With challenging (or plain bad) seasons of beloved television series, there’s a natural rhythm to their status in our collective pop culture consciousness. There’s the kneejerk, which at first flags a set of episodes as “different” before mutating into “disappointing.”
But then, some brave content creator on a deadline fires up a take. “What if,” they begin. “What if this season that the audience struggled with for various reasons — be it pacing, off-key casting, or a change in direction from episodes past — what if it was secretly great? What if it was actually the best season of the show, and everyone else is just too dumb to see that?”
According to hot takes, a season of television is only ever secretly the best, because no one cares when a critic marks the most entertaining or cohesive or emotionally engaging set of episodes as the greatest. No, creative success is never obvious or popular, not in Take Town.
Of course, this is the fate of Fargo‘s third season, the series’ most uneven. This is especially true if it ends up being the final season, as recent comments from FX execs seem to suggest. But when this take begins to grow in popularity, it won’t be entirely for contrarian reasons.
While I maintain that this the weakest season by many measures, the story of Gloria Burgle, V.M. Varga, and the Stussys wades into some of the murkiest and most intriguing philosophical questions of the series to date. At different points throughout the season, characters wrestle with identity, existence, truth, time, and morality. Who is Gloria if she isn’t the chief, and if her work is ignored entirely? How do we know that there wasn’t a Stussy serial killer? And why do we fight for justice?
I mean, what is justice?!
The major problem is that none of these questions mattered much until the last third of the season. Episodes 8, 9, and 10 contained moments that measure up against some of Fargo‘s best, but I could take or leave a lot of what came before. For example, the sequence with Varga’s men approaching the storage unit, riding the elevator, and stalking down the hall was absolutely gripping, eyes-tearing-themselves-out-of-my-head-to-get-closer intense.
But it was missing the heft of season 2’s motel massacre. By the time of the showdown between Nikki and Varga, we’ve only really been caring about her for four episodes. Adding Wrench to the mix injected some adrenaline into the show while also underlining the season-1 dynamism that’s been missing here. (Also, I love his black “I’m on a mission” fringe jacket. It’s the style choice of the year.)
Another reason season 3 can’t be written off is that when it came time for the climactic showdowns, the scenes had weight. Emmit and Nikki’s meeting was very well done. Something about Mary Elizabeth Winstead explaining that Ray is a kitten now just plain worked. It was funny and bizarre and a little heartbreaking. Did it ultimately pay off in a satisfying way? I can’t say that I found the standoff with the anonymous cop particularly meaningful, but it was at the very least surprising.
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It takes Emmit five years to get what’s coming to him, and we have Mr. Wrench’s inability to let go of a grudge to thank for that. My question: How much of the conflict between Nikki and Emmit could Wrench have understood? She had essentially no way of communicating with him. Maybe the boiled-down version of what was happening was the most convincing one. Without the nuance and screw-ups, maybe the beef becomes more cut and dry, something worth hanging on to for five years.
Also, Sy at the dinner table made me very, very sad.
Surprisingly, it was one of season 3’s shakiest elements that allowed the finale to be something truly great. Gloria Burgle’s purpose — both to the audience and to herself — has been a mystery, but it’s in scenes like her chat with her son and the beyond-brilliant final scene that I couldn’t be happier that we met her this year.
Once again filling the role of Ed Tom Bell as the old man of this country, Gloria tells her son, “There’s violence to knowing the world isn’t what you thought.” She isn’t going to explain what happened to Ennis Stussy — not yet. He’s going to have to learn that for himself when he’s a little older, otherwise it might consume him. The lesson is one that Gloria has had to face again and again, but if she hadn’t been so convinced of her own worldview, she might not have had the fight needed to carry on.
And that leads us to Daniel Rand (not Iron Fist, thank God) and DHS agent Gloria Burgle. These two sitting across from each other in an airport detention center is a play I would absolutely watch. This scene had the feel of a moment that justifies every other moment in a story, the singular event that an artist works toward. Their conversation was intelligently written and perfectly performed.
The debate they have in that room is the same one they’ve been having through their actions all year. Does someone with a sharpened sense of justice have a chance against an evil that has hacked the system? Varga, a man without a real name, tells Gloria, a woman without a google-able past, that she’s already lost. “Gloria, trust me,” he says. “The future is certain, and when it comes, you will know — without question — your place in the world.”
In the same conversation in which Varga claims that the future is certain, he says that the past is unpredictable. This speaks to his ability to change the terms of the truth. Nothing that has passed is truly verifiable, and he can dictate what society deems to the be truth.
And yet, she persists. Because she has to. That is the existential conundrum that Lou Solverson ran headfirst into last year. Gloria has found meaning and purpose in the people she loves and a sense of right and wrong. Because of this, the future will never be certain. Because of this, someone like Gloria will always face someone like Varga. Because of this, we will never know who is going to walk through that door.
So what did it all add up to? An ending worthy of the rest of the series — transcendent of it in some ways — that’s for sure. It’s a sequence that makes it impossible to write off this wobbly season. It’s also a great distillation of what Fargo the series has meant. These people with the funny accents aren’t caricatures or jokes. They’re intensely human, frighteningly so sometimes, and they’re all just doing their best to carry on in the face of the future’s one and only certainty.