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'Fargo' Season 3 premiere recap: New storyline, same dark, comedic tone

For The Baltimore Sun

It has been a long wait, but the spiritual successor to the Coen Brothers classic is back in the most delicious way as Season 3 of “Fargo” kicked off with “The Law of Vacant Places.”

The show returned with a fresh story but the same tone and staples that made the first two seasons must-watch television.

Season 3 begins with the image of an overhead microphone. We are taken to Germany in 1988, a long way from Fargo.

The first scene is one of mistaken identity. (I can only guess this is going to be a recurring theme in a season starring an actor playing twins.) There’s been a murder in Berlin and the wrong man is being blamed. No matter what the man says, his guilt is predetermined.

We are taken through a picture frame, and the familiar words asserting the truth behind the following “story” pop up. This not-so-true story happened in 2010 in Minnesota.

Finally we are introduced to our main character, played by Ewan McGregor. He’s in the middle of a business meeting, and his wealth and greed are immediately apparent.

Then we are quickly introduced to McGregor’s brother, also played by McGregor.

Where one brother, Emmit Stussy is refined and wealthy, the other, Ray, is dirty and down on his luck. Ray shows up to Emmit’s anniversary party with his girlfriend, Nikki — played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead — under his arm.

Ray asks his brother for money as repayment for some childhood incident. Emmit denies the request, saying it’s not the best time for a loan. Ray then asks for a priceless vintage stamp back, which Emmit once again denies.

Ray is a parole officer and he met Nikki on the job, making her a criminal. Ray is being set up as a “Fargo” staple, the bumbling, pushover archetype. In the first season, we got Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard being pushed around by his wife, in the second we got Jesse Plemons’ Ed Blumquist being pushed around by his wife, and now we have Ray Stussy being pushed around by his girlfriend. Even the “Fargo” movie had Jerry Lundegaard, played by the master of bumbling pushovers, William H. Macy.

But then Ray get’s his car from the valet.

“No tip?” the valet says.

“Yeah, get a real job,” Ray says.

This particular pushover might be kind of an “ace-hole,” as it says on his license plate.

We get a look at Ray at his crummy job. He stands beside former criminals, fielding piss cups and listening to piss stories of innocence. All the while he is disinterested and checking his phone.

Ray visits one of his parolees, Maurice (played by Scoot McNairy) at a bar. Ray flexes his power as a parole officer and convinces the drunken Maurice to relieve Emmit of the stamp.

“You ever think about how they never put the morgue on the top floor of a hospital?” Maurice asks his shrink over the phone on his way to the robbery site, “It’s always in the basement, it’s like its own elevator.”

Maurice’s phone conversation is cut short when he unsuccessfully flicks a lit joint outside the window of his car, a possible reference to the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece “The Big Lebowski.” Amid the frantic attempts to rid the car of the roach, the address of the house Maurice was supposed to rob flies out the window.

We are then taken to Emmit’s workplace. David Thewlis, or Professor Lupin to many, portrays an off-putting British broker of some sort. Emmit received a loan from the investing firm Narwhal and has made up the money, but when he offers to repay the broker, V.M. Varga, he is told he can keep it.

“The problem, I think, is that you are confusing the word singularity with the word continuity,” Varga says.

Emmit’s real estate business was failing; banks would not give it a loan so he turned to this Narwhal organization, which clearly is not on the up and up. Narwhal loaned the business $1 million without any collateral. It seems as if Narwhal is using the Stussy business for money laundering, putting Emmit in a bit of a bind.

It is exciting to return to the familiar Midwestern charm of the “Fargo”-verse. Though incredibly uncomfortable and frustrated, Emmit and his lawyer, Sy Feltz, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, maintain their polite facade — albeit thinly veiled.

We then get a brief intermission with another staple of the “Fargo”-verse, the stalwart, moral cop and his or her parental figure. In this instance, it is Gloria Burgle, played by Carrie Coon. She offers some exposition, by means of a conversation at the dinner table, explaining that her ex-husband’s new boyfriend won’t become her son’s new father until the two are married. She then says she’s not sure exactly how it works, to which her father makes a stark observation.

“I know how it works in the Bible.”

We quickly get back to Ray and Nikki entering a bridge tournament at a less-than-glamorous locale. At one point Ray is caught checking his phone.

Back to Maurice, stoned, without a clue as to where to go. He makes a wrong turn and picks the wrong name out of a phone book. It seems the clock is ticking until the first absurdist murder typical of the “Fargo” season premiere.

Officer Burgle and her son are on their way home from her father’s place when they have to double back to retrieve a model left behind. Burgle enters the building to find that something is amiss.

The house has been turned upside down and pops appears to be dead. Fortunately, Burgle is a cop and checks the house, shotgun clad. As Gloria enters the house the shot is overlaid with one of Maurice exhaling smoke.

Gloria finds a curious series of books under one of the floorboards. There is a great cloud of vague surrounding the whole scene. There is also a slight hint of the supernatural poking through the burglary/murder scene, a trend that is not uncommon in “Fargo.” The second season had an alien plot sewn through it, and the first had fish falling from the sky.

Either way, we are taken back to Nikki and Ray celebrating their successful bridge night with a candlelit bath. Hilariously, the two lovers are both distracted by their phones. I predict technology playing a significant part of this season, as we have already seen Ray distracted by his phone several times, as well as Gloria’s son in one scene.

Maurice, fresh off of his burglary and murder, intrudes on this celebration.

“When an ex-con threatens you, demands the goods, the smart money says cooperate,” Maurice says to Ray’s horror.

When Nikki finds out that Ray hired a parolee to steal the stamp, she is love-struck. Maurice pulls a gun on the lovers and demands compensation for the burglary. Nikki adeptly tries to use her body to distract Maurice, but Ray ineptly can’t get the gun away from him. Nikki uses her surprisingly impressive intellect to decipher how long it would take for Maurice to get to the bottom of the stairs, where they drop an air conditioning atop Maurice’s head.

Nikki once again proves to be a quick, sharp thinker by calling the police, staging the whole thing as an accident and getting rid of the evidence that Maurice was there.

The episode ends with Gloria mourning the death of her pops with her son.

This first episode is everything a “Fargo” fan could have hoped for: a couple of murders, morally ambiguous characters, and an ominous criminal enterprise undercutting all of the events.

What makes all stories that fall under the “Fargo” umbrella is that the audience witnesses all sides of the story as they snake their way into the conclusion. It elevates the stories above standard murder mysteries or crime tales.

Ewan McGregor explodes off of the screen with his twin performances, both of whom somehow prove to be both cartoonish and grounded. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is proving to be a great addition to what made Season 2 so great — manipulative, flawed women. It is impossible to tell where her allegiances lie and it is clear that she cannot be trusted. We have yet to see if Carrie Coon will fill the shoes of the other great police officers that have been portrayed in the show by Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson and Allison Tolman.

Regardless, I am thrilled that “Fargo” is back with a new story, new themes, a new timeline and the same darkly comedic tone I have come to know and love. I am excited to see how this misadventure plays out.

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