Honestly, it would have been weird if the new season of Fargo didn’t start in East Berlin, more than a decade before the main action of this year’s story.
Hot off the lunatic logic of Noah Hawley’s recently wrapped first season of Legion, Fargo barrels headlong into a vignette that (so far) has no literal connection to the central story. If we’re looking for Coen parallels, I’d point to the fabulistic opening of A Serious Man, which also begins in Europe, albeit a century earlier rather than 12 years. In the prologue, a man tells his wife about how he met an acquaintance on the road and invited him over for supper. The wife informs him that the man he met has been dead for days, and the figure must have been a dybbuk, a malicious spirit that possesses corpses.
Also, it’s definitely worth noting that the lead actor of A Serious Man, Michael Stuhlbarg, is a series regular this season, as Emmit Stussy’s right-hand man, Sy Feltz.
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Considering the track record for Fargo the series, I imagine we’ll get some kind of connective tissue between poor Jacob Ungerleider and what’s happening with the Stussy brothers in 2010. (And if you’ve been paying attention to the press materials for the season, you might know why.) But if we don’t, the season opener could stand as a nice thematic aperitif. Mr. Ungerleider is taken into custody for murder. This is, of course, all a big misunderstanding. The authorities are looking for a man named Yuri Gurka, who apparently strangled his girlfriend. Two things: (1) the man in prison is Jacob Ungerleider, not Yuri Gurka, and (2) Jacob’s wife was alive when he was arrested.
While to us and Jacob Ungerleider, this seems like a clear case of mistaken identity, the East German government has a problem with that explanation. If it is the case that the wrong man was arrested, the state made an error. And in 1988 East Berlin, the state is never wrong. Thus, Jacob Ungerleider is Yuri Gurka, and he did, indeed, murder his girlfriend.
The prologue is a very clever dramatization of the message that opens every episode of Fargo. Yes, names have been changed, but this is the true story, as far as the East German government is concerned. The truth is pliable, and it can be swayed by those with power. Making the assertion that something is fact when there is no one powerful enough to hold you accountable — ahem! — can transform the statement into a version of the truth. “We are not here to tell stories,” the Stasi officer says. “We are here to tell the truth.” The show itself performs its own tongue-in-cheek take on this idea each week by stating that following is true when the audience has no way to refute it.
But enough heady philosophizing. Let’s get to the AC units crushing people!
This year’s cosmic car crash begins with brothers fighting over a stamp. The Stussy brothers (Ewan McGregor and Ewan McGregor) are at odds because of how their late father’s inheritance was split. Balding parole officer Ray, the younger brother, was originally bequeathed a stamp collection, but argued to trade his older, toothier brother, Emmit, for his inheritance, a Corvette. The Stussys made the swap, and years later, their fates have turned out quite differently. Emmit, having sold off many of the stamps, is the parking lot king, and Ray gets montages prominently featuring streams of urine. But things are turning around for the younger Stussy. He’s about to get married to a sweet girl (and excellently named parolee), Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and all he needs to make things right is a little money to buy a ring.
But finances in the Emmit Stussy household aren’t as rich as Ray’s been led to believe by the passed hor d’oeuvres and champagne flutes in the potted plants. The Stussy parking lot empire hit some bumps two years back and needed a loan. Without any legitimate banks willing to lend them the money, Emmit and Sy turned to a firm represented by a broker whose name sounds like “Ermantraub.” (Google keeps telling me it’s Ehrmantraut, as in the sulking Breaking Bad hitman Mike Ehrmantraut, but I swear I heard the b.) Now, Stussy is back in the black and ready to pay back to the money. The only problem is that the number they were given in order to contact the firm gives back nothing except for a series of clicks and buzzers.
Clicks and buzzers.
Though it at first seems like the number was a dud, the clicks and buzzers do get the signal to the firm, who appears in the form of the rat-like V.M. Varga, played by a very un-Remus Lupin David Thewlis. Also, he’s from “America.” Varga insists that the money Stussy received from his employers wasn’t a loan, but an investment. Now, that investment is about to see its returns in the form of dirty money that Stussy will launder for this nefarious corporation. Varga’s a brand of evil that the Fargo universe has yet to reckon with — planned and calculated, but greedy all the same.
We spend most of the episode’s runtime with Ray and Nikki, who apart from the burgeoning semi-professional bridge career, have been wrapped up in their own criminal scheme. After striking out with his brother, Ray enlists Maurice (beloved character actor Scoot McNairy), a parolee of his who just flunked a piss test, to go steal the remaining stamp from Emmit. Naturally, things spin out of control from there.
(If you’re looking for nods to the original film, Norm Gunderson produced paintings to be used on postage stamps. His painting of a mallard was used for a three-cent stamp, which is terrific because whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps.)
The threads of the season come together after we meet the season’s most logical hero, Gloria Burgle (peak TV first round draft pick Carrie Coon), a cop with a son, an alcoholic stepdad, and some uncertainty about her future on the force. The area in which she’s chief is being absorbed into a larger department, meaning that the title is going with the autonomy. But she’s got bigger problems on her hands.
After her son, Nathan, forgets the birthday gift Gloria’s stepdad, Ennis, gave him, the chief turns around to retrieve the figurine. The scene Gloria finds is a mess. Ennis is dead, and he left some scuff marks on the floor, reminiscent of the misfortunate deputy in No Country for Old Men. Maurice ransacked the house searching for the stamp, but he happened to miss the stash of old pulp novels hidden beneath the floorboards. (For those of you who didn’t feel compelled to pause, the books are called The Dungeon Lurk and The Planet Wyh, and no, I don’t know what they mean.) There does seem to be some larger significance to the books, however. Ennis appears to be a bit of a sci-fi nerd. When Maurice came a-knockin’, he was waking up after falling asleep in front of a UFO movie that very well may have been footage from Fargo season 2’s climactic shootout. Also, the figurine he gave Nathan looks like it was modeled off of the Dungeon Lurk cover.
This confluence of bad things might be enough to start the engine of a normal show, but Fargo‘s got one more kink to toss in. Maurice drops in on Ray and Nikki celebrating their third runner-up placing in the Wildcat Regional bridge tournament — which is bronze at the Olympics — and informs them of how the burglary went down. (The title of the episode is a reference to a bridge theory, if you want to read up.) Because a murder was necessary and Ray laid hands on Maurice, the little errand to Eden Valley is going to cost the parole officer $5,000.
That is, unless Nikki drops an AC unit on Maurice’s head first.
The sidewalk splatter is the extra twist that’s going to complicate things for whoever tries to piece this all together, just like Rye Gerhardt ending up in the windshield of Peggy Blumquist’s car. But that’s all the more fun for us, as we head back into another season of Northern naughtiness.
The premiere brought the series action back to the recent past, and with the era shift comes a feeling of familiarity. Maybe that’s why most of the episode felt like a bit of a retread. Obviously, we’ve got many, many hours to go, and the seeds of the drama — as well as the performances — are uniformly strong.
Maybe I got too used to watching Legion, and it came as a bit of shock when no one got fused into a wall.