Over the past few years, no show has been weirder or more critically received than FX’s “Fargo,” an anthology series loosely adapted from the Coen Brother’s 1996 film. Shepherded onto the air by Noah Hawley, the series has been one of the strongest series on television since its premiere. The first season took home the Limited Series Emmy, and the only reason season 2 did not was the tidal wave that was “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” last year. However, each season has received critical acclaim, and season 3 is shaping up for more of the same.
The series premiere begins with an interrogation in East Germany during the 1980s. However, the scene calls back to scenes featuring Nazis and intense interrogation of the Coen’s have pulled off in the past. It’s at this point that the interrogator remarks “we are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth.” It’s an extremely interesting and powerful line for a show that is not only a work of fiction but pretends to be based on a true story. Yet there’s something true in this dichotomy, where Hawley has been able to explore truth through the use of narrative.
At this point, our narrative shifts to 2010, where we meet “the parking lot king of Minnesota,” Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) celebrating his 25th anniversary with his wife. His consiglieri/business partner Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg) pulls Emmit’s parole officer brother, Ray Stussy (also McGregor), into their office. In a scene that harkens back to “The Godfather” and other crime films, the three begin to discuss money before the conversation gets heated. Ray is asking for money to buy his fiancee Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a wedding ring but is quickly shut down. We also discover Emmit and Ray’s estrangement stems from the death of their father. It’s from this moment that the events of the series are set into motion.
Shortly after, the rest of the pieces of the series are laid out. Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) picks up her son from his
job at her step-father’s grocery store and sets dinner plans. Ray, frustrated by his brother’s unwillingness to help, blackmails one of his parolees, Maurice LeFay (Scott McNairy) into a job. Ray asks Maurice to steal a vintage stamp from Emmit’s brother, and in return, he’ll make a blown drug test go away. Meanwhile, Emmit’s called into the office, where he meets V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), a man with obvious criminal connections. Varga informs Emmit and Sy that the “loan” they thought they had taken out was actually an investment, one his organization tends to cash in on.
In the last couple seasons, “Fargo” has absolutely knocked its casting out of the park. This season looks to be off to a fast start, even if some of the characters feel a bit familiar. Thewlis is having a grand time as Varga, who seems to be the criminal that’s two steps ahead of everyone in the series. Coon gives a solid performance in the first couple episodes and should have a trajectory similar to Frances McDormand‘s Marge Gunderson. As our local cop, she becomes involved in a larger conspiracy. After an accidental murder, she’s been set on a path that will have her clash with the Stussy brothers.
Speaking of the Stussies, McGregor is excellent in creating two very different characters. At this point, he’s flexed his muscles as Ray, the vastly more complex of the two brothers. While Ray obviously has a dark side, Emmit is mostly used to bring out a passive dichotomy. It’ll be interesting to see if he makes a similar shift toward violence, just as Martin Freeman did as Lester Nygaard in season one.
Even with all those great characters, two absolutely stand out in the first couple episodes. The big one is Winstead, who looks like she’s on track to challenge Laura Dern for the supporting actress trophy. While the character is familiar, she’s also cunning in ways that we have not seen from women in Fargo. With the sharp dialogue and levels of performance, she may be the performer to watch. Just as much fun in a supporting role is Stuhlbarg as Sy. It’s fun to see Stuhlbarg delivering Coen-style dialogue, especially considering “A Simple Man” was his breakthrough role. He absolutely kills as the passive aggressive, and sometimes physically aggressive Sy. A return to Coen style TV was a strong move for Stuhlbarg that allows him to flex his muscles after a string of bit movie parts.
The series is immaculately shot, written, and cast again. The juxtaposition of crime and “Minnesota nice” attitudes continues to be extremely entertaining. The direction in the premiere from Hawley is extremely strong. Hawley uses double exposure and lap dissolve shots to add tension and menace to multiple scenes in the episode. Music cues from the episode also add to the tension, especially one where Hawley uses “throat singing” over home invasion visuals. There’s another scene that uses traditional fun and upbeat folk music to end a violent series of events. Like “The Leftovers,” “Fargo” understands what strong music adds to a show. The episode also uses extremely strong writing to layer humor into dark scenes. This is part of what makes the world so strong in Fargo.
Last but certainly not least, the episode also uses extremely strong writing. Hawley and his room are able to deftly layer humor into dark scenes throughout the episode. At other times, they draw humor from the domestic lives of characters that are deeply involved in criminal activity. This is part of what makes the world so strong in Fargo. The dichotomy between simple life and the complex machinations of the criminal world is extremely effective and makes the show something special.
All in all, the series picks up at the high level it has in the past. The season is undeniably familiar given the previous two seasons. Despite this, the familiarity does not take away from the impressive work being accomplished. The show is not only a technical marvel that blends music, visual language, and tension. Combined with its writing and acting is the most complete show on TV. Hawley is the strongest filmmaker on television and makes “Fargo” the favorite to bring home another Limited Series crown to FX.