Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Fargo: The Series - Season 3

Cody takes an episode-by-episode journey through season 3 of the Fargo television series.

These reviews weren't necessarily intended to be read in one sitting, so beware some repetition when it comes to describing situations and characters.

Episode 1: The Law of Vacant Places

The first season of Noah Hawley's crime anthology series Fargo, inspired by the 1996 Coen brothers film of the same name, completely blew me away. A Fargo TV show could have been a disaster, but Hawley found a way to make it work by setting it in the world of the film but focusing on different characters and different crimes, just keeping that same touch of quirkiness. I didn't like season 2 as much, but it was still some impressive television.

I'm a bit late to the party for season 3 - as of this writing, it has already been two years since these episodes aired on FX. But I'm ready to go back to Fargo and see what Hawley came up with this time around.

Fargo is an "expect the unexpected" sort of show, so the fact that the first episode of season 3 begins in East Berlin in 1988 for no apparent reason before jumping ahead to 2010 Minnesota is unexpected, but seems totally in line with something this show would do. For several minutes we watch an interrogation play out in German with a middle-aged man who claims to be married to a woman who is still alive but is accused of being a twenty-year-old who has strangled his significant other. Every time the accused says something that doesn't go along with what the investigator is saying, the investigator takes it as confirmation. This doesn't have any direct connection to the rest of the episode. I don't know if it will be followed up on in the rest of the season, and I won't be surprised if it's not. I would like to know what happens to this guy, but I have a feeling it's not going to be anything good.

The accused does suggest that the perpetrator of the crime may have been the previous resident of the place he just moved into, and when we move along to 2010 Minnesota we find ourselves at the 25th anniversary party of Emmit Stussy and his wife Stella, a couple who realized while on their first date that Stella was the previous resident in the place Emmit had recently moved into. So there's a similarity to tie it together.

Attending the party is Emmit's black sheep brother Ray, and both of these characters are played by Ewan McGregor - one of them sporting a full head of hair that he doesn't know what to do with, the other losing his hair. McGregor does a good job of making these guys two distinctly different people. Emmit is a successful business man who made a lot of money selling off all but one of the stamps in their late father's stamp collection, Ray is a rundown parole officer who made the bad decision of choosing their father's red Corvette over the stamp collection. And he has been making Emmit pay for his choice ever since, frequently coming to ask him for money. Like now. Ray is hoping to be able to borrow enough money to pay for an engagement ring, as he wants to pop the question to Nikki Swango, a woman he met through his job. She's on probation.

Nikki is played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and she and McGregor both being cast in this led to a lot of fodder for the tabloids. That stuff comes to mind when first seeing them together here, but it has nothing to do with the characters or the show, so I'm not digging into all that. I've been a fan of both of them for a long time, so the acting is my focus.

Emmit turns down Ray's money request, and that takes us into the familiar Fargo territory of terrible decisions, people finding themselves in bad situations that are way over their heads, and incompetent criminals. A parolee named Maurice LeFay (played by Scoot McNairy) fails his urine test, so Ray makes a deal with him: he won't report the failure if Maurice will break into Emmit's house and steal that last stamp. But Maurice is a total idiot, so he gets mixed up and goes to the house of an elderly man named Ennis Stussy in a different town.

Ray's choices and Maurice's stupidity result in two deaths by the end of the episode, one of which is presented in quite a fun way. Thinking it was romantic that Ray was willing to break the law to get her a ring, Nikki goes all-in joining him in the criminal activity... Which seems like the wrong move when you take into account that Ennis Stussy's stepdaughter Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) is a chief of police.

'The Law of Vacant Places' gets this season off to an interesting start. That Fargo writing is still on point, and with these talented actors in the lead roles I have a good feeling about the rest of the season. As this episode comes to an end, I'm looking forward to seeing how the Ray-Nikki-Gloria story is going to play out.

Not to mention the bad business deal Emmit has been forced into. It seems he's going to become pretty desperate himself soon.

