‘Fargo’ Season 3 Premiere: Brothers, Who Art Thou?

Season 3, Episode 1: ‘The Law of Vacant Places’

Let’s start with a long — though by no means comprehensive — list of Coen Brothers references in the Season 3 premiere of “Fargo”:

• The repeated use of the word “vouch” in the first scene with Emmit Stussy and Sy Feltz recalls Shep Proudfoot in the film version of “Fargo,” who is very specific about the men for whom he could and could not vouch.

• Sy is an analog for Wade Gustafson, the right-hand man of Jerry Lundegaard’s father in the Coens’ “Fargo.” Sy is also a nod to Sy Ableman, a character from the Coens’ “A Serious Man,” which stars Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Sy here. (To add to the confusion, Fred Melamed, who plays Sy in “A Serious Man,” is due to appear later in the season.)

• Ray Stussy covets a rare 2 cent stamp in the office of his brother, Emmit. (Both brothers are played by Ewan McGregor.) In the Coens’ “Fargo,” Norm (son of a) Gunderson has his mallard painting selected for the 3 cent stamp. His wife, Marge, reassures him that the 3 cent is more consequential than he thinks. Perhaps, but not nearly as consequential as the 2 cent stamp here, which inspires our inciting moment.

• Emmit has made his bones with Stussy Lots, Ltd. In the original “Fargo,” Jerry has his wife kidnapped as part of a scheme to invest in a parking lot deal. There’s also an overhead shot of Ray pulling his beat-up Corvette into parking lot here, which reflects the angle of when Jerry does likewise in the film.

• The supremely stupid criminal schemes here and in the Coens’ “Fargo” are hatched in a seedy bar. In both cases, there are enough red flags on both sides that all parties should have walked away.

• The first of Maurice LeFay’s many mistakes is when he tries to flick a lit cigarette out a closed window and it ricochets into his lap, which leads to a car crash. The Dude pulled that same move first.

• Along with Stuhlbarg, David Thewlis, who played the cackling art connoisseur, Knox Harrington, in “The Big Lebowski,” are the second and third Coen movie alums to appear on the show. Billy Bob Thornton, the lead in the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” was the first.

• When Maurice goes to the wrong Stussy home — the poor Stussy’s home instead of the rich Stussy’s — it recalls “the carpet pissers” in “The Big Lebowski,” who arrive to rough up Jeff Lebowski but wind up at the Dude’s apartment instead.

• Ray’s response when learns about the violence Maurice has had to commit, “Nobody said anything about hurtin,’” mirrors the moment when Jerry Lundegaard sputters, “This was supposed to be a ‘no rough stuff’ type deal” in the Coens’ “Fargo.” (A line, incidentally, that “Breaking Bad” repurposed for the final episode of its first season.)

• Nikki’s switching back and forth between a fake panicked voice with the emergency-services operator and a calm voice off the line pays homage to Jerry when he acts his way through the call informing his father-in-law of Jerry’s wife’s disappearance in the Coens’ “Fargo.”

There’s also, of course, the link between Carrie Coon’s Gloria Burgle and the succession of competent, morally righteous, small-town law officers leading back to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the “Fargo” film. (Allison Tolman played the role in the first season of the show, Patrick Wilson in the second.) And it seems likely that the list above misses plenty of other Easter eggs that the show’s creator, Noah Hawley, who also wrote and directed the episode, has left for hard-core Coen heads to find. Has there ever been a more sustained and elaborate act of fan fiction?

The question hanging over this season of “Fargo” — and over previous seasons, for that matter — is whether it transcends fan fiction and succeeds as its own distinct entity. There’s reason to be confident Hawley will pull it off a third time, but it’s too early to tell after this premiere, which is so packed with quotation marks that there’s barely room for it to make an original statement. The cast may be the strongest yet, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead a particular standout as a femme fatale with more brain power than most of the other characters combined. Coon, Stuhlbarg, Thewlis and McGregor in his dual role are also inspired choices, and as Scoot McNairy arrives and departs as a dopey ex-con, there’s a wealth of yet-to-be-introduced character actors ready to fill the vacuum.

One cause for concern: Is the criminal behavior too stupid, even by “Fargo” standards? Granted, Jerry’s original plan in the Coens’ “Fargo” could never have worked, even if the kidnapping and ransom scheme had been flawlessly handled, because he couldn’t account for the missing Cutlass Ciera at the dealership. But Maurice’s comedy of errors — the cigarette butt in the lap, losing the note with the correct address, tearing out a page from a phone book at the gas station, killing an old man for ordinary postage stamps, tearing his clothing on the banister — is breathtaking, and Ray’s instincts are not much sharper.

What we don’t know yet is how much this ineptitude and violence will be counterbalanced by the moral weight that has made the other iterations of “Fargo” so special. That burden is likely to fall on Burgle’s capable shoulders, just as it has for the chipper authority figures in the previous versions. But the challenge for Hawley and his writers will be to give “Fargo” the soul it requires. Given Hawley’s tendency to amplify the quirks of the original film, Coon may be fighting through the headwinds of outright cartoonishness. But based on the mostly stellar previous seasons, it’s best to give him the benefit of the doubt.

