My Totally Definitive Ranking of Fargo Seasons 1-5

So I’ve been watching Fargo since its first episode in 2014. I like the movie well enough, but I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with it. But the offbeat combination of Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton got me to watch the premiere of the FX TV show. And I’m so glad I did. Fargo sucked me right in and still holds me rapt all this time later. 

Like American Horror Story, each season of Fargo is its own contained story. You may see older or younger versions of characters from other seasons, but you don’t have to watch in a specific order. And also like AHS, no two people will agree on where each season ranks. For the fun of it, here’s where all of them, including the just-concluded fifth season, land on my personal scorecard, ranked from lowest to highest. 

Will there be spoilers in the following piece? Yah, you betcha. Don’t read if you don’t want to know. 

#5: Season 3. Maybe it’s just me. This season had an outstanding cast—Ewan McGregor in a double role as the Stussy brothers, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Carrie Coon. It had a larger than life villain in David Thewlis’s V. M. Varga. It had the show’s usual flights into surrealism and the supernatural, plus Noah Hawley’s impeccable musical taste. 

He’s crushing your head–oh right, Dave Foley won’t show up for a couple more seasons.

And yet it never grabbed me. My favorite part was when Mr. Wrench, a deaf hitman from Season 1, made a surprise appearance and joined the cast later in the season. And I enjoyed Ray Wise’s appearances as Paul Marrane. But other than that, I didn’t love it the way other viewers do. I didn’t find either Stussy brother terribly interesting (nor do I get why they needed to be played by the same actor); they were both unpleasant, greedy people it was impossible for me to root for. A lot of fans love Varga, but not me. He’s a disgusting man in every sense of the word, and I never enjoyed watching him. 

And bah, that ending. I hope the ambiguous conclusion trend The Sopranos started is over. Making someone sit through an entire season just to give them no real resolution is nonsense.  

#4: Season 4. This is probably Fargo’s least popular season, but I liked it more than a lot of the show’s fans. Is it flawless? No. Its tale of dueling crime families, set in 1950, is sprawling and unfocused. When you’re dealing with equally ruthless crime syndicates, it’s hard to find someone to root for. There was no hero cop figure this time around; they’re mostly as bad as the crooks in this installment. And maybe having someone to cheer for wasn’t even the point of this season—but what was? 

I haven’t seen Chris Rock in too many dramatic roles; I thought he was fine here.

However, I enjoyed Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, the smart and inquisitive teenager who serves as something of a moral voice in the story. And I adored Ben Whishaw’s Rabbi Milligan. Jessie Buckley’s homicidal nurse Oraetta Mayflower was both terrifying and hilarious in an “OMG, she did NOT just say that” way. Jason Schwartzman was great as Josto Fadda, who’s in no way ready to take over his father’s organization but has to do so anyhow. And I enjoyed Chris Rock in a rare dramatic role as Loy Cannon. 

Also, I figured out who Loy’s son Satchel was going to grow up to be way before the show made it obvious. Given that the character he becomes is one of my all-time Fargo favorites, maybe it’s coloring my opinion of the season. But still, don’t let the general negative opinion of this one in Fargo fandom deter you if you’re curious. 

#3: Season 5. After two uneven seasons, Five felt like a return to form. Some detractors whined about “woke shit,” where “woke shit” is apparently the message that beating women is wrong. But who cares what people like that think? The story was tight (maybe a little too tight at times—I might have liked more subplots about some of the peripheral characters), the stakes were high and clear, and every character in the main cast was watchable and compelling. This season was basically an alternate-universe retelling of the movie Fargo, only this time the used car salesman’s wife is the main character—and she’s one hell of a fighter. And her husband is a good and decent man rather than the pathetic, cowardly criminal played by William Macy in the movie. Her ex-husband, on the other hand…

Juno Temple is fantastic as Dot Lyon, the housewife fighting like a tiger to escape the reach of her abusive ex-husband. Confession time: I’ve never seen Mad Men, so I’ve only seen Jon Hamm playing villains. His sheriff Roy Tillman might be his most chilling performance yet, maybe because America is overrun with real-life Tillmans at the moment. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Dave Foley are a great team as Dot’s vicious debt collector mother-in-law Lorraine and her trusty lawyer Danish Graves. Richa Moorjani is the alt-universe Marge Gunderson, except that her husband is a useless piece of shit. (At least she’s not having his child, thank goodness.) Joe Keery makes Tillman’s useless failson Gator far more compelling than such a character has any right to be; the scared, abused child inside him is never far from the surface no matter how much of an asshole he’s being. And Lamorne Morris broke my heart as Witt Farr, the kind, decent police officer determined to rescue Dot to pay her back for saving his life in the premiere. Debt and its payment are a huge theme of the season.

