The new season of Fargo might be the most Fargo that Fargo has ever been. Last year’s installment of Noah Hawley’s imaginative communion with the films of Joel and Ethan Coen was a big crime saga with a sprawling cast that functioned as historical allegory about capitalism and spiritual malaise in the dawn of the Reagan era. Also, there were UFOs. His new story dials back the scale, at least to start. It’s a more intimate neo-noir about desperate people doing dumb things for dubious reasons, triggering a cascade of consequences for a widening array of people. In plot and tone, the premiere strongly evokes the 1996 classic by the Coen brothers that inspires the show’s wintry milieu and chilly themes, more so than previous installments. But there are conspicuous differences, too, and in them might lie much meaning, although I’m wary of drawing too many conclusions: FX is only supplying critics with one episode for review. But I can tell you the premiere, airing April 19, is fantastic.
Fittingly, the folly of assumption and presumption are among the key ideas that frame the story. The strange and gripping opening sequence is set in another time and another frigid place far away, involving characters we may or may not see ever again, that may or may not have anything to do with anything. It takes the form of an interrogation, and from the start, based on certain cultural signifiers, you’re tempted to sympathize with the interrogated rather than the interrogator — an innocent is being railroaded by higher powers in a upside-down world. But as the scene plays out, the interrogator continues to apply his heat, the interrogated grows nervous and actually starts to thaw (we see rivulet of water leaking from his snow-crusted shoes and stream down a drain), I wasn’t quite sure what or who to trust. The prologue captures your imagination for complexity, paradox and the nature of truth. An agent of unjust authority can still do good. A victim of oppression can still be capable of evil. Love is universal. So is self-deception. Murder, too. The scene knocks you off balance, but in doing so, it provides orientation for what follows.
The story proper scoots ahead a few years to 2010, where two brothers driven by the American dream of ‘makin’ it’ are about to enter a defining chapter of a long sibling rivalry. Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) is a wealthy businessman – “the parking lot king of Minnesota,” a success story of modern capitalism – a golden boy with wavy hair and a klieg light smile and gaudy taste. He smacks of phoniness; we’re suspicious of his wealth. How did he really make his money? His slightly younger brother, Ray, is also played by McGregor, but looks nothing like him, at least not anymore. He’s a balding, pudgy civil servant – a parole officer – who struggles with cash flow. He drives a cranky, “Wash Me”-filthy little red Corvette, a vehicle that speaks volumes of his dreams and ideas of manhood.
Ray has a girlfriend named Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a hot young number who has femme fatale written all over her. (Because this is Minnesota, and because of that little red Corvette, and because I have a dirty mind, I wondered if Nikki was a Prince wink, one of many.) We’re immediately skeptical about this relationship; we’re not sure what it says about either of them. Yep, Ray is her parole officer, and no, this doesn’t flatter him as an ethical being, especially being a lawman. But maybe she’s the one manipulating and scamming him? Because surely a woman this young and hot would have zero interest in a man this used up and ugly, right? Still, they have a sweet rapport, and by premiere’s end, you trust it. They play competitive bridge as a team. They take candlelit baths together while counting their meager winnings. They do other things together, too. Mersh. And shudder.
Ray wants to marry Nikki but he needs money to buy a ring. He asks Emmit for a loan, but Emmit says no for many reasons, not all of them bad. We can’t tell if Emmit is looking out for his brother and himself, or if he’s just an asshole and an enemy of love. Ray feels entitled to Emmit’s generosity. The seething, Biblical enmity dates back to childhood and concerns a matter of a rare, valuable stamp. It once belonged to Ray. It now belongs to Emmit. Ray thinks he was swindled. Emmit thinks he obtained it fair and square. I found myself taking a side in this disagreement – and then I stopped to wonder why, remembering the parable of the opening scene.
Anyway, the plot of the season is set in motion when Ray – desperate to get that ring and pissed at his brother — coerces another parolee in his charge, a scraggy stoner named Maurice (Scoot McNairy), to steal that stamp. Complications ensue, culminating with an image that ranks among the most gruesome and hilarious things you’ll see on any screen this year. Poised to bring justice to this mad, fallen world – maybe – is this season’s designated law-bringer, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), chief of police of the ironically named Eden Valley. She mirrors the Stussy brothers in that she, too, is partly defined by a relationship with a significant other, albeit one no longer in the picture: Gloria is newly divorced. She’s raising a boy who’s wedded to his phone, she’s a resentful caretaker to a step-dad who’s got some ugliness in him, but more depth than she knows. There’s jadedness in her, and we worry about that, and when Stussy chaos hits close to home, we worry about what form of “justice” she’ll pursue.
