Fargo: Season 3 (2017)

The following is a review. The season being reviewed originally aired on FX between April and June of 2017. At the request of those who haven't seen the show, this review will keep spoilers to an absolute minimum. Out of respect for the series's creator and stars, the descriptions and discussions that are included will be presented as accurately as possible.

Only this isn't just a review: it's a murder scene.

The victim is in their late seventies, and the manner of death was asphyxiation. They may have gone by several names throughout their life, but around here they were known as the "Christmas episode." In life, they were a concept of an episodic holiday installment of a television series. They stood out from their peers in only one respect: they were set at or about Christmas.

Anything else could change. Maybe they were a self-contained narrative, or maybe they were an episodic installment of a longer series playing out in real time. Hell, they might even have been a clip show primarily consisting of excerpts of previous episodes.

Now they're dead.

There's no real mystery around how they died or who killed them. Those details are provided upfront. Likewise, there's not a lot that needs to be said for motive, because ultimately we're far more interested in the existential meaning behind what happened than in mundane questions around why someone wanted them dead.

In fact, let's just eliminate this once and for all by stating the death of the Christmas episode was the result of a series of stupid mistakes, odd coincidences, and bizarrely bad luck. Its complicated and controversial life ended on a cosmic joke.

Don't feel too bad for them, though: we can probably infer ours will, as well.

As a side note to all this death and existential angst, I should mention that Lindsay and I started watching Fargo recently. We were already fans of Legion and heard the showrunner's other project was as good or better. After three seasons, I'm inclined to lean towards "even better," which is pretty high praise given I already consider Legion one of the best superhero shows ever made.

Each of Fargo's three seasons is a self-contained story set in a different series of towns in different decades. There has been a little crossover here and there, but for all intents and purposes, each season is its own tale of midwestern noir.

Each based on a true story, of course. They're 100% clear on that at the start of each episode.

Of the three seasons, the third - the very season this is 100% a review of - is probably my least favorite. Note I didn't say it was the worst. On the contrary, I think the quality of writing, acting, and directing remains consistently amazing throughout, but this season is tonally built around creating a sense of unease. It wants you uncomfortable while watching, and it accomplishes this goal. It does this by including some fairly grotesque imagery and by ending on a note that's less satisfying than earlier seasons.

But let's not get bogged down in talking about the ending, as that's part of the quarter of the season that isn't set during the holidays. The rest plays out with Christmas in the background. There's music, lights, trees, snow, and a character who might be a vampire, a demon, or just your garden-variety supervillain.

There's also an extended sequence that plays out as an homage to The Big Lebowski. I know that movie wasn't set on Christmas, but this scene makes up for that oversight. It was easily my favorite moment in this season and would rate highly among my favorites of the series, which in turn are among some of the best I've ever seen on live-action television.

If we're still pretending this counts as television.

Television shows, historically speaking, are written primarily around their episodic nature. Even series telling larger stories had to cater to viewers joining mid-season or missing an episode or two. But if you start watching the third season of Fargo in episode 6... I honestly wish you the best of luck. It's primarily a long-form story combining the best aspects of film with the best aspects of TV. Throw some aspects of a mini-series in there, too, if you like.

It's not alone in attempting this, incidentally. Plenty of shows have set out to elevate the medium in a similar manner. A few have even been successful.

The difference is that this is now becoming the norm. Pushed by the success of streaming services and the ability to allow viewers to catch up online, TV is evolving into something different. Not necessarily something better or worse, just something...

Screw it. Television is better now than it's ever been, and anyone claiming otherwise is blinded by nostalgia to a degree that's absurd.

But one side-effect of this evolution is that some artifacts of the past are getting replaced. And that brings us back to our murder victim: the old-fashioned Christmas episode, the single installment of a series set during the holidays. What would that even look like in a world where entire seasons are envisioned as stories or chapters? If a season is (mostly) set over a week of time, you can't very well devote one episode in the middle to the holidays.

A Christmas episode no longer makes sense. You'd need a Christmas season. Which is precisely what this is.

Why is it set during the holidays? Any and all of the reasons you'd assume. You've got the juxtaposition between the violence and decorations, you've got a story line centering largely on family (albeit in a somewhat ironic way), you've got the encroachment of otherworldly magic on what we're assured is a very real world, you've got a genuine holiday miracle, a bizarre gift-giver, and maybe even some ghosts.

Also, Los Angeles for a single episode, and if there's one thing I've learned watching Shane Black movies, it's that LA and Christmas are synonymous.

Some of you are probably thinking that Christmas specials will never completely go away, and... okay, I actually agree with that. Even as the medium evolves, there will still be throwbacks, including some existing purely for nostalgia's sake. The death of the Christmas episode at the beginning of this review is more a symbol than a true event, but that's kind of the point.

This, right now, is a time of transition for television, and we're watching it transform into something new. There are almost certainly more dramatic examples we could find than a show offering a Christmas season rather than a Christmas episode, but I'm not sure there's a clearer illustration of how this change is unfolding.

If you haven't seen Fargo yet, do yourself a favor and boot up the first episode. I think you'll find it's a worthwhile journey to some truly unbelievable stories.