Call it Minnesota drag. I’ve been trying to come up with a good way to describe why I enjoy watching Fargo as much as I do, even when an episode (like tonight’s season-three premiere) doesn’t do much more than putter. Honestly? I think it’s the shtick. It’s an inarguably cheap thrill, but watching familiar faces spout out “eh?s” and “Aw jeezes” in their softer-side-of-Sears outfits while trudging through an endless wasteland of white always gives me a thrill. There’s something soothing about it, in a way I can never quite pin down. Maybe it’s the feeling of familiarity and newness all at once, of seeing well-worn tropes (the down-on-his-luck asshole, the righteous cop, the businessman in over his head with some bad folks, the femme fatale) rearranged in new scenarios. I don’t know how deep it is, but I can’t deny the charm.
Still, depth might turn out to be an issue this year. I’ll fully admit to falling for the show’s novelty in its first season, seeing rich metaphors in its acidic take on the male antihero drama that’s dominated prestige television for so long; and I thought last season’s broader scope and willingness to indulge the surreal represented a laudable step forward. But I’ve never been entirely able to shake the show’s critics, many of whom accuse Hawley of using a kind of high-grade fan service to distract audiences from what is, at heart, a pretty empty series. Emptiness can work for a while, if it’s well-made emptiness—the prettier something is, the more willing we are to fill in the void with our own assumptions.
Eventually, though, the bill comes due. It’s too soon to tell if the show’s third installment will be the camelback straw, but while “The Law Of Vacant Places” is not a bad premiere, it’s also not a particularly inspired one. Apart from stunt-casting Ewan McGregor as feuding twin brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy, pretty much everything that happens in this first hour and change is something that the show has already done, right down to the shocking violence that will serve as an inciting incident for the rest of the season. The acting is solid, the style is as delightful as ever—although is it pushing? A bit? Maybe. Shows develop their own language over time, and “mundane activity scored and filmed in a way to make it both ironic and operatic” is to Fargo what “running down the beach in slow motion” was to Baywatch.
The problem, I think, is that the inciting incident here, while tragic and awful and all that, doesn’t have the same jolt as it usually does. We’re three seasons in now, and the show has us well-trained to expect someone (or someones) to die horribly around the 45-minute mark, attracting the attention of law-enforcement and starting the slow setup of dominoes that will all tumble down seven or eight hours from now. The absurdity of seeing horrific violence in a rural setting has lost whatever power to shock it might once have had. At this point, you show us people in parkas falling over themselves to be polite, and we automatically expect bad shit to go down.
As Fargo is an anthology series, each new installment begins with introducing us to a new cast, and setting up as many potential conflicts as possible. There’s nothing inherently wrong with what we see in “The Law Of Vacant Places,” and the episode manages to establish fairly quickly who’s at odds with whom, and suggest possible ways this could all go badly for everyone. Ray Stussy, a balding parole officer who spends his days listening to people even dumber than he is and checking their urine for drugs, is jealous of his brother Emmit’s success in the parking-lot business—apparently there was a question of a will, and some stamps, and a Corvette, and Ray has pinned all the frustrations of his dead-end life on who ended up with what. He’s helped in this by his girlfriend, parolee Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has ambitions of her own. Neither of them are exactly geniuses (although Nikki is the sharper of the two), and when Ray blackmails another one of his parolees into trying to steal back “his” stamp, things go bad almost immediately.
Unbeknownst to Ray, Emmit has his own problems: namely that he borrowed money from organized crime, and when he decided it was time to pay that money back, organized crime had other ideas. Last year, war broke out between a local gang and the syndicate when a housewife got ambitions; this year, it looks like Ray’s fumblings are going to put pressure and a spotlight on his brother at the worst possible time. It’s hard to say exactly how that will play out, but V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), the man sent to explain some things to Emmit and his second in command (Sy Feltz, played by Michael Stuhlbarg), will surely have a hand in it. He’s exactly the sort of professional creepy type who makes everything worse.
Representing the calm center of the storm is Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle, local police chief, mom, and general all-around wonderful person. It’s a mark in Coon’s favor that Gloria is at once instantly recognizable and instantly appealing; her low-key sanity is as necessary as it is expected, and the grounded nature of her performance helped generate some of the episode’s only real emotion. While no one here is doing anything new, the cast is good across the board. If nothing else, it would be worth watching just to see a bunch of talented people make the most of their goofy dialogue. Ewan McGregor gets the showiest part as the two brothers; while the makeup does most of the heavy lifting for him, Emmit and Ray do come across as distinct people, and the casting goes a long way toward connecting them as twins.
What remains to be seen is if the season will find some way to make their relationship more than just a novelty. There’s a lot of quirk in this first hour, from a seemingly unrelated cold open set 22 years ago in East Berlin (the “present” for season three is 2010), to Nikki’s love of competitive bridge, to the pair of genre novels (The Dungeon Lurk, Planet Wym) Gloria finds hidden in a box in her dead stepdad’s house. Oh right, the dead stepdad: The idiot who Ray gets to steal the stamp loses the directions to Emmit’s house, ends up at the wrong place, and murders the guy he finds there when said guy isn’t forthcoming with information—said guy also just so happening to be Ennis, Gloria’s stepfather. Nikki manages to off Maurice when he tries to get money out of Ray, but it’s doubtful things will end there. There is a whole season to fill, after all.
But like I was saying, there’s a lot of quirk here, as there always is, but not much else. I was largely entertained watching “The Law Of Vacant Places,” but I found my attention wandering. That’s the danger of giving us too much of what we want, maybe—without some tension, without something we don’t expect, we start to take things for granted. (I guess “we” means “I” here, please enjoy my megalomania.) Even if the first two seasons of the show were simply greatest-hits pastiche of great movies, at least there was enough meat left on the bones to make a meal. One episode in, and this latest installment already feels a bit like microwaving whatever’s left and hoping for the best.
- The cold open was a nicely creepy bit of oddness. Presumably “Yuri Gurka” will be relevant down the line.
- So far, I can’t see how this season connects with the previous two. I’m sure it will at some point, so that’s something to look out for.
- I wonder if Ennis was a writer? The rocket ship statuette Gloria picks up in his house looked a bit like a Hugo Award.
- Small detail: Gloria is divorced, and her ex-husband is dating a man named Dale. They all seem to be on good terms, which is nice.
- The murder-by-air-conditioner scene is funny, but also weirdly suspense-free, despite Nikki’s frantic counting and Maurice’s meandering trip down the stairs. The counting, which initially makes Nikki seem like some kind of dark genius, is essentially meaningless, given that they wait until they see Maurice on the sidewalk before kicking the A/C unit out the window. The whole thing takes too long as well. It’s as though it’s so improbable that the plan could work that the improbability makes it a certainty, which robs the sequence of its tension.