The Law of Vacant Places
Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle.
Welcome back to the world of Fargo, a place where crime most certainly does not pay. It’s a world of funny accents, old-fashioned police work, and ordinary people behaving very badly. After a second season that surpassed all expectations, we had to wait almost 18 months for showrunner Noah Hawley’s followup. Was this season premiere worth the wait? You betcha.
Hawley opens with something of a fake-out, although fans of the Coen Brothers’ films and this series will quickly recognize that they’re in the Fargo world. Sure, it may be set in East Berlin circa 1988, but it’s a scene of mistaken identity and flawed bureaucracy — two hallmarks of the show and the films from which it cribs. It feels like a scene that could have been pulled from Burn After Reading, and we’ll soon see just how much wrong addresses and identity play into the opening arc of this season. An East German man is accused of being someone named Yuri Gurka, who just killed his girlfriend. The man denies being Yuri Gurka, much less killing anyone, noting that his wife was home when the police came to arrest him, but he’s told that for that to be right, the State would have to be wrong. And that can’t be true. It’s a beautiful overture, even in the way it includes the line, “And we are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth.” Of course, the film and each season of Fargo is a story disguised as truth.
This season’s “True Story” will take place, at least to start, in Minnesota in 2010. It centers on the story of Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor, in what is already a remarkable performance). Emmit is the “Parking Lot King of Minnesota”; his brother Ray is a down-on-his-luck probation officer. We meet Emmit with his attorney and business partner Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg). They’re speaking with a colleague about trying to give money back that they borrowed, and what first feels like stage-setting will quickly become narratively important. They’re in the black now. And they want to give back the money they borrowed, but they can’t get a hold of anyone.
The meeting was taking place at Emmit’s house on the occasion of his wife’s birthday party. The attention to detail is a thing of beauty: Even this throwaway moment has thematic resonance. Emmit gives a toast about how he met his wife — he lived in the same apartment where she once resided. She even still had a key. Notice the throughline yet? The Yuri Gurka prologue was about a man cursed by moving into a killer’s apartment, and getting addresses wrong will play a major role in the confusion and murder soon to follow.
Two of the guests at Stella Stussy’s birthday party are Ray and his girlfriend, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who we soon learn he met in his job as a P.O. They look a bit out of place. Dripping with animosity toward him, Sy lets Ray know that he’s got five minutes to talk to his brother. The meeting is not a nice one. Ray wants a vintage stamp that’s clearly valuable, as it’s mounted in a frame on Emmit’s wall. Ray plays for sympathies, but then makes his real reason for wanting the stamp: He wants to propose to Nikki, and he needs money for a ring. Don’t miss that the stamp in question is an image of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill, a story that should be familiar to fans of season two. Who will be the Sisyphus of this season?
Ray leaves his brother’s house with Nikki, but not before offering the valet a “life” tip — “Get a real job” — and revealing that his vanity license plate reads “ACE HOLE.” As Heart blares from the soundtrack, we learn that not only does Ray and Nikki’s relationship break their roles of P.O. and convict, but that they’re actually working together to make money on the competitive Bridge circuit. Raise your hand if you knew that existed. And 20 minutes in, the length of most sitcoms, we get the title credit.
Fade back in on the Red Owl Market, where we meet Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), her son, and her stepfather Ennis Stussy. The last two gentlemen work in the market, while Gloria is the local sheriff. They’ll all meet up later that night for dinner. For the last time.
Meanwhile, Ray Stussy is about to set something in motion that will ultimately get Ennis Stussy killed. It starts when he goes to meet Maurice Lefay (Scoot McNairy) at a bar called Swan’s. Maurice blew his last piss test and he’s going back to jail for stealing flat screens. (Not “allegedly” stealing.) Maurice barely blinks when Ray offers him an alternative: Break into my brother’s house and steal the stamp. McNairy is so fantastic here, conveying that brand of stupidity that can so easily cross into malevolence.
Speaking of malevolence, Emmit and Sy are about to meet the man who appears to be the true villain of season three, V.M. Varga (David Thewlis). While Maurice is driving to Emmit’s house, losing the piece of paper with Emmit’s name and address in the process, Emmit and Sy meet the man who is about to control their life. They learn that the $1 million, collateral-free loan was more of an investment than they realized. Thewlis is wonderfully slimy as Varga, saying, “Why talk about ending something that’s only just begun?” It’s too late for questions or paybacks. They have a new partner in their parking lot business, whether they like it or not.
As Maurice stumbles upon an E. Stussy living in Eden Valley (his real target lives in Eden Prairie), Gloria and her son are wrapping up dinner with the irascible old man. Grandpa made a model for his grandson, which he accidentally leaves on the table. This sends Gloria back to the house, only to find Ennis in the kitchen with an open freezer and a nose and mouth glued shut. He’s dead. She hears someone upstairs and prowls the house with her shotgun. She doesn’t find anybody, but she does find a hidden compartment in the floor with a case of science-fiction books, including one with cover art that resembles the toy model. Weird. Could this be the start of season three’s “alien” plotline, the most out-there part of season two?
Nikki and Ray are in the tub celebrating their third-runner-up finish at the Wildcat Regionals when Maurice barges in. As much as Nikki likes to talk about fate, they’re about to get a heaping handful of it. Maurice makes it clear that he went to the wrong house, especially when he pulls out a handful of average postage stamps. When Ray confronts him, he gets angry and pulls a gun, demanding $5,000 by tomorrow. Nikki senses an approach, standing up naked in the bathtub to distract him, but it doesn’t work because Ray is equally distracted. They need to do something more drastic. As Maurice leaves the apartment building, Nikki drops a 200-pound air conditioner on him, flattening him like a bug. She tells Ray to get the stamps and burn them. Cover their tracks. She’ll call the cops and say it was an accident. Two people are already dead. And the third season of Fargo is just getting started.
• This world of Fargo often works from the ripple effects of seemingly minor decisions, but think about this one: If Maurice hadn’t lit up in his car, they probably wouldn’t be peeling him off the sidewalk.
• We’ve come a long way since the fat suit, given how McGregor can do such a “revealing” bathroom scene as Ray.
• Every iteration of Fargo has featured tons of driving scenes, so I adore that this episode hinged on them, including the early convo with Ray and Nikki, the saga of doomed Maurice LeFay, and Gloria and her son.
• The episode’s music cues are incredibly diverse and some are totally bizarre, reflecting the tonal shifts of the show: “Kukushka” by Ural Cossacks Choir & Oeral Kozakkenkoor as the season opens in Berlin, “Crazy on You” by Heart as Ray and Nikki drive away in the opening scenes, “Moanin” by Lambert & Hendricks & Ross as we realize the depths of Ray’s professional tedium via slo-mo piss tests, “Prisencoilinensinainciusol” by Adriano Celentano over the Bridge game, “Oskus Urug” by Radik Tyulush as Gloria searches the house, and “S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Radcliff & the Night Sweats over the closing credits.