Fargo, Season 3: You Can’t Win ‘Em All

Season 3 of the FX television show Fargo initially captured my attention as swiftly as the previous two seasons. The viewer was presented with a “true” crime story about a sibling rivalry that results in multiple deaths.

The first episode was a great example of the masterful storytelling we had already experienced during the first two seasons. Ewan McGregor leads the cast as both Stussy brothers, Emmit and Ray. Emmit is the more well-off of the pair, the parking lot king of Minnesota. Ray is the less successful Stussy brother, a bail bondsman who is also sleeping with one of his clients, the formidable Nikki Swango (a role well-acted by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who was also phenomenal in 10 Cloverfield Lane). Ray is jealous of his brother, and thinks his brother took advantage of him after their father died, taking the stamp collection and giving him his father’s car, a Corvette. As the story opens, both Ray and the car have seen better days, but Ray looks like the sort of man who would still be driving the Corvette in his pot-bellied middle years, a sort of dissolute William Hurt-type. Meanwhile, although on the surface Ray seems to be doing well, he’s apparently indebted to some unsavory types for some loans he took out.

This sets the tension for the season from the very beginning, but it spirals out of control from there. Ray hires another of his parolees (played by Halt and Catch Fire‘s Scoot McNairy) to steal a stamp that his brother keeps as a trophy on his office wall. But, McNairy’s character, Maurice LeFay, is a bit of a screw-up. He loses the name and address, and ends up hitting the wrong Stussy’s house in the wrong town. He also ends up killing Ennis Stussy, no relation to all the other Stussys we’ve met so far. To cover their own tracks, Ray and Nikki—mostly Nikki—kill Maurice by dropping an air conditioner on his head. The stakes are instantly elevated to two murders for want of a stamp.

Unfortunately for Ray and Nikki, the dead Stussy, Ennis, was married to Gloria Burgle’s widowed mother for a few years, which makes him the closest thing Gloria’s son has to a grandfather. Gloria, the spiritual successor to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson from the original film, is still the police chief of Eden Valley as the series opens, although her force is in the process of being absorbed into the Meeker County police force and her job will be disappearing. Gloria Burgle is portrayed by Carrie Coon, another terrific actor whose work I am unfamiliar with. Gloria’s stubborn investigation of the crime is what causes everything to fall apart later in the season.

Emmit Stussy is initially unaware that he was nearly a dead man. However, his company is being forcefully taken over by Narwhal, the corporation that loaned him money during the financial crisis. Narwhal is headed up by a man named V.M. Varga, who is not above having people killed to get what he wants.

If any of this is beginning to sound complicated to you, you may anticipate the problem I ended up having with this season. The characters were all suitably quirky in that Coen Brothers way, and the unfolding story was intriguing. But…

The story continued to grow more complicated. I honestly feel like Gloria Burgle already had sufficient motivation to investigate her stepfather’s murder, but we still spent an entire episode digging into Ennis Stussy’s backstory as a science-fiction writer who changed his name to Stussy. It was an interesting diversion, but still a diversion, that ultimately had no lasting impact on the plot in the story present. We even got a short cartoon with a robot who just wanted to help. Weird, yes, but not really pertinent to the story.

I had similar misgivings about the UFO subplot in season two, but I don’t feel that ever got quite as distracting.

This side trip knocked me out of the fictive dream of the show for a moment. Then it was followed up with a barrage of biological unpleasantness that, pardon the expression, left a bad taste in my mouth. In truth, I consider it all in bad taste, from the tampon antics of Nikki Swango, to V.M. Varga vomiting up every meal or forcing Emmit’s partner to drink urine.

It was this, rather than the graphic violence, that made me consider bailing on the show mid-season. Only my positive feelings for the first two seasons kept me watching. I knew it had to get better.

And, it did get better. There were parts of the rest of the season that I enjoyed a lot. I never expected anything other than a tragic ending, and I wasn’t disappointed on that score. I’m torn between liking and hating the Big Lebowski bowling alley homage with Ray Wise as a stand-in for the Stranger. I remember Wise playing Satan in the short-lived television series Reaper. I’m not certain he wasn’t reprising the role here. I liked that I recognized the homage for what it was, but, again, the scene just seemed slightly out-of-sync with the rest of the show.

The things I didn’t like about this season (and I, for one, did not mind the cliffhanger ending) have overshadowed much of what I did like. Unfortunately. I will probably watch another season if the series is renewed. My wife probably won’t.

This was my least favorite season so far. A solid C-grade after two As.

 

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