Early on in the excellent new Fargo season, a down-and-out Minnesota chump makes a clumsy yet furious demand: "Are you gonna do what's right here, or are you gonna do what's right?" Bold prediction: Nobody here is going anywhere near what's right. The hotly awaited third chapter of Noah Hawley's groundbreaking FX anthology crime thriller is another snow noir in the Midwestern wastelands, full of cripplingly polite crooks just one you-betcha away from getting clubbed over the head. Everybody smells easy money – which means everybody is a target.
From its humble beginnings as a Coen Brothers tribute, Hawley's high-wire-act homage has grown into TV's most dizzyingly ambitious parable of American crime. Talk about a tough act to follow: The second season was a history-making time-travel trawl through American sleaze, from Reaganism to the mob. It was one of the greatest seasons any TV drama has ever served up – enough to make Fargo the youngest rookie to make Rolling Stone's comprehensive poll of the 100 Greatest Shows of All Time last year. It initially seemed like little more than a respectably earnest adaptation of a film classic that didn't really need refurbishing. Especially since the 1995 original film got so much of its juice from Seventies cop shows – it played out uncannily like a Columbo rerun, with Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson doubling as a deadpan Peter Falk.
That first season still looks pretty solid now, with star turns for Billy Bob Thornton and Ted Danson. (Who would have guessed Danson was gearing up for his late-game resurgence on The Good Place?) But it was really just a rehearsal for that killer second season, which broke free from the source original into somewhere new, tripping back to the end of the Carter era as Patrick Wilson's troubled 'Nam-vet cop went up against Bokeem Woodbine's out-of-town kingpin. It had career-flipping performances from Kirsten Dunst, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons and Bruce Campbell as Hollywood airhead Ronald Reagan, plucked by West Coast fat cats to serve as the nice-guy stooge in the crime of the century.
For the third chapter, Fargo takes another leap forward into the past, with a loosely linked story set in 2010. It's a not-so-distant past that looks weirdly innocent now – a time when it's still a novelty for hustlers to celebrate a successful scam by posting it on Facebook. Ewan McGregor is fantastic (and virtually unrecognizable) in his dual role as a pair of brothers with decades of bad blood between them. His Emmit Stussy is the respectable and successful big brother – a glad-handing businessman, the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, with a smile and a "what the heck" for everyone. Ray is the dirtbag Cain to his Abel – a balding parole officer and card shark with a vintage Joe Walsh grease-stache, driving a Corvette with vanity plates that say ACE HOLE. When a parking lot attendant asks for a tip, Ray sneers, "Get a real job."
Both brothers have their shady secrets. But Ray is the one with a desperate mean streak, as well as a few emotional scores to settle. McGregor hasn't had a role this nasty in years. (Between Fargo and Jude Law in The Young Pope, this is turning out to be quite a year for Britpop-era heart-throbs finally getting a grip on their American accents.) But the main attraction is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the dangerously foxy ex-con girlfriend out to get Ray into even bigger trouble. In Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, she uttered the most memorable "gulp" in film history; here, she's something to gulp about. The fact that she's sleeping with her parole officer could be construed as a warning sign in itself, and the duo is deep into the dirty world of cut-throat competitive bridge. They make a formidable pair – as she purrs to him, "You're the hand and I'm the glove." He tells her, "You're the bottle and I'm the beer." This can add up to nothing good.
Noah Hawley, hot on the heels of his surprise superhero/sci-fi triumph Legion, is on a roll here, with a lot of help from his cast. David Thewlis lurks on the margins as a mysterious English operator looking to move in on the Minnesota parking lot business, while Carrie Coon is the local divorced-mom police chief who investigates when the business gets bloody. As always, the wide-open snow-seared landscape adds to the tense atmosphere, as everyone's fumbling manners keep getting in the way of their criminal instincts. When one operator tells another, in a civilized-so-far dispute over money, "I gotta say, your math seems shaky there," it's a quiet yet ominous moment – one that sums up the dread at Fargo's dark Midwestern heart.