For three seasons now, Fargo‘s heroes and villains have shared the same exaggerated upper Midwestern accent, all clipped consonants, elongated vowels and pleasant cadence. Listen closely, however, and you can hear how the show’s creator Noah Hawley has borrowed as much from David Mamet as the Coen brothers, in the way that he has his cast sputter out sentences riddled with incomplete thoughts. So it’s a credit to the writing and the acting that although the players are clearly speaking the same stop-start language, they’re easily distinguishable – especially when played by the same actor. Even if Ewan McGregor weren’t wearing different clothes and wigs as brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, it’d be clear which one was which, just by watching what they do.
In this week’s chapter – “The Principle of Restricted Choice” – the Stussy boys share a scene together at Emmit’s Eden Prairie mini-mansion, where Ray’s shown up in part to bury the hatchet. He has other goals in mind, though – namely, in distracting his sibling while his girlfriend Nikki steals the last remaining rare stamp from their dad’s collection. The two men sound the same. But Emmit’s more composed, and much shrewder. He’s the wheeler-dealer who cuts ethical corners, and can’t fully trust anyone because he himself exemplifies untrustworthiness. Ray’s rougher around the edges, and tends to live in the moment – which makes him much more gullible. At the end of their conversation, the parole officer almost forgets why he came, and goes in for a hug, briefly thinking he’s accomplished a mission of reconciliation. But then his older brother awkwardly steers him into a handshake. Because that’s who these guys are.
Plot-wise, this episode is mostly about the aftermath of what happened at the end of the season premiere. Ray’s now nervously scanning the news, wondering if anyone’s going to connect him to Maurice LeFay’s air conditioner catastrophe. Over in Eden Valley, former police chief Gloria Burgle has just had her job usurped by county Sheriff Joe Dammick (Shea Whigham), but is still sniffing around the late ex-con’s trail as she tries to find out who killed her irascible stepfather … who it turns out may have secretly written several award-wining science-fiction novels. Meanwhile, Emmit and his business partner Sy Feltz are dealing with the sudden, impertinent impositions of V.M. Varga, who’s begun treating Stussy Lots as his own property, to populate and exploit at will.
Yet with all that going on, this episode’s really more about fleshing out this season’s world and its inhabitants. And one of the best ways to get to know the Stussy brothers is to spend time with their sidekicks.
Actually, it’s not fair to call Nikki a “sidekick,” since she’s clearly behind most of the duo’s activities, from entering bridge tournaments to robbing his brother’s house. She’s cheerfully amoral, coming up with smart-sounding reasons why her fella shouldn’t fret about LeFay, who after all murdered an old man that she assumes no one will miss. (“They don’t look at those cases as much as the young ones,” she insists, adding that the Maurice’s biggest crime was, in her instantly immortal phrase, “unfathomable pinheadery.”) When Ray explains that he’s really upset because he’s never killed anybody before, she shrugs. “Life’s a journey,” Nikki casually informs him.
After our lady of the perpetual con smears a warning in her own menstrual blood onto a framed picture in Emmit’s study, she raises the ire of the brother’s legal representation/closest companion. Sy, in full don’t-fuck-with-me mode, drives all the way to St. Cloud to cut all ties with Ray – and to smash up the beta-male brother’s Corvette. He can’t act as tough, however, when Varga’s people begin moving in. The best he can do is pretend that he’s still in the loop, by urging Emmit to not to agree to anything officially (on account of, y’know, “deniability”). His reaction when the international criminal syndicate start rolling a literal truckload of documents into their new wing of the Parking Lot King’s offices: “Oh good they’re here!”
As with the Stussy gents’ little chat, the Nikki and Sy scenes this week hammer home the deeply ingrained natures of this season’s two main protagonists, and how they’re each overmatched in their own way. Our local titan of industry is just crooked enough to make the association of someone like Varga, but he’s too small-time to do much about a man who has a venerable Stussy Lots associate murdered, just because he did a nosy Google search. In one of the episode’s best scenes, Varga gives a chilling speech, explaining how the bland reliability and common human weaknesses of Minnesotans make them so much easier to deal with than volatile European kleptocrats. He lays out a bleak future for Emmit and Sy, who are going to help him cover up his illegal activities by expanding their business and becoming fake billionaires. What choice do they have? Fate has already dealt them their hand.
As for Ray, he has no idea yet what he’s in for once Gloria’s pursuit for justice – or at least some sort of answers – leads her to St. Cloud. She’s easily underestimated, coming from a town where the police station and library share a building, and where her dislike of modern technology is reciprocated by electronic devices that seem to refuse to register her presence. But it takes her less than a day to connect Ennis’ murder to the theft of a single gas station phonebook page. Guys like Ray (and the late, unlamented Maurice), take everything so personally that it fogs their judgment, which doesn’t prepare them for someone as attentive and matter-of-fact as Officer Burgle.
There’s another provocative nod to the movie Fargo here, when Emmit suggests that Sy “talk to Stan Grossman” – one of the film’s minor but pivotal characters – about building condos on one of Stussy’s under-performing lots. But the best Coens nod this week comes when Gloria lays in her bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking hard, before abruptly rising with a single word (“Right”) … just like Llewelyn Moss does in No Country for Old Men. The characters in this show talk a lot. But sometimes they say more when they shut up and just start taking action.
Previously: The Stamp Act