The Power of Performance in “Fargo” Season Three
The performances of David Thewlis and Carrie Coon express the profound alienation of the current moment.
I’ve loved the FX series Fargo ever since I started watching it a few weeks ago. Though the first season truly blew me away, I’ve continued to be impressed by the ways in which the series consistently challenges what we think we know about television storytelling, all while maintaining the off-kilter humor that was and is such a key part of the original film’s enduring appeal. I was particularly impressed by the first two seasons.
Then came season three, and I haven’t been the same since.
For a while, I struggled trying to think what, exactly, I found so absolutely compelling about this season. Sure, it had the same sense of strangeness, of normal lives turned upside down by forces that they didn’t know existed that we saw in the first two. Something, though, was different about this season, something that rattled me more deeply than either of the other two had managed to do.
Then it hit me. It was the performances. Something about the ways in which the actors in this season brought their characters to life struck me as intensely and viscerally odd, so much so that I felt myself both inexorably drawn to the screen, even as I felt a profound revulsion. I had a sense while watching this season that this was, strangely enough, a world closer to our own (which makes sense, since diegetically it is closer to our own year than either of the other two). This is a world that has been turned inside out by the Recession and by the depredations of global capital, where money seems to have an ability to flow across national boundaries with impunity, leaving a trail of blood and bodies in its wake.
Into this step a group of people who slowly but surely find themselves drawn into a web of international money-laundering from which they cannot escape. Though this obviously fits into the series’ overall pattern of showing people whose lives are disrupted by seemingly random acts of crime, in this season it takes on an additional layer of significance. Whereas before the crime was fairly localized, now it it is something sprawling, vast, and international and, because of that, largely incomprehensible in its totality.
The performances reflect this, and two characters in particular exemplify this idea of a world out of joint and all of the perils that it poses to our collective sense of subjectivity. The first, of course, is David Thewlis, who has deservedly received substantial praise for his portrayal of V.M. Varga, an international “businessman” who ensnares Ewan McGregor’s Emmit and Michael Stuhlbarg’s Sy in his money laundering scheme.
From the moment that he appears on the screen, it’s impossible to look away. He looms with a perpetual sense of menace, one enhanced by the fact that his teeth are rotten from his bulimia nervosa. He shuffles about, declaiming his own particular brand of nihilistic philosophy, his thick accent — which might have been rather endearing in a different sort of character — betraying a sort of working-class British origin. It’s truly uncanny the way in which Thewlis manages to inhabit this character, imbuing him with a powerful internal energy even while much of his inner life, and his background generally, remains frustratingly elusive.
Thewlis has always been one of those actors who seems more than a little uncomfortable in his body, as if he doesn’t quite know what to do with those extra inches (he stands 6 foot, two inches tall). This slight discomfort with his height is part of what made him such a natural fit for the character of Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films. After all, as a reluctant werewolf, Lupin is also a stranger in his own body, and his performance allows him to come across as a man deeply empathetic and inclined to mercy, compassion, and love.
In Fargo, by contrast, Thewlis’s awkward physicality makes his Varga into a far more unsettling character than his predecessors (as wonderful as Billy Bob Thornton and Bokeem Woodbine were in their iterations of evil incarnate). It’s not just that he can dispense death with a careless wave of his hand (though that is true). It’s that he’s the type of man who seems to be playing a game with the world, and only he recognizes that it is a game. Thus, only he knows the rules and can manipulate them to his own advantage.
It’s more than that, though. There’s a visceral and unsettling physicality to Thewlis’ performance in the role. The presence of Varga’s body is inescapable and, at times, even a bit unruly, as when we see him gorging himself on ice cream in a bathroom stall, or when he is shown picking his teeth and gums until they bleed. His body is deeply paradoxical, for while Varga is able to control so many other aspects of his life — including, for the most part, how he appears to the outside world — it also is the one thing that sometimes slips and reveals vulnerability.
Even when he tries to be charming, it often comes across as feigned, at least to those of us in the audience who know him for what he truly is. Yet what makes him so utterly entrancing as a character is that he is so utterly convincing. When he repeatedly tells Emmit and Sy that reality is only what we make of us, those of us living in an era of fake news and deep fakes and conspiracy theories can’t help but wonder if he has a point. The world really is a dark, dangerous, and unknowable, and Varga is the living embodiment of it. We see so much of him, and yet by the end of the season we know as little about him — if not less — than we did at the very beginning.
