There is a quintessential Fargo moment in the first episode of the third installment of the FX series, when sexy parolee and competitive bridge player Nikki Swango looks at her balding, pot-bellied, stamp-obsessed, Corvette-driving boyfriend (and parole officer) Ray Stussy and says this: “We’re a team, you and me. Simpatico, to the point of spooky.”
If you’re obsessed with Noah Hawley’s virtuoso reimagining of Fargo as a television series, then you’ll know the key words from above are “competitive bridge player,” “stamp-obsessed,” “Corvette,” “simpatico,” “spooky” and, only to a slightly lesser extent, “Swango” and “Stussy.”
The details always matter in Fargo: the words and names and how they’re pronounced; the visually adroit use of wide shots right before the cameras dive in to see what outside influence will try to unsettle the belief systems of the locals; the raucous, upbeat music and the stoic, placid people; the overall tone, which is a dance of the quirky with the folksy, almost always ending in the deadly. These are the trademark Fargo elements that crop up each season.
It’s all here. So, too, is the “Minnesota nice” philosophy being challenged by the intrusion of evil — a disruptive force crashing into people who not only fail to see it coming, but often don’t have the worldview to fathom its very existence.
All of these are typical of Fargo, from the original Coen brothers’ movie in 1996 to the last two impressive television seasons from Hawley (who wrote the first two season-three episodes sent to critics for review, directed the first one, and just finished the mind-bending and sublime first season of Legion, also for FX).
I feel the same simpatico kinship for Fargo that Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) expresses to Ray (Ewan McGregor) in that scene in the first episode.
Much of what makes Fargo so special can be glimpsed in those first two episodes, and based on character description and the arc of this third season, I would bet the rest holds up quite nicely. I say this having ranked the show No. 1 in 2014 and No. 1 in 2015 on my year-end best television lists. There’s something about this show that continually finds its way to greatness.
Granted, Fargo‘s not for everybody. The tonal collision of quirky humor and often egregious and bloody violence is not just a miracle of balance that Hawley and company have been able to pull off twice before, it’s a concoction that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, as is the intention. And yes, the accents are always there, still annoying some people all these years later for reasons best left to them.
Getting just a mere two episodes isn’t the problem that it normally would be when it comes to properly reviewing a series. Fargo loyalists are worried about spoilers anyway (not that I would drop any), and if two previous full seasons have taught us anything it’s that, well, there will be a lot of unforeseen zigs and zags along the way.
What remains interesting about Fargo is the unparalleled zeal Hawley has for telling a story that allows for outrageous serendipity, humorous misfortune, pathos, violence, both broad and nuanced comedy, a deep exploration of familial bonds, a love of language and its confusions, an interest in local traditions, a study of the fear of change and, of course, that aforementioned obsession with what happens when evil passes through (or bubbles up from within) smaller American towns with a tight-knit social fabric and certain niceties that locals cling to almost against their better judgment when facing it.
That’s a lot to cram into a series, even one that has 10 episodes. But Fargo is nothing if not ambitious (the first 10 minutes of brilliant weirdness in season two may never be equaled, but we’ll see what the eight remaining episodes in season three conjure).
This third installment opens with a bit of institutional injustice all the way from East Berlin in 1988 — which is, yes, very Fargo — then quickly moves forward to Minnesota in 2010 and the beginning of our story, which seems pretty simple.
There are two brothers (both played by McGregor). Emmit Stussy is the “Parking Lot King of Minnesota,” and his life is pretty sweet. He’s handsome, rich, happy. A family man. And then there’s the aforementioned Ray, slightly younger but older-looking. Ray is a bit more of a sad sack, have lived his life in the shadow of Emmit.
When we meet them, it’s the 25th wedding anniversary of Emmit and Stella (Linda Kash). Ray and girlfriend Nikki look like interlopers. Emmit’s right-hand man, Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), bluntly tells Ray that he has five minutes of face time with his brother.
And here we get the first brick in whatever crazy house Fargo will eventually build this season: Years ago, depending on which brother is telling the story, Ray inherited some valuable stamps but traded them with Emmit for his red Corvette. And you know how that deal ended up for the both of them. Certain stamps are more valuable than cars, it turns out. Especially cars that age disgracefully, sound like they’re going to die when you fire them up and smash easily.
From there, well, you don’t really want to know, other than Emmit and Sy borrowed money from a shadow group and now the mysterious V.M. Varga (the hilariously toothy David Thewlis) is here not to collect so much as connect. And a super-stoner ex-con, beautifully named Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy), does a job for Ray that, like most jobs in the world of Fargo, goes sideways in a very bad way, pulling in recently divorced mother and chief of the Eden Valley Police force Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon).
Things are about to get complicated. And odd. After these two episodes, I wanted, immediately, a spinoff series for Thewlis, not just because I wanted to see him perform with those teeth but because he is, in almost every scene, riveting in the same way that Bokeem Woodbine was in season two.
There are many more characters viewers will meet in future episodes as whatever nefarious thing that’s happening in Minnesota (and probably Fargo the city, which is always the north star) reveals itself. With this cast, with this show’s history and with Hawley on such a roll, the episodes can’t come fast enough.
There are two scenes that especially stand out in the second episode for their malleable and knowing use of dialogue. Thewlis, as V.M. Varga (I’m hoping we get a revelation of what the initials are), is rolling into a barren Minnesota parking lot with a semi full of probably dangerous things, and the befuddled guard at the shack can’t keep up with Varga’s British wit or smarts. He’s trying to check the log book on who can get in the lot, and wonders if Varga’s car and the menacing black Peterbilt trailer snugly following it are together. Surveying the density before him, Varga says drolly: “Surmise.” When the guard is still befuddled, Varga says, “Because we arrived together, we are together. (Pause). Surmise.” Hawley, who is also a novelist, takes joy in the intricacies of language, and each season of Fargo stands out because of that.
Shortly after the Varga scene, McGregor as Emmit and Stuhlbarg as Sy are talking in what can best be described as that familiar Fargo patois. And you can sense that both actors are delighting in the precision of the words and how the “Minnesota nice” demeanor, in all its congenial circuitousness, hides actual clarity and intention in a conversation. Nothing is happening onscreen except for the talking, which is everything, and both actors are enjoying every spoken word.
No series since HBO’s Deadwood has been as instantly identifiable in its style of dialogue. And it’s not just the locals talking around a subject because of the disturbing parts of its center. There’s a bluntness characters use as well, like when one says in a moment of vulnerability, “I never killed anyone before,” and the retort is: “Well, me neither. Life’s a journey.”