TV Recap: Fargo Season 3, Episode 1: "The Law of Vacant Places"
Following the second season that took viewers back 30 years to explore the roots of its predecessor, FX's Fargo is back, and more modern than ever before, taking place in December 2010.
Set approximately four years after the first season (in St. Cloud and Eden Valley, Minnesota), what unfolds in the premiere "The Law of Vacant Places" is a richly staged and unflinchingly volatile return to this television universe. Series creator Noah Hawley writes and directs this episode, putting his personal touch on from the start and giving viewers that sense of feeling that, whatever happens here, there's going to be repercussions throughout the ensuing instalments, so pay attention, dammit!
The premiere sets the stakes early on, which arise out of sibling rivalry between the Stussy brothers, Emmit (Ewan McGregor), the rich, successful, and older of the two (known as the Parking Lot King of Minnesota), and Ray (also McGregor), a pudgy, balding parole officer seen as the family outcast. Within the span of their meeting early on at Emmit's 25th wedding anniversary, lines are drawn and histories are illuminated, with Ray eventually conspiring to steal back a valuable item from their youth through unsavoury means. Of course, with this being Fargo, nothing goes right, and the help that Ray gets from felon Maurice (Scoot McNairy) ends up going south by the episode's end. But in the meantime, a lot other valuable subplots and characters are set up.
The most promising (and dreadful) of these happens midway through, as Emmit and his right-hand-man Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) are called into their offices to meet with the chilling V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), a representative from another outfit which lent Emmit $1 million dollars in the past. Rather than have him pay the money back, Varga makes it clear that he intends to be using their business for sinister, shady dealings, making him the closest thing to a villain the show has at this point. In only the span of a scene, Thewlis manages to captivate, and is surely one of the best casting acquisitions this season, but the rest of the ensemble delivers strongly even if their moments aren't as profound in driving this season's story forward. The best example of this is Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), a small-town police officer taking on the side of the law much like Alison Tolman in the show's first season and Frances McDormand in the original Coen Brothers film. A single mother with great affection for her son, she springs into action towards the end after a return trip home and quickly asserts herself with aptitude and resourcefulness. Based on the conclusion of the episode, her role in this story is about to get a lot more prominent.
But if there's anyone in "The Law of Vacant Places" who rises above the rest, it's Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the mysterious woman who is both Ray's parolee and his girlfriend, with whom he intends to hopefully marry (as evidenced by him coming to Emmit to ask for money to buy an engagement ring at the episode's start). Nikki is an expert at playing bridge, and in a sequence where she and Ray attend a regional tournament, steals the show through her confidence and swagger. If there's anything I've learned from the last two seasons of Fargo, it's that these wildcard type characters grow more central to the overarching narrative, and Nikki is no exception. It's a major plus too that Winstead is so alluring in how she plays her, no question this series has a standout femme fatale.
A reassuring start to the season with all the basic elements needed to make this worthy of its namesake (a strong and goodwilled cop, cold-hearted criminals, longstanding strife of the familial sort, and a generally frigid atmosphere), plus the familiar impetus of the Coen tradition where a solid plan goes horribly wrong, Fargo seems to be off to a good start. Rather than a retread of past storylines and character archetypes, what we seem to have here is an interesting mix of not clearly defined personalities, or at least, ones which can be more deceiving than we think. Ray is placed in a situation based on pressure that causes him to make a wrong, impactful choice, but just as well, Emmit's carelessness over an action within his professional life is coming back to get him. It's interesting to have dual protagonists of this sort where what we perceive as the hero and villain are virtually intertwined - making this third season possibly the most compelling yet.