When the first season of the TV ‘adaptation’ of the Coens’ classic was released, spearheaded by Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, the first few episodes were met with a mixed reception. Fans of the film were disappointed that the series was not a remake of the same story, and sceptics remained unmoved at how the storyline felt all too familiar to be branded an original show. It was almost as if the show was caught in no man’s land – between wanting to stand on its own two feet and paying homage to 1996’s Fargo.
Fortunately, as the series progressed, it became more certain of itself and by the finale, it had become a highly respectable debut season. The second series – a completely different plotline – was equally impressive, with Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst and Bokeem Woodbine taking over as the series’ main characters.
Yet it is this third season which has arguably been the strongest so far. Ewan McGregor is the household name this time around, playing two characters: the squabbling twin brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy. He is accompanied by Harry Potter’s David Thewlis as the sinister Varga, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ray Stussy’s lover, with the series’ moral compass arriving in the form of Gloria Burgle, played by Carrie Coon. Coon assumes the role of modest police chief, which Allison Tolman and Patrick Wilson portrayed in previous series – heroic everyman-type figures all obviously drawn from Frances McDormand’s role in the original film.
Fargo: Season 3 follows the rivalry between the two Stussy brothers – Emmit owns his own successful company and lives in an obscenely large mansion, whereas Ray is a miserable parole officer, living in a small, dingy house and seeing one of his parolees, Nikki. Ray resents his brother for taking from him a stamp which is worth a considerable amount of money, and with Nikki, he conspires to take back what is his.
However, the couple’s scheme does not go as planned, and the mishap kick starts a chain of events which is exacerbated when David Thewlis’ ominous and predator-like (sharpened teeth ‘n all) V.M. Varga comes to town. Thewlis effortlessly fills the void of true villain – a vacancy which at times was gaping in the previous seasons. Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo was menacing and Jean Smart as mob boss Floyd Gerhardt was chilling, yet neither appeared to strike as much fear in their adversaries as Thewlis’s antagonist.
McGregor does a good job at playing the Stussy twins, but it might take some getting used to hearing him speak with a Minnesotan accent. Similar to Freeman’s Lester Nygaard in the debut season, Emmit is a simple soul who gets wound up with a bad crowd, and his brother Ray merely wants to take back his inheritance and marry the lovable yet cunning Nikki, who he is head-over-heels in love with.
It’s a relief to have a series with so many likeable characters. The prior seasons had excellent characters, however none of whom were really sympathetic. Various other current TV shows suffer from this as well. Breaking Bad is possibly one of the greatest TV series ever made, yet at times it felt like there was nobody in the story to sympathise with.
The same cannot be said for Fargo: Season 3. The most tragic of the Fargo storylines by far, the audience’s alignment with the characters allows for much greater shock impact and investment in the show’s events.
The only fear I have for Fargo is how long it will last. Too many times has a series been critically successful but has flopped commercially. NBC’s Hannibal is a recent example of an outstanding show that just didn’t attract the audiences. In a current climate of TV releases where zombies, dragons and superheroes rule the roost, more understated and modest shows like Fargo are easily overlooked and side-lined by popcorn audiences.
Currently available here in the UK on All 4, Fargo: Season 3 echoes the Coens’ black laughs yet avoids mimicking the Hollywood auteurs. Creator Noah Hawley will be hoping that this latest series is commercially successful enough to warrant a renewal by FX. Critically however, it is a guaranteed shoo-in.