“The future is certain and when it comes you will know, without question, your place in the world.” —V.M. Varga
In the final, deliberately ambiguous scene of Fargo season three — and, maybe, the last scene ever of Fargo — the immediate future is anything but certain. V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), the gnarly-toothed villain, is seated opposite Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), now an agent for the Department of Homeland Security, in an interrogation room. He insists to Gloria that in two minutes, a man “you can’t argue with” is going to come in and tell Varga he’s free to go. Gloria disagrees. She insists that, very soon, Varga will be taken to Rikers Island, where he will be charged with felony money laundering and attempted murder, and that all this will happen while still leaving her plenty of time to hit the state fair on Saturday with her son and enjoy a deep-fried Snickers.
The camera then pans to the doors through which the men who will either liberate Varga or imprison him will presumably enter. But the episode ends before either series of events can occur, leaving us to make our own assumptions about what will happen next.
That conclusion invites the audience to decide whether the universe bends toward justice or injustice, a question that always hangs over the proceedings in Fargo. But I also think it raises another question, about what place a woman in law enforcement has in this Fargo world, and whether she can ever fully, without caveat, own and exercise her power.
In the Coen brothers movie that inspired Noah Hawley’s FX adaptation, Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson is already in charge. As the Brainerd police chief, she immediately establishes herself as the kind of sturdy Midwesterner who’s unflappable, keenly observant, and more than capable of uncovering the truth and rooting out the bad guys. Yes, she has to deal with some stupid men while trying to get the job done — the dim and deceitful Jerry Lundegaard, as well as her sad, mentally unstable old high-school friend Mike Yanagita, who, for the record, claims to be living in Eden Prairie. But she’s able to pursue leads and do her work without a superior trying to stand in her way.
That is not the case for the two female cops in the TV version of Fargo, season one’s Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and season three’s Gloria Burgle. (There is no female police officer at the center of season two, so that’s being left out of the discussion.)
While attempting to get to the bottom of the dead bodies piling up around Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), Molly frequently butts heads with her new police chief, played by Bob Odenkirk, whose instincts are never aligned with Molly’s far more correct ones about the case. By the end of the season, Molly’s detective skills have been proven and she ultimately gets promoted to chief of police in her Minnesota town, Bemidji. But unlike Marge, when it comes time to put a bullet in her bad guy, it’s her husband, Gus (Colin Hanks), who does the deed and gets a citation for bravery because of it. Molly doesn’t seem to mind. “That’s your deal,” she tells her husband. “I get to be chief.” Still, it’s hard to watch the way things wrap up in season one and not conclude that even when the arc of the universe bends toward justice because a woman helped point it in that direction, she still doesn’t get the credit.
Matters for Gloria Burgle are even more dire. When season three begins, she’s still acting chief of the Eden Valley Police Department, but eventually it becomes clear that she’s going to be demoted and serve under the new chief, Moe Dammik (Shea Whigham), a guy who cannot accurately be described without using the word asshat. He’s initially rude and insensitive toward Gloria, but as the investigation into the murder of Gloria’s stepfather progresses and expands into something larger, he becomes a total obstructionist, forcing her to release key witnesses even when they’ve just confessed to murder.
Gloria’s impotence is emphasized even further throughout the season by her difficulties with technology. Cell phones won’t work for her, automated bathroom faucets won’t produce water in her presence, and automatic doors simply won’t open, no matter how wildly she waves her arms in front of them. “I’m here, right?” she says to her partner while flailing in front of the entrance to the police station. “You see me?” These are the same questions many women often ask themselves when their voices are spoken over during board meetings, or when their bosses ignore their suggestions, only to later champion the same ideas when a man proposes them.
By the end of the season, though, it appears Gloria finally has been seen and respected, mainly by St. Cloud police officer Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval), who reassures her that her work has value, and by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango. Nikki puts Gloria’s name on that stack of incriminating Stussy Lots tax documents and gives them to the IRS, knowing that if IRS agent Larue Dollard reaches out to her, Gloria will be there in a jiff to help connect all the dots. In a moment of automated sink triumph, Gloria finally even manages to get some actual water out of a touchless restroom faucet.
That’s why I find it hard to watch that last scene without concluding that it’s a moment of triumph for Gloria, confirmation that she not only captured the bad guy, but outsmarted and outlasted all the ones, like Moe, who once made her feel invisible.
When compared with the endings of the film Fargo and season one of Fargo, there’s something notably different about the last moments in season three. In the movie, Marge settles in happily at home for an evening with her husband while at the end of season one, the final image is of Molly, now as pregnant as Marge was in the original Fargo, on the couch with her family, watching Deal or No Deal. These women may be canny, skilled enforcers of the law. But these scenes suggest that their top priority and primary happiness comes from domesticity and being with their loved ones.
When we see Gloria for the last time, she’s not in her home, although she does refer to her upcoming plans with her son. No, she’s on the job, because that’s what matters to her nearly as much as her child. She’s positioned in the scene to be isolated and independent; she sits on one side of the table and faces the horrible, sleazy Varga, with no backup other than the confidence that this time, unlike back in Eden Valley, her colleagues and superiors are going to have her back.
Prior to the closing shot on that door, the last thing we see is a close-up of Gloria, with a knowing smile creeping across her face. That’s a pretty big tell, too. Without question, it seems, this woman now knows her place in the universe. She knows it’s going to be Rikers for this bulimic bullying criminal and deep-fried Snickers for her. She just knows, and I’m inclined to believe her. Because, no matter what they have to put up with to prove it, there’s one thing that always true when it comes to Fargo: The woman wearing a badge is always, always right.