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The first two seasons of Fargo have arguably been the best of any show in their time span. Inspired by the Coen brothers movie of the same name, Fargo’s mix of humor, crime, snappy dialogue, exaggerated Minnesota accents, and strong plots centered around murders in small towns has been an unqualified success. It’s the show which landed Noah Hawley carte blanche for the weirdness of Legion.
Am I excited for season 3? You bet ya.
Spoilers for 3×01 “The Law of Vacant Places” below
Season 3 kicks off in East Berlin in 1988. Yeah, what? A man is brought in and accused of murdering his girlfriend. Only he insists he is not the man they are looking for. The man interrogating him counters all his protests by talking about evidence vs. words and such. It’s an interesting scene disconnected from everything following and seems like a bit of fun about the “This is a true story” tag before each episode.
Speaking of, Fargo again lets the audience know “This is a true story” as the episode transitions to Minnesota in 2010. We’re off to the races and I’m giddy.
At the 25th anniversary of his wedding, Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) and his lawyer meet with a man about paying back a loan. They’re ready to pay it back but can’t reach the lender. Afterwards he gives a speech about meeting his wife while his brother Ray (also played by Ewan McGregor) and his girlfriend Nikki Swango listen. Emmit’s lawyer escorts Ray upstairs for a meeting with his brother.
Ray wants a loan to buy an engagement ring for Nikki, who he met as her parole officer. Turns out Ray traded a valuable stamp collection to Emmit for a car and resents him for it. One of those stamps is on the wall. Emmit declines to give him any money. On the way home Nikki talks strategy about an upcoming card tournament out of state. Ray is reluctant because leaving the state is against her parole, but she talks him into it.
Our first look at Chief Gloria Burgle comes when she picks up her teenage son from the store he works at with his grandfather. Meanwhile Ray oversees various parolees conducting urine drug tests. He visits a man named Maurice at a bar with Maurice’s failed test report. He promises to sweep the failed test under the rug if Maurice steals the stamp from Emmit’s house. Maurice drives out to Emmit’s house (while on a phone session with a therapist) but loses the directions out the window. He half-heartedly looks for them before deciding he remembered enough to go on.
Emmit gets a call from his lawyer claiming a representative of the lender arrived to talk. The lender, named V.M. Varga, tells him the loan wasn’t a loan but an investment. It’s heavily implied his firm, Narwal, is a criminal organization which will use Emmit’s real estate company to conduct business.
On a lighter note, Gloria and her son celebrate his birthday with grandpa. The grandfather gives the son a carved figurine and we find out his father is in a relationship with another man and the grandfather is Gloria’s stepfather. Meanwhile Ray and Nikki participate in the card tournament mentioned before. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious already that Nikki is the dominant figure in their relationship.
Maurice is still on his way to Emmit’s and failing badly to remember the address. Gloria and her son leave her stepfather’s house after dinner. Maurice stops at a gas station and forcefully takes a phone book. He finds an address for a Stussy. Gloria’s stepfather notices a car pull in while he is alone. Gloria’s son notices that he left the carving back at the house, so they return for it. She finds the house ransacked and her stepfather dead. Turns out his name is Enis Stussy.
She finds a hidden compartment in the floor. A box within holds two books, one of which has a cover very similar to the carving Enis gave his grandson.
Ray and Nikki had a happier night, having come in third place at the tournament, which qualifies them for another. They celebrate in their bathtub when Maurice comes in to tell them about his “successful” robbery. He pulls a gun when Ray gets upset about his screw-up and demands they give him $5,000 or he’ll tell the cops. Nikki hurries out of the tub and loosens the air conditioner in the window. Ray knocks it out of the window when Maurice leaves the apartment building so it crushes him from above.
Nikki hurries to call 911, knowing she can sell it as an accident since she’s tried for weeks to get the air conditioner replaced. Ray hurries out of the apartment. He takes the crappy stamps Maurice stole with him, and Nikki tells him to burn them.
And finally this wonderful premiere ends with Gloria sending her son with his father so she can investigate Enis’s death. Fargo is back and in style.
This premiere was familiar to anyone who has watched Fargo’s previous two seasons or the movie inspiring them. For all Hawley’s creativity the premise is always familiar. Some down on his luck two-bit criminal needs money. He hatches a plan to get it. Things go wrong and people end up dead. That murder ties everyone else together. There’s always a sheriff, who is usually a woman.