Episode 2: The Principle of Restricted Choice

Ray Stussy asked his brother Emmit, "the parking lot king of Minnesota", for money so he can buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend Nikki Swango, but even though Emmit turned down that request he's not a douchebag. He feels bad about his decision, but it was a long time coming because Ray is always mooching off of him due to a sense of entitlement. It's understandable that Emmit wouldn't give Ray money for a ring - especially when it's for a woman he's not even supposed to be seeing, since he's a parole officer and she's on probation. But it was nice to see that turning his brother down is weighing on his conscience, a humanizing moment. It's easy to imagine that a wealthy character is just a jerk, but that's not the case with Emmit.

It is certainly the case for David Thewlis's character V.M. Varga, though. Emmit borrowed a million dollars from him with the intention of paying it back with interest, but now that Emmit is ready to pay Varga is taking over his company instead. Varga is a strange character, so mysterious that characters who do a Google search for him can have their computer system crash. And/or have a couple of his homicidal lackeys pay them a visit.

While Varga's takeover of Emmit's company and Ray's resentment over Emmit refusing to give him money are the main elements that drive the story forward in episode 2 of Fargo's third season, the episode also takes some time to visit with Eden Valley chief of police Gloria Burgle, whose stepfather was killed in the middle of a botched scheme concocted by Ray in the previous episode.

Gloria's situation mirrors Emmit's somewhat, as her small town police department is being absorbed by the county. She will be out as chief, replaced by a man named Moe Dammick. Dammick is played by Shea Whigham, an actor I like but who tends to play characters I would not want to be working for.

We'll see where the Dammick situtation goes, but one thing I don't expect to go anywhere is Gloria's discovery that Ennis Stussy wasn't her stepfather's real name and he was a celebrated science fiction writer before he met her later mother. That doesn't seem like information that will be important to the overall story... But again, we'll see.

'The Principle of Restricted Choice' didn't strike me as a great episode, but it kept things moving forward.

Episode 3: The Law of Non-Contradiction

Well, just as I was figuring that the late Ennis Sussy's secret history as science fiction writer Thaddeus Mobley wouldn't have anything to do with the overall story of Fargo season 3, this episode goes and starts with a lengthy flashback to 1975, when a young Ennis/Thaddeus got caught up in a Hollywood deal for a cinematic adaptation of his novel The Planet Wyh. He hangs out with actress Vivian Lord (played by Clint Eastwood's daughter Francesca), he has drug-fueled sex, he gets cheated by a producer, he beats the hell out the producer and has to flee the city. He fled to Minnesota and changed his name to Ennis Stussy.

The bulk of 'The Law of Non-Contradiction' involves Thaddeus/Ennis's chief of police stepdaughter Gloria Burgle going out to California to investigate his past, and it never cuts away to Minnesota to see what's going on with the other characters there. It is entirely focused on Gloria's side adventure and her stepfather's troubled history.

During the investigation, Gloria is also reading The Planet of Wyh, and parts of the story are brought to the screen here through animated sequences. If you have Ewan McGregor signed on to star in your TV show it makes sense that you'd want to get as much McGregor in there as you can. That certainly seems to have been Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley's thoughts on the matter, as not only did he cast McGregor in dual roles as brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, he also gave McGregor a third and possibly fourth role in this episode. Even though he doesn't actually appear on screen. In the animated Planet of Wyh scenes, McGregor provides the voice of a scientist and might have also provided the voice of an android called Minsky that spends centuries trying to learn what life is all about. It's tough to tell if that's McGregor's voice coming from Minsky because all the android can say is a high-pitched "I can help." So if it's McGregor saying "I can help" it's as obscured as Vin Diesel's voice is when he says "I am Groot" for the young versions of the Groot character in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers movies.

As Gloria digs into a mystery that I still don't think is of great importance (Gloria eventually even speaks the realization that "none of this has anything to do" with what's going on back in Minnesota), she crosses paths with characters played by Rob McElhenney and Ray Wise, and even meets up with Vivian Lord. The 2010 Vivian is played by Francesca Eastwood's mother Frances Fisher.

