Noah Hawley has been a pretty busy guy this year. In addition to creating and launching the supremely weird superhero drama ‘Legion‘ a few months ago, Hawley’s fascinating and often hilarious spinoff of the Coen brothers’ ‘Fargo’ returns for its third season on FX. Is the show off to a good start so far? You betcha!
The season premiere opens with a truly bizarre, totally unexplained prologue set in 1988 East Berlin, as a hapless citizen endures a Kafka-esque interrogation by an unsympathetic Stasi officer. This scene will not be mentioned again in this episode (I’m sure it will come back around later), but it pretty effectively sets the tone for the strange tale to follow.
We then jump forward to Minnesota in the year 2010. Ewan McGregor plays local real estate magnate Emmit Stussy, a man as pompous and arrogant as he is dishonest and corrupt. (Huh, where have I seen someone like that before?) Ewan McGregor also plays Emmit’s down-on-his-luck brother Ray, a dimwit parole officer currently having a secret affair with one of his parolees, the femme fatale con artist Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ray comes crawling to Emmit to beg for money so he can buy Nikki an engagement ring. Begging Emmit for money is something he does pretty frequently. The way Ray sees it, Emmit still owes him for turning over to him a collection of rare collectible stamps he’d inherited from their father. The stamps turned out to be extremely valuable, and Emmit used most of them to launch his real estate empire. He only kept one for himself, a stamp now worth substantially more than its original 2 cents. Ray never lets Emmit forget that all of his success stems from that stamp collection, but at this moment, Emmit doesn’t have a lot of patience for his idiot brother and throws him out.
Contrary to appearances, Emmit’s business hasn’t actually been as successful as he lets on. He recently had to float a less-than-legal loan from a secretive lender known only as “Narwhal.” Although he recouped the money and is prepared to pay it back with interest, a mysterious representative from the firm (David Thewlis) refuses to accept payment. He says that the money was not a loan, but an investment. Emmit is blackmailed into turning his real estate company into a money laundering front for the (clearly criminal) organization. This is not what he bargained for when turning to what he thought was a simple loan shark.
Unaware of that complication, Ray hatches a hare-brained scheme to hire another of his parolees, the space-out stoner Maurice (Scoot McNairy), to rob Emmit’s house and steal the stamp back for him. Maurice, it goes without saying, is a moron. He loses the piece of paper with Emmit’s address written on it and, in a fog of hazy memories of their conversation, travels to the wrong town (Eden Valley vs. Eden Prairie) and robs the wrong address. In the process, he kills the house’s occupant, an old man named Ennis Stussy. How or whether this Stussy is related to Emmit and Ray isn’t clear yet.
Our hero this season is local police chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon). The old man was her crotchety stepfather. She discovers him murdered after returning to his house to retrieve something her teenage son left behind when they had dinner with him not a half-hour earlier. In a very suspenseful scene, she searches the house while her son waits in the car just outside. Fortunately, Maurice is gone by that time, but the house is ransacked. While looking around, she discovers a hidden compartment under the floorboards, inside which is a metal box containing what look like Young Adult fantasy novels. She’s confounded by this, and so am I, but it will undoubtedly pay off later. (Note that, while searching for a weapon, Gloria grabs a trophy off a shelf that looks like it could be a Hugo Award. Did her stepdad write those books?)
His mission accomplished, with some complications, Maurice follows Ray to Nikki’s apartment and interrupts while they share a romantic bubble bath. He turns over the spoils of his robbery – a book of regular USPS postage stamps, worth no more than the face value. Ray is furious. Maurice pulls a gun on him. Nikki attempts to distract him with her naked body so that Ray can grab the gun, but that doesn’t go well. Angered at their treatment of him, Maurice demands a payment of $5,000 for his troubles or he’ll go the police and report Ray.
As soon as Maurice leaves the apartment, Nikki springs into action. In a riotously funny suspense set-piece, she grabs a screwdriver and begins dismounting her air conditioner from its window, counting down the number of seconds it should take Maurice to reach the building’s front door. As soon as he steps outside, Nikki and Ray kick the A.C. out. It plummets to ground, crushing Maurice into a bloody mess on the sidewalk.
Nikki tells Ray to leave the apartment and calls 911 to report a terrible accident. Her air conditioner somehow fell out of its window and she thinks it may have hit someone below.
Like the prior two seasons, ‘Fargo’ once again thrives on its convoluted plotting and deliciously dark humor. In addition to the above, the episode has a subplot in which Ray and Nikki are expert Bridge players and break her parole to cross state lines for a tournament. It also features an extended montage of Ray watching felons pee into plastic cups.
This season does not appear to be connected to the prior two in any way that’s been explained yet. The new characters quickly establish themselves as a bunch of scheming nitwits and endearing losers, with a sole rational hero struggling to make sense of the mess they’ve created. That’s the same formula that worked for the original Coen movie and the first two seasons, and looks like it’s going to work again here. However, with a setting that’s fairly close to the present day, the new storyline risks feeling repetitive of the first season. The show will have to work very carefully to avoid that trap.