There’s something uncanny about the third season of Fargo so far. Three episodes in, and everything seems to be in order based on what I know about the series.
There’s a central crime that’s almost immediately complicated by layers of purposeful deceit and bargain-brand levels of stupidity. There’s an outsider, an eloquent personification of evil who likes to critique word choice and dances intellectual circles around the common folk whom he plagues.
There are obvious symbols — in the case of the most recent episode, a machine that only does one thing: switches itself off. There have been multiple jumps into different time periods. Oddball world-building, like a Santa Claus convention. Playful pokes at shallow aspects of modern life, like Facebook. Hell, there’s even an animated sequence, building off one of the strong sequences from Legion.
At the center of it all is an earnest cop, in over her head, but if she just sticks to her guns and inherent goodness, she’ll make it out of the weeds.
These are all identifiably Fargo-ish things, but watching the third episode, there was the unshakable sense that something was off — like we’re in an invasion movie and are starting to suspect that our friend has been body-snatched. It looks like Fargo, and it sounds like Fargo. But is that really Fargo in there?
The episode started off fine enough with a jump back in time to 1975, when the young novelist Thaddeus “Thad” Mobley won the Singularity Award for Best Science Fiction Novel with The Planet Wyh, a copy of which Gloria found at Ennis’. At the ceremony’s bar, Hollywood producer Howard Zimmerman (played by A Serious Man‘s Fred Melamed, it should be noted) introduces himself and gets the gears moving on a Planet Wyh movie. Things are looking up for the humble scribe, and if you wondered for a second whether this business would chew up Thad and spit him out, this might be literally the first television show you’ve ever seen.
The only hitch in Thad’s rise to the top in La-La Land is that Zimmerman needs money to grease the necessary wheels. Being the innocent naive that he is, Thad offers up the money — whatever keeps him in business with the producer because that business involves screen beauty Vivian Lord.
Of course, Zimmerman blows the money. Of course, Vivian’s got a coke problem. Of course, Thad gets pulled down into the gutter with them. None of it is surprising. It’s not even compelling. How are we supposed to care for a kid who gets played like this? Instead of saying, “Poor Thad,” our only reaction is, “Well, yeah.” I mean, when the whole plot is revealed, Vivian literally says, “I used you a–hole.” Maybe she’s got a point.
But maybe there’s some value to this. Complicating the episode’s structure even further, the flashback serves as the framing device for an animated sequence illustrating one of Thad’s stories. The robot Minsky is a lonely little robot who wanders a suspiciously World of Tomorrow-like sci-fi landscape for an eternity, offering to help. There are a lot of heavy nods toward significance. Minsky is a simple mind that witnesses the rise and fall and rise of civilizations as he searches for meaning. But his story ends without a strong emotional or thematic destination.
Gloria’s story line for the week winds up with a similar conclusion, as she travels to California with the hopes of solidifying the connection between Ennis and Thaddeus Mobley. There are a few problems that keep the story from being absorbing. We already know that there isn’t a connection between Ennis’ time as Thaddeus and his death. Gloria eventually comes to that conclusion herself — realizing that this chapter in Ennis’ life, like everything else, is just a story — but the road to the truth is tedious and not filled with the insight or wisdom that Fargo seems to want to impart.
All we get out of Gloria’s time in L.A. is a reheated Hollywood fable of a writer scorned, the useless machine as a capital-S Symbol, and a fun, if shallow turn by Rob McElhenney as a douchebag cop, who’s nothing more than a mouthpiece for the writers’ Facebook complaints pitched as ironic satire.
This may sound like a lot of complaints, but it all comes from having seen Fargo as a program that flouts the traps of “prestige” drama rather than falls for every single one. In the past, this has been a show that prioritized empathy and exciting storytelling over indulgent allegory and strained and empty symbolism.
Yes, we’re only three episodes into the season, but for whom are supposed to care at this point? Gloria seems like the most obvious answer, but the show continues to downplay her connection to Ennis, whom we barely got to know and who appears to have been a rube in his early days. And because Gloria now knows that Maurice is already dead, there’s even less of a sense of urgency. The only mystery with any emotional resonance is already solved, so where do we go for our hook?
Are we supposed to root for Ray and Nikki to get with their murderous gambit? Nikki’s only motivator seems to be complicating the plot, and Ray’s too weak a personality to oppose her. Emmit was foolish with his finances and is now paying the price. There is no single emotional anchor point so far, and unless something changes soon, I’m afraid the rest of the season will leave me just as cold.
All of the pieces are here for a season of Fargo, but there’s no heart. The show still looks like our friend, but there’s no life in its eyes.