Fargo just concluded its third season, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as I ask you if there are phones in Belgium…
“So for now, just know that sometimes the world doesn’t make a lot of sense, but how we get through it is, we stick together.” -Gloria
“But which of us can say with certainty what has occurred — actually occurred — and what is simply rumor, misinformation, opinion?” -Varga
I use two quotes at the start of this review because there were two wholly incompatible worldviews presented throughout Fargo season three: Gloria’s belief that there are things that are true, and that we are bound by our responsibilities to one another; and Varga’s belief that the only thing that matters is how much you can get away with. That split has been there in earlier seasons, too, where the innate decency of the Solversons stood in contrast to the amorality of Malvo, Lester, the Gerhardts, etc. But the show in those years sided with Molly and Lou, tending to spare the good characters while unleashing violent justice upon the wicked, as if Noah Hawley were typing the scripts at the bowling alley bar while Paul Marrane looked on approvingly.
Season three did not operate this way, up to and including its ambiguous final scene, where Peter and the Wolf face off in a Department of Homeland Security interview room, each of them confident in predicting who will come through that door in a moment: for Gloria, that it will be three DHS agents there to take Varga to a jail cell; for Varga, that it will be a man too powerful for Gloria to override as Varga is set free.
“Somebody To Love” ends with both of them waiting to be proven right, and Hawley told me he wanted to leave it for the audience to decide(*). It’s a Schrodinger’s Box of a finale: until that door opens, Gloria could be right or wrong, and same with Varga. Ordinarily, the show’s moral ethos would point towards Gloria being correct about Rikers and the Snickers bar, but so much of season three has been about the way the world no longer makes sense, and how easy it is for the Vargas of the world to transform reality into whatever they desire, so I fear the powerful man will be arriving rather than the three DHS agents.
(*) It is one last unintentional echo of Carrie Coon’s other spring show, whose finale also left viewers to decide what exactly happened, and what was real.
After a rough start to the season filled with too many echoes of better-developed characters from Fargo stories past, these last few hours were pretty amazing: beautiful to look at, finally taking full advantage of the cast Hawley and company had assembled, and deftly mixing concrete answers with Choose Your Own Adventure ones like the interview room door.
On the one hand, we know for sure that Nikki Swango died in a shootout with a state trooper, that Mr. Wrench wiped out Meemo and Varga’s other henchmen and years later executed Emmit Stussy, that Sy awoke from the coma but is badly incapacitated, and that Gloria left Moe’s department to work for the federal government. And on the other, there’s mystery about the mechanics of the bowling alley, if not on what actually happened there (Nikki and Wrench were spared, Yuri was judged and sentenced), what connection Yuri has to the Yuri of the season’s East Berlin prologue, and who is coming through that door. It’s a fair enough balance for a season that has been much more about the elusiveness of truth in the modern world. And if justice wasn’t served in every story, it felt appropriate to the darker tale Hawley and his collaborators weaved this time around.
RIP, Nikki Swango, who ironically was doomed by the same man who saved her. Had she not felt the need to deliver Paul Marrane’s warning to Emmit — when it arguably would have been better-served on Varga had the opportunity arisen — and get the wording right, she likely would have been driving her truck away from Emmit’s corpse by the time the trooper rolled up. It’s a sad end for the season’s best character, but not an undeserved one. Nikki’s love for Ray was real, and it was his decision to try to steal the stamp that set her down this path, but she did murder Maurice, and set up Meemo and the others to be slaughtered by Wrench. These are not innocent people, but neither were Nikki’s hands clean even before she gunned down a cop who was only doing his job.
That showdown in the middle of a prairie highway in the bright sunlight was one of many absolutely gorgeous, suspenseful sequences director Keith Gordon assembled in this finale. Something as basic as Varga and his army moving down the street in unison to follow the little boy who was leading them into Nikki’s trap has no need of looking as vivid and distinctive as it did, yet Gordon and his collaborators made time to compose that shot just so, and in turn to make the Varga crew’s arrival at the storage facility feel increasingly scary, even as we were rooting for them all to be taken out. This has always been one of TV’s best-looking shows, but Gordon’s work these last two weeks has been a cut above even that.
