Overall, I enjoyed the third season of "Fargo" a bit more than the second, but I'm in agreement with the critics that the show's starting to run short of material and the seams are showing. While the story is derivative of the Coen brothers' canon by design, it's also starting to repeat elements of the previous seasons. Yet again, we have a hapless businessman in over his head, an amoral criminal who speaks with a peculiar patter, a heroic female cop, oddly paired henchmen, and an assortment of colorful midwestern side characters playing out another series of tense interactions that lead to a whole lot of people getting killed.
Fortunately, the ensemble this year is one of the show's best. Ewan McGregor plays feuding brothers Emmit and Raymond Stussy, a successful businessman and a down-on-his-luck parole officer respectively. Raymond is dating one of his parolees, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and together they hatch a plan to steal a rare stamp from Emmit, but an Ennis Stussy (Scott Hylands) in the wrong town ends up murdered instead. Ennis is the stepfather of Glora Burgle (Carrie Coon), chief of police of the tiny town of Eden Valley, which is being absorbed by the county. She spends her last few days as chief piecing together the details of the crime. Meanwhile, Emmit and his business partner Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), find their business being taken over by the sinister V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), and his violent associates.
David Thewlis's V.M. Varga and Carrie Coon's Gloria Burgle are the standouts this year, playing roles very similar to the one played by Billy Bob Thornton and Alison Tolman from the first season of "Fargo." However, they're deployed very differently, and are treated in very different ways by the universe. Their clashes are more indirect, and the final battle comes down more squarely on their philosophical views of how the world works. I also greatly enjoyed Mary Elizabeth Winstead's soft-hearted con, and Michael Stuhlbarg, playing a variation on his character from "A Serious Man." Oddly, it's the Stussy brothers who are the weakest piece of this year's puzzle, neither proving particularly sympathetic or compelling, though Ewan McGregor turns in perfectly fine performances for both.
There's something more lackadaisical about the way this season is constructed, how it takes a good five or six episodes for the action to really get going, and how the best episode winds up being a "Barton Fink" riff involving Gloria traveling to Los Angeles to chase a dead end with almost no bearing on the plot. Everything does come together very nicely, and the ending is a pretty daring surprise, but there's also a messiness and a laziness to some of the writing this year that makes parts of the season feel like it's spinning its wheels. Some of the minor characters come off just a little too caricatured, and some of the twists come off as a little too perfunctory. There were plenty of moments that I liked - keep an eye out for Ray Wise's appearances - and there are some especially good characters, but the year as a whole was mighty inconsistent.
Even when "Fargo" is having a slightly off year, though, it's still as well made and entertaining as anything else on television. While part of me is disappointed that the season has so much promise that is never fulfilled, the larger part of me is satisfied with everything it did right. So many little details were perfect, like the hideous state of V.M. Varga's teeth, the spot-on casting of everyone from Frances Fisher to Hamish Linklater, and the reoccurrence of a particular musical cue signalling the welcome return of a particular minor character from the past. The cinematography is still gorgeous, and I love that a good chunk of the story was set during Christmastime and had a lot of fun with the seasonal visuals.
I'm absolutely in favor of a fourth season, though I think the series may want to quit Minnesota for a bit. Maybe it's time for Noah Hawley and company to make their way to Los Angeles to play with the elements of "Barton Fink" and "The Big Lebowski" a little more. Or maybe another period piece, this time in the New York of "Miller's Crossing" and "The Hudsucker Proxy." There are a lot of places "Fargo" could go, and maybe it's time for a change of scenery.