'The Law of Non-Contradiction' feels extraneous, but it held my attention while it was going on. I liked the cameos and the animated scenes were enjoyably quirky. The most notable thing about it may be the fact that it was directed by John Cameron, who worked as a producer on several Coen brothers projects, including as a line producer on the Fargo movie. He's an executive producer of this show, and this is the only episode he has directed so far.

Now I'm ready to get back to the Stussys not named Ennis.

Episode 4: The Narrow Escape Problem

Billy Bob Thornton delivered one of the best performances of his career, and was given one of the best characters he has ever had the chance to play, in the first season of the Fargo TV series. He gets a bit of a cameo in the third season episode 'The Narrow Escape Problem', not as his season 1 character Lorne Malvo, but as the narrator of a recording of Peter and the Wolf.

It seems fitting that Thornton's voice would be heard in this episode, because this is the episode where we also start to learn more information about David Thewlis's character V.M. Varga, who is basically this season's version of Lorne Malvo. He's cold and calculating, and is easily able to take complete control of any situation he walks into. The big difference is, I don't find Varga to be nearly as fascinating as Malvo.

Not only does Emmit have to deal with Varga, he's also got his black sheep brother Ray and Ray's girlfriend Nikki continuing to try to steal from him. They take their pursuit of Emmit's money to a new, ridiculous level in this episode, going so far as to have Ray walk into a bank pretending to be his brother. It was amusing to see how Ray handles that situation.

Also amusing is a little quirk chief of police character Gloria Burgle has: the sensors on anything that's supposed to be automatic - doors, sinks, soap dispensers, hand dryers - never acknowledge her existence. It doesn't make sense, but it's one of those weird Fargo touches that add a bit of fun along the way.

Overall, 'The Narrow Escape Problem' wasn't the most interesting episode of Fargo that I've watched, but it pushed things forward with a little help from Olivia Sandoval as an outgoing police officer named Winnie Lopez.

Episode 5: The House of Special Purpose

The attempts of Ray Stussy and his girlfriend Nikki Swango to get money out of Ray's wealthy look-alike brother Emmit keep getting increasingly goofy. It's fitting that, as she and Ray are preparing to shoot a sex tape meant to make it look like Emmit is cheating on his wife, Nikki mixes up her words and says they need to keep their identities "absurd" rather than "obscured".

How do you come up with a plan like that? Dressing up like someone and shoot a sex tape pretending to be them, then send the tape to that person demanding payment or they'll show the video to their significant other... Instead of paying them off, all Emmit would have to do is show the video to his wife and say, "Look what Ray's trying to do to me." Crisis averted. Of course, it would help if he had kept his wife in the loop of what was going on with Ray. If so, she might see through the sex tape herself. Your brother trying to steal your money isn't something you keep to yourself. But since Emmit hasn't handled things well, this blackmail attempt has the worst outcome for him. And for Ray and Nikki.

As if Emmit needs this extra aggravation on top of V.M. Varga's takeover of his parking lot company. The more we see of Varga, the more disgusting and unpleasant this guy gets. This time he even forces Emmit's business partner Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) to drink from a coffee mug he had been resting his penis in. As people do. Sy has had some amusing interactions with Ray in previous episodes, but his interaction with Varga isn't amusing. The overall story is interesting, but I don't enjoy watching the Varga character. He's just repellent. I kind of want to tune out every time he appears on the screen.

So with Varga infecting the Stussy parking lot business, it seems fortuitous that "storage queen" Ruby Goldfarb (Mary McDonnell), has now shown up with the offer of buying out the Stussy business. Maybe Emmit and Sy can just drop this problem in her lap. Though that would be a villainous thing to do on their part.

