In Fargo Season 3, a Family Feud Turns Bloody

Noah Hawley's FX anthology series returns with a new story about two estranged brothers at odds over a precious vintage stamp.

Chris Large / FX

This post contains some spoilers for the first episode of Fargo Season 3.

Wednesday’s third-season premiere of Fargo began as so many Fargo storylines have before: with an apparently senseless and possibly deadly twist of fate. A frightened-looking man is called into a darkened office before a uniformed German military official who informs the civilian that he is not, in fact, who he says he is and that he’s suspected of strangling his girlfriend. The civilian is confused. He insists he’s not lying about his name, and that he has a wife, not a girlfriend, who is very much alive and well. The official calmly explains that the government documents on his desk are all the proof he needs of the man’s identity and guilt. “For you to be right the state would have to be wrong,” he says, as screams from elsewhere in the building echo through the walls.

And at first glance it has very little to do with Season 3’s main plot: This opening scene takes place, inexplicably, in “East Berlin, 1988” before throwing to “Minnesota, 2010.” But it takes some time to realize that this flashback may hold some deeper significance for what lies ahead this year—hinting at a meticulous attention to detail that also defined the last two seasons. This year’s brand new story arc may ring familiar to regular Fargo viewers: Two brothers, Ray and Emmit Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor), are in a long-standing feud over an incredibly valuable vintage postage stamp. Their rivalry leads to multiple botched crimes, some messy and untimely deaths, and an investigation by a shrewd local police officer.

Despite the promise of the premiere, it’s safe to say that Fargo Season 3 is off to a slower and less immediately gripping start than its predecessors. The showrunner and creator Noah Hawley himself admitted that the series would shift down a bit this year, aiming somewhere between the modest scope of Season 1 and the more grand operatic vision of the brilliant Season 2. Still, the slightly underwhelming nature of the premiere, “The Law of Vacant Places,” and the second episode, can’t be blamed simply on a smaller story or narrative restraint. Fargo has yet to achieve the propulsive momentum it typically excels at from the start; storylines feel a bit stagnant, characters and their motives still feel muddy. But there’s plenty of room for Fargo to stun this year with its trademark visual inventiveness, sharp dialogue, preposterous but clever plotting, and a wonderful cast (which this season also includes Carrie Coon, David Thewlis, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Jim Gaffigan).

The premiere, written and directed by Hawley, manages a good amount of plot set-up in its slightly bloated 67-minute run time. Emmit (a curiously coiffed McGregor) is an ostensibly successful businessman known as the “parking-lot king of Minnesota.” His brother Ray (a half-balding McGregor)  is a parole officer in love with one of his parolees, Nikki Swango (Winstead), who’s also his partner in playing high-stakes competitive bridge. Ray resents his brother for tricking him into trading the items they each inherited from their dead father: Emmit ended up with the stamp collection (which has only ballooned in value), and the younger, more gullible Ray got the once-flashy but now depreciated sports car. Fed up with relying on his brother for money, Ray blackmails another parolee to steal one of the stamps back—a plan that fatally backfires.

So far, very Fargo-ian: A family squabble escalates due to a toxic cocktail of gross incompetence, poor judgment, and latent viciousness. To complicate things, Emmit finds out that a shady loan his company took out during the 2008 recession has landed him in the sights of a transnational money-laundering operation run in part by a sinister-looking Brit named V.M. Varga (Thewlis). The person who’ll likely be forced to make sense of everything this season is local police chief, Gloria Burgle (Coon, also currently doing a sublime job in HBO’s final season of The Leftovers), whose elderly stepfather had the misfortune of being named Ennis Stussy and was killed for it.

While the main pieces of the story seem to be there, it’s so far unclear how these different strands might cohere, or even satisfyingly explode, in the coming weeks. Missing is the exhilarating sense of brutal inevitability, the clear outline of something barreling—not slouching—toward Bethlehem. But these are also, in part, gripes made in the shadow of a luminous second season, which made Fargo one of the best shows on TV in 2015.

Now for the good: Fargo is still an impeccably shot series, whether capturing beautiful monochromatic fields stubbled with snow or executing thrillingly disorienting action sequences. And if you can will yourself to stop trying to see through the prosthetics and makeup and wigs, McGregor does vanish into his two separate characters (with the exception of the occasional burble of a Scottish accent poking through the Minnesota twang). The fascinating science-fiction elements that came to light later in Season 2 are established earlier, and the show still has its characteristically bleak sense of humor.

What makes me most excited for the coming weeks is, again, that opening sequence in East Berlin. The most obvious parallel is that it was a case of mistaken identity with dire consequences (and several characters in Fargo have been of German heritage). But other themes and details from that short scene end up becoming surprisingly important in the first two episodes: Kafkaesque bureaucratic menace. Cold War geopolitics. Shoes soaked with urine. Antiquated technology. Snow. I wouldn’t be shocked if more echoes crop up as Season 3 unfurls, or if Fargo returns to that time period; Hawley is too thoughtful and precise a storyteller for these similarities to be unplanned.

Right after the anonymous German official tells his captive, “We aren’t here to tell stories, we are here to tell the truth,” the Fargo tagline “This Is a True Story” appears on the screen. The recurring joke being, of course, that the series is here to tell stories and not strictly true ones. Whether or not Season 3 approaches the narrative elegance or dizzying heights of its predecessor, viewers can at least hope Fargo will ultimately build out its carefully devised parts into some masterful, if maddening, whole.