‘Fargo’ Season Three Begins With Twins, Card Games, And A Nasty Death

Fargo is back for a third installment. I spoke with Noah Hawley about the new cast of characters, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as they shut down a whole JCPenney so the President can try on a suit…

“And we are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth. Understand?” –Colonel Horst Lagerfeld

As Hawley notes in our interview, he likes to begin each premiere with a scene laying out some of that season’s key themes. It’s terribly early to be making assumptions about the season as a whole, but what might we gleam, thematically, from our unexpected trip to East Berlin in 1988, and for the unfortunate case of Communist bureaucracy that has gotten poor Jakob Ungerleider confused with the murderer Yuri Gurka?

Well, to begin with, this is a season of mirrored pairs and mistaken identities. At the core of that are the two Stussy brothers: elder brother Emmit, who, as the “parking lot king of Minnesota,” is rich and happy and well-coiffed; and balding, ruined younger brother Ray, whose life has seemingly been a never-ending string of disappointments from the day he talked Emmit into taking their father’s rare stamp collection (not realizing its enormous value) so that he could have dad’s sweet Corvette. But there’s also Emmit Stussy and Ennis Stussy, stepfather to Eden Valley chief of police (sort of) Gloria Burgle, who gets murdered by Ray’s parolee Maurice because his name and hometown are similar to Emmit’s, from whom he was supposed to steal the last rare stamp for Ray. And there’s the partnership of Ray and his parolee girlfriend Nikki Swango, who sits across the table from him as part of a well-oiled bridge-playing machine.

From there, we have Colonel Lagerfeld’s line above about stories versus the truth, which is also at the heart of the Stussy brothers’ estrangement: Ray has spent years telling himself a story in which he was swindled out of his inheritance, while Emmit insists the truth is that Ray begged him for the ‘Vette, and his current miserable circumstances are his own fault. And we have the various stories that Ray and Nikki tell each other about their relationship, their future career and sponsorships in bridge, and more, when we can see that he’s breaking the rules and risking his job by dating a parolee, and that Nikki’s sponsorship dreams seem about as realistic as Peggy Blumquist’s fantasies of achieving happiness through self-actualization.

And there’s also the matter of the bureaucratic nightmare that Jakob finds himself in, all because he had the bad luck to rent an apartment that at one point was occupied by the killer Yuri Gurka, and is unable to sway Colonel Lagerfeld despite obvious evidence that he is the wrong man. We don’t know much about Gloria Burgle at this stage, but she seems — like Molly and Lou Solverson before her — to be a sensible and decent police officer, yet she’s stuck in a bureaucratic circle herself as she prepares for her small-town department to be absorbed by the larger county force, which for the moment makes her a chief in title but perhaps not in power. For that matter, Emmit’s new plight with the criminal organization fronted by V.M. Varga feels as catastrophic and inescapable as Jakob’s, even though in this case Emmit and his sidekick Sy Feltz got themselves into this mess by seeking out a loan through extra-legal channels.

It’s a fun opener, even though (as I noted in last week’s review), there’s more of a feeling of mix-and-match from other Fargo characters than there was in past seasons. (The issue is also exacerbated by spending so much time with the Stussy brothers, who are well differentiated by Ewan McGregor, but not — Emmit in particular — as thrilling as major characters from earlier premieres.) There’s a current of energy running all the way from that unexpected East Berlin opening scene all the way through to Nikki perfectly timing the air conditioner to drop on Maurice, while the camera seems to be doing 360-degree loops from sidewalk to window and back. In Ray’s attempt to steal back the stamp, we have an inciting incident destined to make things a lot worse before they get better. In Varga and Nikki (who seems to see a whole new world of possibilities in her boyfriend after learning he tried to have Maurice rob Emmit), we have a couple of intriguing wild cards, and in Gloria Burgle, we have a a cop who can hopefully put all these pieces together, right after a few more of them break.

Some other thoughts:

* Gloria’s a bit in the background this time as we get to know the Stussy brothers and their associates, but a few important things to note: 1) The motion sensor on the door at Ennis’s store doesn’t notice her, even though it responds to other people going in and out; 2) As mentioned above, she’s about to lose her chief-hood, making her a kind of Molly Solverson in reverse, career-wise; and 3) Her ex-husband is now with another man, which is an adjustment for the whole family at this point.

* Halt and Catch Fire star Scoot McNairy didn’t get as much hype as some other additions to this season’s cast, but he made his presence felt as a classic Coen brothers-style dimwitted criminal, who surely would have gotten busted even if Nikki hadn’t dropped the AC unit on him.

* Sy telling Ray, “I gotta say, your math seems shaky there” can’t help evoking Marge Gunderson telling Lou she doesn’t 100 percent agree with his police work.

* Hawley says he didn’t want to let the filmmaking style of this season be too influenced by all the weird stuff he did on Legion, but the look does feel a bit more audacious, between the extreme close-up of the microphone hanging from the ceiling of Colonel Lagerfeld’s office to the camera doing a 180 at Emmit’s party to the montage of overlapping urine streams as we watch Ray drug test his parolees. Never dull to look at, that’s for sure.

* Music this week: “Kukusha” by Ural Cossacks Choir (the opening sequence), “Swing De Paris” by Django Reinhardt (Emmit’s party), “I Like It Like That” by Rebirth Brass Brand (meet Nikki Swango), “Lily of the Valley” by Don Albert (Nikki and Ray leave the party), “Crazy On You” by Heart (the Fargo main title card appears), “Moanin” by Lambert Hendricks Ross (Ray drug-testing parolees), “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” by Burl Ives (Ray at the bar), “Yellow River” by Bobby Welch (playing on Maurice’s car radio), “Prisencolinensinainciusol” by Adriano Celentano (Ray and Nikki play cards), “Osku Urug” by Radik Tyulush (Gloria searches Ennis’ house), and “S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (closing credits).

* Emmit keeps referencing a broker whose name sounds a bit like Mike Ehrmantraut’s, but I’m told the proper spelling is Ermentraub. No relation.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com