If Fargo‘s Murder Mystery Is No Mystery at All, What Keeps Us Watching?

(Episode 3.05)

TV Reviews Fargo
If Fargo‘s Murder Mystery Is No Mystery at All, What Keeps Us Watching?

Fargo has a rather flippant relationship with the truth and morality. It’s right there in the opening title that flashes across the screen before the events of every episode, letting us know that this is based on a true story, but that some facts might not be portrayed exactly as they were. On top of that, creator Noah Hawley has publicly stated that the pre-episode warning allows the show to go to almost any place imaginable—hence the UFOs of Season Two fitting in so snugly with the more traditional procedural elements. It’s not just the plot that treats the truth similarly to the way Donald Trump does; it’s the characters that populate Season Three as well. Most of them, excluding perhaps Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval), see the truth not as a stable thing that deals with facts and reality, but rather a shifting representation of reality that can be shaped to fit just about any need or motivation.

So far, this season of Fargo is playing with the idea of truth in ways that are both intriguing and frustrating. Consider, for a second, the truth we understand as viewers. Just like the two previous seasons, we’re already privy to all the information about the two murders driving the plot. We already know that Maurice (Scoot McNairy) killed Ennis (Scott Hylands), and that he was supposed to rob Emmit (Ewan McGregor). We already know that Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) pushed an air conditioner onto Maurice and killed him in order to cover up the fact that she and Ray (Ewan McGregor) hired him to rob Emmit. There’s no mystery here. This isn’t a traditional whodunit, where we get to watch and uncover the truth one piece at a time along with our intrepid, upstanding cops. Instead, we already know who’s responsible. So, where does the dramatic tension come from, and what is Fargo asking us to be invested in when it comes to plot and character progression? In other words, if the murder mystery is no mystery at all, what keeps us watching?

At the top of the episode, the words to Mac Davis’ “Oh Lord It’s Hard to Be Humble” ring out. “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way,” goes the refrain as Emmit Stussy drives around town and his property. It’s a cutting musical barb, a way to underline how Emmit uses his Midwestern charm to deflect his more sinister—though nowhere near V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) levels of sinister—motivations. He’s a man with a blood feud as old as he is, and a deal with organized crime on his hands that he refuses to take any responsibility for. Emmit isn’t alone in this kind of self-righteous behavior, where taking responsibility for one’s shady actions is a rare custom and everyone else is the bad guy. Ray and Nikki are the same, dropping a “sex tape” on Ray’s doorstep in order to blackmail him into giving them $100,000 and the last rare stamp, only for Stella (Linda Kash) to see the tape first and leave Emmit all by his lonesome.

What keeps us watching—assuming you can get on the show’s wavelength, which isn’t always easy—is the mental gymnastics of these characters. The consolations they make to themselves to justify their actions dig at our own understanding of our moral code. As individuals we like to think that we’re doing the right thing day in and day out, but what Fargo explores is the danger in believing that we’re the hero of our own story. The show seems to suggest that the moral slope leading from Emmit and Ray Stussy to V.M. Varga is as slippery as a Minnesota parking lot in the dead of winter.

This season is chock-full of characters who believe that their particular brand of breaking the rules is rather harmless, and it would seem that no amount of evidence to the contrary will change that. Ray may be hesitant to record a fake sex tape with Nikki to implicate his brother in an affair with his secretary, and he may momentarily feel bad about breaking up his brother’s family, but that doesn’t stop him from yelling at Emmit on the phone after the fact while refusing to acknowledge that this has all gone too far. Similarly, Emmit may not have sought out a partnership with Varga, but now he’s putting out his own hits and making his own dirty deals. He takes the shackles off Sy and tells him to take care of the Ray/Nikki problem no matter the cost, which unwittingly leads to Nikki getting severely beaten by Varga’s two henchmen.

What Fargo seems to be poking at is the little compromises we all make with ourselves to justify our indiscretions. We all bend our moral code when it suits us, and we all believe that doing a little bad is warranted if it’s done for the right reasons. Fargo suggests that such thinking is what leads to Ennis Stussy being killed in his home, or Nikki being beaten by mobsters she’s never even heard of. In other words, the “truth” is a fickle thing. It’s not as simple as being factual and correct; there’s context and perception muddying the waters. “You don’t have to like the truth for it to be true,” Gloria says, to which her colleague sincerely replies, “Are you sure?” Sy shouts at Nikki that Emmit never had an affair with his secretary, to which she drolly responds that it “doesn’t make it any less of a fact.” Like the fake books that just might fool a pesky IRS agent (Hamish Linklater) looking into the Stussy parking business, the way one perceives the truth is more important than whatever the truth may be. For now, at least. With Gloria and Winnie on the case, the truth may yet be revealed, and Ray, Nikki, Emmit and Sy will have to reckon with who they are and the things they’ve done.

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.

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