The three seasons of Fargo do not share any of the same characters, timelines, or even locales. The show’s anthology drama allows it to pull in talent like Ted Danson and Billy Bob Thornton for a single season, and what it lacks in the sort of continuity that sustains any long-running TV show, it makes up for in unparalleled thematic consistency. Things move forward or backward a few decades, the cast changes every year, but Fargo never does. The first season paid homage to the movie from which it aped its name and tracked closely to the events of the film, while Season 2 went back in time and told a new story about the mob performing a hostile takeover of a mom-and-pop crime outfit. It was a near-perfect chunk of television.
Season 3 tells the story of a sibling rivalry between the parking lot king of Minnesota, Emmitt Stussy, and his younger fuckup brother Ray. Both Stussys are played by Ewan McGregor, and both are as idiosyncratically North Plains as you’d imagine. Fargo is a love letter of sorts to Minnesota and the kooky, frost-hardened locals who populate it. In the universe of the show, it makes a perverse sort of sense that Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango would shack up with a dumpy parole officer magnitudes less attractive than her because he makes for a good bridge partner. Fargo’s characters are either dopey rubes who think driving a gaudy yellow Hummer is the pinnacle of wealth, exhausted citizens caught in the teeth of the machine, or cunning villains using the isolation of the region and the endemic humility of its inhabitants to nefarious ends.
******OKAY IT’S SPOILER TIME. IF YOU HAVE NOT WATCHED THE MOST RECENT EPISODES OF THE SHOW, I AM GOING TO WRITE ABOUT THEM. SO GO WATCH THEM BEFORE YOU VENTURE ANY FURTHER, OR GO OUTSIDE AND READ A BOOK OR SOMETHING. IT’S NICE OUT THIS TIME OF YEAR.******
For the bulk of its time on the air, Season 3 simmered at a low temperature. Eden Valley police chief Gloria Burgle went to L.A. for a melancholy capsule episode dedicated to her mysterious, reclusive father-in-law who once lived in L.A. as a failed sci-fi screenwriter. The show flirts with the presence of extraterrestrial spookiness like it did in Season 2, and the pair of murders that kick the show into high gear arise from a tragic, mundane misunderstanding which seem to fascinate showrunner Noah Hawley. The elder Stussy is hounded by V.M. Varga, a globetrotting loan shark with the world’s worst teeth, and he casts Stussy’s parking lot business adrift in the shady world of crime syndicates and international finance. Varga is a cipher for the ravenous nature of capitalism itself, someone who consumes without feeling and seeks to grow by any means necessary. He’s joined by a pair of assassins, most notably Yuri Gurka, a hardened Cossack with a poetic side. Stussy is not ready to stare a bland bureaucratic form of evil in the face and you can see his humanity slipping away from him episode by episode. The slow burn suited the show well.
That is, until last night. “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” is the eighth episode of Season 3 and it swaps the hushed tones and looming threats of the first seven hours for a relentless plunge into the dark heart of the Minnesota woods. Things pick up right after the prison bus crash that ended the previous episode, and Gurka has swapped his stony demeanor for an animal mask as he breaks into the bus to kill Swango once and for all. The ensuing chase scene through the snow-dappled woods is pure horror and that’s before someone gets their head crunched off.
Hawley highlights Gurka’s otherworldly disregard for the lives of bystanders as he mows through a quartet of unlucky Minnesotans who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Hanzee in Season 2, he’s motivated by an ancient, partially articulated sense of injustice and he comes off as an unstoppable force of nature. As Sean Collins notes, the first 20 minutes pay direct visual homage to both Blue Velvet and Miller’s Crossing as Swango hurtles through the woods towards a brutal confrontation with Gurka and the inevitable.
The surrealism that animated the show’s earlier seasons roared back into focus in “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”. Once Swango and her partner (the deaf assassin Mr. Wrench, a returning character from Season 1) make it out of the woods after a brutal battle fought with axes, chains, and crossbows, they arrive at a bowling alley that’s an explicit stand-in for purgatory. Swango chats with Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise—playing the role of the cowboy from The Big Lebowski and also Saint Peter—who hands her a kitten that might possibly contain the soul of the recently deceased Ray and sends her on her way (back to Earth?) with an ancient Hebrew prayer of strength and courage. “Who will rise for me against the wicked? Who will take a stand against evil-doers?” he asks. She will. A story about small-time crooks trying to settle a petty score now has cosmic implications.
Gurka also has to face the music, as Wise delivers a message to Gurka, the “Cossack of the plains”, from centuries of dead Jewish people and invokes what appears to be the literal vision of a plain full of unsmiling ghosts.
Meanwhile, back in St. Cloud, Varga is consuming Emmitt whole the same way the new bureaucratic order is unceasingly muting Burgle. Hawley’s show repeatedly invokes nesting bureaucracies swallowing each other up and blunting the humanity of those who work within them, and both Burgle’s small police station and Emmitt’s business are in the same situation. What can you do when pitted against the gnashing gears of the world at large? Their only chance is to work together, and for Emmitt to turn away from his ambitions and back towards his brother. In one hour of TV, the stakes got higher, and all the impending threats of violence became real. The backdrop of weirdos and over-credulous Minnesota dolts makes the violence hit that much harder.
Fargo doesn’t need a deep mythology to draw from, it has a sense of place that few other shows have. Season 3 features some of the same beats (occasional sci-fi interludes, an unstoppable villain driven by a historically motivated rage, interlocking systems crushing individuals) as the previous seasons, but it’s a creation all its own. Nothing on TV is like it because nothing on TV is as hallucinogenic or strange, and however it ends, it won’t be how you expect.