In 1996 brothers Joel and Ethan Coen released Fargo, their own dark, idiosyncratic spin on the thriller genre, which won them their first Oscar, and continues to be a staple of their robust filmography. 18 years later, the like-minded master of quirk that is Noah Hawley adapted Fargo into a critically acclaimed television series which builds off the universe created by the Coens.
An anthology series, each season tells a relatively self-contained tale that is in some way linked to another season, or indeed the Coens’ original film. The show’s narrative structure allows for a clean slate each season, which gives a generational talent like Hawley the room to make some bold decisions that ingeniously fit within the confines of Fargo’s universe, making for one of the most absorbing televisions shows around.
Given the series’ scope, intense shooting schedules in Calgary and rural Alberta, as well as Hawley’s split commitments to Legion, there have only been three seasons released since 2014. Nonetheless, each season has maintained the show’s high bar of excellence, albeit with enough variance in quality that they can be discernibly ranked.
On that note, here is how I rank each season of Fargo.
- Season 3
I begin with the latest season, and although I consider it the weakest season of Fargo thus far, it was by no means a disappointment, nor was it a weak season of television by any measure.
As has become typical of the show, Season 3 features a strong roster of richly written characters, bolstered by an impressive cast who deliver universally excellent performances.
The story too is a faithful continuation of all that had come before, even doubling down on its budding embrace of the peculiar, personified by David Thewlis’ engrossing villain V. M. Varga, and exemplified by its unexpectedly brilliant third episode ‘The Law of Non-Contradiction,’ which is essentially the series’ own Seinfeld-ian attempt at being “a show about nothing” for an episode, though it is anything but.
Though, it is difficult to say where exactly the third season falls short in comparison to the others.
Perhaps it is because the season is the least inclined to hold your hand, which even then is not necessarily a bad thing. Or maybe it’s because Carrie Coon’s Gloria, despite a wonderful performance and well-rounded characterisation, is the least interesting of Fargo’s heroes in its three seasons.
Whatever the case, what I do know is that it is a testament to Fargo’s consistent greatness if the hairs are split that thin.
- Season 1
There was a great deal of weight on the shoulders of Fargo’s debut season, not least because it was Noah Hawley’s own interpretative continuation of a beloved classic from the Coen brothers. It’s that age-old problem of being the same, but different.
As it eventually turned out, to call Fargo first season a successful adaptation would be a gross understatement.
Right from the first episode, Hawley and co. establish an overarching story that not only pays full respect to the Coens’ original material, but also sets itself apart as a beast of its own.
The most crucial element here is the sky-high standards the season set with its colourful cast of characters. Most notable among them is Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo, who is the Fargo universe’s equivalent of Anton Chigurh, only with a wry sense of humour perfectly befitting of the show’s dark comic tone.
The first season made an immediate impression on audiences and critics alike, earning numerous awards, including the show’s only two Emmy’s to date. If you’re not hooked by so much as the pilot episode, let alone the season as a whole, then you never will be.
- Season 2
Perhaps, on some subconscious level, the real reason I ranked Season 3 the lowest of the lot is because of just how tough an act Season 2 was to follow.
When you watch the likes of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, you realise that you might not be absorbing every single aspect of their thematically dense material on first watch, but you at least know that what you’re watching is something truly special. It’s that same feeling you get the first time you watch The Godfather, Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas. There is this inescapable sense of creative transcendence, which, in a nutshell, defines Fargo’s second season.
Season 2 claims the top spot because it nails each and every aspect of its production with pinpoint precision. The directing, writing, acting, cinematography and editing are near-flawless, which makes the show’s narrative expansion and overall ambition profoundly breathtaking.
And make no bones about it, Season 2 took more risks than any of the others. This relates not just to its late 1970s setting (a whole three decades before the Season 1’s timeline), but also its inclusion of a greater array of characters whilst never losing focus of its dense, expertly paced narrative. And this is all without mentioning the UFO subplot, which on paper is as bonkers as it sounds, but undeniably genius in its execution.
That is the vision of Noah Hawley.