‘Fargo’ Season 3 Premiere Recap: Threepeat

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Spring has sprung, more or less, but as I write this there’s a chill in the air. In this particular case it’s emanating from the freezer of one Ennis Stussy, a gruff old geezer who has a devoted police-chief daughter, a loving and dutiful grandson, and a name and address just close enough to that of Emmit Stussy, the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, to put him in the crosshairs of a mixed-up ex-con who’s set out to rob the wrong house. As Ennis opens his icebox to pull out one of his ubiquitous bottles of booze, cold air gusts outward visibly, while his face is lit from the lightbulb inside as if that light itself had been chilled below freezing.

GIF: FX

Later, when he’s found tied up and dead by his daughter Gloria, the static from his disconnected television set casts that same dead white light. In between, the headlights of his murderer’s shifted the spectrum toward a fiery yellow; given the Old Testament severity of Fargo’s moral palette it’s not stretching to call this an indication that Hell followed with him. All this light carries emotional and ideological significance, is what I’m saying. It doesn’t just look cool—it’s as cold as the show itself.

GIF: FX

In short, Fargo Season Three has arrived, and Noah Hawley is back on his bullshit.

After the weightless sci-fi psychedelia of Legion — a seemingly sincere but ultimately empty exercise in the superhero genre — the writer/director/showrunner has returned to the moral snowdrifts of the Upper Midwest for the third season of Fargo. The sudden chill has done him good. Legion did all sorts of rad tricks with lighting, editing, cinematography, narrative structure, and found-music pop-rock soundtracking, but for all its freneticism the end result was inert; tied to a hoary X-Men x-tended-universe story about a crazy telepathic mutant and his not-as-creepy-as-it-could-have-been psychic parasite, it felt like stagecraft rather than communication.

But as an East German interrogator puts it in the flashback (?) prologue to “The Law of Vacant Places,” Fargo S3’s season premiere, “We are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth. Understand?” This is followed by the show’s usual “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” chyron — but Hawley, directing from his own script, then fades out the word “TRUE,” and eventually leaves nothing behind but “STORY.” This is already a far more effective disquisition on the difference between “true” and “real” than a season’s worth of Legion astral-plane hallucinations, because it’s rooted (literally — the words are overlaid across a shot of bare winter trees) in places and people rather than in an ersatz examination of The Mind or what have you. No matter how much Fargo owes to the Coen Brothers’ quirk-noir classic and the rest of their black-comedy crime films (some more black than comedy, some more comedy than black), it comes down to murder — the story of human bodies and what they’re capable of doing to one another. Here, heads are far more likely to get smashed by a falling air conditioner than explored like a memory palace.

It helps, then, that these characters’ are borrowed from one of the finest casts ever assembled. Over the course of the episode we’re introduced to a film and TV buff’s dream lineup of actors, with Ewan McGregor taking top billing in the dual role of the comfortable real-estate magnate Emmit Stussy and his paunchy, balding parole-officer brother Ray. Emmit’s right-hand man is Sy Feltz, played by Michael Stuhlbarg as a combination of his intimidating Arnold Rothstein from Boardwalk Empire and his solicitous Larry Gopnik from the Coens’ A Serious Man.

GIF: FX

Ray’s nemesis is shaping up to be Chief Gloria Burgle — The Leftovers’ breakout actor Carrie Coon in a role very much in the square-jawed tradition of Patrick Wilson’s police officer from last season. Emmit and Sy are facing down a threat from the other side of the law: limey money launderer V.M. Varga, who announces a surreptitious hostile takeover of their parking-lot company via the dulcet tones of David Thewlis’s most dissolute performance since Mike Leigh’s Naked. Tossed into the mix (before he gets his brains scrambled by that air conditioner mentioned above anyway) is Halt and Catch Fire star Scoot McNairy, very clearly having a ball, as a walking disaster Maurice LeFey.

I mean jeez, when Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who typically punches several classes above the weight of whatever project she’s in, can be considered part of a show’s deep bench in her role as the cocksure convict turned professional bridge player Nikki Swango? That’s a murderer’s row, is what that is. (And Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham, A Serious Man’s Fred Melamed, and Legion’s Hamish Linklater haven’t even shown up yet!)

I still find it absolutely enthralling how Hawley has used the original Fargo as a pivot point for a whole “Songs in the Key of Coen” performance. Take the LeFey character, seemingly a one-and-done affair. In this one person Hawley has managed to create a sort of The Big Lewbowski golem who combines everything going on in that movie in a single role. LeFey is a long-haired stoner fuck-up with a cool t-shirt and a worrying tendency to drop a lit J in his lap while driving. He’s also a two-bit criminal who breaks into the wrong house and roughs up the wrong guy in a case of mistaken identity in order to kick off the action. His storyline involves a confrontation with a nude man in a bathtub, a glamorous woman standing before him in the buff, and a page torn from a notepad with an obscene illustration on it. None of this feels like cheap heat from fanservice, mind you. It’s just a deft demonstration of Hawley’s understanding of the Coens’ source material, and his ability to recombine its constituent elements in new forms like Legos.

There are also some butt shots.

And the traumatization of a child.

GIF: FX

And that East German prologue, which may or may not be connected to the main action eventually but for now serves a similar tone- and theme-setting function as the dybbuk debate scene in the shtetl at the beginning of A Serious Man. And old weird-fiction pulp magazines and televised ’50s sci-fi movies that hearken back to the UFO subplot of Season Two. And a high-stakes bridge tournament soundtracked not by a gigantic and obvious Pink Floyd hit or whatever a la Legion, but by Adriano Celentano’s 1973 internet-rock-nerd cult classic “Prisencolinensinainciusol” — a song by an Italian guy consisting solely of gibberish words that sounded like American English to him. It may not be real, but it’s true. So far, the same is true of Fargo Season Three, and naysayers can go jump in a frozen lake.

GIF: FX

Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, the Observer, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.

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