'The House of Special Purpose' has a lot of fun moments in it, like when a frazzled Sy tells Ruby that he feels like has "left the known world"; more scenes of Sy trying to deal with the Ray / Nikki disaster; Sy telling Emmit that "Enemies are inside the gates, fornicating with our cookware!"; Ray and Emmit screaming at each other over the phone - with Ray being on a crowded bus at the time; a scene in which chief of police Gloria Burgle and police officer Winnie Lopez bring Ray in to discuss Maurice LeFay, the guy who killed Gloria's stepfather while bungling a job Ray had asked him to do. "Whatever past disagreements, bygones. You know, think of Jesus. His actions."

Varma, Goldfarb, and the IRS showing up to go over Stussy's records are combining to make this season go a bit too far into that business for my taste, but there's still enjoyment to get out of these episodes.

Episode 6: The Lord of No Mercy

We have now entered the second half of Fargo's third season, and as the show got more embroiled in Stussy's parking lot business dealings and the takeover by V.M. Varga, the more this season was sinking into place as my least favorite season of Fargo so far. Not that I'm actively disliking it, I'm just not as interested in what's going on here as I was in the events of the previous seasons. What will happen to the parking lot business? I barely care at this point.

Varga especially is off-putting to me. The more time we spend with this repugnant character, listening to his history lessons, watching him dominate Emmit Stussy and Sy Feltz, seeing him pick at his disgusting teeth, hearing him spout appalling opinions, the more restless I get.

Thankfully, 'The Lord of No Mercy' does show some mercy by allowing us to get away from Varga to catch up with bumbling criminals Ray Stussy and Nikki Swango. And just when it seems like the story might be starting to spin its wheels or putting its focus on the wrong things, something happens that brings a major change to the season.

When you reach the halfway point of a season, things should get shaken up in some way, and 'The Lord of No Mercy' definitely shakes things up.

This shake-up comes at the expense of one of the characters who was bringing the greatest amount of entertainment into the episodes, but I'm intrigued to see where the story will go from here.

Episode 7: The Law of Inevitability

As this season of Fargo goes on, it's feeling like chief of police Gloria Burgle is an underutilized character. This despite the fact that she had her own side story episode that ultimately amounted to nothing important. Carrie Coon is great in the role, and Gloria is the traditional Fargo franchise female police officer heroine, but she's just not being given enough to do. The show seems much more interested in other characters.

While "parking lot king" Emmit Stussy is looking into selling off his company to "storage queen" Ruby Goldfarb as the death of his look-alike brother Ray weighs on his conscience, it's Ray's criminal girlfriend Nikki Swango who takes the blame for the death - which was an accident, but looks like a homicide. And while Nikki is in police custody, Gloria is given some fun stuff to do in this episode, proving that she should be getting more attention.

Gloria is pursuing an investigation of her stepfather Ennis Stussy's murder (which Ray was inadvertently responsible for) even though the system is trying to push her off the trail. With her police department being absorbed by the county police force, Gloria will soon be answering to a man named Moe Dammick, and he doesn't want her causing trouble with her nonsense theories. Even though they're accurate.

There's a great scene in here where Dammick orders Gloria to either take a holiday break or start looking for another job. Gloria indicates she'll take the break - and when they walk away from each other, she turns down a hallway and immediately tries to convince a guard that she was authorized to have a private talk with Nikki.

Dammick is a pain, but after seeing how Gloria's deputy Donny Mashman (Mark Forward) gets scared off when he finds a mysterious person (a henchman working for V.M. Varga, who is forcing his way into a power position at Emmit's company) in the police station going through files, it seems like a good thing that county is taking over here.

Gloria gets pushed aside repeatedly, Varga is doing some investigating of his own, Emmit is falling apart, an assassin tries to get to Nikki while she's behind bars. There's quite a bit going on in 'The Law of Inevitability'. Emmit is so paranoid that he even accuses his business partner Sy Feltz of working against him with Ray and Nikki. Sy has a terrific response to that accusation, saying that by joining forces with Ray and Nikki he could "turn millions into thousands".