Since each season is its own story, there’s also the need to establish who the characters are and why we should care. Imagine having to do a pilot for every season. Fargo always starts off behind other dramas for that reason. You don’t have immediate buy-in with characters from previous seasons. These premieres also have to give you a story to care about along with those characters. However excellent the previous two seasons were, you can’t help but worry whether Fargo will make you care yet again.
At this point the show has this recurring “pilot” formula down to a science. Every second of season 3’s opener did exactly the job needed to kick off another great season of a great show.
Every element of previous seasons was present; snappy dialogue, impeccable style, the unique setting and accents, and a high-powered cast nailing their roles. Having these elements in place certainly helps audiences engage with the new characters. Fargo’s quality has not come under question since some point in season 2, when everyone realized the show really was this good. Noah Hawley and company have the aesthetics down pat and just have to find the characters and story to fill in.
So how does season 3’s cast and story compare to Fargo’s storied past? So far, so good. In fact, this felt like the most Fargo-y cast and setup yet. Drama balanced with humor. Visceral violence combined with fascinating dialogue. Everyone started off disconnected and eventually tied in through Maurice’s idiocy. What’s best, all the characters popped off the screen right away for their own good reasons.
Much of this has to do with the terrific cast. Ewan McGregor’s accent might show through a little too much, but he embodied the different personalities of the Stussy brothers and Fargo’s unique style. Carrie Coon came off immediately relatable as Gloria. David Thewlis was a scene-chewing delight as V.M. Varga. Scoot McNairy gave off a wonderfully creepy “evil Dude from Big Lebowski” vibe as Maurice.
Most of all, Mary Elizabeth Winstead was the star of the episode as Ray’s girlfriend Nikki Swango. Her and McGregor’s chemistry was off the charts, lending the relationship between Ray and Nikki exactly the balance of true love and manipulation it demanded. Nikki popped off the screen much like Kirsten Dunst’s Peggy Blumquist did in season 2. Possibly more so, in fact.
You get the impression right away that Nikki is not only the brains in her relationship with Ray, but the brains which will run things throughout this season. Besides, women characters have never really been a problem for Fargo.
Of course, an actor can only work with the material they have, and Fargo excels here with its usual talent at making its characters and exaggerated Minnesota feel so real. The funny exchanges between the characters don’t just keep you entertained. They sell the personalities of these characters and the relationships between them. You notice right away just how “sympatico” Nikki and Ray are based on their reactions to things around them. You notice Carrie’s caring soul immediately, and Emmit’s shady past.
I know Fargo isn’t special in this regard, but the show has perfected this ability to introduce characters and define their personalities immediately and effectively. Each episode is packed with small moments sucking you into them.
So here we are. Ray’s attempt to steal from his brother has led to two dead bodies, including Gloria’s stepfather. He and Nikki directly murdered one of those dead bodies. Gloria will investigate. Eventually this will lead to Emmit in some capacity, which will lead to problems since he’s unwillingly under the thumb of some criminal organization.
It’s a smaller scope than season 2’s epic gang war, one more in common with Lester Nygaard’s attempts to cover up his wife’s murder in season 1. Different watchers will have different opinions on whether the smaller scope is good or bad. I preferred season 2 to season 1, but not because of scope. Hawley seemed more confident and capable, and that showed on screen. The same could very well be true of this newest season. Legion was a display of a showrunner at the top of his game, and there’s no reason not to expect Fargo will benefit from his increasingly deft touch as well.
One thing I’m sure of after this premiere; whatever my opinion after season 3 regarding the best season of Fargo, it will be one of the best seasons of television this year. With Better Call Saul, The Americans, and Fargo airing one after another over three days, I’m in TV viewer heaven.
- Nikki: “There’s a man in my bathroom.” Ray: “Let’s not jump to conclusions!” Nikki: “You saying he’s not a man or he’s not in my bathroom?”
- I also loved Ray being too distracted to take advantage of Nikki using her nakedness to distract Maurice. True love, man.
- One of the lenders being named Rick Ehrmantraut makes me crave a Better Call Saul crossover.
- The graphic nature of Maurice’s death by air conditioner worked brilliantly with the long build-up to it. I can’t think of a more Fargo death; totally horrible by darkly hilarious.
- Gloria’s shotgun while she searched her stepfather’s house was massive. It looked bigger than her.
- There was a darker palette to this episode than Fargo usually goes for. Few scenes took place in daytime or any considerable light.
- I can tell already I will root for Ray and Nikki to somehow get away with this, knowing all the while there’s no chance they do.
Images Courtesy of FX