3 Cent Stamps

• Starting the season in an interrogation room in 1988 East Berlin is an inspired touch. The sole connection between that scene and 2010 Minnesota is a photograph of the line of trees outside Emmit’s estate. Hawley can return to that question mark at his leisure.

• The theme of sibling rivalry isn’t present in the Coens’ “Fargo,” but it does connect this season of Hawley’s show with the previous one, which pits brother against brother (and sister) in a North Dakota crime family. In both cases, power and greed supersede family ties.

• Many a parolee has gone back to prison for playing in bridge tournaments across state lines. Classic mistake.

• Ray and Nikki are third runner-up at the regionals. “In the Olympics, that’s bronze!” Ray exclaims. Actually, Ray, it’s just off the podium.

Michael Stuhlbarg, left, and Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy in “Fargo.” Credit Chris Large/FX



FARGO: "THE LAW OF VACANT PLACES" REVIEW

At least initially, Fargo's Season 3 premiere has no ostensible story connection to the other two seasons. Because of this, it's already the most adrift season of the series. That's not to say there's no fun to be had, it's just that "The Law of Vacant Places" is, for now, noticeably untethered.

Season 1 was tied to the Coen Brothers movie, while also sporting a few characters that we meant to feel like (and even look like) iconic roles from the film, while Season 2 was connected to Season 1 by the Solverson family. Season 3 is at sea a little bit - the first Fargo run to be purely Fargo as a brand. Which also means that, perhaps, it's the most free in a way. That being said, it also starts off as the most toothless of the bunch. Sure, there's murder and foul play, but there's no cruelty at play - just bungling (which itself is a Fargo hallmark). There are no gangsters or hitmen at the start of Season 3, just bitter brothers, parolees, and ex-cons trying to make their way.

The gimmick of Season 3 is only something that could be done in a later season. Meaning, this wouldn't be the way to kick off a Fargo series. Ewan McGregor here has the cutesy task of playing twin brothers, both with different styles of prosthetic makeup - a gig that could only come after a show had established itself as being a comedically macabre "truth is stranger than fiction" style saga that often contrasts violence with bewilderment. It's as if now Fargo gets to play. Which means that it could continue to achieve amazing things or that it could go off the rails completely.

McGregor plays Emmit and Ray Stussy - brothers who, long ago, pulled opposite sized straws when it came to their family inheritance. Emmit now lives the high life while Ray toils away, in both looks and profession, wallowing in resentment. In this first chapter, "The Law of Vacant Places" (a bridge term for a method used to guess where a certain card might be), Ray is the most fleshed-out of the two. Emmit comes off like more of a caricature while Ray is given a lot more shading as the down-on-his-luck sibling who yearns to impress his beautiful and feisty fiancé, Nikki (a delightful Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

Unfortunately, Ray's desperate plot hinges on the acumen, and sobriety, of dense criminal Maurice (Scoot McNairy) and after a predictably fatal screw up -- akin to Season 2's murder mess by Kieran Culkin's Rye Gerhardt (who also bit the dust rather quickly) -- it's off to the races. Carrie Coon's cold weather cop, Gloria Burgle, is brought into the Stussy story and things start looking more and more like textbook Fargo. That's not to say that business won't pick up, but at here at the start, there's a familiarity to the oddness.

Coon stakes her claim as the "nice policewoman" of the story, though you learn right away that Gloria's someone who's faced down adversity in her life and has had to roll with more than a few punches. She's overly accommodating to her son, her crabby stepfather, and her ex-husband, but once she's on duty, she easily switches over into an authoritative mode. When finding her stepdad dead, Gloria assumes command, takes care of her boy, and heads into a potentially dangerous situation alone. We don't get much of her character here, initially, but I can't wait to spend more time with her and find out what she's all about.

Also, I wonder how long it will take for Gloria to somehow intersect with one V. M. Varga (a rotten-toothed David Thewlis) and his sinister organization. Varga was definitely the most menacing presence in this premiere, though he only delivered spare words of warning. We've only scratched the surface of whatever his story and side-plot contains, so I hope it injects the season with a bit of venom. Every other character, at this point, is trying to "do right," even if they're doing a lot of wrong so I was happy to see a monster in the mix.

Overall though, this opening bow belonged to Ray and Nikki and their unlikely pairing. From bridge tournaments to murdering people with plummeting air conditioners, these two are either on the way to the top or circling the drain. One might assumed that Nikki was the type who'd try and latch onto someone who already had their ducks in a row and because of this her devotion to Ray, who worships her, is nice and unique.

Odds and ends:

I don't know how to play bridge. Do I need to know? For one, it's a huge bonding activity for Nikki and Ray. Secondly though, because it's Fargo, we could find out at the end of the season that the entire run this year was a big metaphoric bridge game.

Was the discovery of those sci-fi books under the floorboards an indication that Season 3 will also dabble in the errant UFO? Hank's language may come in handy.

The Verdict
Fargo returned with its most standalone and gimmicky season to date, though it was still laced with humor, beauty, occasional oddities, and sideways tragedies. Many of the puzzle pieces feel familiar to the Fargo formula in this opener though that doesn't rob the show of its mirth and majesty.

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