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Fargo is TV’s most blistering critique of the past 40 years of global economics. For real.

The FX series’ frustrating but rewarding third season zeroes in on a world gone horribly wrong.

V.M. Varga takes in the fearsome stuffed bear in Emmit Stussy’s house.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Late in the seventh episode of Fargo’s third season, Sy Feltz (an impressively mustachioed Michael Stuhlbarg) comes home to his wife on Christmas Eve.

He’s been out at a business dinner with his longtime colleague and friend Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor), in hopes of persuading Emmit to sell the pair’s parking lot business to an intrigued businesswoman. But the meeting is interrupted by the news of Emmit’s brother’s death. When Sy drops off Emmit at home, he glances up to notice the villainous V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) peering down from a second-story window.

So Sy goes home — home being the constant source of security and sanctity in the Fargo universe. But he can’t shake what has happened. The devil is living in his own friend’s house, and for whatever reason, he can’t be cast out. Things have spun out of control.

“The world is wrong!” he wails to his wife. She tries to comfort him, tries to stop his tears, but there’s nothing to be done. In previous seasons of the show, this simple reassertion of domesticity would have been enough to keep the wolves at bay. But now Sy, one of the most decent characters in season three, can’t hold off his despair.

Something is broken in the world, and even though Fargo’s three seasons follow completely different sets of characters, in three separate timelines (with a tiny bit of overlap), they combine to form a convincing argument that what’s broken isn’t the souls of its characters but the economic systems that grind them down. Fargo, see, is ultimately a series about the death of capitalism, where the only people who can profit are con men and hucksters, who see the world for what it really is.

Fargo bills itself as a series about petty crime. But it’s much more powerful as a drama about economics.

Emmit and Gloria finally face off.

When you start to look at Fargo as a show about the economic wheels that make the world turn, it snaps into focus in a way it often doesn’t when considered solely as a nifty bit of Coen brothers pastiche.

The 1996 Oscar-winning film that gives the FX series its name, setting, and overall aesthetic was a darkly comic but ultimately hopeful tale that suggested the laws of decency and justice would win out in the end. In its final image, a couple sits down to dinner together, while waiting for their first child to arrive; there’s a darkness in the world, it seems to say, but also enough light to shut it out.

Noah Hawley, who created the TV series, has worked with his writers to slowly but surely turn that idea inside out over three seasons of television. Justice might still be meted out on a micro scale. Murderers might be sent to jail, and thieves might be forced to return their ill-gotten gains. But on a macro scale — forget it. You can’t stop the tidal waves that swamp otherwise ordinary Americans, because the tidal waves have become surly, implacable gods, caring little for the rest of us.

That’s why it’s so fitting that the first three seasons of the show are all set during vital moments in American capitalism’s slow strangulation. Season one, set in 2006 and 2007, takes place on the verge of the collapse of the housing market, as an otherwise standard murder investigation in a small town is sidetracked by the presence of Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), an amoral contract killer who works for a faceless organization that seems to permeate everything, even if no one realizes it’s there.

Season two is even more explicit, taking place in 1979, at the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s rise. Reagan himself is a character, though Fargo portrays him as a well-meaning dupe who didn’t understand what he was about to unleash. The season’s true story is about a mom-and-pop outfit swept aside by the rise of corporate crime — a symbolic retelling of the corporate invasion of the heartland that kicked off in the ’80s and ran rampant in the ’90s and 2000s.

And finally, season three takes place in 2010 and 2011, just as Americans are beginning to realize that whatever economic recovery they might see after the housing collapse will be long and grinding and unevenly distributed. Here, the well-meaning dupe is at the show’s center; Emmit believes himself to be an upstanding citizen and, indeed, doesn’t do anything wrong. But he nonetheless ends up destroying everything he cares about, solely because he gets into bed with a massive global organization he doesn’t fully understand. The rising tide of globalization raises all boats, but only in theory. Most people — even Emmit in the end — are swamped.

