Listen carefully, here’s the most important thing to say about Fargo Season 3. Two episodes in, and no UFOs appeared thus far. Already, that’s an improvement over Season 2. Seriously, though, Fargo Season 2 immediately grabbed you – UFO aside – with its visceral diner massacre set piece and subsequent Gerhardt family drama. Fargo Season 3 starts as a slower burn. The series still peppers the crime drama genre with the requisite black comedy, and all the expected elements register. Many characters speak with that “You betcha!” Minnesota accent. Thugs either wax poetic or exist in a pot-fueled haze of stupidity. Noah Hawley’s directorial vision remains strong, but audiences may cool to the series this time out thanks to an overwhelming sense of the familiar.
Fargo Season 3 kicks things off with Emmit and Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor), twins at odds over money and a priceless stamp. This being Fargo, Ray hires an ex-con to break into Emmit’s house and steal the stamp so he can buy a classy engagement ring for his girlfriend Nikki (the great Mary Elizabeth Winstead). This being Fargo, the ex-con loses the mark’s address and kills the wrong target, the stepfather of on-the-outs police chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon). And this being Fargo, everything grows from there. The byzantine plot is best experienced first-hand. You’d never be able to follow it otherwise.
Ewan McGregor’s turn as twins Emmit and Ray Stussy provides the headliner act. He gives two effective and unique performances that, so far, avoids stunt casting. Yet, as good as McGregor is, there are deeper, better performances offered. The aforementioned Winstead ignites the screen in a star-making performance. Remember how you felt when Jennifer Lawrence popped in Silver Linings Playbook and, later, American Hustle? Winstead pops in the same kinetic, firecracker way. She starts with a great character who hitches her fortune to the sad-sack Ray Stussy. With such a passive force, she adopts a contagious can-do attitude with crime, constantly elevating Ray’s game while engaging him just enough to keep him around (probably as the fall guy).If Winstead’s great performance lives within the standard Fargo universe, though, David Thewlis as the mysterious V.M. Varga lives in another universe entirely. Visually skewed with comically bad teeth, Thewlis acts on a different wavelength, delivering the snake-eating-its-own-tail language of his extended monologues as menacing threats. Some may find his delivery and presence off-putting. I think he feels more at home here than almost anyone else in the cast.
Sadly, somewhat swallowed by the colorful gallery around her, Carrie Coon fails to register a strong presence in the first two episodes. Here, she has the Patrick Wilson of Fargo Season 2 role (or maybe even Tommy Lee Jones of No Country For Old Men). She’s the strong moral center raising a child in a violent world. She longs for the simplicity of the past and for a life of certainty. Her performance lives in the subtle moments, much like her brilliant work on The Leftovers. I still found her fascinating to watch, but in this Fargo-ian world of gimmicky performances, she may not rise as high above the crowd as once thought.
I’m going to damn Fargo Season 3 with the faintest of praise. It delivers a well written, expertly directed, and brilliantly acted few hours so far (plus a fantastic score by Jeff Russo). Yet, we’ve come to expect all that from Hawley by now. The labyrinthine criminal acts still have the same entangling effects. The snow-filled vistas are peppered with colorful characters. The accents are still funny. To me, the story feels slightly forced, grabbing at depth that may never exist. It obviously has room to grow over the course of the series, but it already feels diminished when compared to its successors. I’ll still watch for Winstead, Thewlis, and the always-great (and underrated) Michael Stuhlbarg. The end result, though, may fall beneath the overall quality of Season 2. Bizarre UFOs notwithstanding.