TV

Nikki Swango Saved Season 3 Of ‘Fargo’

Okay, I’m biased. I’ll cop to that first, before I get into the meat of my argument, because I am nothing if not an ethical provider of entertainment and pop culture content. The third season of Fargo won me over before it even started, back when FX announced there would be bridge-playing recent parolee named Nikki Swango on the show. Nikki Swango. What a terrific name. It’s so great that it stands out in a show that is loaded with terrific names. A butcher shop employee named Noreen Vanderslice, cops named Burgle and Solverson, a criminal named Lorne Malvo, which isn’t a funny take on his occupation as much as it is just a lot of fun to say. The list goes on and on. But nothing tops Nikki Swango. Not on this show, not on other shows, maybe not ever. So that’s where we’re starting from here.

But even an unbiased, non-lunatic viewer probably has to admit that Nikki Swango has been the best part of Fargo this season, right? In fact, you could argue that Nikki Swango has been even more than than that, too. She’s practically saved the whole season.

This season of Fargo has been good, as a whole, at least leading into the finale. The highs have been very high, even for a show that has two seasons of borderline shocking success under its belt. (Think back to your initial reaction when you heard there was going to be a Fargo television show with no Coen brothers involvement, then take stock of where we are today. This is a surprise on the level of “a USA hacker show titled Mr. Robot won many prestigious awards.” Television is wild.) Gloria Burgle’s California trip was one of the best episodes of the year so far, for any show, and the thing with a supernatural Ray Wise holding a kitty cat in a bowling alley is on the short list for best scene. The season appears to be getting better and better as it screams toward a conclusion.

But, that said, there have been some valid criticisms. The first few episodes were a little slow developing. A lot of the action hit similar beats as previous seasons. The characters seemed to fall into the same framework as characters we’ve already seen. Varga, the loquacious mystery villain, was kind of a Malvo/Milligan hybrid. Gloria, the savvy cop with the incompetent male supervisor, was kind of like Molly Solverson. Nikki Swango and Ray Stussy, the ambitious woman with eyes on something bigger and her sadsack lover, were kind of like Peggy and Ed Blumquist, right down to the early-season murder of a low-level criminal. Although, if nothing else, Nikki and Ray get style points for hopping on television’s hot new trend: death via air conditioner.

And those criticisms are fair. Or, at least, they were fair, until about the midpoint of the season when Nikki Swango took over.

(I’m using “Nikki Swango” throughout this piece because, again, I love the name so much, and because I’m talking about the character’s place within the show, but let’s be clear about something else: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the actress who plays her, has been really great. It seems like a very fun role to play, all cocky chatter and snake-like slithering. And she got to say the phrase “unfathomable pinheadery,” which, come on. But you should have already known she was good, because you should have watched BrainDead, a fun show that got canceled too soon.)

It’s hard to say exactly when that happened. I think it was sometime between Varga’s goons beating her up and Emmit accidentally killing Ray. Probably a combination, actually, because those two events resulted in two important consequences: One, they morphed Nikki from a Peggy-like dreamer into a scorned female John Wick, allowing her to run through the woods with Mr. Wrench and use her grifter-y nature to become a worthy adversary for Varga. And two, they killed off one Stussy and neutered another, streamlining the action and narrowing the focus to Gloria’s investigation and Nikki’s revenge. All due respect to Ewan McGregor (and Michael Stuhlbarg as my man Sy Feltz), but the female characters on this show are the most interesting by far, and letting them race to get Varga — one on the side of the law, one on the side of crime — has made for much better television.

The best example of this so far was the season’s penultimate episode. Nikki and Mr. Wrench, still working together after their chance encounter on the prison bus, started waging war on Varga, using everything from fake grenades to banking information to ice cold negotiating tactics. She was ruthless and very cool about it, a nail-painting antihero who was out for blood both real and metaphorical, ambushing assassins and delivering lines like “I wanna hurt you, not be your pet” in a thick Minnesota accent that is usually more associated with polite deference than straight-forward threats. She’s become exactly what the name “Nikki Swango” implied back when they announced it, which seemed like an almost impossible task at the time. And in doing so, she helped turn season three of Fargo into its own interesting thing instead of a fun but somewhat derivative take on other interesting things. She’s been the best character on a show that also stars Carrie Coon. I’m not sure I have higher praise to give.

So even though I’m the guy whose phone now autocorrects “Swango” to “SWANGO” when I take notes for my next-day posts about the show, I think my point stands. All hail Nikki Swango.

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