Early on in The Big Lebowski, after Walter (John Goodman) has assured The Dude (Jeff Bridges) that nobody will cut his dick off, The Stranger, memorably played by Sam Elliott, tosses out an old bit of wisdom for The Dude to chew on. “Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you,” he says. The line is part of the film’s exploration of language, karma and the way context can alter perception: The words of wisdom should read as “bear,” not “bar,” but The Stranger’s accent, or perhaps his penchant for obscurity, or perhaps the locale, have The Dude hearing “bar.” Later on, The Dude recites the line as “bar,” one of the many instances in which he absorbs a phrase spoken by someone else and uses it in another context, where perhaps it doesn’t fit.
Of course, The Stranger’s central idea is that life is full of wild and unpredictable swings. What can be relied on one day is absent the next. There’s no such thing as stable or normal, as they’re only illusions we create in order to cope with the vicissitudes that will pester us until the day we die. The third season of Fargo directly referred to this scene in an earlier episode, and ever since the series has been dealing in the themes evident in The Stranger’s words of wisdom. Life has a way of balancing out, but that’s not always a good thing. That means that the good guys win some, but so do the bad guys. Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) may get the upper hand on Varga’s (David Thewlis) men, sending buckshot through Meemo (Andy Yu), but that also leads to Nikki lying dead in the middle of the road alongside an innocent cop. The universe strikes a balance, but in doing so it sacrifices good people.
What’s emerged across the season, and somewhat falls into place in “Somebody to Love,” is a lingering sense of dread when it comes to this balance, and technology plays a central role in the mounting angst. Essentially, Fargo questions what karmic balance looks like in an age of misinformation, isolation and cultural division amplified by the use of technology. When the tangible no longer exists and facts cannot be agreed upon, how can a fair and moral assessment be made?
The world of this season is one in which the intangible thrives. Stussy Lots makes its money not by crafting anything useful, but by using wealth as a way to buy up property before renting it back to citizens. Varga and his men, when they go to deliver the ransom to Nikki and Mr. Wrench, wander through an unnamed industrial area; it’s a vacant ghost town, the industry gone, with nothing left to replace it—except, perhaps, a parking lot. Even Emmit (Ewan McGregor), someone who benefited greatly from the decline of industry, must reckon with the consequences of the shift away from tangible, real things. When he pulls a gun on Meemo, Varga doesn’t bat an eye. Wealth is the true weapon here, not any firearm or threat of physical attack. Varga already has the Stussy business in his pocket, and he’s already stripped and sold it to the widow Goldfarb, the seemingly dull and forgetful woman revealed to be a major player all along.
Fargo has found glimmers of hope in this moral and industrial wasteland, as both Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval) and Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) have represented the very real forces of good, seemingly out of place and time in this world. They work with evidence and facts, pounding the pavement in order to figure out all the players in the Stussy murders. And yet, I’m not sure “Somebody to Love” is ultimately hopeful. Despite all of Gloria and Winnie’s work, there’s no sense that it pays off in the larger scheme of things. Personally, Gloria may be in a good place, as a clunky “Five Years Later” flash forward sees her working at the Department of Homeland Security—far, far away from Chief Moe (Shea Whigham)—but the finale as a whole refuses to provide any optimistic closure.
For one, Nikki ends up dead. She may not have always been the hero we wanted, but her unrelenting love for Ray (Ewan McGregor) and the circumstances that led her to be wrapped up in Varga’s business made her easy to root for. Emmit may end up dead at the hands of Mr. Wrench, but not before pleading to a measly two years probation for his crimes. Then there’s the season’s final scene, a stirring, unsettling bit of business that pits Gloria and Varga against each other one last time. It’s the moment the season’s been building toward: the representation of all that’s wrong with the modern world and the way power and wealth is acquired going up against the representation of good, honest people. Where Varga is a product of neoliberal ideology, equating human value with financial worth — “a deadbeat on welfare has negative value,” he says — Gloria is more socialistic and humanistic, believing that every person brings his or her own unique value to the universe.
It’d be nice if Gloria’s ideals win out, but that’s not true to the world we live in. We live in an increasingly divided world, where Varga’s brand of exploitative neoliberalism is practically the norm, at least here in North America. Whether we consciously recognize it or not, we’ve moved away from the tangible, the shared, and the communal, instead reinforcing divisions, breeding isolation, all while equating the accumulation of wealth with intelligence and power. We live in a world where a reality star billionaire who was handed his wealth is championed as the voice of the working class, and positioned as the most powerful person in the country. In that world, people like Gloria don’t win. They may try, and there’s nobility in that, but perhaps the sense of karmic balance that The Stranger tells The Dude about no longer exists. Not in this world, where we can’t even agree upon what’s real and what’s not.
As Gloria sits across from Varga in an interrogation room, she tells him that he’s about to be taken away by three agents and stashed at Riker’s Island before they charge him with felony money laundering and conspiracy to commit six murders. He responds by saying that in a few short minutes a man will walk through the door, a man “who you can’t argue with,” and tell him that he’s free to go. The light illuminating them both fades and the camera shifts to focus on the door. Will those three agents walk through, or will it be Varga’s man who can’t be argued with? Fargo doesn’t answer that question explicitly, but in a way the season as a whole has provided the answer. Varga will slip away, and even if he doesn’t there are countless others like him, operating with impunity in a world that rewards greed and exploitation.
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.