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The title of tonight’s episode, “The Principle Of Restricted Choice,” is a reference to bridge—the card game, not the spanning structures that keep cars out of rivers. I had to look it up, but put as basically as possible, it means that it’s possible to have some sense of what a player is holding by going off the cards they play. Translate that into a dramatic device, and its generalized enough that I’m not sure what element in this hour, specifically, the name is referring to. But the basic idea, that what you hold in your hand limits what you can play on the table (thus allowing a keen observer to run the odds just by keeping an eye on what you’re forced to reveal) is not a bad metaphor for how a story builds itself. We think we have choices, but really, each decision we make narrows our options: until eventually, someone calls your bluff.

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Or something. Look, I’m not up on my competitive bridge. “Principle” gives time to all the major players of the season so far, but its primary interest is in pushing the feud between Emmit and Ray to the next level. That feud has already cost one man his life, albeit in an indirect and largely unintentional fashion—but as odd as Ennis’s death was, it arguably wasn’t a definitive point-of-no-return moment. Former-chief Gloria is a sharp one, and given the dictates of convention, I’m sure she’ll be showing up on Nikki and/or Ray’s doorstep at some point. But Maurice’s horrifying ineptitude meant that the actual conflict between Ray and Emmit was still, at least in theory, in the squabble stage.

All that’s changed after tonight’s entry, and for the better. Last week looked great, but all the flash failed to entirely cover a certain lack of narrative meat. This week still looks great, but has Nikki and Ray (mostly Nikki) taking things into their own hands in a way that’s more immediately impactful. We’ve got the basics of the character introduction out of the way, and the most obvious elements of what are some fairly familiar stores: the squabbling brothers, a guy who’s being played for a dupe by a sexy ex-con, another guy who inadvertently got in over his head when he borrowed money from some questionable characters, and the laudably sane woman whose life takes a dark turn when it intersects with some of the lunatics around her.

I’m not saying any of these are bad story ideas in and of themselves, and while I criticized the show’s third season premiere for feeling too rote, I don’t automatically reject the familiar. But if you’re going to use old tropes, it’s important to find new ways to look at them, new elements that make them specifically compelling, be it odd textures or just a deeper investment in the emotional reality of the situation. My biggest fear going into this was that Noah Hawley would just lean on the easiest signifiers and let those do the work for him. Funny accents, parkas, sudden acts of violence, villains who speak with surprising eloquence on a variety of topics, that sort of thing.

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And yeah, there is that in “Principle,” but we’re also seeing more depth in everything. As mentioned, the Ray/Emmit war gets worse, with Nikki making her own play for the mysterious stamp, and then vandalizing Emmit’s study with menstrual blood and a used tampon when she can’t find what she’s looking for. There’s an excellent sense of inadvertent, Burn After Reading-style escalation here, with both brothers legitimately wanting to bury the hatchet, but unable to entirely let go. Each has a confidant (Nikki for Ray, Sy for Emmit) pushing them against their better judgment, with both Nikki and Sy being the ones to take the big escalating steps; Nikki with her creative use of the materials at hand, and Sy with his attack on Ray’s Corvette.

This is good story-building stuff, and while all of the major players involved are still caricatures, they’re starting to build up some nuance. Given the prominence it will most likely have this season, it would be nice if the Stussy brothers’ relationship didn’t come across entirely as a joke; their conflict will most likely be played for laughs until things get Serious (or, given what Maurice did already, until things get Serious Again), but if there’s some feeling behind the humor, some sense that these two really do care about each other in their own dumb ways, it’ll help make the joke tragic as well as funny, which is sort of the ideal here.

We get a better sense of just how bad a spot Emmit is in with Varga, too, as the creep immediately starts to muscle in on the parking lot king’s turf. We meet Varga’s two main thugs (one of whom, Yuria, is the presumably the charming fellow we heard about in the season’s first scene, the guy who strangled his girlfriend and was not arrested by the police) and watch them casually murder the man Emmit and Sy had tasked with investigating Varga’s background.

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There have been a few moments of outright horror on the season so far, and poor Irv Blumkin’s doomed Google search of Varga’s name is one of them—it’s funnier than the nightmare show Gloria endured when she found Ennis dead, but there’s still something unsettling about a man so powerful he can lay waste to anyone with the temerity to look for his name on the Internet. Varga is very much in the Lorne Malvo school of Fargo baddies, a dangerous monster who’s been through all of this many times before, but Thewlis brings his own seedy charm to the role.

While Emmit is being both bullied and tempted by the dark side, Gloria is struggling with her own concerns. Given that her only connection to the Stussys is Ennis’s death, her scenes are the most disconnected from the main flow of the season so far; but at the same time, Carrie Coon is such an immediately centered and compelling presence that the disconnect doesn’t matter much at all. Having a police officer serve as the calm, sane center of all the madness is standard operating procedure for the show, but Coon, doing the latest riff on Frances McDormand’s turn in the original film, makes the role her own.

Gloria digs deeper into Ennis’s box o’ stuff, finding more of those cheap sci-fi paperbacks and discovering that her dead stepdad had a secret identity as a pulp writer, one so well-regarded he actually won an award under the name Thaddeus Mobley. Out of everything we’ve learned so far this season, this development is the most striking, in part because it doesn’t immediately connect to anything else. Ennis, so far as we know, had no relation to either Ray or Emmit beyond the shared last name, and his past has no immediate connection to their fighting, or to Emmit’s trouble with Varga.

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It’s just a curious detail, one that might blossom into something more down the line. Or it might not. It might be one of those random bits Hawley likes adding in to fit under the “this is a true story” lie, a trick that was cute at first, but gets old fast. Regardless, this episode gave me a little more to care about in regards to the Stussys, and gave us all some quality time with Gloria, her jerky new boss, and her interview techniques. This may not be end up as an epic, but at least its a world I don’t mind living in for a ten hours or so.

Stray observations

  • “They glued his nose and mouth shut, are we thinking cause of death is somehow a cliffhanger?” -Gloria
  • Possible (not-so) stealth theme for the season: the danger of computers. Gloria doesn’t like ‘em, and Irv gets tossed off a parking garage because he makes the mistake of using one.
  • “Feminine hygiene deployed as a weapone.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone use a tampon on a TV show the way Nikki does here. So that’s a first.

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