Sy has another terrific line when he returns home and breaks down in tears. His wife asks him what's wrong and he says, "The world. The world is wrong. It looks like my world, but everything's different." His life is crumbling around him, and as someone who has had life crumble around me as well, I know exactly what he's talking about. I know that feeling well.

Episode 8: Who Rules the Land of Denial?

Wherein the relevance of episode 1's opening scene becomes completely clear, Gloria Burgle's trip to California in episode 3 gets some extra (but mysterious) importance, and all three seasons are tied together by the presence of one person.

'Who Rules the Land of Denial?' has an awesome first 17 minutes or so, even though I'm not entirely clear on the logic behind it. V.M. Varga, the disgusting fellow who has taken over "parking lot king" Emmit Stussy's business, wanted to frame the girlfriend of Emmit's brother Ray for Ray's bloody death, which Emmit was accidentally responsible for. But now that the girlfriend, Nikki Swango, is in police custody, Varga's henchmen Yuri (Goran Bogdan), Meemo (Andy Yu), and Golem (DJ Qualls) want her dead. They want her dead so badly that they even go so far as so flip the prison bus she's being transported in. Wearing animal masks, they then raid the wreckage, killing every guard and prisoner on board.

They kill everyone on the bus except two people. One of them is Nikki, so they gained nothing by flipping this bus and killing everyone else. The other is the person Nikki had the good fortune of being shackled to - a person who has now been in all three seasons of this show. Hearing impaired hitman Mr. Wrench, played by Russell Harvard. Wrench was in several episodes of the first season, which was set in 2006, but only showed up in one episode of season 2 - and since that season took place in 1979, the Wrench we saw there was just a young kid. I didn't even put it together that the kids we saw using sign language in that episode were supposed to be Wrench and his buddy Mr. Numbers, but the point there was that they cross paths with season 2 character Hanzee Dent as children and grow up to work for him as hitmen when he changes his appearance and identity to become mob boss Moses Tripoli, as we saw in season 1.

The idea that there was any way the man we knew as Hanzee Dent could change himself so much that he would become the person we saw as Moses Tripoli is almost too weird even for this show, but that doesn't have anything to do with season 3.

So four years down the line from the events of season 1, Mr. Wrench finds himself shackled to Nikki as three people come to kill her. Death is his business, so he's able to get them off of the crashed bus alive, and then they run off into a nearby woods for a new take on the concept of The Defiant Ones. Or Black Mama, White Mama.

Yuri, Meemo, and Golem continue to hunt them through the woods, and all of this stuff is great, from the way the bus crash and raid is presented to the atmosphere of the woods hunt. Arrows fly through the air and through body parts, there's a decapitation, and I'm left wishing director Mike Barker and cinematographer Craig Wrobleski would make a snow-dusted backwoods slasher movie that looks just like the first 17 minutes of this episode.

Then things get weird when Nikki and Wrench reach a bowling alley reminiscent of The Big Lebowski, another classic movie from Fargo filmmakers the Coen brothers. Sitting in the bowling alley is Ray Wise as Paul Marrane, a character Gloria Burgle bumped into twice during her trip to California. Now he's in Gloria's neck of the woods, and in his interactions with other characters here he comes off as some kind of all-knowing, mystical being. There's implication that Ray has been reincarnated as the kitten Marrane has with him, and when Marrane sees Yuri he instantly knows he is Yuri Gurka, who strangled a woman in Germany in 1989. The crime discussed in the first scene of episode 1. So now we know exactly why that scene was there.

Beyond all this, 'Who Rules the Land of Denial?' also features a tragic turn of events for Emmit's business partner Sy, which sucks because he was one of the few characters we could really side with in this story, a time jump of several months that takes the setting into 2011, and some kind of mind-melting shenanigans aimed at Emmit. There's a lot going on in this episode, but for me those first 17 minutes are the absolute best thing about it.

