Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley says the show, at its core, is about what people do for money, a theme that's encapsulated in a short monologue delivered by goodhearted police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in the Coen Brothers' 1996 movie that inspired Hawley's anthology series.
In the scene, Gunderson has just arrested nihilistic criminal-for-hire Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), bringing his killing spree to an end. As she's driving back to the police station, she thinks out loud about why the stone-faced killer did what he did, and she can't comprehend it.
"So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd," she says. "And for what? For a little bit of money? There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."
That little bit sums up a major thread that runs through much of the Coen Brothers' work — greed destroys people's humanity. And living in a capitalist society where money matters more than anything else causes desperate people to do unethical, even monstrous things to get ahead or even just maintain their place.
In 2008 and the years after, that idea was very real for hundreds of millions of people around the globe, as the world was plunged into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. People lost their houses, life savings went up in smoke, and entire nations defaulted on their debts. It was a time of desperation and financial misery, largely brought on by greedy banks selling dreams to people who just wanted more for themselves.
Fargo Season 3 is set in Minnesota in 2010, four years after Season 1, and follows Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor), a wealthy businessman, and his resentful brother Ray (also McGregor), a barely-hanging-on parole officer who wants what his brother has.
"Our first year was set in 2006, which was before the big global event of our time, which was the financial crash in 2008," Hawley told reporters during a conference call last week. "So 2006 was the sort of salad days of America, and then 2010 was the aftermath and the struggle of everyone to get back to prosperity. And I thought it was interesting if one of the characters is a real estate magnate who's the Parking Lot King of Minnesota. What were those last two years like for him? What did he have to do to survive this financial collapse?"
In the show, in order to keep his company afloat and maintain his respected place in society, Emmit Stussy took out a loan from someone he shouldn't have. By 2010, he's recovered enough that he can pay the loan back — but then he finds out that it wasn't a loan, it was an investment.
Hawley said that idea led him to the character of V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), whose character description says he's a "true capitalist." Varga, in the grand tradition of Fargo's (and the Coens') unnerving sociopathic villains, is a cultured, philosophical creep with rotten teeth and a willingness to commit violence to ensure order. He is greed personified.
"I thought that was interesting, that our crime story wasn't just about Ray and Emmit, that there was this larger element that Varga represents that you'll see unfolding over the year," said Hawley. All of the difficult moral choices the characters are faced with are complicated by Varga and his ruthless wealth.
The setting gives Season 3 of Fargo a very real sense of desperation, like the issue of money is life and death. Because it was, and it still is for a lot of people. There are a number of themes in Season 3 that touch on problems of contemporary life, like the slippery definition of truth and how social media has changed the way people in isolated areas live. But the exploration of greed is the most resonant, since greed is always topical.
Fargo Season 3 premieres Wednesday, April 19 at 10/9c.