There’s a turning point in every frayed relationship where, no matter how many gestures of good faith and attempts to bury past mistakes are made, there’s just no turning back. Fargo’s third season is a web of relationships that rely on increasingly strained dynamics to continue pushing forward, if they can at all. There’s V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) forcing his way into Stussy Lots and the lives of Sy (Michale Stuhlbarg) and Emmit (Ewan McGregor), punishing them for their careless financing with his continuous menacing presence. There’s also Chief Moe (Shea Whigham), the thorn in Gloria’s (Carrie Coon) side that can’t be removed, placed there by a higher power that she doesn’t have access to or sway over—not unlike Emmit, one might add. Then there’s Ray (Ewan McGregor) and Emmit Stussy, a relationship built on blood that ultimately ends in it, too; a relationship past the point of no return.
What’s fascinating and agonizing about Ray’s death in this week’s episode is that, outside of perhaps Ennis Stussy and his unfortunate demise, it’s the one that could have been prevented. If Nikki, Sy, Emmit or Ray found themselves at the mortal mercy of Varga or his henchmen, there’d be some semblance of sense there. After all, you don’t get wrapped up in murder and laundering with the mob without expecting some sort of consequences. And yet, Ray’s death comes at the hands of his brother. It’s quick, but hardly painless, a shard of glass slicing Ray’s throat and blood pooling on the carpet while his brother looks on in horror. An accident, yes, but as Varga points out, “things of consequence rarely happen by accident.”
It may be the first true thing he’s said all season. Emmit may not have purposely killed his brother, but long ago their feud reached a tipping point and neither of them did much to bring it back. Here, Emmit finally extends the olive branch, trying to give his brother the rare stamp he’s long viewed as a symbol of Emmit’s superiority and success. What Emmit doesn’t understand, though, is that it’s too late. “It’s enough,” he says about their feud, but it’s too little, too late. The bad blood runs deeper than the stamp, the fake sex tape and the botched robbery. It’s about a lack of respect that spans decades. Varga, his henchmen, and the beating they put on Nikki only compounds the pain and feelings of inadequacy, making it impossible for Ray to accept the stamp, leading to one final sibling confrontation that takes a deadly turn.
In some ways, Fargo seems to suggest that Ray’s death is inevitable, the result of a collision of forces that couldn’t be stopped. When feuds are allowed to simmer for decades, they eventually boil over. All a feud needs is a catalyst to move from the kind of disagreement that can be attributed to “brothers, and all that” to one where an organized crime syndicate is in charge of cleaning up the bloody mess. That slippery slope provides some insight into Emmit’s character. He may not reach Varga levels of evil, by any means, but his lack of self-awareness is proven to be nearly as dangerous. When he shows up at his brother’s apartment to bury the hatchet, he starts out by saying he can’t think of a single person that doesn’t like him. When Ray balks at that, Emmit doubles down, saying that he’s a fair main who people genuinely like.
That may be true, to a certain extent—Emmit certainly seems amiable enough—but his stubbornness and willful blindness is what got him in this mess with the Varga, and it’s also the reason that he and Ray have never made up. Emmit wants to reconcile without claiming any responsibility. Sure, he feigns some sense of remorse, but he’s still placing the blame with his brother. Fargo is populated by characters who struggle to see their own culpability in the terrible things happening to them and around them. There’s a sliding scale of menace: Where Varga is the evil who knows he’s evil and can manipulate others with relative ease, folks like Emmit represent a lesser evil, coasting on their privilege and then throwing up their hands in disbelief when they’re confronted with something unpleasant.
At times, the cynicism of this season of Fargo can be a lot to stomach. Watching Emmit weep at the sight of his brother slowly dying is an excruciating experience, but it’s also missing a certain emotional connection. Essentially, it’s hard to feel bad for Emmit. Hell, it’s hard to feel bad for Ray, who we can’t forget is (was) in the middle of covering up a murder by air conditioner along with another murder by super glue. Everyone is complicit, and that can, on occasion, make “The Lord of No Mercy” feel suffocating and gratuitous rather than emotionally impactful.
Still, Fargo does seem to provide the antidote to its rampant cynicism in the form of Gloria Burgle and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval). If this season’s social criticism is that we live in an age where perception matters more than truth, then Gloria is an example of finding stillness in the noise. Varga may be the one saying he’s seen so rarely that he might not even exist, but it’s Gloria who operates outside of this universe of untruth. She’s “off the grid,” in a sense. Motion sensors don’t notice her, and she’s strangely absent from the Internet, as a Google search turns up nothing. She’s from a different time and place, cutting through Varga’s bullshit in the season’s most delightful scene yet, a symbol of strength while others have cowered, unable to deflect Varga’s ability to craft his own truth and power.
It’s still too early to unpack all the thematic musings, but one does get the sense that this season, for all of its cops-and-criminals drama, is one focused on the need for human connection, truth and empathy. Gloria Burgle—and, to a lesser extent, Winnie Lopez—is a beacon of honesty, fairness and focus in a world of untruth, distraction and moral obfuscation. What remains to be seen is whether truth and fairness can win in this day and age.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.