No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ grim tale of violence and the inevitable, banal nature of evil (and close to the finest piece of cinema this young century has produced), was a first for me, not only because it was my first R-rated film experience in a cinema (on my 16th birthday, no less), but also because it was the first piece of art I had encountered that refused to provide anything like a solution, or satisfying denouement. That’s meant as a compliment, by the way – at that impressionable age, the idea that everything may not always turn out okay blew my mind. I’ve watched the film at least once a year since then, always finding more brilliance, more relevance, more existentially frightening conclusions to make from its simple, elegant brilliance and brutality. With No Country, the Coens delivered perhaps the purest evocation of hopeless humanity staring into the void of an uncaring and chaotic world to come along in decades. ‘What you got ain’t nothin’ new,’ Tommy Lee Jones’ character Ed Tom Bell (one of the great underrated Coen characters) is told. ‘This country's hard on people. You can't stop what's comin'.’ The world is harsh, and its devices are unknowable to us, the film suggests, and our attempts to make sense of it, and to create some sort of order, are the kernel of what makes us ‘overmatched’ by the hands of fate.
Of all the myriad Coen Brothers hat-tips Noah Hawley’s third season of the acclaimed television series Fargo makes to the Coens’ body of work – and there are many, including The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, Barton Fink – perhaps the most subtly impactful influence I felt was the shadow of No Country. Rather than any explicit reference (though the soul of Ed Tom Bell lives on in Carrie Coon’s wonderfully underplayed performance as Detective Gloria Burgle), the season evokes the film through its exploration of that eternal battle between the chaos of existence and our attempts to wrangle some order or understanding out of it. In the finale of the series’ bleakest, most nihilistic season, Hawley presents us with a sequence that lays out in explicit strokes the question that lies at the heart of the show – can the virtues of truth and justice exist in this post-truth world, or will the machinations of those unseen agents of chaos ultimately prevail? It is a battle that is whittled down to two bastions of their respective sides – Burgle, an embodiment of gentle, motherly goodness and strength, and V.M Varga (David Thewlis), this television year’s most hideous and nightmarish villain, the warped, inhuman embodiment of the late-capitalist ‘fake news’ era in a nondescript beige suit.
Departing from the '70s locale of Fargo’s all-time great second season, an expansive crime epic that made good the lofty promises of the show’s mythic premise and archetypal characters (complete with aliens!), the third season brings us practically up to date with the world at large, and the weight of recent events on the global stage are clearly heavy on Hawley’s mind. Critics have been less effusive in their praise of this season in contrast with the show’s first and second, perhaps understandably. This season is without a doubt Fargo’s grimmest, most inaccessible, a wilfully dispirited inversion of the shape the earlier seasons took. Even the colour palette is something of a departure from the first season’s sharp whites and sickly yellows, or the second’s autumnal reds and greens (along with the obligatory dusting of snow). This season frequently desaturates the frames until they practically appear black and white, a ghostly, otherworldly effect that paralleled well with a more haunted, unsettled narrative and the occasional flourishes of horror later episodes indulged in.
This horror is largely cosmic, as when a morally compromised Emmit Stussy (Ewan MacGregor, strong but perhaps purposefully underwritten as the ill-fated Stussy twins) considers his fate as a superimposition of Varga’s gnashing, chewing teeth appears to crush him in their wake, or as in a nightmarish assault on a prison bus by wolf-headed assailants slowly making their way toward their target. The threats that face the characters are largely spiritual, or societal, as well as physical – not uncommon ground for Fargo, but in this installment Hawley seems less confident than ever in the universe’s tendency to right its axis, to turn toward goodness and justice eventually.
The series plot, such as it is, focuses loosely on a feud between Emmit and his twin brother Ray, one the benefactor of inherited millions, the other the victim of youthful foolishness, whose petty squabbles naturally snowball into a swirling maelstrom of violence. The usual suspects of a season of Fargo are here, and are even more conventionally Fargo than ever – the heroic, overmatched female police officer; the haplessly, fatally human everyman; the twisted, unknowable angel of death; the mysterious, frequently mute henchmen. This, again, seems to be by design – Hawley and his writers seem aware that the formula that has come to define this series thus far has started to wear down after three seasons, and have made the canny choice to investigate the archetypes themselves as they relate to our modern world. The season again toys with themes it always has – the presence of God or an omnipotent figure, the nature of good and evil, institutional sexism, the dark heart at the centre of the American dream, but this season’s purpose seems to be to undo or subvert much of what the series has made of these ideas beforehand. The key to this is the very heart of the season – when what is true, or real, or fact, comes into question, how can humankind exist in any sort of moral sphere?
This is, of course, an insanely timely edict, and Fargo makes it clear just what it is taking aim at throughout – namely a man and a group of people who abused a system and a stricken people with falsehoods in order to gain power – with knowing sequences, monologues and visual metaphors throughout. The difference here is that Hawley doesn’t seem to be able to find a solution to the quandaries he establishes – the violence occurs largely in an every day, almost weary fashion, the few moral victories the season relishes in are largely undone by the final episode. An opening sequence mirrors the final episode’s final scene, in which two people – Varga and Burgle in the latter, a Russian policeman and a civilian in the former – argue over the very nature of what is known and what isn’t. In this way, the final season stares deep into the face of chaos, and doesn’t seem able to fall back on the answers of earlier seasons to rescue it from the darkness that awaits there. A telling scene – perhaps the best of the season – finds the recently-deceased Ray’s ex-convict girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, phenomenal) visiting a Lebowski-esque other-worldly bowling alley to discuss the meaning of existence with a kindly, God-like figure (Ray Wise). However, his advice and his meaning is oblique, and by season’s end seems undone by Swango’s actions, which find her dead and alone on a road in the middle of nowhere.
Hawley has established that this could be the end of Fargo, and from the standpoint of the end of this season, I can see how that could be the case – the season, while largely great, bears the weight of exhaustion, and feels mournfully downhearted – much like the times in which it exists. Its humour is less prominent, its blood-letting more workmanlike, less mythic. I personally think there is gas left in the tank for further Fargo (perhaps simply because I don’t want this brilliant series to end just yet), but the structure it has borne over three seasons will now need some significant retooling going forward. There are certain elements that have become calling-cards for the series – its wintry setting, its civilians out-of-their-depth storylines, its noble police officers and philosophical villains – which, should the show go forward, would benefit from being questioned or retrofitted altogether. The season as such had daring, wonderful standalone moments – a third-episode detour to LA for a rabbit-hole of an investigation, the aforementioned bowling alley sequence – which mostly proved an elixir for those slower, dragged out moments or narrative cul-de-sacs the show wandered down from time to time.
Much can, and will be made of this season’s stronger points – its always-evocative cinematography, the Emmy-worthy performances by Coon, Thewlis and especially Elizabeth-Winstead (an always-underrated actress who channels real movie star charisma, owning every scene in which she appeared from start to finish). Personally, when I think back on Fargo’s third season, I think I’ll be reminded of its Coen cousin, and of Ed Tom Bell, thinking on a world whose violent machinations have far outstripped his capabilities to understand. In a world seemingly on a constant knife-edge between justice and chaos, few questions will haunt me like wondering who walked through that damn door a few minutes after Burgle and Varga finally came face to face.