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‘Fargo’ the Show Can’t Escape ‘Fargo’ the Movie

That’s the point — but it means the excellent FX series can’t get quite as weird as it wants to

(FX)
(FX)

What makes Fargo Fargo? The question sounds tautological, but it’s the existential query that’s been staring down Noah Hawley’s FX series since day one. After American Horror Story and True Detective, Fargo was one of the first entrants in the anthology phenomenon, wherein television series start themselves anew each season by introducing fresh characters, stories, and, often, cast members. Without a continuous story to tie them together, each anthology series must determine for itself which traits connect one season to the next. But as an unprecedented effort working from an idiosyncratic text, Fargo faces a slightly different set of quandaries about the core identity that unites those disparate chapters: How much can Fargo vary from season to season while still being a recognizable descendant of a single movie? How much does it have to stay the same? And in its otherwise enjoyable third season, the effort of answering those questions is starting to show.

In adapting Fargo for television, Hawley managed to take one of the Coen brothers’ most iconic films, not to mention one that came in at a shrink-wrap-tight 90 minutes, and then stretched it out to 10 hours of quirky, compelling crime drama. What tied this series to the original? There were the shared archetypes (the meek pushover slowly corrupted into a monster; the stolid, small-town lady cop who represents the dignity of honest work), the oppressively flat snowscapes, and, of course, the accents. Hawley added a literal connection to the film for good measure: One character’s supermarket fortune is built from a certain suitcase he found buried by the side of the road, denoted by a certain red ice pick. Fargo was Fargo because it was a literal sequel to the movie as well as a spiritual one.

From there, Fargo’s path forward was easy enough. Hawley even had the foresight to write the second season’s blueprint into the first, via multiple references to some tragic goings-on at Sioux Falls. So the next year, Fargo simply flashed back to the ’70s, adding sideburns and paisley to its otherwise steady iconography and upping the stakes from a single investigation to a full-scale crime war. The two sagas were separate stories, but also connected enough that the transition between them was smooth and required minimum soul-searching. Fargo was Fargo because it was — stay with me — a prequel to the sequel to the movie. The accents helped, too.

Going into its third season, Fargo has given itself a more daunting task: ditching narrative continuity altogether and creating a Fargo of a piece with the rest without the prequel/sequel link to fall back on. In the two episodes provided in advance to critics, Fargo doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the other Fargos we’ve seen so far. We’ve jumped ahead to 2010, where brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played, thanks to the magic of colored contacts and prosthetic beer bellies, by Ewan McGregor) have a dispute over their inheritance that — you guessed it! — spirals far beyond their control. No ice pick or Solverson family members in sight.

There’s still plenty in Season 3 that puts us squarely in Fargo territory. In fact, the problem might be that there’s simply too much. Hawley and his writers are so concerned with establishing a template and demonstrating their adherence to it that they’re neglecting to take advantage of the main perk of anthology storytelling: its flexibility.

Here’s yet another grounded, small-town cop, this time played by The Leftovers magnificent Carrie Coon instead of Allison Tolman. Here’s yet another borderline-supernatural crime syndicate, this time represented by David Thewlis’s yellow-toothed V.M. Varga rather than Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo. Here’s yet another mediocre human being on his way to becoming a despicable one — though unlike Peggy Blumquist or Lester Nygaard, Ray Stussy’s downfall is outright encouraged by his partner, the bridge-playing, faux-fur-wearing Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Fargo has settled down into a rhythm that’s just a hair too predictable, remixed with only the lightest of touches. Fargo’s own definition of Fargo, it seems, is repeating its parable while switching up the people through whom its lessons are imparted.

Which isn’t to say this show has lost its sense of fun. There are strange, poignant details that recall last season’s UFOs: A particularly old-fashioned character can’t open an automatic door, and another’s untimely death uncovers his past as a popular science-fiction author. The dialogue retains the right mix of twang-driven comedy (“There’s somethin’ wrong with your chi”) and strange poetry (“What possible solve is there besides unfathomable pinheaddery?”). And there’s a downright thrilling action sequence in the premiere that indicates Fargo hasn’t lost its taste for artfully staged violence. It’s just hard to shake the feeling that we know where this is headed. In Fargo’s world, absolute good tends to win out, though not before anyone who falls beneath that standard suffers for their sins. As the now-familiar disclaimer tells us, there will be many dead and far fewer survivors, and it’s not particularly hard to guess who’s ending up in which category. Of course, there’s still plenty of time for Fargo to shred the road map for where we’ll end up. But the battle lines bear an uncanny resemblance to conflicts past, as do the players on either side of them.

Fargo doesn’t have to be this way — in fact, it’s designed expressly not to be. The only common link between seasons of True Detective is that its central characters are, in fact, detectives. High Maintenance packs an astonishing variety into the superficially narrow distinction of “New Yorkers who smoke weed.” Feud will flip from Old Hollywood to modern royalty in less than a year. These shows have freedom to hopscotch around time, place, and subcultures at will that Fargo isn’t really allowing itself.

It could be that Fargo simply hasn’t felt external pressure to reinvent itself yet, á la True Detective bringing on David Milch or American Horror Story swapping Lady Gaga for Jessica Lange. If it’s earning nothing less than critical adoration, why fix it? It could also be that these other shows have something Fargo doesn’t: a crystal-clear premise that isn’t tethered to a specific piece of entertainment, allowing considerably greater leeway. American Crime Story is about true crime, the trashier the better. American Crime is about the intersection of social issues and individual wrongdoing. Feud is about … feuds. Knowing your baseline means you can weave around it.

What’s Fargo about? Is it the Midwest? Is it crime in the Midwest? Or is it about something more specific than that — small town law enforcement versus world-historical evil with magnates and low-grade criminals as pawns, plus a smidgen of the paranormal? One last time: What makes Fargo Fargo?

Through two episodes of its third season, Noah Hawley’s answer to that question is looking a little more self-restricting than it used to, his fidelity to the source material (and the many other Coen films referenced throughout) a little too strong. Fortunately, there’s a perfectly Fargo moment right there in the script, and one the season might aim itself toward. Near the end of the second episode, Varga speculates on why an international man of mystery like him enjoys suburban Minnesota so much: “It’s so perfectly, sublimely bland.” To me, that’s what Fargo’s about: the coupled perversity and fundamental decency of a distinctly American region, heightened into an extreme version of itself. The setting provides the perfect staging ground for a showdown of good versus evil — a massive, allegorical struggle channeled through acutely specific stories. Everything else is just window dressing.