Every episode of the FX crime anthology Fargo opens with the same introductory text as the original Coen Brothers film the series is adapted from: “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.” But in the third season, something changes. In the premieres of seasons one and two, “TRUE” was the last word to disappear from the screen. Season three fades it first, leaving a kind of winking admission to the viewer: “THIS IS A STORY.”
Fargo the film was, despite its claim, famously not depicting a true story. When confronted with this fact during a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, Ethan Coen smiled and asked, “Who says?”
It became a dark intellectual subtext of the film and then the series: If I tell you a story and claim that it’s true, how easy would it be to get you to believe me? And if you do believe me, does that make the story a strange kind of true, even if it’s really not?
For three years now, Fargo has been persistently and masterfully picking at that metafictional knot on levels of both story and character. How far are the seemingly placid people who populate the show’s frosty landscape willing to go to make their version of reality the true one? How many people will they have to hurt along the way? In season three, the answer to that question is what we’ve come to expect from Fargo: Complicated, bloody and utterly riveting.
The character who sets the misadventure in motion this time around is Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor), a balding and overweight parole officer who’s looking to turn his life around. Like the put-upon insurance salesman (Martin Freeman) of season one and the desperate beautician (Kirsten Dunst) of season two, Ray believes that life has handed him a raw deal.
His brother, Emmit (also Ewan McGregor), is that raw deal incarnate. Emmit is “The Parking Lot King of Minnesota,” with a huge house and a lot of money. Ray spends his days in bathrooms collecting urine samples from parolees. Emmit’s got it all. Ray blames everything he doesn’t have on a childhood trade the pair once made involving what turned out to be some very valuable collectible stamps.
So Ray concocts a minor criminal scheme to get “his” stamps back from his brother. In true Fargo fashion, it does not go well. The screw-up draws the attention of Gloria Burgle (the great Carrie Coon), a recently divorced local police chief who feels as though the world is leaving her behind. To make matters even more complicated, Emmit seems to have unwittingly involved his parking lot company with the mob. Ray’s ex-con girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is willing to go to any lengths, even violent ones, to make sure nothing gets in the way of her true passion: Competitive bridge.
So, ya know, just another year on Fargo.
Any fan of this show knows to expect an astonishing and convoluted plot for the season, with all the violent deaths and wild twists that have become the series’ hallmark. When you strip away the element of surprise on a macro level, what happens at the micro level becomes all the more important. After three years of this show, you can more readily see past the surface-level machinatinos of , and that’s when you realize all over again that Fargo is one of the most exquisitely crafted shows on television.
The writing is scene after scene of typical brilliance spearheaded by creator Noah Hawley (who, thanks to Legion, now has two critical darlings on cable). As with the original film, a level of dialogic verisimilitude carries us through the more improbable plot points. Stage all the midwest mob wars you want but it only works if we believe that these are real people making really bad decisions. Imaginary gardens must be populated by real toads, as they say. Beyond the creating realism, you have to make it about something. Fargo, a show that arguably shoudn’t have been able to stick that landing for one year, is still doing it in year three.
All of the Fargo archetypes are back and more fine-tuned than ever. They include the no-nonsense cop with a family (Coon), the small-time criminal who bit off more than he could chew (McGregor as both Ray and Emmit) and the wild card masking an extra layer of darkness (Winstead). None of them set out to do or say anything particularly profound. Fargo shares the ability of The Sopranos to make the mundane meaningful. The Sopranos could make a scene in which someone stole Tony’s Chinese food about the character’s longing for a sense of fulfillment that never comes. Fargo can make a scene in which an automatic door doesn’t open about a woman searching for personhood in an automated world. It’s a feat that would be astonishing enough for just one moment. Fargo does it over and over again in scene after scene, thanks to great writing and an ensemble that might be the best the series has ever assembled. That’s the hallmark of great fiction filmmaking.
There’s something more happening on Fargo, though, beyond the excellent writing, acting and direction the show consistently delivers. Somewhere in those vast snowy expanses, in that placid Minnesota white-out, a spell is woven over and over again. There’s something hypnotic about Fargo. The wordplay around “THIS IS A STORY” that kicks off season three just highlights the depth of meaning the show delivers. Would we believe this story was true if the show didn’t so clearly telegraph the fiction? Would we believe these people existed? Woud we believe these bizarre crimes were committed? It doesn’t matter. While Fargo is a show about the savagery bubbling up from under the calm “Minnesota Nice” exterior of its world, it’s also a show about people who are always trying to reinvent their own worlds and retelling their own stories as they’d like others to hear them.
In a way, that’s the easiest story in the world to believe. That’s when the spell cast by all that hypnotic snowscape becomes clear. It’s not a symbol of purity burying all those dark deeds. It’s a blank canvas, waiting for new paintings rendered in blood.
Fargo returns tonight, April 19, at 10 p.m. on FX.