Chris Large / FX

How Far Into Fargo-ism Does Fargo's Third Season Go?

Here we Fargo again!

It takes three data points to determine a trend. Between the Coen Brothers' 1996 film Fargo and the two seasons, to date, of the TV series it inspired, we should have enough information to predict quite a bit about Season 3, the fourth Fargo tale, which is now upon us. Every Fargo thus far has shown us a world where bad people do their worst, and ordinary people can do almost as badly...but where good and honest people still do good and honest things, usually in police uniforms. The wicked are punished (if unevenly), the righteous are rewarded (if humbly), and the best-laid plans of Minnesotans gang aft cattywompus. The proceedings will be wry and shockingly violent in equal measure. And through it all, tiny cars traverse vast stretches of frozen prairie, where an untimely engine failure can kill travelers as dead as if they were in an airplane.

So arrives Fargo's third season, with typical Midwestern deliberateness. As usual, we'll be starting with a seemingly simple setup that will inexorably turn into a total hairball. Meet brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, who aren't exactly identical, or even particularly close. Emmit presents as a happily married family man who owns a successful real estate firm, while Ray is a perpetually down-on-his-luck parole officer. As you might expect when one brother is a 2 or 3%er and the other spends his days watching ex-cons pee in plastic cups, there's some tension between them. I'm sure we'll learn more about their shared history, but for now suffice it to say that their conflict seems focused on a particularly valuable stamp that hangs on the wall of Emmit's home office. Ray blames Emmit for having cheated him out of it when they were young, while Emmit feels he's been more than generous with Ray for quite some time. For Ray, the stamp has become an emblem for everything missing from his life, so he plots to have one of his dumber parolees steal it so that he can afford to buy his girlfriend a ring. You might expect that burglary and its denouement to go badly, but you'd be wrong: it goes much worse than that. And, needless to say, there's going to be at least one murder for a quietly competent law enforcement officer from outstate Minnesota to untangle.

But this isn't the place to delve into the twists and turns the story has already taken; there will be plenty of time for that later. For now, let's triage what little we've seen of Season 3 to see how this latest installment will square with the usual tenets of the Fargo ethos. Let's run down the checklist, even though it may seem like a Fargone conclusion.