Yeah, this is the guy everyone is going to remember most from this season.

Even with all that high-powered talent, the character everyone was talking about the day after the season finale was Sam Spruell’s Ole Munch (pronounced Oo-lah Moonk, if you were wondering). He is clearly in the tradition of taciturn, menacing Coen Brothers villains like Gaear Grimsrud from the movie Fargo and No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, and early in the season it appeared he’d be the same archetype and nothing more. Then his storyline took an A24-style turn and went to places I never expected. I’m not going to spoil the role he plays in the last two episodes, but he kept things fresh and unpredictable. And, dare I say it…heartwarming?

(If you saw my breathless theory about what might happen in Season Five’s finale, yeah, I was dead wrong. C’est la vie.)

#2: Season 2. From here on out, you cannot go wrong with this show. Plenty of fans rank Season Two, a prequel of sorts to the first season, as the best. And I don’t blame them. This was a tough, tough call. 

Mike Milligan, one of my all-time Fargo favorites.

I can’t list all the great actors in this season, set in 1979, because this entry would be far too long. The highlights: Jean Smart’s Floyd Gerhardt becomes the interim head of the squabbling Gerhardt crime family when her husband Otto has a stroke. Bokeem Woodbine is absolutely brilliant as Mike Milligan, a member of the Kansas City crime syndicate that swoops in on the Gerhardts when they become aware Otto is incapacitated. Zahn McClarnon’s Hanzee Dent eventually turns out to be treacherous and dangerous, but the racism he’s subjected to as a Native American makes him a layered, complex villain. Kirsten Dunst’s dippy housewife Peggy accidentally gets involved in the criminal wars via a hit and run, causing even more chaos. And Patrick Wilson is police officer Lou Solverson, who has to figure out this whole mess. It’s a great story, well-acted and well-told. If it weren’t for one thing, I might have put it first. 

#1: Season 1. This is brilliant television, perhaps one of my favorite seasons of any show ever. Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard is like William Macy’s Jerry Lundergaard if he’d been far more conniving—and lucky. The more Lester gets away with, the worse he gets. Alison Tolman is Molly Solverson, a police officer like her dad Lou. She figures out something’s rotten in Bemidji way before everyone else does, but she can’t get anyone to listen to her because the officers in this small town simply can’t believe the odd, quiet little fella they grew up with could do what she’s claiming. Colin Hanks’s fellow cop Gus Grimly starts a partnership and an adorable romance with Molly. Keith Carradine’s elderly Lou Solverson is a man who knows exactly what evil some people are capable of, and it shows in every minute of his performance. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are FBI agents who end up being sent to Bemidji and finally validate Molly’s suspicions. 

Okay, then. I’ll wait for the next elevator.

But this season belongs to Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. Even after all this time, Malvo is Fargo’s gold standard villain, and he’s the reason I ranked this season first. I’d call him a man, but I’m not convinced this character is entirely human. Malvo is whip-smart, charismatic, and often hilariously funny, especially when he’s dealing with Bemidji’s dimmer residents. But underneath the silky-smooth veneer, he is a creature of sheer burning malevolence, so vicious and remorseless he’d have the likes of Anton Chigurh saying “Whoa, sorry I bothered you, friendo—forget the coin toss, I’ll just be on my way now.” He’s compulsively watchable and a huge part of why Season 1 drew me right in. 

And there you have it. If you’ve never seen the show, I highly recommend it; it doesn’t get anything like the attention I think it deserves. You’ll have to roll with things like UFOs and the occasional 500-year-old man steering storylines. But if you can handle that, even the weaker seasons of Fargo are better than 90% of what’s on TV.

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