Fargo S03E01: The Law of Vacant Places
Director: Noah Hawley
Starring: Ewan MacGregor, Carrie Coon, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, David Thewlis
Writer: Noah Hawley
A review by Michael Walls-Kelly
The third season premiere of Fargo has a lot in common with the previous seasons and the film of the same name they’re tangentially connected to. The show deals with a lot of things: wintry midwest states, crime, quirky characters, a large helping of Coen brothers references. Mostly it’s about good people doing good things, normal people doing bad things and bad people taking advantage. The Law of Vacant Places definitely delivers on that front.
After a prologue which is basically a small, foreboding Harold Pinter play, we’re introduced to our main players of the season. The thrust of the action deals with the acrimony between two brothers, Ray and Emmit Stussy, both played by Ewan MacGregor. Emmit is a successful businessman and Ray is a parole officer. Ray wants to by his new girlfriend/parolee, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an engagement ring and he comes to Emmit for the money. We learn why Ray is so resentful of Emmit When their father passed away he left Emmit a Corvette and Ray a collection of collector stamps and the brothers traded, and the fairness of the trade is dependent on which brother you ask.
Emmit turns his brother’s request down and his focus remains on a shady business deal. A year ago — the series takes place in 2010 — Emmit got a loan from a less-than-reputable source and now that he’s doing well again he wants to pay it back. The only problem is that he and his right-hand man, Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg), can’t get ahold of anyone. Until a menacing David Thewlis shows up as V.M. Varga and sets the record straight: they didn’t give Emmit a loan, they gave him an investment.
Certainly nothing ominous about that.
We also meet Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), our Molly Solverson for this season. She’s a divorced police chief — until her department gets absorbed by a larger County — with a son and an alcoholic stepfather. Coon is a great presence in the series The Leftovers and she’s instantly likeable here. She has a steely, lived-in quality that sets her apart from Molly Solverson or the film’s Marge Gunderson.
The rest of The Law of Vacant Places plays out predictably, for better or worse. Ray blackmails a parolee, Maurice (Scoot McNairy), to break into his brother’s house and steal the last remaining stamp. Maurice obviously screws it up and ends up at the wrong house. He ties up and accidentally kills the occupant who happens to be Gloria’s stepfather.
The true showstopper at the end of the episode is when he comes back and confronts Ray and Nikki. They are celebrating placing third runner-up in a competitive bridge tournament — a complicated game and a nice, weird detail to add to the show — when Maurice barges in and demands money because everything went south. Nikki, clearly the brains of the pair, quickly devises a way to get Maurice out of the picture. They drop an air conditioning unit on his head. It’s an effective setup, connecting all of our main characters through this elaborate fuck-up and I’m interested in seeing how it’ll play out.
The centrepiece of the show is the dual performance by MacGregor. Ray and Emmit are two very different characters. Emmit has a big smile and a sleazy demeanour and Ray has all the worries of the world on his shoulders, plus a hefty helping of years of resentment. There’s a montage of Ray taking parolee’s piss tests for his job and it’s really the perfect intro into his character. Also, kudos to the makeup department for making the younger brother look older and more weathered. It was a smart choice and visually clues us into exactly where these guys are in their world and exactly what they cherish the most — Emmit and his business, Ray and Nikki — means to them.
As usual the episode is full of references to the Coen brothers filmography, both overt and subtle. There are small nods to Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski. The opening prologue is of a similar tone to the prologue in A Serious Man and represents the same kind of oppressive bureaucracy seen in The Hudsucker Proxy and Burn After Reading. The show’s look has moved away from the crisp, period-appropriate Technicolor of season two and seems to be emulating a hazy, wintry look like Inside Llewyn Davis.
The premiere was putting all of our players in place and setting up a grisly crime for things to revolve around. I enjoyed the characters and am excited to see Ray, Nikki, Emmit and Sy getting the screws put to them from the cops and Varga respectively. There’s a deep bench of great actors we haven’t even met yet, like Hamish Linklater, Shea Whigham and Fred Melamed. They all basically have Coen brothers names already.
In the weeks to come we’ll see how the story evolves and we’ll see which of our characters are good, which are bad and which ones will make it out alive.
Will I keep watching? You betcha! The premiere was a fun, stylish set up and Noah Hawley has earned my faith with his work on Legion as well as the previous two seasons. This episode felt a little less urgent than the premieres of season one and two, but that’s almost certainly due to the high expectations and familiarity with the style. I have faith in Hawley and I have faith in the fantastic cast he’s collected — including Coen brother film alumnis like Stuhlbarg and Thewlis — so I’ll be seeing this season through no matter what.