A Familiar Face Points Out How ‘Fargo’ Is Repeating Itself

Senior Television Writer
05.31.17 38 Comments


A review of tonight’s Fargo coming up just as soon as I stick to my mashed potato theory from earlier…

“Follow the money, is all I’ll say.” –Nikki

Late in “The Law of Inevitability,” Nikki Swango boards a prison bus after Moe has revoked her parole. The camera deliberately avoids showing her seatmate for a few moments in order to build suspense about who is sitting next to her. Could Varga have somehow slipped one of his men onto the bus? Has Gloria somehow talked her way on so they can continue talking? Will there be a mysterious third Stussy brother?

Instead, the camera pulls back to reveal Mr. Wrench, the deaf hitman who partnered with Mr. Numbers in season one, and was last seen being set free by Lorne Malvo in recognition of how close he and Numbers came to killing him. Now six years later, he’s back in custody, whether for the crimes he committed related to Malvo, Lester Nygaard, and Molly Solverson, or whatever he’s been up to without his talkative partner in the time since.

We’ll have to wait and see if this is just a tip of the cap to previous installments — counting his childhood cameo in the final Hanzee scene of season two, Wrench is for the moment the only character to appear in all three seasons — or if Wrench will somehow help Nikki survive the coming assault of Yuri and company aboard the wrecked prison bus. But seeing Wrench again only drove home how many of this season’s characters and moments are echoes of Fargo‘s first year.

Split Lester in two, for instance, and you more or less have the Stussy brothers: one a respected pillar of the community who’s actually capable of great evil for selfish reasons, the other a middle-aged ball of resentment who has no idea the havoc he’s going to unleash in the process of getting what’s his. (Emmit also has some DNA from Stavros Milos, as a businessman who doesn’t understand how badly he’s being manipulated by a criminal.) Gloria is obviously Molly: a cop who should be chief, but instead has to report to a moron who’s refusing to let her properly investigate the murder of a loved one. Varga inherited Malvo’s ability to be both a chameleon and verbal bulldozer, while Yuri is the unstoppable killing machine; Yuri scaring Donny into leaving the library/precinct despite having the drop on the intruder is pretty much beat-for-beat from Malvo’s traffic stop with Gus Grimly.

Now, Noah Hawley didn’t exactly invent these archetypes. Many of the season one characters were explicitly riffing on people from the movie like Marge Gunderson and Jerry Lundegaard, others have been inspired by characters in other Coen brothers films, and all are borrowed in some way from the kind of traditional crime narratives that the Coens are commenting on in their movies. But there’s a difference between doing variations on familiar themes and more or less bringing in new actors to fill roles other people have played before. Carrie Coon, David Thewlis, and so many of this year’s actors are doing excellent work, but season three is becoming so evocative of season one that I wish we somehow just had Allison Tolman and company back again. At the moment, it feels less like an anthology miniseries than like a more traditional one that had to recast all the old roles after a labor dispute.

It’s still fun, and recent episodes have been livelier than the first two as they’ve moved past Emmit and Ray (RIP) as the primary dramatic focus, and as Gloria and Winnie have been able to put so many of the pieces together despite Moe blocking them them at every turn, but a very good, and familiar, Fargo can’t help seeming disappointing after the first two years were so surprising and so great.

It seems that FX and Noah Hawley are aware of the difficulty of keeping this format fresh. In a long interview with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Lacey Rose, FX chief John Landgraf said:

There may never be another Fargo. Unless Noah has an idea for Fargo that he thinks he can make as good as the prior three. I think once people get to the end of this [season] they will find that it is thematically different. It’s really about the moment we live in now.

The “moment we live in now” material so far seems to be all the social media stuff, which hasn’t been the most exciting or thoughtful part of the new season, and the rest has been Fargo‘s Greatest Hits. I was excited to see Gloria finally convince the St. Cloud chief to trust her despite Moe’s objections, and at the reprise of Wrench and Numbers’ theme from season one as the prison bus headed toward Yuri and doom, but the more the show relies on old tricks, the less power overall they have. Landgraf’s quote suggests he and Hawley (who still has Legion to run, and other shows in development) see the imminent risk of diminishing returns, and would rather stop than let Fargo become a factory product.

If there’s another season after this one — soon or far into the future — I’ll gladly watch it, because the level of craft is still so strong and so entertaining, even when the elements are so familiar. Gloria speedtalking her way past Moe to try to convince the St. Cloud chief, for instance, was a delight, and the image of Yuri wearing his wolf mask while marching calmly towards his prey aboard the ruined bus was chilling.

Though Nikki herself has echoes of Peggy from season two (albeit a smarter and tougher version), she’s a wild card in this particular arrangement of characters. I can imagine Gloria and Winnie putting the pieces together anyway, just with the “follow the money” line, but keeping Nikki around til the end (or closer to it) might allow Hawley to bring this all home in a way we don’t expect, even with all these ghosts of seasons past haunting the action.

Some other thoughts:

* That’s DJ Qualls as the assassin who fails to kill Nikki but gets away from Gloria. Though he’s more recently been on Z Nation and Man in the High Castle, Qualls was once part of the FX family as one of the regulars on Jim Jefferies’ short-lived FXX comedy Legit.

* Emmit Stussy is a terribly incompetent criminal, here blurting out his fake alibi before Winnie has even told him that his brother is dead, then assuming foul play before she has suggested it.

* Sy is also an inept crook, leaving the widow Goldfarb alone in the restaurant for Winnie to interview about Emmit’s bogus alibi — and perhaps scare her off of plans to buy the company.


* The shot of Varga and Emmit sitting on opposite ends of the double staircase was one of this season’s prettier images. Even when Ray is gone, Emmit still has a double — a man he should trust far less than his late brother. (Varga even opens all of Emmit’s Christmas presents while he’s not around!)

* Mike Milligan reciting “Jabberwocky” takes the crown over Varga reciting “There Was a Crooked Man,” not only because “Jabberwocky” came first and was thus more surprising, but because the contexts are different: the new one making some sense as an attempt to comfort a grieving man, the latter seeming out of left field as accompaniment to a montage of various crooks readying for war.

* A pretty sparse soundtrack this week, with just library recordings of “The First Noel” (Varga opens Emmit’s gifts) and “Spirits of the Jungle” (Nikki joins the many Peak TV characters this spring to watch a nature documentary) as non-score music.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com

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