Hawley, who wrote and directed the premiere, crafts a cool, taut, precisely styled hour of darkly comic neo-noir that stands in contrast to the delirious, subjective sensationalism of his other show, Legion. In fact, coming so soon after it, the Fargo premiere is refreshingly simple and plays like an act of creative throat-clearing. Hawley confidently creates bold, haunting, images: a long shot that watches Ray’s Corvette zoom across the screen, looking tiny against the backdrop of the vast frigid wasteland of Minnesota in the winter; cutaways to surreal close-ups of Maurice howling and growling in his stupid stupor as he executes his doomed mission. In Fargo, a pitiless moral universe, like a Road Runner cartoon, mocks wily and wicked materialistic strivers of all sorts, rendering them small, foiling them with coincidence, dropping figurative anvils on their head.
The cast is superb. Winstead – on a roll of late with 10 Cloverfield Lane and BrainDead – takes it up yet another notch. Coon is commanding in her few moments in the premiere; I expect we’ll be talking more about her in the weeks to come. McGregor is out-of-the-box phenomenal. If he keeps getting material as good as the material Hawley feeds him in the premiere, this will go down as a massive triumph that deserves to trigger a McGregorssance to rival the McConaughassance of 2013. (I make the comparison not because the two actors have had similar careers – they haven’t – but because I just want awesome things for McGregor, and because my silly brain works like this: Emmit looks like Matthew McConaughey on Oscar night, a gleaming winner; Ray looks like the fugly old Rust Cohle that McConaughey played in True Detective season 1.)
Emmit and Ray are wholly realized individuals, and casting them with the same actor comes off as a meaningful choice, not a stunt. I’m reluctant to commit to what that meaning might be after just one episode, but once again, Hawley is interested in the cost of capitalist culture on our humanity, and you can see the brothers as two halves of a warring, divided self, making them a comment on our contradictory, relativistic, hypocritical attitudes regarding wealth, brotherly love and other things. (The premiere got me thinking about another show that interrogated American morals. The premiere references a character not seen, “Ermentraub.” To my pop-clogged ears, it sounds a lot like “Ehrmantraut,” as Mike Ehrmantraut of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, a disillusioned former cop turned self-loathing mob bag man, a fall made in service of a girl he loves more than anything. I’m told no connection was intended. I am slightly saddened by this. Sniff.)
Of course, Coen bros fans will see, first and foremost, Fargo in Fargo, fitting for all the twinning and mirroring. Gloria riffs on Frances McDormand’s Marge. She promises to be every bit as pragmatic and dogged and righteous, but she’s darker, more damaged. The stamp is an interesting symbol. In the film, Marge’s homebody artist hubby, Norm, makes a painting that’s chosen to be on a three-cent stamp, and he evidences jealousy that his friend’s painting was chosen for a first class stamp. Marge lovingly ventilates Norm’s puffing and corrects him. In the TV show, the stamp – a two-cent stamp depicting the myth of Sisyphus — is a similar kind of idol, indicting the uncorrected men who horde it, exploit it, chase it; like Gollum and his precious ring, like a foolish king of myth, pushing that boulder up a hill.
Emmit and Ray are reminiscent of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, the sweaty car salesman and aspiring parking lot king who tries to get himself out of a financial jam by hiring a pair of dangerously dim thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap and ransom his wife. (McNair channels both of them in his performance.) Like Jerry, Emmit and Ray are fixated on fairness, even as they massage or bend the rules to serve their interests. Jerry’s schemes are further complicated when his wife’s wealthy father, Wade, screws him in the parking lot deal. Hawley echoes this plot point, too, in a few different ways: with the stamp business; and with a subplot involving an agent of a shady, surely mob-like outfit (David Thewlis in sinister philosophical eccentric mode and rocking terrible teeth), who sandbags Emmit by revealing that the terms and obligations of a recent loan aren’t exactly what Emmit assumed or presumed it was. (Emmit also functions as an analog to Jerry’s hard-nosed father-in-law in a scene involving him and Ray. Emmit even has an all-about-the-bottom-line right-hand man, played by Coen brothers vet Michael Stuhlbarg, just as Wade had in the movie.)
A theory I’m noodling but not ready to commit to is that the new season of Fargo reflects Hawley’s own relationship to the Coen brothers. He’s Emmit, leveraging the value of someone else’s stamp to build a franchise that is truly his own, yet remains beholden to his influences and inspiration. I can go on. I probably shouldn’t. Like I said: noodling. And let me clear: I think Noah Hawley is one the most exciting storytellers working on television today, and Fargo seems poised to affirm that truth once more. A
Season 3 of Fargo premieres Wednesday, April 19 on FX.