Culture

Film & Television

A town like Fargo

By Elle Hardy
The anthology series’ self-aware absurdity makes it the perfect show for our times

In the latter stages of Fargo’s second season, as the remaining characters converge on a suicide motel for the final shootout, a UFO appears in the sky. We are at the apogee of the story, but for a moment everyone stops as the lights and the warped sound hover above them.

With its distinct hue of black comedy, panoramas of softly falling snow on a frozen landscape, pitch-perfect suspense and a genuine affection for its Midwestern characters, this is as prestigious as this fine age of television gets. But for me, Fargo’s celebration of the absurd makes it transcendent: the characters are about to exterminate each other, and the show is able to laugh at itself.

All fiction is, in a sense, absurd, but the self-awareness of series creator Noah Hawley is masterful. The beginning of each episode is plastered with THIS IS A TRUE STORY, but a litany of winks and nods tells us it understands that it exists in the world of cinema, and firmly knows its place. It’s even funnier because in the world right now we don’t understand ours.

As we find ourselves clumsily measuring the parameters of reality, Hawley says that the third season of Fargo (which just finished screening on SBS and will be on Netflix from 28 July) is about metaphysical ideas of truth and post-truth and not a broader political commentary – although actor David Thewlis says his character, VM Varga, is totemic of the times, and notes that the season’s creation in Donald Trump’s first hundred days as president influenced the way he played the villain. (Indeed, the final episodes hadn’t even been written when they began filming.) Most pertinently, however, Hawley said in a recent interview that he was exploring the “mental violence that comes from having your world [upended]”.

Season three opens with an allegory of an East German police interrogation, throwing us into a world marked by coincidence, plasticity of truth, delayed justice, and absurd, alternative realities. (Remember that the United States presidential primary season began with then favourite Jeb Bush agreeing that he would go back in time to kill baby Hitler. “Gotta do it,” he confirmed in a tweet.).

The three seasons of Fargo, inspired by the Coen brothers’ 1996 film, each have their own self-contained narrative, with the connective tissue being a small-town businessman trapped in a vortex of underworld horror after making one small mistake. Investigating this strange, collapsing microcosm is a wise female police chief, slightly out of step in a masculine world. This third season is set in 2011, and its small-town businessman is Emmit Stussy, caught up in an international money-laundering scheme while at the same time involved in a dispute with his brother, Ray, over the inheritance of a stamp.

Varga – and Varga’s teeth – are intoxicating, titillating villainy, but female leads Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) are the most intriguing and profound characters. There’s something very, very Fargo in Ewan McGregor playing both Stussy brothers but barely getting a word in when it comes to the characterisation. The fun, thoroughly Coen elements are dialled up this year, with musical scores for each character, crimes committed in a wolf’s mask, the subtlety with which the opening scene introduces the season, and the reappearance of a figure from season one.

Exploration of truth is drip-fed through various devices: the appearance, and reappearance, of Ray Wise’s character, a benevolent narrator bridging the metaphysical in its hour of need; a manufactured sex tape (Sy: “It never happened!” Nikki: “That doesn’t make it any less of a fact”).

Technology is to season three what Ronald Reagan is to season two, a hinge of time, a place for reflective humour on the age – and it ultimately becomes the overarching theme.

All is permeated with a sense of the supernatural, and the omnipotent Varga is a kind of embodiment of this. But Varga is even more pernicious and terrifying than the supernatural. He is technology: alienating and calculating and opaque. With his Ukrainian and Chinese henchmen, so thoroughly global, and his colourless suits and penchant for history, he is entirely dislocating.

Gloria, who does not care for technology, and whom technology cannot see (a motif is sensor doors failing to open for her), is Fargo’s hero, for she can see straight through Varga. It could be said that she is the supernatural element: an ethereal being untethered from the horrors of everyday modernity, even though her law-enforcement career means that she works with the horrors of everyday people.

Previous seasons were more linear and straightforward, so the unevenness of this season may be a little disappointing for some – peripheral plots might not meld as well, and the crowded final episodes leave us with an ending that might send some viewers spare – but the depth of this storyline means that it is the most alluring we’ve encountered to date.

It is playful, recognising that the world in which we find ourselves is so absurd that Fargo, for all of its precise chaos, is not so fantastic after all. With a turn and wink, Hawley invites us into the room, entertaining grand themes while knowing that his grand creation is entertainment.

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at www.ellehardy.com

@ellehardytweets

Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle in the third season of Fargo

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