Rooting for the Women of ‘Fargo’

In this third season, two characters rise to the top as protagonists worth cheering on: Minnesotan police chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a street-smart ex-con.

click to enlarge Mary Elizabeth Winstead (left) and Carrie Coon in "Fargo" - Photo: Chris Large / FX
Photo: Chris Large / FX
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (left) and Carrie Coon in "Fargo"
On the surface, it’s easy to know who to root for in Fargo (Season Finale, 10 p.m. Wednesday, FX). Every season features bad guys and good cops, but sometimes the good guy breaks bad (like Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard in Season 1) and you’re left pulling for the often-compelling villains (Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan and Zahn McClarnon as Hanzee Dent in Season 2, to name a few).

In this third season, two characters rise to the top as protagonists worth cheering on: Minnesotan police chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a street-smart ex-con. These women might seem to be on opposite sides of the law, but they have a shared strength, resilience and ability to take charge of their very different situations.

Gloria has had a rough go. Her career as police chief is in limbo after the county absorbs her small town’s department; she has recently divorced from her husband who realized he’s gay; and in Episode 1, she discovers her stepfather brutally murdered. When she connects the crime to a larger web of corruption, she’s dismissed by her disinterested new boss, despite the fact that the body count continues to rise.

Nikki is a competitive bridge whiz and devoted girlfriend to her parole officer, Ray Stussy (a heavily disguised Ewan McGregor). Ray is embattled in a longstanding rivalry with his slightly older, much more successful brother Emmit (also McGregor — can you say Emmy bait?), whom he turns to for a loan to buy Nikki an engagement ring. When Emmit refuses, Nikki is swept into a family feud that plunges much deeper than the inheritance dispute at the surface, leading to a chain of crimes ranging from breaking and entering to murder.

 Of course we root for Gloria. She’s a sympathetic everywoman, relentless in her pursuit of the truth. As an audience, we have the benefit of knowing she’s right on with her suspicions and suspects. And she’s played with a quiet strength by Coon, spring TV queen (she also starred in The Leftovers) who’s impossible not to love.

 But we have to pull for Nikki, too. Sure, she’s a criminal, but her conviction is almost admirable. She pep-talks her man through schemes to get back what they believe is rightfully Ray’s, and she completely and consistently has his back. Nikki is Ray’s ride or die — and in many scenarios where she should by all means be defeated, she manages to pull herself up and fight back. Winstead unearths all the complexities in a character that in any other show could have been a sexy, shallow afterthought. Nikki may be a con and even a murderer, but she’s far from the baddest of the bunch.

Which brings us to V. M. Varga. David Thewlis portrays perhaps the most terrifying villain of all time. Or at least all of Fargo. When Emmit tries to pay off a business loan early in the season, the grotesque and mysterious Varga shows up to inform him the loan was actually an investment from a crooked corporation, and their work together has just begun. 

Varga methodically and mercilessly seizes all that Emmit has worked for. So when Ray, Nikki and eventually Gloria come after Emmit, they’re really messing with Varga — and his ghastly gang of henchmen. And these are not the villains you want to stump for.

 Creator/writer Noah Hawley is three for three in near-perfect installations of this anthology. Complex storytelling anchors the series, juxtaposing dark crime with “Minnesota nice.” 

This season is especially referential, capturing the vibe of Twin Peaks (Ray Wise appears in both), The Big Lebowski (like the original Fargo, a Coen Brothers film) and A Serious Man (starring Michael Stuhlbarg, also featured here).

 Will Nikki and Gloria come out on top? Can they both? 

Even in the small-town friendly Fargo universe, the good guys — however you define them — rarely win.


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