DAVID BIANCULLI

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love This Season Of ‘Fargo’
June 12, 2017  | By Alex Strachan
 

Sometimes, while watching a truly inspired hour of television, one is moved, on an intensely personal, hard-to-explain level that defies easy categorization.

With just two episodes remaining in Fargo’s third and arguably finest season, writer and co-creator Noah Hawley has elevated the typical TV whodunnit — or rather whydunnit — to the realm of mythical mystery.

Unlike David Lynch with Twin Peaks: The Return — I’m already on record about how I feel about that particular boondoggle; I only mention it here as a point of comparison — Hawley has combined an artist’s vision with the iron-willed self-discipline needed to tell a coherent story, and tell it well. Fargo is sharply written; each episode feels as if it’s been crafted into the shape of a finely cut diamond.

From the opening moments, in which an elderly recluse is found dead from exposure in his remote home in the middle of a Minnesota winter, this season of Fargo had me.

It was the third episode, though, the standalone, flashback episode “The Law of Non-Contradiction,” that touched a deep nerve in me. By now, with five Emmys, seven Critics’ Choice Television Awards, two Golden Globes and the 2015 Peabody Award behind it, Fargo has earned the right to do a stand-alone episode that seemingly — emphasis on the “seemingly” — has next-to-nothing to do with the mystery at hand.

Some fans grumbled about a seemingly disconnected standalone episode coming just three episodes into a 10-episode season, before anyone had a real sense of what was going on with the main story, and yet somehow it worked, on that subliminal, hard-to-explain level that marks truly great TV dramas.

In showing how hard-pressed small-town police chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon, top) travels to Los Angeles to revisit her stepfather’s past and uncover clues to his murder, Hawley and episode writers Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi managed to tell three stories at the same time, flashing back-and-forth between present and past, all the while tying it together with an animated film that Gloria’s stepfather produced in his early days as a struggling scriptwriter in La La Land in the mid-to-late’70s. That animated film, in which a robot wanders through time and space — echoes of Wall-E — in search of the meaning of life, only to shut itself down at the end, was part prologue, part allegory, and all-absorbing. (Part of me wonders if the animated film exists somewhere as a complete, standalone film in its own right — as a potential DVD extra perhaps, or even a theatrical release of its own. Those who know more about animated films than I do have drawn comparisons between Fargo’s animated film-within-a-film about a time-traveling robot to the works of Academy Award-nominated animator Don Hertzfeldt, specifically his classic short World of Tomorrow.)

As good as “The Law of Non-Contradiction” was, I was moved yet again by last week’s outing “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” — stirred, and shaken, you might say.  The episode, co-written by Hawley, finds on-the-lam convicts Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, right) and the deaf-mute Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard, right) being chased through a snowbound forest in the dead of night— shades of The Sopranos’ classic episode “Pine Barrens” — while chained together at the wrists.

Hawley and his go-to director Keith Gordon — the two will collaborate once again for the final two episodes of the season, “Aporia” (Wednesday, 10 ET on FX) and the June 21 finale “Somebody to Love” — are unafraid to walk back-and-forth between traditional TV storytelling and metaphysical dreamscaping.

Toward the end of “Land of Denial,” there’s a stunning scene where a terrified, bloodied Nikki stumbles across an eerily lit — and eerily empty — bowling alley in the middle of nowhere. She sits down at the bar beside a well-dressed stranger — echoes of Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski — played with a barely concealed, coiled energy by Ray Wise (top). It’s Paul Marrane, the same Paul Marrane Gloria met while on the plane to Los Angeles, and later in an L.A. bar, in “Law of Non-Contradiction.”

This isn’t just smart writing. It’s inspired, because, by bringing back a character we saw only briefly in the third episode, Hawley is tying seemingly loose, disconnected threads together, and doing it in such a way that nothing about Fargo seems calculated or predictable.

The dialogue snaps, like shards of finely cut ice off a Minnesota tree in midwinter.

“Mister, it’s been a long day,” Nikki says after Marrane quotes Job from the Old Testament.

“They’re all long,” he replies. “That’s the nature of existence. Life is suffering. I think you’re beginning to understand that.”

“Amen,” she says, hammering back another shot of whiskey.

In lesser hands, that exchange might appear to be both trite and pretentious, but Winstead and Wise sell their lines with everything they have, body and soul.

“Have you been to this place before?” he asks her.

“A bowling alley?” she says, momentarily bewildered.

“Is that what you see,” he replies, more a statement than a question to a question.

And then there’s this, toward the end of the episode, a monologue from Fargo’s mysterious baddie V.M. Varga, the “mysterious loner and true capitalist” played by David Thewlis (left), in another inspired performance in this season’s parade of inspired performances.

“Is the Bible a children's book?” Varga tells the hapless Emmit Stussy, played with a delightful mix of ineptitude and growing bewilderment by Ewan McGregor. “What we're doing here, the sober affairs of men. These are feats of great strength and cunning and fortitude. Not child's play. Not, ‘the best you can do.’ Nobody remembers the second man to climb Mt. Everest. That's it. Sleep now. Everything will be clearer in the morning.”

Whether everything will be clearer at the end of Fargo in two weeks’ time is an open question.

Despite the meandering, meaning-of-life monologues, the seemingly random, disconnected events and an as-yet indecipherable murder mystery, I wouldn’t bet against it, though.

Fargo is a genuine delight this season, one of TV’s finest hours in the platinum age of television, which has already given us many fine hours.

 
 
 
 
 
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Good news, TVWW readers: David’s new book from Doubleday, The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific is available on Amazon for $20. (Paperback will be available September 5th, here.)

Doubleday says: “Darwin had his theory of evolution, and David Bianculli has his. Bianculli's theory has to do with the concept of quality television: what it is and, crucially, how it got that way."

"The Platinum Age of Television is an effusive guidebook that plots the path from the 1950s’ Golden Age to today’s era of quality TV. For instance, animation evolved from Rocky and His Friends to South Park; variety shows moved from The Ed Sullivan Show to Saturday Night Live; and family sitcoms grew from I Love Lucy to Modern Family. A high point is the author’s interviews with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Matt Groening, Larry David, Amy Schumer and many others...Bianculli has written a highly readable history." —The Washington Post

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