It's been 21 years since the Coen brothers first introduced the world to North Dakota crime, Minnesota cops and just what happens when the two mix in snowy weather. Thankfully, their Oscar-winning film was just the beginning. Since the Fargo television series started delving into the same territory in 2014, watching persistent police brave the cold and try to stave off shady characters has become a regular occurrence.
Of course, part of the genius of Fargo’s TV spin-off is how it smartly follows in the same footsteps as its cinema predecessor, yet shapes its familiar components into something new. That not only includes its storylines, but its canny ability to fill its frames with just the right folks. With the third season coming to SBS, here’s the Fargo universe’s smartest casting decisions to date. If we could’ve just named every cast member, we would’ve.
It takes 33 minutes for Frances McDormand’s Brainerd chief of police, Marge Gunderson, to show up in the 1996 film, but once she does, you’ll never forget her. The role was written especially for the actress, who has been married to Joel Coen since 1984. Her performance as the friendly yet tough, seven-months-pregnant cop determined to track down the perpetrators behind a roadside murder won her the Best Actress Oscar.
William H Macy
Poor Jerry Lundergaard. You want to believe he’s a nice guy who just makes bad decisions, but the pesky fact he’s fine with paying to have his wife kidnapped isn’t easy to shake. Still, thanks to William H Macy’s Oscar-nominated performance, you never stop wishing the Minneapolis car salesman would make the right choice. Think of it less like “when terrible things happen to good people” and more like “when great actors are cast in great roles”.
When your character ends up in a wood chipper, there’s no need to worry he’ll be forgotten. Ensuring that applies to everything before his grisly demise, however, isn’t quite so simple. Well, it isn’t unless you’re Steve Buscemi as Carl Showalter. Fargo proved to be an ideal combination of his '90s niche - compulsively watchable lowlifes (Reservoir Dogs and Con Air) and Coen brothers films (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski).
Billy Bob Thornton
Until Fargo season one came around, a certain hard-drinking, constantly swearing Father Christmas seemed like the role Billy Bob Thornton was born to play. Move over Bad Santa, because Lorne Malvo has taken your spot. In Thornton’s hands, the Nevada hitman couldn’t be more casual, whether he’s bumping off whoever crosses his path or pretending to be a dentist. That’s Thornton’s particular understated deadpan genius - and it earned him a Golden Globe.
Who could possibly step into Frances McDormand’s shoes as a kindly but no-nonsense cop trying to find out why crime has infested her hometown? Allison Tolman, that’s who. The actress only had four screen credits to her name when she entered the Fargo world. Cast among the higher profile likes of Martin Freeman, Keith Carradine and Colin Hanks, she well and truly made the part her own - and gave the TV series’ first season its persistent beating heart as well.
Key & Peele
Anyone could’ve played the minor roles of Special Agent Bill Budge and Special Agent Webb Pepper. Their names immediately inspire laughs - and while they’re pivotal to the plot, they could’ve easily faded into the background. That’s not the kind of show Fargo is, though. Casting Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as the bumbling FBI duo is one of the show’s biggest masterstrokes, with their characters clearly benefitting from the sketch comedy pair’s expert comic timing.
The last time Kirsten Dunst had a significant television role, it was in the 1999 made-for-TV movie The Devil’s Arithmetic, which uses a tattoo as inspiration to whisk a teenager back through time to the holocaust. Thankfully, her work as yearning hairdresser Peggy Blumquist is much more memorable. Peggy isn’t happy long before she accidentally runs over Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) and covers it up with her butcher husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons). But whether she’s searching for fulfilment or making absent-minded decisions after a crime, she’s a relatable small-town wife who simply wants something more from life.
At the beginning of Fargo’s second season, the Gerhardt family business is overrun by power-hungry men. But behind every man - great or otherwise - often stands a formidable woman. A fearless organised crime matriarch, Jean Smart’s Floyd Gerhardt eclipsed her squabbling sons, refusing to back down against her challengers and ruthlessly plotting to protect her family. The role also gave Smart, who already boasted Designing Women, Frasier, 24 and more on her small screen resume, a career-standout TV part.
Bokeem Woodbine has said the role of Mike Milligan felt like he’d written it for himself. Watching him throughout Fargo season two, it was easy to see why. The suave, smooth-talking Kansas City hitman sent to deal with the Gerhardt family proved an absolute delight. Although he had been acting since 1993, like season one’s Allison Tolman, he became the show’s next wild card - attracting less fanfare for his initial casting, then not only holding his own but stealing every scene he was in.
Two Ewan McGregors. Season three of Fargo hasn’t begun yet, but casting McGregor not once but twice has already caused quite a splash - and understandably so. More McGregor is always a good thing, and if anyone is up to the task of playing vastly dissimilar siblings Emmit and Ray Stussy, it’s the acclaimed Scottish actor. Just try not to miss him when he’s not on screen.
Quality, not quantity, marks Carrie Coon’s onscreen credits to date. Her first film role was in David Fincher’s Gone Girl and her first multiple-episode TV part came as one of the leads in The Leftovers. Coon’s stellar work in both is enough to ensure her casting as Fargo’s third season cop Gloria Burgle is something everyone should look forward to. On both the big and small screens, Fargo has quite the knack for filling that kind of character, after all.
An all new season 4 Fargo story will premiere with two weeks of double episodes, beginning 8.30pm Thursday 8 October on SBS. Episodes will continue weekly at 9.30pm from Thursday 22 October. New episodes will be available at SBS On Demand each week on the same day as broadcast.
Relive the first three standalone seasons of Fargo now at SBS On Demand.
Watch the first episode of season 3 at SBS On Demand right here: