tv review

Fargo Is Back and It’s Familiar in the Best Way

Ewan McGregor (right) in Fargo. Photo: Chris Large/FX

Like the two seasons that preceded it, the third iteration of Fargo shifts to a different time period and introduces a cavalcade of idiosyncratic new characters, yet delivers all the things one has come to expect from this limited series. Which is to say that season three features, among other things and no spoiler alert necessary: decent folk who make incredibly stupid decisions; dazzling directorial choices; intimidating heavies who roll in from out of town; misunderstandings that lead to serious crimes; a pinch of sci-fi (remember the UFOs in season two?); and Minnesota accents as thick as the snow that coats the perpetually frigid ground. There’s also a bunch of stuff about competitive bridge, though that’s not necessarily anything one would expect. Fargo: It can still surprise ya!

Actually, even though showrunner, writer, and sometime director Noah Hawley hasn’t significantly altered his storytelling tools, Fargo still delivers enough moments that — tiny spoiler alert that won’t make any sense until you watch episode one on Wednesday night — hit you on the head with little advance warning. The FX series, universally praised, particularly for its ambitious second season, may have developed its own set of identifiable tropes, some of them borrowed from the 1996 Coen brothers film that inspired it. But it is certainly not the sort of television one can watch and credibly call lazy, not when Hawley, his fellow writers and directors, and a cast of exceptional actors, including not just one but two Ewan McGregors, are making such carefully considered choices. Drama is easy; crime drama with dry humor and this many bumbling idiots is hard. But Fargo, unlike some of its protagonists, knows how to handle it all, no problem, you betcha.

As implied above, McGregor turns in a dual performance as both Emmit and Ray Stussy, siblings who, in Fargo family-rivalry tradition, have serious bad blood between them. Emmit’s the successful one with the wife, kids, megamansion, and lucrative parking-garage business, while Ray is the ethically challenged parole officer who looks like he just fell out of a scene from Starsky and Hutch. The younger, bitter brother still resents Emmit over some long-standing, perceived slight involving vintage stamps, and Ray is determined to get his hands on one of those pieces of postage that happens to be hanging on Emmit’s home-office wall. The fact that said stamp features an image of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill should signal that retrieving it may be more trouble than it’s worth. So should the fact that the person Ray initially turns to for help, a parole-violating stoner named Maurice LeFay (the hilarious Scoot McNairy), starts sentences with such phrases as, “So I know I’m the moron …” But this is the Minnesota of the Fargo universe, where some people don’t see red flags even when they’re waving violently enough to generate hurricane-level winds.

Emmit, meanwhile, has his own set of problems thanks to a loan he borrowed from an investment firm and now wants to pay back. That firm — overseen by a shady out-of-towner named V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), whose business practices seem even more crooked than his gnarly set of teeth — is less interested in accepting that repayment and more interested in “partnering” with Emmit. And yes, it appears Mr. Varga does have something illegal in mind.

Also drawn into all this business are Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Ray’s calculating girlfriend, a killer competitive-bridge player and yet another person shamelessly violating her parole; Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg), Emmit’s business partner and a man who is not shy about expressing his disdain for Ray; and, in classic Fargo tradition, an ultracompetent, no-nonsense female cop, Gloria Burgle, played with just the right level of steadiness by Carrie Coon.

Not only is this great casting, in some cases it’s even sly casting. The idea that Stuhlbarg, who had to listen to a junior rabbi explain the everyday beauty of a parking lot in the Coen brothers film A Serious Man, is now playing someone who helps run parking garages in another Coen-produced project is … well, it’s really something special.

McGregor has the most obviously showy work to do, sometimes acting opposite a scene partner who happens to be himself. He does a seamless job of shedding his Scottish accent and sliding between these very different midwestern men, one classy enough to wear “house shoes” indoors, the other the owner of an old Corvette with a license plate that reads “Ace Hole.” Of the two characters, Ray is the sleazier, more pathetic, and, therefore, more interesting one. At least in the two initial episodes, the only ones made available to critics, the Trainspotting star gets more of an opportunity to burrow into an alter ego in that role.

As the presence of the Stussy brothers suggests, a running theme on Fargo this season involves doubles and mistaken or secret identities. Perhaps to the narrative’s detriment, that theme is telegraphed so unmistakably that one can already guess what roads may be traveled in future episodes. (Until I started watching this season of Fargo, I never noticed that Winstead and Coon look an awful lot alike. That can’t possibly be a coincidence.)

A more amusing motif, and one whose reason for being is still, happily, a mystery, focuses on the clash between some of these Minnesotans and their technology. In the first episode, Emmit complains that he tried to call Varga’s investment firm multiple times and all he could hear on the line was “clicks and buzzers.” Coon’s Gloria struggles with her cell phone and, in a funny repeating visual gag, can’t get any automatic doors anywhere to open for her, no matter how hard she flaps her arms and tries to trip the sensors. “I’m here, right?” she says to a fellow cop as the doors to their police station remain stubbornly shut before her. “You see me?” Those who know Coon from The Leftovers can be forgiven for immediately assuming that Gloria suddenly departed and just doesn’t know it yet.

More than anything else, though, what makes Fargo feel like an event is the boldness of its visual style. Hawley directs episode one and, as he has before on Fargo as well as Legion, chooses to make certain moments big, cinematic, and portentous, whether it’s Gloria searching a ransacked house with a flashlit police gun to the the throaty rattle-chant of Radik Tyulush’s “Oskus Urug” or, of all things, a montage of Ray gathering urine samples from his clientele that’s set to the jazzy Lambert, Hendricks & Ross version of “Moanin’.” Seriously, you have to hand it to a show that can depict pee collection and make it really swing.

As is always the case, Fargo promises, via a title card at the beginning of each episode, that it’s telling a true story. Whether it’s true or not — hint: it’s totally not! — is beside the point. Even if some of the characters seem familiar or we recognize some of the narrative beats before they’re hit, we know from the very moment it begins that Fargo once again has a great, big story to tell us, and that means it’s time to settle in for the ride, wherever that old “Ace Hole” Corvette may take us.

Fargo Is Back and It’s Familiar in the Best Way