And if you chart Fargo’s storyline chronologically — meaning season two, then season one, then season three — this overarching throughline becomes even more clear. Season two contains hints of the chaos to come, but justice reasserts itself in the end. The American small town is still robust, worth fighting for. Then season one comes along and darkens this idea considerably, but justice arrives in the end (albeit in an anticlimactic and unsatisfying finale). Finally, season three closes in deliberate ambiguity, offering little to no justice whatsoever. Is the cavalry coming? Probably not, but we can hope.

Season three is Fargo’s most frustrating — but also maybe its best

Truth be told, the first half of Fargo’s third season is a little hard to take. It feels like a dull, hollow echo of everything the show did in its first two seasons, with less airtight construction. The season’s initial crimes are two murders committed in comically baroque fashion: one in which a man’s nose and mouth are glued shut, and the other featuring an air conditioner dropped on someone’s head.

Fargo has always been slightly too impressed with itself, as if it’s amazed that it gets to exist on television and trade on the Coen brothers’ name. (A friend of mine once posited that maybe all Hawley truly wants is to have one of the Coens tell him he’s done a good job, and that friend might be right.) The series carries itself with a certain swagger, one that it only barely earned in its first two seasons, thanks to the careful, puzzle-box structure of its stories. Setups and payoffs were deployed with ruthless efficiency in the first two seasons, in a way that feels almost comically unsuited to season three’s messier, less-sure-of-itself plot.

But about halfway through season three, I started to wonder if all of its repetition and unearned bravado wasn’t intentional on some level, wasn’t Fargo having some fun. And then it suddenly veered off course, driving off the well-trod path of puzzle-box fun and into the snowy woods, where it promptly crashed into several trees. I kinda loved it.

Nikki Swango taking over the season certainly helped.

The season had opened as the story of two brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by McGregor), who had found themselves at odds after Emmit tricked Ray into trading the car the boys’ father had given Emmit for the rare stamps he had given Ray. The car proved fleetingly useful; the stamps funded Emmit’s business enterprises. Their story was, in other words, a tale as old as Jacob and Esau.

Yet Fargo struggled to make Emmit and Ray even half as compelling as everything else going on around them. It was frequently exasperating to see that Emmit didn’t really bring doom down around his ears like previous seemingly upstanding citizens of Fargo, your Lester Nygaards (Martin Freeman) and your Peggy Blumquists (Kirsten Dunst). Instead, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if he didn’t understand the unparalleled shadiness of the shady characters he took a loan from in the wake of the financial crisis. His feud with Ray felt like old news both to the characters and to Fargo, a catalyst for another season of wacky crime shenanigans.

But the season ultimately wasn’t about wacky crime shenanigans. Instead, the Ray and Emmit feud proved to be a ruse, a way for the show to distract us from the real crimes going on around the two men, which turned out to involve Varga and his cronies using perfectly legal but deeply immoral means to bleed dry everybody they possibly could in order to enrich themselves.

Ray died in episode six, in an accident that Emmit kept trying to claim was a murder because he needed somewhere to put his guilt. And the only one who saw the bigger picture as clearly as possible was Ray’s girlfriend, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who might have been a small-time criminal but recognized the likes of herself when she saw them. Varga, she realized, was just another hustler. He simply had the weight of governments behind him.

On Fargo, the world ends as a whimper disguised by a bang

As Nikki slowly took over the show, proving to be the only character with a moral compass just broken enough to challenge Varga on his own turf, Fargo snapped into place. She and the deaf assassin Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard, the first actor to play a major role in two seasons of Fargo, having previously appeared in season one) launched scheme after scheme to get back at Varga. Nikki insisted she didn’t really want his money — she wanted him to feel pain.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Nikki was the season’s most notable representative of law enforcement, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon). Early on, Gloria felt like another waltz through well-trod territory; the Fargo universe has already introduced us to the good and just cop nobody pays attention to. But even though Gloria was the one character to suss out all of the season’s players and exactly how they fit together, it didn’t matter. Varga and company orchestrated an alternate explanation that forced some minor player to take the fall for the season’s string of murders, then skated away with cash in hand. Gloria might have figured out the truth, but those with the money engineered their own version of events and made it into the truth.