Fargo-y Element Present?
Wait, What?
Fargo seems to venture further into weirdness the longer it's a thing. The movie was of course naturally suffused with the medium-key eccentricity that is part of the Coens' DNA. The show has tried to push a little harder in that direction, and not always organically (see last season's recurring UFO theme). This season opens with a German citizen undergoing a Kafka-esque nightmare in East Berlin in 1988, which -- possibly aside from the poor arschloch's slippers -- doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything yet. But again, it's still early, and it's possible that this little vignette will prove even less relevant.
Blood On The Tundra
Most Fargos feature a violent wintertime death in the early going; there's just something about all that blood on the snow. Until now, it's been an unbroken line from Peter Stormare's roadside triple homicide to Lorne Malvo's deer collision to Rye Gerhardt dropping the Waffle Hut waitress in the ice-covered parking lot with a head shot. Early in Season 3's premiere, as Ray Stussy is talking to his girlfriend while driving, my keep your eyes on the road instinct common when I watch scenes like this was even more pronounced than usual, for this very reason. But of the episode's two deaths, both occur pretty late, only one is outside, and neither of them is out in the snow-covered sticks to provide maximum red-on-white contrast. This borders on off-brand.
Period Piece
I suspect the original film was set in 1987 more to help sell the "true story" conceit than anything else, especially since one key scene's backdrop is a Minneapolis skyscraper that didn't exist until years later. 2006 wasn't the most iconic era in which to set Season 1; the main marker was the lack of smart phones, but it was just long enough after the movie for Oliver Platt to have built a grocery empire with Steve Buscemi's ransom money. Going all the way back to 1979 for a Lou Solverson prequel in Season 2 was an ambitious move, bringing back the cars, clothes, architecture, interior design, and phone booths of that time. Now we're in Christmastime of 2010, and so far the big temporal signposts are rampant yet unremarked phubbing (which, still a thing) and Emmit Stussy's recent recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. Also, if you listen closely, you can hear Anderson Cooper on a TV in the background talking about a controversy over whether the President of the United States was a natural-born citizen. So yes, 2010 can already feel quaint.
Poached!
There's not exactly an impermeable wall between TV's Fargo and the larger Coen Cinematic Universe, in terms of performers. For instance, Tom Musgrave showed up as one of the Communists in Hail, Caesar! after playing Lester Nygaard's boss in Fargo S1. Conversely, Billy Bob Thornton played Lorne Malvo in Season 1 after headlining The Man Who Wasn't There, and True Grit's Elizabeth Marvel played Peggy's boss in Season 2. But now Season 3 has David Thewlis, who you'll remember from The Big Lebowski; and Michael Stuhlbarg, who played the protagonist in the Coen Brothers' 2009 joint A Serious Man. It's starting to feel intentional.
Sounding Minnesota
The whole Fargo thing was something of a mixed blessing for us Minnesotans. On the one hand, it reminded the world that this part of the country exists. On the other, it was quite a while before people from other states stopped expressing surprise that I don't talk like Coach Z from Homestar Runner when they found out where I'm from. Since then, the Fargo accent is as much a part of Fargo as "southern" accents are part of The Walking Dead, and the results have been equally consistent. Some actors have nailed it, like Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Martin Freeman, and Allison Tolman, while last year's cast was a little more all over the place (with the glorious exception of Michael Hogan, whose character was, of course, struck mute in his very first scene). Now, in this story set in 2010, the trademark speech patterns are barely noticeable in several of the main characters, at least to my admittedly Minnesotan ear. Maybe it just got too tiring to keep up the shtick. But it feels more likely that it's an intentional choice, showing how the shrinking world and social media have flattened out regional differences over time. Repeated scenes with characters distracted by their smart phones would seem to bear this out. Plus, the Fargo accent generally trends less prevalent the closer you get to the Twin Cities. But then, it's still early, don'cha know.
Looking Minnesota -- Not
With the glaring exception of Fargo itself, I've been to (or at least through) most of the cities that have served as the Fargo-verse's settings: Brainerd, Bemidji, Duluth, Luverne, Sioux Falls, and of course my home city of Minneapolis. But you need to go back to the movie to see authentic Fargo locations in Fargo, because the TV series is filmed in Alberta. This season purportedly takes us to Eden Prairie, a second-ring suburb to the southwest of Minneapolis where I've spent considerable time. McMansions lie thick on the ground there, not isolated on large acreages like Emmit Stussy's is. Thanks to the idiocy of Ray's hired burglar, we also discover Eden Valley, an hour and half's drive further west. I confess that even after forty-two years as a Minnesotan, I was surprised to learn that such a place actually exists. Obviously I have no idea what it actually looks like, but I doubt it's got a rinky-dink little Red Owl grocery. (For those outside the upper Midwest, Red Owl was a chain of supermarkets that were mostly phased out around the time Carl Showalter was being fed into a wood chipper, but you can still see the logo on hipsters' t-shirts and in A Serious Man. Which I am sure is no coincidence.)
