End of Season Report: Fargo, Season 3

19 Jul

There’s nothing new under the sun. Or at least under the sun beating down on the wide and snowy plains of Minnesota, or so you might be led to believe after watching the third season of Fargo. Unlike its two excellent predecessors, season 3 started out okay before being bogged down in fits and starts, with flashes of characteristic filmic genius underlain by fundamental character flaws which prevented it from reaching those previous seasons’ heights.

The start was promising, but in hindsight, that might have been because I had faith in Noah Hawley, and because frankly, beginnings are easier. Soon, the show had two primary fatal flaws; it too closely resembled the first season, but with all of the elements inferior, thus highlighting its lesser status, and primary antagonist V.M. Varga was an absolute swing and a miss and a mess of a character which tainted the whole season.

Let’s start with the antagonist, V.M. Varga, or whatever his real name was, who was the biggest single reason the season broke down. It might well not have been great with a more consistent, more charismatic villain, but it sure would have been better. Here’s the problem.  The logic of his villainy was inconsistent at best, snaking from episode to episode depending on what individual scene’s dramatic monologues called for, without actually making any sense in the broader picture. At first, Varga was played off as a certain type of antagonist. The silent killer, who is brilliant and only cares about the money; without ego or drama, he does exactly what he needs to do as simply and under the radar as possible sliding in and out without you ever knowing his name. This is a scary type of villain because he’s smart and he’s least likely to get caught and he’s always a step ahead. Then, later, he played the loud, talky, arrogant, brutal villain, unafraid of bloodshed. This is a scary type of villain because he’ll kill you or your loved ones if you make the wrong move, sometimes impetuously without thinking through the consequences. But it’s a different kind of scary villain. The quiet, efficient, sly villain doesn’t offer more and more brutality when less flashy steps would be more efficient. The show kept acting as if Varga was the first type of villain when he increasingly became the second, taking more and more risks, and inflicting more and more violence for absolutely no reason. This guy flipped over a fucking prison bus and shot federal guards – is that the kind of action of a man who wants to keep himself under the radar takes?

The show mistakenly through that Varga was so charismatic, that he oozed that cinematic magic that would make his character work, despite the underlying flaws because he was simply so magnetic on the screen. He wasn’t. This was doubly so for his quirky two primary henchmen who were intentionally idiosyncratic and odd, as if purposely Coen-ing them up would make them interesting. It didn’t. Characters aren’t compelling simply by being odd. Those idiosyncrasies have to work part and parcel with the characters and the wider plot and they simply don’t here.

I’ve not wanted a villain to get his just desserts more than Varga in some time, and while that can often be the sign of a deliciously evil villain, here it was merely because I was so frustrated at the sheer incompetence of the folks chasing him. Sure, that police incompetence is an important part of the Fargo world, but surely higher powers would be called in after a fucking prison bus was overturned?

This season of Fargo mirrored season 1 in several ways, to its detriment. Gloria Burgle, though played about well as the part could be by the wonderful Carrie Coon, was a less interesting version of Allison Tolman’s season 1 character Molly Solverson. Varga was an inferior and worse used Lorne Malvo, and Ewen McGregor’s Emmett and Ray felt almost like a split take of Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard. Obviously these are loose analogues but they were showing up in the back of my head while I was watching. The only character there’s no straight analogue for is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango, who unsurprisingly was the best thing about the entire season. Lorne Malvo in season 1 was also crazy and dramatic, but season 1 worked because he wasn’t the antagonist; he was chaotic neutral, a man on the side who was the catalyst for Nygaard to break bad and become the true antagonist of the season.

This was also the most on-the-nose season. There was a theme, right from the first scene in Communist Germany, which was premised around the idea that truth is relative and malleable; it’s whatever who has the power says it is. There’s nothing wrong with this theme (I was simultaneously reading the Orphan Master’s Son, which was great and worked very much around this theme), just the way that Fargo decided to shove it down our throats in unsubtle ways having Varga and other characters more or less repeat that premise word for words in situations where surely us intelligent viewers would pick up on the subtext without having it explained for us.

There were heights. The cinematography was gorgeous as always and the acting was excellent, but in the age of Peak TV that’s not enough. The third episode, “The Law of Non-Contradiction”  in which Gloria Burgle visits California, chasing a red herring about the killer of her step grandfather was the highlight of the season, its separation from the main plot insuring its excellence remain untarnished. Within a bubble, this episode was everything great about this show and a window into the Coen’s world. Within less than an hour, it told a story that was both weird and charming, interspersed with animated scenes from the novel; a beautiful mini-movie whose ending may not have been final or satisfying but which told a story in and of itself. This red herring felt like it contained more of the truth than the rest of the season. For a show that was so unsubtle about what the truth is and isn’t this season, that episode was a perfect antidote.

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