Episode 9: Aporia

If only the villainous V.M. Varga and his associates had just allowed Nikki Swango to take the fall for the death of her fiance Ray Stussy instead of trying to kill her after she was in police custody, they would have saved themselves a lot of trouble. And two of them would still be around. Now Emmit Stussy is confessing to the police that he was responsible for his brother's death, so Varga has to come up with a scheme involving a homeless ex-convict who wants to get back behind bars and the murders of more people with the last name Stussy. Varga can't have Emmit going to jail, he needs him to continue being the public face of the company he has taken over.

And then there's the fact that Nikki is still loose, thanks to their blunder, and has teamed up with professional criminal Mr. Wrench (returning from season 1) to mess with Varga until he agrees to pay her off. Nikki could be in prison and Varga could be sitting back and relaxing, but now the whole thing is a mess.

Emmit makes his confession to Gloria Burgle - formerly chief of police, now a deputy - and the confession scene allows Ewan McGregor to do some great, emotional acting. As is Gloria's luck, especially now that she's working under Moe Dammick, this confession goes nowhere, but it gives the audience something impressive to watch for a while.

As Gloria, Carrie Coon does great work opposite McGregor as well. Later in the episode she meets with fellow police officer Winnie Lopez for drinks, and during their time together Gloria is quite down - she feels like the good guys have lost in this scenario, and sometimes she questions whether or not she really even exists. We've seen that automatic doors, sinks, and hand dryers don't respond to her presence... but then after she shares this private concern that she doesn't exist, she goes to the restroom. And the automatic soap dispenser and the automatic sink both work for her.

Maybe there's hope after all. Maybe, with one more episode left in the season, the good guys can pull off the win.

Episode 10: Somebody to Love

Carrie Coon received a well-earned Emmy nomination for her performance as chief of police turned deputy Gloria Burgle. Even though she seemed overshadowed by other characters throughout the season, which may be appropriate for a character who spent most of the time wondering if she really exists, she also had multiple chances to shine in various episodes. 'Somebody to Love' is an episode where she gets to shine, and she certainly should, since she's the only force of good here who could possibly bring justice to the criminals who have been running all over the previous nine episodes.

Gloria gets a standout scene with her son here where she has a heart-to-heart with him over the fact that "sometimes the world doesn't make a lot of sense". Still, my favorite scene involving both Gloria and her son came back in episode 3, 'The Law of Non-Contradiction', when she's going over some case facts while planning to pick up some food from Arby's. One of the lines she said in that episode may be my favorite line of the season: "Probably we should have a milkshake, maybe some curly fries, ponder all future moves."

I have to admit that David Thewlis gives a great performance as the primary villain V.M. Varga - such a great performance that I can barely handle watching him, I'm so disgusted by him and feel so much contempt for the character. Well done, Thewlis, I can't stand your character. I went into this episode very strongly wishing that someone would kill Varga by the end of its 51 minutes.

My best hope of that happening comes rather early on, when the bereaved Nikki Swango and her hitman pal Mr. Wrench take up arms and lure Varga into an ambush as part of Nikki's mission to get revenge for the death of her fiance Ray Stussy. That was a really cool sequence.

I won't say whether or not the episode granted my wish to see Varga dead, but I will say, without spoiling it, that I was saddened by the death of one character in 'Somebody to Love'. Just when it seemed like they were going to get a happy ending, which I would have been fine with, the show pulled the rug out from under them. I don't think the character deserved that.

The last episode of the season ends the same way the first episode began, with an authority figure and an accused criminal having a conversation. Perfect bookends. The season goes out on a low-key note... and an uncertain one. I'm not left feeling fully satisfied, but can accept that the ending is fitting for the season.

In the end, my rankings of the Fargo seasons is the same as the order in which they were made. My favorite remains the first, then comes the second, then the third. But even though I put them in descending order, I still got a lot of enjoyment out of watching season 3. I wasn't always interested in what was going on in the story, but I liked spending time with the characters. Except Varga.

I look forward to season 4, which has been announced but hasn't gone into production yet, and hope maybe I'll like that season more than at least one that came before it.

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