond that?
My favorite episodes of Fargo season 3 were “The Law of Non-Contradiction,” and “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” I don’t think it’s coincidence that those were the episodes that strayed the farthest from the “Fargo formula.” I wanted so much more of the California excursion, 1970s porno sets, criminals in creepy animal hoods, and Ray Wise’s “wandering Jew” character who seemed at least partly inspired by Sam Elliot in another Coen film, The Big Lebowski (note the scene at the bar in the bowling alley). Unfortunately, those were just teases before we went back to what Fargo always does. Those episodes showed us how Fargo could use its anthology format to be anything. I wish it didn’t settle for always being more of the same.
DAVID: We’re in agreement that those were the best two hours, and for the same reasons. “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” flashed that delightful Fargo/Coen mysticism with the bowling alley scene, where Ray Stussy had been turned into a cat and Yuri was brought to account for his (decades?) of misdeeds. We shouldn’t forget that that was the capper on a brilliant extended chase, where Nikki and Mr. Wrench — the only character to appear in all three seasons — were forced to communicate in pantomime as they flee Yuri and the hapless D.J. Qualls in violent fashion. I liked the “Peter and the Wolf” motif Hawley set up earlier in the season, and I like even more that he didn’t feel compelled to have everyone meet the same fates as their corresponding musical character…though with few exceptions, those fates ended up pretty bloody anyway. But put a pin in Nikki and the Stussys for a second.
“The Law of Non-Contradiction,” as you said, showed what Fargo can be if it left the frozen north for an entire season: a quirkier, less ponderous, more self-aware True Detective. More than a change in locale, it was incredibly risky for Hawley to spend an entire episode on backstory for a minor, dead character that had less than zero bearing on the season’s plot. But it was hardly wasted time, because of the specificity in the episode’s details (that weird box with the switch and the hand?), and the chance to watch the great Carrie Coon hold up an episode all on her own. Yet, and through no fault of Coon’s, Gloria Burgle didn’t resonate like the Solversons; she was too dour, and too powerless against her stubborn idiot station chief. Not that we needed another Molly (imagine the season with Winnie in the lead, not Gloria), but her resolute by-the-book-ness fed into the mundanity of the whole season.
Same with the Stussys; of course Ewan McGregor did just fine differentiating the pair, but neither was dimensionalized enough on their own. I enjoyed David Thewlis as Varga, who seemed to be having great fun even when his character’s motivation was maddeningly unclear; we never got a sense of his ultimate plan other than to make a mountain of money, not spend it, and move on. So it comes back once again to Winstead’s Nikki as the season’s saving grace. She was a wild card like Mike Milligan, but without the benefit of Mike’s indefatigable coolness. We were supposed to think Nikki a simple con artist and gold digger, but she really loved Ray, God rest him, and that genuine righteous rage powered her through every confrontation and scheme until it finally got the best of her. As a single character, I’d put her above everyone from Season 1, though the season as a whole didn’t quite measure up.
My last question for you, Chase: if Fargo were to come back (and right now there’s no indication that it will), what do you want to see? Season Three didn’t have much in the way of visual style — there were a number of those split diopter, deep focus shots, but otherwise nothing stands out — so I’d love to see it get back to the playfulness of the Gerhardt season, preferably with at least an extended stay in another clime. Maybe Mr. Wrench heads west for a while before returning to finish off Emmit?
CHASE: My desire for a season of “Swango and Wrench: Mercenaries for Hire” will go sadly unrealized due to her death in the finale, but there’s still plenty for Fargo to do. I think a change of scenery would be the most important thing, and it wouldn’t even require a new location – just a change of season. With their links to the Coen Brothers film firmly established, what if Fargo gave up the snowy winter for a wooded, green summer? Explore all the other things a lake can be besides frozen, and take some shots of the milky way if you want to stay in isolated parts of Minnesota.
I think there are a lot of fun options for future seasons if Hawley wants to make them. What if the show went back to the 1920s and took a little inspiration from something like Miller’s Crossing, another Coen property? That would be at the top of my list, but the possibilities are endless. He can go anywhere plot-wise. Just go somewhere new!
But what I really think would do the show some good is a break. Noah Hawley is getting dangerously over-stretched with Fargo, Legion, and several other rumored projects in the pipeline. FX can’t expect him to single-handedly provide content for their network. Take some time away, let the project breathe a little, and come back to it when inspiration strikes. That’s exactly what FX is already doing with properties like Louie and Atlanta. Heck, HBO brought Curb Your Enthusiasm back after a six-year break!
Even if much of the same team can’t come back for another season of Fargo down the road, that’s okay. Bring in new blood, and let those fresh minds take a whack at it. That’s exactly what Fargo was in the first place. The Coen Brothers let someone take the project and run with it, and a new group of writers could do the same. Never forget that the show is technically called a limited series. It’s perfectly fine if it stays exactly that: limited. Like I said, don’t overstay your welcome. Leave us wanting more!