Fargo season 3 episode 1 review: The Law Of Vacant Places

Casting Ewan McGregor as a pair of brothers in Fargo season 3 is a masterstroke...

This review contains spoilers.

3.1 The Law Of Vacant Places

‘We are not here to tell stories,’ says the cold East German official at the beginning of this episode, ‘we are here to tell the truth’. Seeing a stark difference between ‘stories’ and ‘truth’ is pretty standard for someone in authority, particularly someone whose strict adherence to dogma blinds him to the absurdity of his position. Here however, with an explicit link to Fargo’s standard anti-disclaimer that ‘this is a true story’, the line is given a further inflection. There’s the truth, there are stories and then there are true stories.  The distinction is a little more grey. Fargo, of course, is a work of fiction but it nevertheless plays with notions of truth and stories through the perspectives of its characters.

Take, for example, the Stussy brothers, around whom the bulk of this season’s narrative will unfold. Their remembrance of their father’s inheritance, of the late Mr Stussy’s intentions and of their own behaviour in the intervening years are at odds with one another. Emmit is convinced that his actions towards his younger brother were born of decency, of the desire to do Ray a favour. Ray recalls differently, that Emmit was merely discharging his obligations after taking the lion’s share of the old man’s largesse and, on the surface at least, of making better for himself as a result. Now, is either man lying, or is each telling his own truth, his own ‘story’? The objective facts are there; the stories lie in each brother’s interpretation.

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Here, the decision to double-cast Ewan McGregor seems like a master-stroke as it places these opposing interpretations in the mouth of the same actor and adding further layers of grey. Emmit and Ray’s core physical resemblance adds more than simple verisimilitude too. They look like brothers who have taken different paths in life, the successful small town businessman against the schlubby mess. McGregor is excellent at portraying each brother as a separate individual and, while the styling helps, much is to be praised in his performance for making them similar and different enough to convince as brothers. These opposing similarities heighten Ray’s sense of injustice that his brother got the headstart in life and is hosting smug celebrations of himself while he, the unhappy victim, spends parts of his day in the gents collecting little cupfuls of warm piss from recovering (and not-recovering) drug users. It’s hardly surprising that he clings to his preferred narrative of how he ended up here.

Of course, Emmit also has his own narrative to cling to. He is not as well-off as he likes to present himself and his business has been through some very troubling times. This adds a particular irony in that when he protests that ‘it’s not a good time’ to lend his brother any money, Ray takes it as a mendacious brush-off when it is probably completely true. We know that the real estate elements of Emmit’s business have been in trouble (the timeline suggests that his business was severely affected by the 2008 financial crisis) and that he was unable to secure credit through fully legitimate means, leading him into the sinister clutches of V. M. Varga, a man who he has not previously met and about whom Emmit knows very little other than that he was prepared to offer a $1m loan with loosely defined repayment terms and no collateral. It’s not unreasonable to infer that Emmit has been in some desperate places, financially speaking, and that hosting a party with liveried waiters, trays of champagne and valet parking is little more than an attempt to spin his success.

It may also be the product of genuine, if temporary, relief that things have turned a corner and that he’s now able to repay his ‘loan’ in full and with interest. However, the advent of the strange Mr Varga and his quietly confident insistence that he now owns Stussy and intends to use the company as a vehicle for laundering money may make Emmit look back with nostalgic fondness on a time when his problems were simply restricted access to credit. It also offers a neat counterpoint to the earlier scene in which Ray asks his brother for money. Emmit is the linchpin of these scenes, one in daylight the other in darkness; one in which the problem is his refusal to part with money and one in which the problem is the other guy’s refusal to accept it.

Emmit has unwittingly found himself in a trap that is nevertheless of his own making. His younger brother now appears to be making a similar mistake. Like Emmit, Ray’s problems stem not from his goals but from the unthinking way in which he goes about achieving them. His plan is laughably inept from the outset, attempting to steal the very stamp that he recently demanded from his brother and using one of his own parolees as a catspaw to do it. A direct connection between Ray and Maurice would be bad enough, even if Maurice was half-way competent which, to put it mildly, he isn’t. The scheme is an utter disaster but then it was always going to be. In going for the valuable stamp, Ray has strayed from his initial objective of raising money for an engagement ring (let’s face it, there are easier methods of making money if you’re not averse to breaking a few laws) and has instead focused his efforts on revenging himself against his brother. This will be his undoing and, if anything, Nikki’s trick with the air conditioning unit has only served to accelerate his calamity.

He has been on that road for a while. His relationship with Nikki is founded on very shaky ground,as her parole officer, he shouldn’t be in a relationship with her at all, even if she didn’t continually threaten further violations by  attempting to leave the state or dropping a/c units onto failed burglars. Ray seems far too easily led and eager to please while Nikki has a blindness to his sadsack qualities that suggests that she’s looking for something other than a husband and bridge partner. Her confidence and swift-thinking form a sharp contrast with Ray and their relationship seems decidedly odd. 

As Chief Gloria Burgle, Carrie Coon offers a more wholly sympathetic character, balancing the demands of her domestic life with those of her professional career with far more sophistication than either of the Stussys. Her role is rather limited in this opening episode but the mistaken murder of her stepfather and her swift assumption of investigative duties promises much more from her as the episodes roll along.

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So much of this is familiar. Most of the central characters have clear analogues in earlier seasons and/or the 1996 film; the desperate businessman in over his head, the poundshop Lord and Lady Macbeth, the decent and brave smalltown cop. It is, at this stage, something of a re-tread but is no less entertaining for that. The show’s signature style remains in place and adds swagger and confidence, whether its Ray and Nikki’s music video entrance to a bridge tournament, Emmit and Sy’s screwball double-act or the exquisitely kinetic external shots of the red Corvette speeding noisily through the snowscape. Sometimes it’s not the stories, it’s how they are told.

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Palindrome, here