Quick question: At any given point during the first five minutes of Fargo‘s Season Three premiere – “The Law of Vacant Places” – did anybody else worry that FX was accidentally airing the wrong show?
After a trippy opening shot looks like a leftover from Noah Hawley’s other FX runaway-hit show Legion, we’re dropped into East Berlin circa 1988, for a scene that could easily be an outtake from The Americans (albeit with more deadpan comedy and less espionage). For a little while, we’re about as far from Minnesota as we can get. But as the scene plays out with hilariously Kafkaesque absurdity, it becomes clear that we’re exactly where we ought to be. We see an ordinary man face an inquisition from the police, because he happens to live in an apartment that used to belong to someone suspected of murder. A government lackey explains that in a dispute between reality and the state’s records, the paperwork always wins. Any objections would be “a story,” he says. “We’re not here to tell stories. We’re here to tell the truth.”
That’s a clever way to start this new season, for a couple of reasons. First off, just like the movie it’s based on, the TV Fargo begins every episode with a tongue-it-cheek disclaimer that everyone we’re watching is “true.” But also: Why would we have tuned in if we didn’t want to hear a story? After all, that’s what this show does best.
Following a first season that told the tale of an evil hitman and a luckless loser circa 2006, Fargo‘s second go-round jumped back to 1979 to cover the complicated saga of a great northwestern gang war. Season Three now transports us to a whole new era. The East Germans from the prologue don’t reappear. (At least not in the premiere episode; knowing this show, they may never appear again). Instead, we spend most of our time in two communities near Minneapolis circa 2010.
In the small town of Eden Valley, police chief Gloria Burgle (played by The Leftovers‘ Carrie Coon) clings to a job that’s about to be eliminated due to budget cuts. Meanwhile, in the affluent suburb of Eden Prairie, parking lot magnate Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) learns that a shady loan has inadvertently put him in partnership with a demanding criminal organization, represented by the philosophical V.M. Varga (David Thewlis). Meanwhile, Emmit’s schlubby, slightly younger brother Ray (also McGregor) spends his days gathering urine samples as a parole officer, while secretly dating one of his clients, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who’s also his bridge tournament partner.
At a party for Emmit’s wedding anniversary, Ray asks for some cash to buy an nice engagement ring; in just a few efficient minutes of screen-time, we get a lot of the brothers’ pathetic backstory. The parole officer lost out on his full inheritance because he wanted their late father’s awesome Corvette – and not his much more valuable stamp collection. The “Parking Lot King of Minnesota” won’t turn loose of the last remaining rare piece of postage, it seems. What is our resident loser Stussy supposed to do but coerce the dimmest of his dim-bulb parolees, Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy) to rob the man? Because this is Fargo, nothing goes according to plan. Through a series of coincidences, the stoned thief ends up killing Gloria’s elderly stepfather, “Pops.” And so a new sequence of casual crimes and devastating repercussions begins. Worlds will collide.
Noah Hawley, who wrote and directed this episode, tends to be inspired not just by the movie Fargo‘s people, places, and situations, but by the way its creators Joel and Ethan Coen construct plots. Hawley pays attention to the details of every character in every moment, carving little dominoes that he then puts into position to topple.
So even if “The Law of Vacant Places” weren’t so packed with incident – including a couple of murders, some tense cops-and-robbers action and one kick-ass bridge montage – it’d be a pleasure to watch just for the writing and performances in each scene, each of which have the quality of amusing little playlets. The meeting between brothers, for example, features a subtly cruel exchange wherein Emmit boasts about his daughter’s exclusive shoes-optional wedding on the beaches of Cabo San Lucas. The aside prompts his business partner Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg) to tell Ray he wasn’t invited because the event was “super high-end … don’t take offense.” Later, when Varga shows up to announce that Stussy Lots will be laundering his mob money, he comes off as befuddled and unimposing, right up to the moment when he explains what’s what. The show often doubles as a masterclass at writing dialogue where characters impart a lot of information without ever directly stating anything.
Several of the well-known actors who’ve been announced as part of this season (including Hamish Linklater, Jim Gaffigan, Shea Whigham and Fred Melamed) are still M.I.A., so there’s undoubtedly a lot more set up remaining before this year’s plot really gets chugging. In fact, one of the most potentially major moments in the premiere happens so quickly and so quietly that it’s easy to miss: Chief Burgle finds a hidden cache of old books beneath Pops’ floorboards. We’re not given any clue, as of yet, what this secret library might be, beyond seeing that one of the covers is a near-dead ringer for a piece of whittling that he gave to Gloria’s son Nathan.
Then again, Fargo rarely telegraphs what’s coming next, or clarifies what each element is meant to signify. Hawley seems to enjoy just piecing together a narrative, one chunk at a time. The point – if there is one – can wait. For now, it’s just a joy to watch an hour of television that begins inexplicably in East Germany and ends with Ray and Nikki kicking an air conditioning unit onto the head of poor, dumb Maurice. Where’s all this going? Who knows? But if this show has any one overriding theme, it’s one borrowed from another Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man: “Accept the mystery.”