And if Varga does get away with it, at least not all of the season’s wealthy villains do. It seems for a bit that Emmit will — that all of Larue Dollard’s forensic accounting brilliance (with a huge assist from Nikki) will amount to is a slap on the wrist, as so often seems the case these days for criminals with money. Emmit loses his company to the Widow Goldfarb, but Varga was true to his word about making Emmit personally rich beyond his wildest dreams, and his tears are enough to win back Stella (who surely could have been convinced of the sex tape’s forgery). But there’s Mr. Wrench waiting for him as Emmit goes into the fridge for dessert, and perhaps he’ll get to become a kitten like his brother. In many ways, the season’s cruelest fate lands on Sy, who was prideful and obnoxious, but never did anything to remotely deserve becoming a prisoner of his own body the way he is in that dinner scene.
So that leaves Gloria and Varga, cop and criminal once again taking each other’s measure. Varga has at times seemed omnipotent this season, but Nikki Swango of all people nearly killed him, and put a good scare into him in that warehouse, and he has never been able to verbally bulldoze this small-town cop the way he has so many more powerful individuals. At the same time, Gloria is smart enough to piece together all of the major details of the war between the Stussy brothers, but she was never able to convince Mo of any of it, and even when she found a more receptive ally in Larue Dollard, all they could hang on Emmit was two years probation while he lived off his hidden fortune. Both are brilliant, but neither are infallible. It’s a story. Anything can happen in a story, especially one that leaves the closing image for the audience to fill in, based on their own view of the story, and the world around it.
Hawley has suggested that this could be the last season of the show, while also acknowledging that he felt that way after previous seasons. This is a hard show to do, and do right, and it’s a miracle we’ve gotten three seasons that haven’t just played like bad Coen brothers fanfic. This year could be more frustrating than the previous two — a lot of that ultimately landing on the writing of the Stussy brothers, who didn’t really come into focus until Ray was bleeding out on his apartment floor — but these last few episodes have been potent reminders of just how great the TV Fargo can be. If Hawley has a brainstorm for another year, I can’t wait to see it. And if he decides not to press his luck any more on this insane gamble, then that image of Schrodinger’s Door feels like a perfect concluding one.
This was a true story. Only it wasn’t at all. But it was great.
Some other thoughts:
* I spoke with Hawley last week about the door, the mystical bowling alley, Peter and the Wolf, and some of season three’s other notable developments. He was on a tight schedule, so I wasn’t able to get into everything with him, like all the overlaps between the two Carrie Coon shows or his overall feelings about whether the series is done, since he covered that so well at ATX. It sounds more like he just doesn’t know at the moment, but when we spoke, he did seem open to the idea of using this season’s LA trip as an excuse to take future seasons — if there are any — out of Minnesota more often.
* Gloria’s problems with technology don’t really come up again in the finale, but she does stick to using a typewriter while composing her resignation letter for Moe. (This was part of another great visual flourish, with the “This is a true story” disclaimer appearing on various papers that Emmit, Gloria, and Dollard are reading, typing, or signing.)
* The subtitles explaining what happened to Emmit during the five years that passed after he collapsed into Stella’s arms suggested we might get similar updates for the other surviving characters, but that was not to be. We know where Gloria is now, and that Wrench (with help from all the money Nikki let him take) is still free and active. But we don’t know if Winnie’s uncomfortable baby-making efforts had any result, nor whether Moe is still falling ass-backwards into incorrect case theories. This was a much smaller cast of characters than in previous seasons (and several notable ones were confined solely to the LA episode), so there was less need for an Animal House-style “Where Are They Now?” segment at the end, but it still felt odd to get that for Emmit and no one else.
* Hawley noted that he never meant for the Peter and the Wolf narration to mean the characters were literally bound to that story, and indeed most of them suffer different fates. But when Nikki was waiting in the warehouse lobby for Varga, I couldn’t help but smile at the notion that she had somehow replaced Yuri as the sound of the hunter’s shotgun.
* Who put the last of the inherited stamps on Emmit’s forehead while he was unconscious after his failed attempt to shoot Varga? Nikki seems the most obvious candidate, since she’s more interested in the stamps than Varga or Meemo, and since she likely had to go by Emmit’s house anyway to sabotage his car so it would break down in the middle of nowhere.
* Carter Burwell’s “Fargo North Dakota” from the Fargo film makes its appearance over the images of Nikki and the trooper lying dead in the road as Emmit makes his escape. Overall, the finale continued the late-season trend of minimizing outside songs (there’s another Plamena Mangova performance of Beethoven over the closing credits, and a jazz song called “Free” by P.E. Hewitt Jazz Ensemble played over Emmit in the dining room) in favor of the show’s own score, or no music at all.
What did everybody else think? Did you find this third installment ultimately satisfying enough? And are you okay with this being the end if Hawley can’t find new inspiration?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org