Noah Hawley’s Fargo once again opens under the dubious guise of being a “true story,” a subheading, perhaps the most abused in modern entertainment, which seems only to redefine the “truth” than embrace it. Yet, the episode “The Law of Vacant Places” opens with a deception, or at least convincing fiction (the very art of storytelling). Noah Hawley and the Coen brothers have used this particular subheading as a clever retrospective, ignoring the dishonest marketing ploy a “true story” annotation almost always implies.
The opening scene (which is seemingly unrelated to the main story) takes place in 1988 in East Berlin (a year before the Fall of the Wall). In the scene we see a prisoner, a military interrogator and behind them a framed image of a snow-covered landscape. After a brief interplay between the two men, the camera then focuses on the framed image (in a shot very reminiscent of Barton Fink’s “woman at the beach”). As the framed image takes center frame, it starts to come to life (like television), manifesting as Minnesota in 2010 and thus beginning Hawley’s third season of Fargo.
The previous two seasons, each one oversaw by Noah Hawley, have been met with almost unanimous acclaim, and for good reason. He not only successfully shapes a benign parody of Middle America into an engaging crime caper, but transmutes his comedy-of-manners into intelligent social commentary. Hawley seems to draw numerous inspirations from the Coen brothers (and not only Fargo), the first season effectively takes elements No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple and the second more uniquely and powerfully explores themes and concepts raised by Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing.
The third season, while consistent with the show’s themes and overall tone, is less easy to place. In the opener, we see Ewan McGregor play identical twin brothers: Emmit Stussy, an all-American success-story, and Ray Stussy, an all-American loser (and a parole officer) with a score to settle. Following a brief dispute regarding their father’s inheritance, Ray and his parolee-turned-fiancé Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, at her most inspired) conspire to rob Emmit of a rare stamp worth a small fortune (left by their deceased father). Ray proceeds to hire one of his parolees, Maurice (Scoot McNairy, cleverly typecast), to steal Emmit’s rare stamp in an effort to buy his fiancé an engagement ring.
Those familiar with 1995’s Fargo (or the previous two seasons) have probably already plotted this familiar scenario in their head; inept criminal (hired by equally inept criminal mastermind) evokes something of a Coens-y comedy-of-errors, instilled by countless of their imitators. Maurice, of course, stumbles in his task and mistakes Emmit Stussy for Ennis Stussy, a retiree living in a separate Minnesotan town. Ennis is stepfather to policewoman Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), a goodhearted small-town police officer, seemingly reincarnated from Allison Tolman and Patrick Wilson’s goodhearted small-town police officers in seasons one and two. Carrie Coon leaves a promising impression here as a woman of complex morality. (Coon herself is an actress with undeniable presence.)
In an odd turn-of-events, Emmit finds out the small loan he’d taken a few years back, ultimately responsible for his success, was actually an investment made by a shadowy (maybe criminal) organization. Its ambassador is an equally shadowy, ethnically ambiguous middleman called V.M. Varga (played by the very English David Thewlis). His appearance in the episode serves as both a looming menace and bad omen.
Despite Noah Hawley obviously having not missed a beat since his masterful second season, his third season’s opener feels almost too comfortably ritualized in Fargo’s characteristic misdirection. Character ignorance, misstep and mishap are replicated and refashioned with similar conviction to the first two seasons, but they’re more predictable this time around, nevertheless Hawley’s eye for form, his delectable taste for irony and subversiveness remain astute as ever. He also boasts intensive set of characters who keep his ideas and narrative threads compact and precise. Ewan Mcregor, sporting two vastly different physical appearances, is unrecognizable in dual roles—but his truly rigorous workmanship is highlighted in his smart, nuanced characterization. Never resorting to caricature, Hawley imparts in his characters Emmit and Ray a rich contrast of American self-determination and self-destruction, while McGregor imparts a greater humanity.
This season’s opener (“The Law of Vacant Places”) may only be a middling template for Hawley’s bold vision and intrepid style, especially compared to the explosive, revelatory openers of the first and second season (“The Crocodile’s Dilemma” & “Waiting for Dutch”). However, it’d be unwise to declare it the inferior season at this point. This opener introduces an enthralling premise and promises something even more unsettling lurking at its core, and despite employing the same tricks we’ve seen in previous seasons, the episode is ultimately salvaged by original characters and Hawley’s typically imaginative and delightfully wayward storytelling habits.