Series three of the Coen Brother’s franchise Fargo, created for TV by Noah Hawley, may just be the best yet. The black comedy crime drama has received critical acclaim and been nominated for various awards including several prime time Emmy awards, golden globes and a screen actors guild award for Billy Bob Thornton’s role in the second series.
Known for it’s colourful characters, dark yet humorous plots and photogenic real life North American location, Fargo has become a successful TV series in it’s own right. I’d even go so far as to say it’s achieved further success as a series, showcasing the writing and directing skills of author and screenwriter. The original film was nominated for seven Oscars including best picture, and one best actress and best screenplay for the Coen brothers. Hawley has gone on to develop the wining format with a range of new storylines and characters, each delving deep into the psyche of ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations.
Ewan McGregor takes up a dual role in the latest instalment. He plays brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, who, as a result of their father’s death, both have very different lives. Emmit is a wealthy owner of a car empire while Ray is a balding, pot bellied parole officer, with a grudge. Ray’s determination to get what he’s owed from his brother, leads him on a path of destruction, including an affair with his client Nikki, and a double murder case. McGregor shows his versatility in playing both roles, particularly when he must play Ray, attempting to pass as his brother Emmit, clean shaven and in a dodgy curly wig (only in Fargo) in order to access Emmit’s bank deposit box. Watching this scene unfold was fascinating.
Mary Elizabeth Winsted is Nikki Swango, Ray’s client who quickly becomes his lover. Swango is an ex con, with a radar for mis-justice. She quickly teams up with Ray to help him get his father’s valuable stamp back. Ballsy and direct, Swango is at the centre of the plan to burgle Emmit’s house and even leaves a shocking reminder behind when she is unsuccessful. Winsted portrays Swango well, making her likeable despite her faults. Her actions at the burglary scene remind us, with a horrified punch, that she’s a woman. When she is attacked by Vargo’s men and left for dead, she immediately plot revenge, just as she does when Ray is taken from her in a cruel twist of fate that no one could have predicted.
Emmit’s life, while may seem perfect, also begins to unravel when he attempts to organise repayment on a loan he took out with a shady company who seem less than willing to let it go that easily. Enter one of Fargo’s best characters to date, played by British actor David Thewlis. V.M Varga is a mysterious figure who becomes Emmit’s business partner and slowly manipulates him to sign away large sums of money to offshore accounts. Although far from the traditional villain, Varga has a strong East London accent and a penchant for classical music. His offices appear to be in an abandoned warehouse, with limited lighting and bars in the windows. What is rather extraordinary about the character is his complexities. He is foremost a businessman, authoritative and manipulative but he also appears vain, lonely and vulnerable. While we see him threatening and demoralising Emmit and his work partner Sy, he is also revealed to be bulimic, with the sick habit of picking his gums until they bleed. Thewlis really digs deep into the character, making us want to know why he is this way and what his personal life is like. Something about him unsettles you, yet you can’t quite stop watching him.
Carrie Coon is dedicated police officer and police chief of Eden Valley, Gloria Burgle. Recently divorced, with a son and step father to take care of, Gloria is the ultimate modern woman. She takes her job role extremely seriously and is unafraid of the threats she faces. When the case takes a very personal turn for her, she is all the more determined to solve it. But her discoveries eventually lead her to Varga, the complex man, who appears to have more than luck on his side.
Aside from the characters and the quirky storylines, (how many ways can a person die?), the reason I also love this series is the cinematic quality of each episode. The natural beauty of the North American landscape, which frequently appears snow covered with bleak open fields and long stretches of open road, adds a partially surreal and detached element to the story. The small town communities effected by the events are close knit, the people becoming irritated by every day issues. We first see Gloria Bugle waving her arms outside a shop doorway, in attempt to get the electric doors to pick up her movements. We later learn this is a common issue she has and it gets to her. Moments like these resonate with the viewer and add humour to the drama. The landscape draws you in and takes you into the world of the characters, it is also a consistent of the formula. If it suddenly changed to a sunny California, it wouldn’t work the same at all.
The Fargo based characters all have a similar vernacular too, the Minnesota nice of ‘okay hon’s’ and ‘you betcha’s’ which also transcends the three series. This helps to break up the scenes of violence and heavy intensity.
The music also adds to the authentic feel. Set in a very recent 2010, Series 3 is the most modern yet, with an eclectic soundtrack of jazz, rock and Russian chanting. This certainly helped to add to the intensity of the action scenes. In one clever move, the drum style tapping returns as Vargas goes to meet Nikki to discuss secret files she has on Emmit’s company. As the car moves up the abandoned street, out of town somewhere, we see a man tapping on something which links the soundtrack nicely into the visual.
The final scene of Series three is one of the most tense and gripping scenes in television drama that I can remember. As Gloria questions Varga and he refuses to admit anything to do with her investigation, a clock ticks in the background. Varga then reveals that in a short time, someone will walk through the doors and reveal something to her that she cannot argue with, and he will be free to leave. Her resolve doesn’t falter, but the camera moves to the clock, just above the door and remains there as the minutes tick away. Then the screen falls black. Infuriating yet brilliant, we will never know who the person is that Varga is talking about, if anyone will actually come and what Gloria will do if or when they do.
An open ending narrative such as this is not as common as people might think. Often criticised for not leaving the viewer satisfied, or even as a weakness in the writer for not really knowing what to do next. In my opinion, the open ended narrative works best in situations such as these. The storyline so far has been solid and clear, yet far from simple. The character of Vargas has appeared far from straight forward, readable or even understandable. His motions and indeed motives have been very unpredictable. Therefore an ending like this works perfectly. It fits within the story and the characters involved. Frustrating? Yes. An easy way out? Definitely not. In fact, it just sets the standard expected for the next series.
With Fargo, I think the Coen brothers have found a successful formula. As long as the TV series continues to stick to that, while bringing fresh ideas to the page and using consistently talented actors, as far as I’m concerned, they can do nothing wrong.