We gave it a B
There’s something Fargo does that a lot of other TV series and movies do — elevated, prestige dramas have been especially guilty of overusing this lately.
A character, typically speaking to our hero, stops a conversation abruptly to tell a story. Now, they’ll lay out this tale with great care. It’s about people we will never meet, or maybe they never actually existed. The raconteur will sketch it out beautifully, with rises and falls and colorful language, a folksy parable with a clear theme. Hey, they might even stop it for an irreverent digression. Who the f— knows?
But eventually, they come to the end of the story. And their sentences become very pointed. Now, listen closely, because this is very… very… important.
You see, this is the point of the story the character is telling. And wouldn’t you know, it actually has parallels to the hero’s journey, but those deeper connections aren’t always clear. That’s why the scene ends with the protagonist staring off and thinking about the story.
Fargo loves doing this, and it’s better at it than most shows. It’s fun and showy and an easy way to imply that there are many layers to the season’s arc. And storytelling as a theme — its purpose in society and its drawbacks — has been a particular fascination of the series through all three seasons to date. These pauses also draw a lot of attention to themselves. You’re supposed to notice how deep and significant they are. But there isn’t always a lot of there there.
The fifth episode of season 3 brought two such detours. The shorter of the two came from Varga in a more abbreviated form. “A chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg,” he tells Sy while defiling a mug. It’s all about perspective, you see. From the point of view of the egg, the entire existence of its end form can be rewritten. Cool. Good point, but I don’t know what that has to do with anything or why I should care.
And — oh, never mind. Varga is making Sy drink from the cup. I’m too grossed out to probe the meaning of that story any further.
The new chief tells the other story, which is about two girls with the same name and essentially amounts to nothing more than, “Coincidences are a thing.”
I’m ranting a bit, but this device is emblematic of most of my problems with Fargo season 3. This story has all markings of a prestige drama. There are characters with obvious flaws, intersecting story lines, showy performances from film actors, dreamlike diversions like Gloria’s trip to California, and idiosyncratic music cues. But it’s all thin.
(Strangely enough, there’s actually a scene from 1992’s My Cousin Vinny that is both a great example of the kind of scene I’m talking about above and an illustration of my problems with this season.)
That being said, this episode does progress things in a positive way, adding the emotional stakes that have been mostly missing so far. And things got off to a tantalizing start with Ray and Nikki delivering a sex tape straight into the hands of Stella Stussy, Emmit’s wife. The original plan was to blackmail $100,000 out of the more fortunate brother, but that goes down the toilet once Stella sees the tape and takes off. The attack nearly destroys Emmit emotionally and pushes him to take the leash off of Sy when it comes to handling Team Stussy-Swango.
A big roadblock for caring that much about any of this is Emmit, who is going through some real emotional turmoil, but he’s too dumb to really care about. Even as he weeps for his spurned wife and children, the tone of the show undercuts his sorrow as something silly. There’s something to the fact that he can’t get past his petty rivalry with his brother to see the larger threat of Varga, but nothing about the Ray-Emmit story feels honest. This very well may be because of Ewan McGregor’s dual role, which keeps the brothers from spending much time on screen together. There is no investment in their dynamic other than the lip service paid to it.
McGregor, thankfully, does get some substance with Ray. The former parole officer’s proposal to Nikki is a genuinely sweet moment that also delivers the hour’s best line — “For Pete’s sake, I’m wearing a hooker wig.” There is also the corresponding crash that comes with it, when Nikki meets Sy to put the extortion game to rest. The clash in the parking lot is the most literal collusion of the disparate story lines so far, and the result carried weight. So far, Nikki’s character has oscillated between calculating and idiotic so much that it’s been difficult to connect with her. That changed after her run-in with Yuri. His beating is brutal and is completely sold thanks to another stellar performance from Michael Stuhlbarg.
Completely lost in all of this is Gloria, whose sole struggle is to uncover a murder we’ve known everything about since the pilot. There’s no urgency or sense of stakes in that story line, and I’m really interested to see if her role will grow into something more than “the person who arrests someone at the end.”