The MVPs of ‘Fargo’ Season 3

We rank the best performances of what’s possibly the final installment of the series.
By  · Published on June 22nd, 2017

We rank the best performances of what’s possibly the final installment of the series.

Another season of Fargo is over, and this one might have been the last. Season 3 definitely took a dip from Season 2 — that one was pretty much perfect and understandably couldn’t be topped and would be difficult even to match — and maybe never reached the highest levels of Season 1, either. Still, in spite of its uneven and dragging first half, Season 3 had many great moments and a lot of amazing actors who gave it their all.

This could actually be the first season of Fargo to go ignored by the major TV awards (Emmys, Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice) in the acting categories. Either way, I wanted to give them some immediate recognition. Below is a ranking of eight performers, the season’s most valuable players, plus a bonus look at two uninvolved honorees. These people, more than showrunner Noah Hawley, are why I was continually excited for each new episode of Season 3.

Obviously there are spoilers here for the whole season.

1. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Nikki Swango”)

One of the most underrated actresses working today, Winstead was also the most easily underestimated cast member of the season. As was her character. Nikki started out seeming like a opportunist just using and manipulating Ray (Ewan McGregor) for her financial gain. Maybe she was at first, but she either evolves or shows remarkable complexity in her true nature through to the finale.

Winstead, who needs to be acknowledged for the genre queen she is, handles all the femme fatale and conniving action heroine stuff perfectly, as expected. But she also navigates the emotional journey of her character, displaying multiform range from episode to episode. She turns out to be the heart of Season 3 and the main thing pulling us through the story. She has us empathically rooting for her more and more.

2. Andy Yu (“Meemo”)

From the start of Season 3, with the East Berlin flashback, we’re led to believe Yuri Gurka (Goran Bogdan) is the minion to watch. But it’s Meemo, played by Andy Yu, who is most intriguing as soon as he appears on screen. He doesn’t say much, but he constantly draws our eyes, whether he’s on the move or not. Yu is such a stealth scene stealer, we don’t always realize the mugging is happening.

Meemo is actually, surely coincidentally, a great small-screen counterpart to the title character of the new movie Baby Driver, from the constant presence of earbuds in his ears to the grace of his feet and minimal dialogue. That link doesn’t inform the appeal, it’s just a neat observation. He’d be cool anyway. This seems to be Yu’s biggest, most notable role of his career so far, and hopefully it leads to other things. At least other Hawley things. He’d fit into Legion pretty well, I think.

3. David Thewlis (“V.M. Varga”)Fargo David Thewlis

He’s no Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Season 1), but V.M. Varga is another fascinating devil for the show. He’s not easy on the eyes, mainly due to his corroded teeth, the result of his self-induced vomiting (have we ever seen a bulimic villain before?), yet we’re as compelled to watch him as his forced associates are compelled to deal with him. He’s charming and scary, as all the best baddies are.

David Thewlis is a major part of two big pieces of pop culture this summer, and what all he lacks in his Wonder Woman performance, he more than makes up for here. While Yu’s breakout performance has me hoping for more in the future, Thewlis’s has me hoping he gains new fans who go back and check out his older work, particularly Naked. Also, I want a podcast where he just tells interesting tales of history and says bewildering things about truth.

4. Carrie Coon (“Gloria Burgle”)

Coon is one the finest actresses on TV at the moment (following her reputation as one of the finest actresses on the stage; also, she’s great in Gone Girl), but Fargo wasn’t her greatest showcase. That’d be The Leftovers. She doesn’t have a whole lot to do in Fargo, at least for a while. Even when she sort of gets her own episode (“The Law of Non-Contradiction”), her policewoman character is a bit of a bore.

Not that Coon isn’t still totally watchable in the boring role. She plays this essential yet unremarkable character — who appropriately believes herself to be invisible — with finesse and affable earnestness. Also, she gives Burgle an extra something, a greater luster and confidence, in the last scene. That final moment boosts her up in rank a whole spot above where I’d have put her for the rest of the season.

5. Russell Harvard (“Mr. Wrench”)

For a while, it didn’t look like Season 3 was going to have any direct connection to the other seasons. Then, unexpectedly, Mr. Wrench (his full name being Wes Wrench) showed up next to Nikki on the prisoner transport bus. I thought it was just a cameo, a neat Easter egg for fans of the series confirming it’s still all intertwined and reminding us that Wrench survived Season 1 (and now also Season 3).

But Wrench turned out to have a bigger part, and thank goodness for that. Harvard, who like the character is deaf in real-life, infused some much-needed extra muscle into the season. He also gave us one of the sickest moments of violence of the whole series with his decapitation of DJ Qualls (“Golem”). I might have liked to see more between him and Meemo, given one is totally silent, the other mostly so, but otherwise I was very satisfied with his return.

6. Michael Stuhlbarg (“Sy Feltz”)

Poor Sy, a man of reason who wound up a victim for his conviction. Even though he starts out a total prick to Ray and Nikki and deserves some of the treatment he gets from Varga, we can’t help but feel bad for what happens to him, even before he’s put in a coma. His final shot is much sadder than what happens to Emmit immediately after. It’s Stuhlberg’s most interesting character and performance since his minor role in Steve Jobs and maybe his best since starring in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. Give this guy more juicy parts!

7. Ewan McGregor (“Emmit Stussey” and “Raymond Stussey”)

McGregor gets some points for playing two Stussey brothers (who apparently weren’t twins as was my belief early on). Emmit and Ray are two very different characters, and the actor juggles them splendidly, as they are. The problem is that they are rather cartoonish, even for this show. Neither of them, but less so Ray, worked for me as a real person within the reality of this world. They are each McGregor in a wig doing a voice, delivering most of his lines unconvincingly. Not his best performance(s), but such big portions kept him a very valuable component.

8. Mary McDonnell (“Ruby Goldfarb”)

Now for the disappointingly small portions. How do you cast McDonnell in your show and give her such a small role? When it turns out the part is possibly much bigger off screen and she plays it so well that we are able to fill in those unseen gaps, I guess. Like Coon, McDonnell really wraps up her character effectively in her final moment. And she looks amazing during that fulfilling scene, too. Can there be a Season 4 and can it center on the widow Goldfarb, aka “the so-called storage queen of The Great Lakes region”?

 Bonus: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Don Hertzfeldt

I’d love to give a special shout out to the main trio of the 1975 flashbacks (Thomas Mann, Fred Melamed, and Francesca Eastwood — whose own mother, Frances Fisher, plays her in the present), but even more than that I’d love to honor two people who had no personal involvement with Fargo but clearly influenced a memorable aspect of “The Law of Non-Contradiction.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. — whom we know Hawley to be a fan of seeing as he’s developing a show based on “Cat’s Cradle” — or more precisely his literary alter-ego, Kilgore Trout, is clearly the model for Mann’s young sci-fi author, Thaddeus Mobley (aka the future Ennis Stussey). And Don Hertzfeldt is obviously a huge influence on the design of the animated story within the episode. Homages have never been so in need of identification as these two are.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.