Fargo comes back this week with a fresh crime and a new and impressive cast. The third season of Noah Hawley's TV riff on the Coens' hit film suggests that the relationship between the movie and the series is settling into something akin to a theme and variations. There might always be a set of squabbling brothers in Hawley's Fargoverse, along with a vaguely supernatural event, a beleaguered sheriff, and a quirky disregard for the sorts of details that make a crime show a procedural. But rather than merely repeat, these cycles seem to be accruing in ways that feel additive, as if a universe is being slowly and carefully built.
What's more, those variations are improving. If Fargo's first season got a little too starry-eyed over Lorne Malvo's hypermasculine brand of criminality, the second season course-corrected: The prequel was a pitch-perfect, Minnesota-nice deconstruction of bad guy bravado. Gone was the moral clarity that made Malvo a Satan figure. Gone was the mythic self-seriousness that equated villains with wolves. Season 2 developed a bigger sense of humor: In lieu of offering yet another antihero (or criminal mastermind), it lurched forward unplanned, propelled by a mix of adrenaline, coincidence, bad judgment, and good reflexes. Add in the odd UFO and Mike Milligan's fate, and you have a show immune to fetishizing either great criminals or great detectives. The universe is sub-rational in Fargo, and human stupidity plays an outsize role in explaining its events.
The series' third season expands on that pleasantly unimpressed tradition. Neither a whodunit nor even a whydunit, Fargo remains a crime show singularly uninterested in the detection of crime. The logistics of the murders are entirely explained in its first episode. There's no mystery here; instead, the complexity derives from the frame. As with season 2, which used a fictional Reagan film called Massacre at Sioux Falls to tilt a grubby local story into obscure political resonance, Fargo introduces the sordid story of how the wrong man was murdered by showcasing an interrogation in East Germany 12 years earlier — one that results in a man being blamed for a murder he didn't commit. One takeaway is that people are receiving punishments that aren't intended for them. If that East German scene emphasizes the tyranny of bureaucratic imprecision, it sets up a bunch of the accidental resemblances that structure and confuse this season. There are two Yuris, two Helgas, an Eden Prairie and an Eden Valley, and far too many Stussy men. (It doesn't help that Ewan McGregor plays two of them, or that the murdered man turns out to have had a whole career under a different name).
The hero in charge of deciphering all this is sheriff Gloria Burgle, played by The Leftovers' terrific Carrie Coon. She's detecting the murder of her stepfather, who was killed thanks to a cascading series of mistakes. As in Fargo's second season, the killer was himself killed almost instantly. Orbiting this incident are bumbling brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, both played by McGregor. Emmit is successful, Ray is the failed runt, but neither is exactly brilliant. When one of them gets mixed up with David Thewlis' deliciously off-putting V.M. Varga, he feels like a evil mastermind only because the folks with whom he's dealing are comparatively so dim.
Competing with Varga for engaging criminality is Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Nikki Swango, an ex-con and aspiring bridge champ who's convinced her parole officer Ray — the less successful Stussy brother — to be her dummy, in bridge as in life.
While only two episodes were available to review, the rest of the season seems poised to continue the Fargo tradition of dramatizing the absurd side effects of guilt. The series has developed into an absurdist Crime and Punishment, one that placidly unspools into denials and absurd cover-ups and the awful messes people make hanging on to whatever notion they have of decency.
So far, the season is a gory pleasure that manages to feel unique even as it reminds you of prior seasons. Coon plays the Fargo sheriff, a trope if ever there was one, with game competence and a gift for methodical thinking that might serve her poorly in this mixed-up universe. If Fargo has taught us anything, it's that there's a lot of fun to be had when a clever sheriff tracks events that aren't just unplanned, but the products of massive confusion — and when the clues are mistakes that spiraled completely out of control. It's as if Fargo is riffing on its resemblance to itself; as if the echoes between seasons and with the film are filtering into the plot, and building resonance out of the mix-ups.