How Better Call Saul and Fargo Use—and in One Case Misuse—the Strange Mechanics of Sibling RivalryPhoto credits: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures; FX TV Features Siblings
A funny thing happened this year. Two shows, each a speculative new parcel amended to choice pop cultural real estate, feature the same theme: the strange chemical charges between siblings who, but for a few twists of luck, might be the same person.
On Better Call Saul, sibling stoichiometry provides our entry point into the show. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) has been the vivacious, corner-cutting Goofus to the brittle, polished Gallant of his big brother, Charles (Michael McKean), since the pilot episode. The series itself plays little brother to a wildly successful elder: Breaking Bad offered the story of a milquetoast whose operatic dive into the underworld emboldened a thousand Reddit trolls; Better Call Saul tackles office space hassles, mental illness, elder law and foamy, low-stakes hustles in New Mexico. As a few critics suggested, the initial conceptual divide felt like a fait accompli: At root, cooking meth in a cartel lab was just more exciting than scrutinizing nursing home invoices over takeout.
Fargo Season Three inherited the kid brother mantle, too. Season Two touched the firmament of television: Every member of its ensemble delivered career-best work; a handful of the season’s scenes entered the you-have-to-see-this YouTube pantheon; its use of landscape as narrative tool would have made Willa Cather jealous; and, critically, the season wore its historical threads—the lingering traumas of Vietnam, Ronnie Reagan’s buttercream illusions, and the replacement of the rural family unit by the suburban corporate one—as effortlessly as Patrick Wilson filled out his oxblood-colored sheriff’s uniform.
In short, like many a younger sibling, Better Call Saul and Fargo Season Three have had imposing paths to walk. Drawing them even closer this year has been their shared obsession with the uneven distribution of life between siblings, and the ways in which luck—that mix of alleles, grace, and entropy—turn the funhouse-mirror reflections of our siblings sets into more, and into less.
First, let’s share the bad news. Season Three of Fargo doesn’t measure up. Some of its problems are endemic to the anthology series. The multi-season character development that gives TV its most resonant payoffs can’t happen. The baked in “links” across an anthology’s seasons often feel shabby; the viewing experience mimics working through a book of word jumbles, continually hunting for the same five words scrambled in slightly different ways.
Season Three slavishly recites the Fargo playbook: Crass, invulnerable evil made flesh (David Thewlis); the incorruptible, incisive female police officer (Carrie Coon); the flapping Midwestern businessmen in too deep; oblique dialogue over hot dish; grim monologues about violence; hubris, greed, Schopenhauer, Manichaeism, rinse, dry, repeat.
The other problems are specific to the show. This season chases the zeitgeist—in interviews, Thewlis has said that his charcoal-toothed V.M. Varga embodies the Trump ethos—at the same time as it prioritized puzzles over story.
We can understand the former sins. When characters say things like “That’s a lot a debt! And just to line our pockets!” or another responds to “It didn’t happen!” with “That doesn’t mean it’s not a fact,” or when Varga recites the story of Lehman Brothers, you may roll your eyes, but when was the last time you successfully avoided Twitter for a day?
The mistakes in the later category hurt. A show, like a novel, can thrive with parallel characters, or with the general theme of “doubling” (the Chevy-account-is-their-Vietnam season of Mad Men, for example). But this year, Fargo has a death grip on the “DOUBLE IT” lever. Ewan McGregor’s performance as brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, dull parking lot magnate and sagging parole officer, respectively, is skilled and respectable, but that’s about it. Carrie Coon plays Sherriff Gloria Burgle as appropriately homey and sharp-eyed, but redundancy creeps in again when Olivia Sandoval joins her as her double, another sharp and chatty female cop from a neighboring town. Thewlis’s Varga has two henchmen (Andy Yu and Goran Bogdan, so excellent in SundanceTV’s The Last Panthers), each of whom represent, subtly, a group of people, Asian-Russians and Siberian serfs, oppressed under Soviet rule. By the time Bogdan offered another existential monologue about violence, history and truth in “The Law of Inevitability,” I got the feeling that I wasn’t watching a riff on a theme. I was watching a snake engineered to eat its own tail.
In contrast, this season of Better Call Saul has shaken off the Breaking Bad hangover, accelerating beyond the, um, methodical pace of its first two seasons. Where Fargo has wrenched the brothers Stussy into contrast through hairpieces, facile costuming and on-the-nose set design, Better Call Saul deepens the enigma of the brothers McGill by letting both Charles and Jimmy veer between agency and luck.
The season’s eighth episode, “Slip,” steepens the mystery, echoing the midseason apex, “Chicanery,” in which both Jimmy and Charles achieve Pyrrhic victories. Jimmy is rightly suspended from the bar for a year. Charles unravels before family, colleagues and bar officials after Jimmy demonstrates that Charles’s electromagnetic sensitivity is all in his head.
In “Slip,” the brothers switch places once more. Jimmy literally reverts to his “Slippin’” mode, bilking a guitar store out of a rare guitar so that he can pawn it for rent. Charles, on the other hand, nobly confronts the roots of his illness—his own mind—in a lovely, even moving, scene with his doctor (Clea DuVall). Just when we’re ready to write Jimmy off as the lovable loser and Charles as the prick, Better Call Saul flips perspective.
Maybe the opportunistic coyote we saw in Breaking Bad represents the authentic Jimmy McGill? Maybe Charles really is a flustered, skilled man doing his best against the perpetual burden of mental illness? When did the financial impetus to become Saul —Jimmy has got to make rent, if only to preserve his relationship with lover and partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn)—transform into a personal one? Jimmy may be the easy-drinking detective novel to Charles’ literary doorstop, but don’t big ideas and worthy ambitions matter? When did the brothers McGill realize how different they were?
So where Fargo traffics in symbols as ham-fisted as those you might encounter in bad poetry (parking spaces are just arbitrary lines in empty space, man!), Better Call Saul leans into the impossible-to-answer mysteries about how siblings become who they are. The McGills and the series blossom through small gestures, organic dialogue and a willfully un-grand and un-operatic tone.
Isn’t that how luck works in a family? Someone’s just built for a more lucrative job from the start and creates the financial cushion that can heal life’s sores. One sibling has—just simply has—the true social gifts, able to toss an arm around everyone from trash picker to banker to pensioner and liven up any room with spun tales and a generous pour. The family’s black sheep in her 20s becomes its rock in her 40s. The adolescent genius becomes the no-account dilettante. And vice versa.
In the same moment that Charles pulls himself from bottom to renew his commitment to his health and his career, Jimmy goes off to make the TV spot that will introduce the world to Saul Goodman, everyman ad maker and friend to local merchants.
A sibling can become a shadow, a mirror, a friend, a nurse, a mentor, a missed path or an island an ocean away. And, as Better Call Saul demonstrates and as Fargo fails to, the role that we assign to them can turn as swiftly as dice toppling over each other in a game of chance.
Evan McGarvey is a poet and writer. He is the co-author of 2pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle (Voyageur, 2013). His work has appeared in The New Republic, VICE Sports, and Pitchfork.