Tea & Review: Fargo – The Law of Vacant Places

The first two seasons of Fargo, building off of the original 1996 film, meticulously established a set of recurring archetypes: the idealistic yet overwhelmed cop, the resentful loser with a dark side, the dangerous and philosophically minded outsider, and several more mythically mundane figures.

In Noah Hawley’s Coen-flavored stories, the characters embodying these archetypes have collided in unique and often shocking ways, either by destiny, happenstance, or the fact that they exist in a world governed by “truth” rather than reality. It’s even possible, If one takes the otherworldly elements of the series a bit too literally, to interpret each season’s ensemble as vessels for the same group of immortal souls, eternally trapped by their own shortcomings in some kind of cosmic tragicomedy.

In the premiere of Season Three, the glamorous parolee and competitive bridge player Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) explains to her boyfriend/PO Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) that their placing third in local bridge tournament was the result of either fate… or luck.

This seemingly throwaway line (as though such a thing even exists in Fargo) seems to be an explanation for the conceit of the show itself; everything, or at least everything Hawley’s characters experience, is either fate or luck, and the two concepts may actually be one and the same.

Take Maurice (Scoot McNairy), the stoner/career criminal hired by Ray to steal his brother Emmit’s (McGregor, again) prized and priceless stamp. Maurice, like Carl Showalter and Rye Gerhardt before him, accepts a seemingly straightforward job that ends up going terribly wrong, ultimately meeting his grisly end in the same episode in which he debuts. His death and the events that will inevitably spiral outward from his actions may have been caused by his own sheer stupidity.

But could he have known that a man named Ennis Stussy, unrelated to his mark, lived in a place called Eden Valley and happened to be the stepfather of the local police chief? Could he have found Ray’s note if he spends a little more time digging in the snow, or was some kind of higher power keeping it hidden?

Emmit, meanwhile, still exists only at the fringes of the central crime. His biggest scene in the episode involved him coming into conflict with an “investor” by the name of V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) who essentially gaslights Emmit and his lawyer Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) into entering into a partnership with his firm, echoing the first meeting between Lester Nygaard and Lorne Malvo in Season One. Emmit, however, is a successful businessman in contrast to Lester’s put-upon insurance salesman, and Varga is far from the charmer Malvo was. The souls have been reincarnated into slightly different bodies, but their trajectories are being built up to reflect each other all the same. Obviously, we have ways to go before their destinies are revealed.

This year’s lead cop, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), is like a refracted image of the Solversons, wearier and more hesitant than the heroes we’re used to. Whereas Seasons One and Two gave us traditional family units bound by tradition, Gloria is divorced and sharing custody with her gay ex-husband. She isn’t mentored by a father or father figure but beholden to an apathetic and bigoted stepfather (who doesn’t make it to the end of the episode). And more so than perhaps any of the authority figures in this universe, she feels out-of-place in the world; perhaps her soul has been assigned the wrong role.

The cat and mouse game this time around looks like it’s going to be played by Gloria and Ray/Nikki. It’s unclear where Emmit and Varga will fit, but nothing is ever simple on Fargo. Thus far, it looks like Hawley has created another tense and absurd extension of the world inadvertently created by the Coens back in ’96. And though the first two seasons were more clearly connected to one another, this one is a more obvious successor to the film—a standalone story about a caper gone wrong.

In that sense, Season Three may not seem like the genuine article, and some might even see it as a poor imitation (both of the previous installments and the Coens’ work in general). Yet the references and call backs are so deftly woven into the narrative that they’re hardly even noticeable, acting only as garnishes atop an already-exciting setup to what will hopefully be a great season of television. Even if it doesn’t end up feeling a piece with the rest of the Fargoverse, it will in all likelihood be an entertaining forgery. After all, as the opening scene reminds us, all stories are true in one way or another.

Additional Notes:

  • Speaking of the opening scene, which may or may not is materially relevant to the actual story of the season, it brought to mind the opening of the Coen’s A Serious Man, perhaps with the intention of highlighting parallels? (Though in all likelihood, it was just a clever nod to the “true” nature of the series.)
  • Loved the Tuvan throat singing scoring the investigation of Ennis’ house. It somehow added genuine menace to a character who mostly came off as an ineffectual idiot.
  • Maurice dropping his joint in the car was definitely a nod to The Big Lebowski; where there any other obvious Coen references?
  • Nikki seems to be the only character thus far with no obvious Fargo—or even Coen—parallel, and happened to be the standout character of the episode (for me at least).

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