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‘Fargo’ Almost Solved Its Familiarity Problem

Three seasons in, the FX series was feeling stale — but then it gave the reins to Mary Elizabeth Winstead

(FX/Ringer illustration)
(FX/Ringer illustration)

Fargo’s third season ended much like its second, and its first, and also like the movie from which it takes its name and general outline: with the hunter becoming the hunted and the status quo restored, though not before several dozen bodies piled up. But for the final third of its 10-episode stretch, Season 3 of Fargo seemed like it had finally, decisively broken from its predecessors on both TV and in film — particularly when Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s scammer emerged as the season’s complicated, gray-area-dwelling hero.

Noah Hawley’s Minnesota noir operates under a strict set of rules, as derived from the Coen brothers more than 20 years ago. The show is an epic story of moral absolutes set in the most quotidian and goofily specific region imaginable. Across seasons, Fargo’s copious, gleeful violence belies the narrative logic of a fairy tale: good, in the form of a steadfast yet underestimated small-town cop, triumphs over evil, in the form of overwhelmed petty criminals and faceless crime syndicates alike. Season 3 flirted with deviating from the script, and not just with a self-contained episode that quite literally took the show on the road. For a while, Fargo very nearly opted out of its rigid binary.

Wednesday’s finale returned to the blueprint, despite some mild ambiguity about the final outcome of the face-off between Eden Valley police chief turned Meeker County sheriff’s deputy turned Homeland Security agent Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and international man of corporate mystery V.M. Varga (David Thewlis). But during the season’s strongest stretch of episodes — Week 7’s “The Law of Inevitability” through the finale — a different outcome felt possible, filtering a whiff of novelty and innovation into a season largely defined by stasis. Not coincidentally, the best stretch of Season 3 centered on the only major character without a direct analog earlier in the franchise. To escape its source material going forward, Fargo’s best bet is to cover new ground.

When Winstead’s Nikki Swango showed up in the first scene of the season, she looked like a classic Fargo type. An ex-convict now dating (and playing semiprofessional bridge with) her much older, much less attractive parole officer, Nikki initially came off as rapacious and opportunistic. Inserting herself into and exacerbating the feud between Ray Stussy and his richer, handsomer, overall more successful older brother, Emmit (both played by Ewan McGregor), Nikki appeared to be in it for the cash; the ice-cold speed with which she engineered a man’s brutal death by air conditioner evidenced the detached savvy of a criminal mastermind. She came off like Kirsten Dunst’s Peggy Blumquist, the star of Season 2: using her partner’s devotion to bring him along on her downward spiral, minus the sympathetic hook of Peggy’s trapped domesticity.

But Nikki’s pat femme fatale narrative started to shift with a seismic event that reconfigured the season’s battle lines and kick-started its action more than halfway through the run. Though the premiere positioned the season as a rift between brothers blown out of proportion, “The Lord of No Mercy” unexpectedly removed a major player from the board. In some ways Ray’s accidental death at Emmit’s hands cemented one of Fargo’s core archetypes: the law-abiding businessman, in the vein of Jerry Lundegaard or Lester Nygaard, slowly unmasked as a spineless cretin. But Ray’s murder also introduced something new to Fargo’s continual cycle of scrambling lowlifes and clean-cut creeps. Where Nikki once looked suspiciously like a plot device, a two-dimensional figure there to provoke, enable, and otherwise prod her significant other into motion, she was suddenly promoted to full-blown protagonist. With Ray out of the picture, Nikki entered Varga’s crosshairs, teamed up with deaf hitman Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) from Season 1, and finally did what no one else could: put the seemingly omnipotent Varga on the defensive.

But the shift in Nikki’s arc amounted to more than simply upping her screentime. The final stretch of the season also positioned her as something outside — and more interesting than — Fargo’s good/bad dichotomy: a criminal with a rock-solid moral compass and a con artist capable of true feeling. Ironically, Nikki and Ray’s relationship came into focus only after its abrupt conclusion. The benefit Nikki stood to gain from dating her parole officer was real, but so was her connection to Ray and indignation on his behalf. Nikki mourns Ray, and deeply; one of the many ways Gloria distinguishes herself as an investigator is that she’s able to perceive that through the gold-digging surface her colleagues see. And when Nikki and Mr. Wrench organize a retaliatory heist against Varga, she hands him almost all the spoils. “It’s yours,” she says. “I just want the brother.” Justice over money is hardly the priority we would have ascribed to Nikki early on. Fargo loves its heroes and loathes its villains, none more so than the ones who think they’re heroes. It’s never centered someone who’s authentically both.

Unlike the humble Glorias of the show’s world, Nikki has swagger. When she’s dictating her terms to Varga over the phone ($2 million or she turns his undoctored books over to the IRS), she does it while painting her nails and sporting a mile-wide smirk. That hardly squares with the industrious modesty this show equates with virtue. But Nikki’s flair makes her a much better foil for Varga’s wolfish smarm. When she and the bulimic British man finally stand off in the penultimate “Aphoria,” their meeting of the minds is far more thrilling than the relatively anticlimactic interrogation-room scene that closes the season. Nikki can meet her adversaries at their level. Previous Fargo protagonists like Gloria, the Solversons, and Marge Gunderson would never orchestrate the warehouse ambush that takes out all of Varga’s entourage. Nikki, on the other hand, has fun toying with her prey, telling Varga point blank that her only goal is to make him suffer. The bridge player loves playing the game.

Maybe that’s why Nikki doesn’t come out on top — because she couldn’t while leaving Fargo intact. Instead, she dies in a roadside shootout while Emmit walks away scot-free, the revenge she choreographed slipping out of her grasp. (Later, Mr. Wrench will finish what she started.) On Fargo, the wicked are punished and the virtuous are rewarded, and the bar for “virtue” remains high enough to preclude a woman who orchestrated a massacre, even of fellow criminals. Yet the possibility, teased by the exhilarating momentum of her final crusade, that Nikki might be the last woman standing — and that Fargo might buck its airtight formula — is tantalizing enough to suggest the show ought to consider running all the way with it next season (if there is one). Fargo’s third installment didn’t experiment enough to outpace its monotony. When it dared to venture outside the lines, however, the season suggested Fargo hasn’t run its course just yet.