There’s been a backlash recently against binge watching TV shows and the loss of the episode, as streaming platforms allow us to consume television as a deluge. One of the best things to happen to popcorn TV, though, is that opportunity to watch episodes back to back, a formula which can cover up a multitude of sins as we get engrossed in the story. But the FX series Fargo, now in its third season, is a great example of an anti-binge watch. Its story structure is novelistic (creator Noah Hawley says frequently that he sees each season as a 10-hour movie), and episodes are chapters that build up to a finite conclusion rather than having their own focus or mini arcs. But Hawley’s attention to detail, and the importance he puts on each season’s color palette and the specificity of the references make Fargo a story best savored.
Season 3 is a much more intimate approach to storytelling than the expansive war that defined Season 2. Though that season was excellent (high praise from someone who borderline hated Season 1), the show has always excelled in smaller character moments and nuance, especially as it distanced itself from the source material. While Season 1 followed the themes of the movie fairly closely, with some subversions, Season 2 found its own rhythm in a retro tale that was familiar in a Coen Brothers-esque way, but also refreshingly different. This time we’re in 2010, with no tangible connections to the other seasons other than the stark, wintry Minnesota landscape and a multitude of “ya knows,” but because of that, this season of Fargo feels like it could be the show’s best yet.
As in the past, the show has managed to cobble together an outstanding cast, the marquee performance of which is immediately Ewan McGregor as feuding brothers Ray and Emmitt Stussy (a parole officer and the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, respectively). McGregor plays each brother (who aren’t twins) distinctly. Prosthetics helps, but McGregor also carries each differently, giving them slightly different accents and movements. Yet Ray and Emmitt, though vastly different, are both almost immediately drawn into bad situations with dire consequences that they naively set into motion. It’s a theme we see play out over and over in Fargo, where ordinary people end up doing terrible things in an escalating fashion, getting accidentally involved with bad guys while trying to keep a level head and work their way out of it.
The bad guy in Season 3 is V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), a mysterious figure who pushes his way into Emmitt’s orbit thanks to a loan deal that turned into an unsuspecting partnership. With rotten teeth and a sickly smile, Varga is a cunning and casually brutal figure, flanked by an oddly boyish international goon squad, Yuri and Meemo (Goran Bogdan and Andy Yu), who help carry out his vicious acts. But there are also smaller moments of cruelty that work just as effectively, like when Emmitt’s right-hand man, Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg) insults Ray and then takes his frustrations out on Ray’s Corvette — a symbol, alongside a lucrative book of stamps Emmitt possesses, of their Biblical Jacob and Esau birthright switcheroo.
But Ray has a right-hand woman of his own in Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), one of his parolees who he’s also in a relationship with. Nikki only wants Ray to get what belongs to him, but Ray’s mistakes lead Carrie Coon’s Gloria Burgle to begin an investigation into a murder that will likely be their undoing. But there’s a surprising amount of heart that motivates both of the brothers and their (often far more capable) “sidekicks,” even though Fargo never misses an opportunity to play up the low-fi humor that permeates every interaction.
Season 3 is slow to start, but there’s a palpable sense of layering. The storytelling, the settings, the props, and the language used is all so deliberate that it is engrossing. There are great character moments like how Gloria feels she’s invisible because she can’t ever set off the motion sensor for automatic doors, or how Nikki is obsessed with bridge and sees it as her way to fame and fortune with Ray. More than anything, though, Fargo’s collection of stellar actors again this year makes every scene a delight to watch. Coon is staid and inscrutable, Winstead is electric and seductive, McGregor finds likability and venerability for this characters in ways we wouldn’t expect, and so forth. It’s a showcase that, matched with the show’s sly humor, produces exceptional television.
Fargo has again found a way to change up its story while never straying far from its distinct tonal and visual aesthetic, and seemingly improves each year. Emotional connections to the characters may be a little slow to form this time around, which has always been a weak spot with the series (though they will often form later, as in the case with several of Season 2’s characters). But in a way, that distance is part of what Fargo is all about. The tagline for each season is always a joke — that this is a true story. It sets the stage to make viewers truly feel like observers, like we’ve snuck into a circus tent and now get to see a great show. Like Hawley’s other recent series Legion, there’s a very self-aware and theatrical aspect to it that relishes in the time that a TV show affords. The careful crafting of each scene threads together a deeply fascinating portrait of its characters that would suffer from the glossing-over of a binge watch. Fargo wants to you to look and listen carefully — and the reward for doing so is to get a peek at a story that takes place in a slowly-revealed but endlessly interesting world.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent, don’t ya know.
Fargo Season 3 premieres Wednesday, April 19th on FX.