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John Doyle: Fargo season three is another little masterpiece of storytelling

It's not for everyone, the latest little masterpiece to arrive on the FX channel. To convey how odd it is, here's a quote from the invitation to screen the first episode: "Prepare yourselves for the 'unfathomable pinheadery' of 'pitchfork peasants with murder in their eyes.'"

It's Fargo (Wednesday, FX Canada, 10 p.m.) and as happened with the first and second season of this astonishingly good anthology series, it is a challenge to even describe the content, style, tone and ambition of the third season.

First, if anyone still has the impression that Fargo is some ham-fisted attempt to derive a weekly drama from a much-loved movie, they are utterly wrong. Screenwriter and novelist Noah Hawley takes the barest of bare bones from the Coen brothers' movie and, each season, creates a starkly original story. The setting is similar – the dream-like chill of the harsh Minnesota winter. The tone is similar – rueful comic acceptance that evil enters into the hearts of good people and then terrible things happen. Otherwise, Fargo is its own splendidly rich and textured world. And it draws some of the very best actors to it.

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This Fargo opens at the 25th wedding anniversary party of Emmit and Stella Stussy (Ewan McGregor and Linda Kash). Lurking there like the poor relative that he is, we meet Emmit's brother Ray (also played by Ewan McGregor, doing virtuoso doubling) and Ray's comely but sketchy-looking girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). As it turns out, Ray is also Nikki's parole officer and they've bonded over their devotion to the game of bridge. Yes, bridge. And never has a bridge tournament been so ecstatically dramatized as it is here.

Ray wants money from Emmit who has made a fortune in parking lots, or such. Thing is, when their dad died he left a stamp collection and a red Corvette. Ray took the car, Emmit took the stamps, some of which were rare and valuable. It was something like that, anyway.

When Ray doesn't get what he wants, he arranges for a guy on parole, a major stoner named Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy) to settle the score. This goes horribly, stupidly wrong and a series of brutally violent acts are certain to ensue. Meanwhile, Emmit has his own quandary. When his business was in trouble the year before, he got money from a dubious loan outfit. He wants to pay it back, but the lender wants to stay invested in Emmit's business. This point is made clear when an eerily cryptic Englishman named Varga (David Thewlis, who is wonderfully menacing) turns up to tell Emmit how things are going to work.

As always in Fargo, the moral compass is a woman. Here, that's local police chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon). Gloria's recently divorced, her ex having declared that he's gay and left her for a man. She's not sure about her young son adapting to this situation but, when there's a murder and then mayhem, Gloria isn't sure about much. Except this – there's a difference between good and evil.

Hawley and his team approach this season (the series is made in and around Calgary with considerable Canadian involvement) as they did the previous two – with enormous ambition to create a heady world of dark playfulness. They go to it with formidable zeal. The colours and soundtrack are a marvel to behold. The cheerful playing with language is exquisite. The gory deaths are simultaneously shocking and hilarious. There is enormous creative flair at work here and, on the evidence of the first two episodes, Fargo might once again be the best TV drama of the year. The sheer energy of it is breathtaking.

And then there's the matter of what it is all about, thematically. While it is about recklessness, it is also profoundly humane, even while there is a pervasive, deadpan pessimism. That pessimism is rooted in truths that Hawley (and the Coen brothers, who give the series their stamp of approval) holds hard – evil is random, simple miscommunication can cause heartbreak and horror; and small communities are where an amoral universe is on full display because those inside the tight community fool themselves into believing in morality. Also, women rise above men when it is necessary to do the right thing.

The off-kilter humour and nightmarish, haunting violence mean that Fargo isn't for everyone. But it is magnificent storytelling. Brace yourself and just go with the storm of "unfathomable pinheadery." It's worth it.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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