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Billy Bob Thornton plays Lorne Malvo, a stone-faced contract killer.

Matthias Clamer/FX Canada via The Canadian Press

The other night on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah remarked, “It appears America isn’t just dealing with a deadly strain of coronavirus. It’s also dealing with a deadly strain of stupidity.”

That “stupidity” can take many forms, but often it is avarice born of the delusion that rules don’t apply to exceptional people. Or as the invitation from the channel FX to view the third season of Fargo put it eccentrically, “Prepare yourselves for the unfathomable pinheadery of pitchfork peasants with murder in their eyes.”

There was no fourth season of Fargo this year, as a portion hadn’t been completed before the pandemic shut down production. But all three seasons are on Netflix Canada and together they amount to a wintry meditation on American weaknesses. In case you need reminding, the series are only loosely connected to the original movie and knowledge of it is not necessary. Created by Noah Hawley with the full blessing of the film’s directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, the TV version makes for a beautifully cockeyed and meaningful binge-watch.

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The first season has a magical realism quality to it, all the more surreal for unfolding in the shiver-inducing Midwestern winter. There are times when you realize that central character Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a stone-faced contract killer, might not be real at all, but an emanation of the evil impulses hidden inside other characters. And there is the unsettling fact that Malvo looks vaguely like the folklore hero and lumberjack Paul Bunyan, whose statue dominates the town of Bemidji, Minn., the setting for events.

The tone can be emphatically arch, and perhaps this is why the cast is impressive. Apart from Thornton, there is British actor Martin Freeman (John Watson on Sherlock) as Lester Nygaard, a henpecked husband so ineffectual he might as well be a pantomime character. There is also Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad) as a hopelessly naive cop, Oliver Platt as a boorish supermarket magnate and Keith Carradine as a wise dad.

Malvo ignites Nygaard’s inner greed and stupidity by telling him, “Your problem is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules.” The moral compass is held by eager young cop Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman, who is wonderful), a woman who likes solving puzzles and has an innate sense of justice.

Kirsten Dunst, left, plays Peggy, a hairdresser, and Jesse Plemons, plays Ed, her gravely impassive husband.

FX

The second season, entirely unconnected, is set in the mid-1970s. Ronald Reagan – who is a player in this drama – is on the fringes and about to enter the national drama of those strange days. Minnesota State Trooper Lou (Patrick Wilson), a Vietnam vet, is a thoughtful man married to Betsy (Cristin Milioti), who is the daughter of Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson). They have a daughter named Molly, who will grow up to be Molly Solverson.

Unknown to most, there’s a gang war going on. The Kansas City mob wants in on the local crime racket run by the Gerhardt family. The Gerhardt patriarch (Canadian Michael Hogan) is incensed and promptly has a stroke. Son Rye (Kieran Culkin) wants to be a ruthless gangster and sets out to take care of things. There is a scene of horrific mayhem at an isolated Waffle Hut, the stunning centrepiece of the series.

Then there’s local hairdresser Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) and her gravely impassive husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons), who works happily at the local butcher. Peggy (superbly played by Dunst) is a stew of simmering ambitions and, you sense, her instincts will lead to appalling events.

The third season opens at the 25th wedding anniversary party of Emmit and Stella Stussy (Ewan McGregor and Linda Kash). Lurking is Emmit’s brother Ray (also played by McGregor, doing virtuoso doubling) and Ray’s sketchy-looking girlfriend, Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). As it turns out, Ray is also Nikki’s parole officer and they’ve bonded over the game of bridge. (Never has a bridge tournament been so ecstatically dramatized as it is here.)

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Ray wants money from Emmit, who made a fortune in parking lots. He doesn’t get it, so he arranges for a guy on parole, a major stoner named Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy) to act. This goes horribly, stupidly wrong. Meanwhile, Emmit has his own quandary. He got money from a dubious loan outfit, represented by an eerily cryptic Englishman, Varga (David Thewlis).

Again, the moral compass is a woman, local police chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon). Gloria’s recently divorced, her ex having declared that he’s gay. She’s not sure about her young son adapting to this situation. Gloria isn’t sure about very much, except this: There’s a difference between good and evil.

Hawley and his team made the series in and around Calgary with considerable Canadian involvement – and enormous ambition to create a heady world of dark playfulness that probes all manner of ill-advised American cravings.

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