The notion of truth and fiction has always animated Fargo — which even in its movie incarnation was based on a “true story” that the Coens had made up. But season three took this idea to an entirely new level, with its casual insistence that since the “truth” is already a story we tell ourselves, that story can be shattered, until everyone has their own truth, their own reality.

At (or near) the start of every episode of Fargo, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” appears in text on the screen. But in season three, the individual words in that phrase would frequently fade out at different speeds, often leaving just “THIS IS A STORY.” At one point, Varga tells three “true” stories about major world events, and the third involves the moon landing being faked. He’s doing so to get a rise out of Sy, but Fargo has more on its mind. If enough people don’t believe in the moon landing, then it didn’t really happen for them. We construct our own realities inside of our heads, and if they’re true to us, then they’re true, no matter how damaging.

Is the mysterious man Gloria meets God? Sure. Why not?

Which is where Gloria — the season’s most overt nod to its Midwestern roots — comes in. At first, I felt Gloria was a waste of Coon’s extraordinary talent, but by the finale, the character felt as vital to season three as Varga and Nikki. Where Varga didn’t seem to exist because he’d gamed the system to hide his true identity, Gloria didn’t seem to exist (and, indeed, she couldn’t get automatic doors or soap dispensers to respond to her and didn’t turn up in online search results) because she still believed in a kind of righteousness the world doesn’t have as much room for these days. She is who we might hope we still can be, just as Nikki is who we probably need to be, and Emmit is who we probably are. And all the while, Varga is sucking every one of us dry before we realize what’s happening, leaving the husk behind.

There’s still an immense power around the mythology of the American small town in American pop culture, but in the third season of Fargo, even the small town is broken down for component parts and subsumed into larger organizations. (Literally! Gloria’s police department is being disbanded and absorbed into the county department.) The good characters are government bureaucrats who still believe in the rule of law, be they police officers or IRS agents. But they’re specks in the ointment for the characters who see the world as something to squeeze until it gives up more money, as something that’s easily discarded.

Nikki dies in a freak encounter, because she must. Emmit gets to putter on because he’s a useless idiot, though he, too, eventually dies (the one muted moment of karmic justice that Fargo’s season three finale serves up). Varga poisons Sy, who ends up a shell of himself. Varga’s operation closes down Emmit’s business and moves on to the next, leaving Emmit behind to foot the bill. And on and on it goes.

Fargo’s third season started out more straightforwardly comic than either of the previous two, but by the time it concluded, the laughter it inspired was almost entirely hollow. The joke was on the characters and maybe on us. Something is deeply broken inside the world, it seemed to say, and even God (or at least his approximation, played here by Ray Wise) was powerless to do much. The season nodded to current events — Russian meddling here; the 2016 election there — but never overtly. It captured, instead, the feeling of being trapped in a system you didn’t invent or no longer want to be part of but have no effective means to change.

In season three’s final scene, Gloria and Varga face off in airport customs in 2016. She now works for the Department of Homeland Security. He’s going by another name. She says she has him, dead to rights, for money laundering. He suggests that someone higher up the government food chain than her will soon arrive to set him free. We’d like to think the world needs people like Gloria, but Fargo argues that the world we’ve built over the past 40 or so years is more likely to need people like Varga than we’d care to admit.

The two sit and wait for the door to open, for either Gloria or Varga to be proved right. Everything we’ve seen in season three so far, everything we see outside our own windows, suggests he’ll be set free. Fargo’s previous seasons suggest that justice will somehow, freakishly, reassert itself, and Gloria will catch her man. But the door remains closed. We wait and wait and wait for answers that never come.

Cut to black.

Fargo season three is streaming on FX Now. Seasons one and two are available on Hulu.