On the other side of the scale is Gloria Burgle, portrayed by Carrie Coon. From the moment that she appears, Gloria operates as Varga’s opposite in every way. Whereas he seeks to slip through the cracks of the legal system, Gloria believes in it, despite the fact that her investigations are thwarted by the higher-ups. However, she has a steely determination that allows her to see things through to the end, no matter the consequences. She’s far more of a hardboiled character than any that we’ve seen in the series before, and it’s a refreshing change.
In season one, Allison Tolman’s Molly was marked by her earnestness, but also by a certain toughness. Nevertheless, one couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she was young and green, just starting to find her legs as the cop she could be. And, while season two had some space for women characters — most notably Kirsten Dunst’s Peggy and Jean Smart’s Floyd Gerhardt, both of whom turned in truly extraordinary performances — for the most part it was a man’s story, led by Luke Wilson’s Hank.
This is where Gloria Burgle comes in. More perhaps than any other character that Fargo has yet produced, Burgle seems out of place in the world in which she lives before any of the crimes have been committed. Automatic doors don’t open for her, and motion sensor soap dispensers don’t either. What’s more, seems flummoxed by everything about the 21st Century, whether that’s electronic devices — she seems pathologically averse to anything having to do with a computer — or relationships. Though she seems totally okay with her ex-husband’s decision to leave her for another man, late in the season she betrays some measure of confusion about why it happened and how much it disrupted the way that she thought her life was going to go.
Through it all, she conveys a sense of almost excessive earnestness. She takes her job as a mother to her son very seriously and, of course, her duties as a member of the police. There is a hard determination to her, an insistence on engaging with the world on its own terms, even though those terms are so alien to her own sensibility and way of looking at the world. Coon’s brilliance as an a actress lies in her ability to make the most out of every single part of her body. Her uniform becomes, in that sense, almost a suit of armor, almost effacing all external signs of her gender.
More than all of that, though, she uses her face to riveting effect.
There are very few actors working in television today who make the most of their face. Fortunately, Coon isn’t one of those. She exploits every single moment that the camera lingers on her, conveying a wide range of emotion. Most of the time, of course, it conveys Burgle’s inner sense that, no matter what others might say — whether that’s her boss in the police department, Emmit, or Vargo — she is going to relentless pursue the truth to the very end. There’s a steely resoluteness there that bespeaks Gloria’s adherence to a set of principles that, to people like Varga seems both outdated and useless.
There are, however, some moments of genuine softness, moments that make the most of Coon’s range as an actress. Her encounters with her son are some of the tenderest in the series, a reminder that there are very real stakes to her continued pursuit of these crimes. She wants to make a world that is safe for him, one in which people like Varga aren’t allowed to slaughter people with impunity or, perhaps to be more accurate, she wants to return the world to an older model of how justice worked. It’s unclear exactly when that period was, but it’s unclear that it ever really existed. That doesn’t make Burgle’s desire for it any less intense or, for some people, any less understandable.
When, at the end of the season, she faces Varga as an agent of Homeland Security, it’s a moment when these two stellar performances clash with one another, and the energy between them is as intense and terrifying as a lightning storm. Watching Coon and Thewlis sparring with one another in that spare cell is to see a veteran and a relative newcomer, each of them at the top of their game in terms of performance. It’s also a clash of the radically opposite philosophies that these performances embody. The fact that it ends in a stalemate, with no clear resolution as to who will win, is a perfect distillation of our current moment, when we all seem suspended in uncertainty.
While Thewlis and Coon are by far the standouts in this season, this isn’t to suggest that the performances turned in by everyone else aren’t also truly stunning. Each of the actors in this season, from Ewan McGregor to Stuhlbarg and everyone in between, brings their A game. All of them, in one way or another, capture and convey the unsettling sense that they are people who are in way over their head, people who, though they struggle to get out of the situations they land in, find themselves unable to do so.
Thus, it’s worth noting, too, that this is by far the most pessimistic — one might even go so far as to say nihilistic — season so far. In the first two seasons we were allowed to emerge from the ending with the feeling that at least some measure of order and justice had prevailed. Now, however, we truly don’t know who is right. Will Varga be vindicated when a person higher up in the government comes in to demand that he be released, or does Burgle have one more ace up her sleeve, one more thing that she can use to ensure that she at last bring him to justice and make sure that he pays for his crimes? The power of their performances is that, right up until the very end, we truly don’t know.
It’s a chilling reminder of our own perilous moment.