The word “aporia,” which gave tonight’s penultimate episode of Fargo‘s third season its title, has amassed more than one definition over the years. The main split is between its rhetorical meaning – where it refers to expressing real or fabricated doubt in a debate – and its philosophical meaning, where its more means a puzzle of sorts, a problem without an enactable solution. What it really boils down to, in terminology that might fit in with the characters in Noah Hawley‘s not-so-little world, is a noodle-scratcher, a real pickle.
That’s what criminal justice in America seems to increasingly be in the world of Gloria Burgle, V.M. Varga, and Emmit Stussy: a hugely prized belief with less and less tangible examples in day-to-day life. Burgle hasn’t quite latched onto that when the episode starts. She sits and listens to Emmit relay not only the events that led to him being accidentally complicit in the killing of his brother, but also the family history that brought them to the level of tension where such a tragic act could happen. He’s open and clearly broken, and she’s sober-eyed, empathetic, and genuinely interested in making sure she gets every side of the story. She has no idea that her professionalism and triumph in even getting Emmit in the room will have exactly zero bearing on who ends up in jail for Ray’s murder.
Even more tragic is Emmit’s confession about the origin of his fight with Ray, which was previously a he-said-he-said situation for all intents and purposes. It’s here that we learn that Emmit had indeed conspired to get the stamps away from younger Ray, as Emmit turned out to be at least somewhat aware of the value of their dad’s stamp collection. Hawley, who co-wrote this episode with Bob DeLaurentis, does two smart things here. In a dash, he both details a childhood robbed of a parental relationship that would build character and Emmit’s tendency to deny his misdeeds and crimes through good storytelling. In this case, Emmit’s promise to Ray that a Corvette would make him cool and bring him plenty of, er, female attention at high school was his way of cheating his brother out of what would amount to a fortune. In effect, he taught his little brother to seek quick, empty, and often fleeting pleasures – flashy cars, casual sex, etc. – and, by extension, quick fixes.
There was a similarly fantastic bit of dialogue in the scene where Varga sat down with Nikki for a hand-off that was meant to end in Nikki’s assassination by Meemo, several floors up in an adjacent hotel with a high-power rifle. Whenever Nikki thought of something to properly diffuse Varga and his organization, the malevolent, rotten-toothed villain said he would “add a zero” to her possible salary, assuming that she would jump at the chance to get paid well to be one of his agents. Putting in those specific terms, Varga unknowingly suggests that she’ll gain nothing from working with him or acting like them, even if the money happens to be good. Much like Burgle, Nikki knows exactly who Varga is the moment she lays eyes on him and does not trust anything about him, which is why she ends the meeting by walking out with Mr. Wrench and sending some delicate bookkeeping information over to our friend, the IRS agent (Hamish Linklater).
Bundled with Nikki and Wrench’s hijacking of Varga’s mobile base of operations, and that wonderful pan in on Varga scarfing down Rocky Road in the toilet stall, there is some sense that Varga and his colleagues might be getting a rude awakening in next week’s series finale. And yet, as the title of the episode openly points out, things aren’t that easy. It’s not long after Emmit resigns himself to going away for Ray’s murder that Chief Dammock proudly struts into the station and declares that they’ve caught a different confessed murderer of Ennis and Ray, a capture orchestrated by Meemo and Varga to create a different narrative for the killings involving two other dead Stussies. The amount of evidence that Dammock has allows him to essentially brush off Emmit’s confession and end his brief detainment, with a little help from Ruby Goldfarb.
The idea of wealth, silence, and secrecy being enough to desecrate and muddy reality and facts should not be alien to anyone currently breathing air in America, including most toddlers. Throughout this season, Hawley has done well in reflecting the dark power of fiction in excusing murder and theft, and how that is often connected with a distinctly American comfort with violence, but his more symbolic decisions here have not been without their cost. Dammock, for instance, seems like a character created solely as a philosophical foil for Gloria, which robs the great Shea Whigham of the chance to dig deeper into the character. There’s no sense of him as a person outside of his relationship to Gloria. Though it’s a refreshing reversal that it’s the male character that is without much definition, it doesn’t mitigate the fact that Dammock comes off as primarily a hard-ass, misogynistic cynic and his history as an officer of the law (and a haunted veteran) is barely paid lip service at this point.
There have been more than a few sequences in this season of Fargo that has pointed toward Hawley as comfortable with going for a tailored, empty stylistic exercise over the messy nuances of humanity, but this also goes to his overall point about fiction. Outfitted with an encyclopedic knowledge of language, a certain level of wit, and a rather profound ability to pass off bullshit as fact, Varga could be the living embodiment of style over substance, all the way down to the strange, disgusting way he picks at his teeth. In contrast, Gloria is not much for frivolous words or strained explanations and likes her work to be guided by reason, ability, and some semblance of the truth.
The problem is that style gets noticed and is ingratiating where skill, analysis, and honesty simply are not, at least not on a regular basis. It’s the moral exhaustion in that very truth that leads us to the bar with Gloria and Winnie, who has an uproarious bit about her ongoing marathon sex sessions in the hopes of producing a little baseball player for her husband. The conversation turned quickly from procreation to Gloria’s disillusionment with her job and, well, life in general. Carrie Coon had a far more complex character to play in The Leftovers, but it’s in Fargo that she gives her most skilled, humane TV performance to date. Going back over episodes, it’s amazing how much of Gloria’s inner life Coon summons to the surface with a wave of the hand, the lowering of her brows, or a slight tic in delivery, giving the performance an emotional fullness that the show hasn’t quite captured yet. In this scene, she gets to lay it all out on the table for Winnie and Coon clearly relishes the moment but she also shows restraint, allowing Hawley’s cutting dialogue and veteran TV director Keith Gordon‘s intimate framing to accent Gloria’s self-doubt and Winnie’s ironclad support of her friend and colleague. As always with Fargo, it all comes back to balance.