Organized Crime
Every Fargo has explored how far down the moral rabbit hole everyday Minnesotans can be led when they come into contact with people who spend their whole lives down there. The movie didn't have much underworld presence; just a few hoodlums. But Season 1 had the Fargo mafia as an integral part of its background, while the sophomore year was set amid a full-scale gang war. Perhaps the greater scope of TV's Fargos requires an environment of large-scale crime to maintain its northern-noir atmosphere. In any case, this season looks like it will oblige by way of a shadowy outfit that is dragooning Emmit Stussy's legitimate real estate business into helping it with its money laundering needs. I'm sure that will go smoothly.
Disorganized Crime
Fargo always has cops, robbers, and amateurs. Whether it's the movie's Jerry Lundegaard, Season 1's Lester Nygaard, or last year's Blumquists, there's always someone who suddenly realizes they've just wandered onstage for murderer's open mic night. Here it's Ray Stussy, a somewhat corrupt parole officer (he's dating one of his parolees) who goes full-on crooked when he blackmails one of his clients into committing burglary. And when that goes worse than even the most astute Fargologist could have predicted, Ray becomes an actual killer. Meanwhile, Emmit is belatedly discovering that a collateral-free, million-dollar loan he borrowed from people he can't seem to contact might come with...entanglements. Maybe the brothers Stussy will figure out how to help each other, but it seems infinitely more likely that they'll just get in each other's way.
A Fair Cop
The bone-chilling depravity of every Fargo is leavened by a competent, pure-hearted police officer. From Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson; to Bemidji deputy Molly Solverson; to her dad, Minnesota State Trooper Lou Solverson, there has always been someone to ultimately lead us out back out of the ethical north woods while wearing earth-toned uniform slacks with duck boots. This time it's Gloria Burgle, the police chief of Eden Valley, Minnesota, who also happens to be a divorced single mom. And when she returns to the scene of an evening with family to find that it has become the scene of a crime, she gives every indication that she'll be able to take care of business and know exactly when to drop the Minnesota Nice.
Casting Their Lot
As impossible as it now is to imagine anyone else in the central roles of Fargo the movie, one remembers the TV casts seeming to make a bit less sense before the fact. Like, Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman? Really? But the latter names more than acquitted themselves in the Fargo-verse, while some of last year's well-known faces like Jean Smart and Ted Danson did better than others [cough Dunst]. This time around, the big names include Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and David Thewlis, plus a certain standup comedian to be named in a later episode. They're all doing fine so far.
Odd Couple
It's not Fargo without a somewhat bizarre pair of baddies to make things weirder than they already are. The film started this off with the mismatched kidnappers played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, amped it up with Season 1's totally-not-pseudonymous Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, and then last season brought us the silent-even-for-the-Midwest Kitchen brothers, identical but for the colors of their overcoats and their dominant hands. Now we have the Stussy brothers, Emmit and Ray, both played by Ewan McGregor. Two-an McGregor, one might say. However, they're not really a pair so much as a pair of foils. It's not yet clear whether they are supposed to be twins, but they've been made to look as different as two concurrently filmed Ewan McGregor characters can look, and their fortunes in life are similarly divergent. They're not even the same amount of bad. It remains to be seen whether the double casting serves as more than a gimmick, but Fargo has earned some benefit of the doubt.
Connection To The Larger Fargo-Verse
All three stories to date have had some connection with each other. The satchel of ransom money from the movie shows up in Season 1, which introduces the Solversons, who returned for Season 2 (as did Numbers and Wrench, back when they were still a couple of ballpark urchins bickering at each other in ASL). So far the only indication that we're still in the same universe is a conspicuous phone book ad for "Dazzle," the name of the beauty shop where Peggy Blumquist worked in Season 2. It must be a franchise chain by now, given what happened to the original Dazzle's two employees in 1979.
Well, Take Care, Then
There's a thing called the "Minnesota goodbye," where you get up to leave and end up standing by the front door wrapping up your conversation for as long as a half hour. Similarly, Fargo has become famous for rarely leaving our homes as early as you think it will. It's not surprising that the premiere fills a full ninety-minute time slot; what will be surprising is if subsequent episodes refrain from DVR-confounding spillovers. Let's just hope that time spent watching arty musical montages set to songs we've never heard doesn't count against the time we're allotted on this earth.
11 / 13
Final Score
85%
Fargo
15%
Ewan McGregor Always Rings Twice
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