Thursday, April 27, 2017

FARGO 3.02 - "THE PRINCIPLE OF RESTRICTED CHOICE"



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When Ray Stussy explains his mismatched shoes by citing occupational urinary hazards, his brother asks “Why not just put on both the other pair?”  But in Fargo, the only people that wear matching footwear are capital-C Criminals like Varga. Folks like Ray are always trying to convince themselves that they aren’t killers or criminals, but just people who happen to have killed and crimed.  He and Nikki don’t think of themselves as crooks (she hates the term “con”, as it’s just so darn negative), but rather a long-suffering victim and bridge superstar-in-waiting.  While at the same time, Emmit is resisting the idea that one of his shoes was changed permanently when he took money from a shadowy man whose first name he didn’t know.

The brothers have more in common than they realize, even after they reach a short-lived d├ętente.  The sibling rivalry could almost have been ended in the course of one conversation, were their respective partners less intent on escalating things with tampon and Hummer attacks. For her part, Nikki is extremely quick to shrug off the Ennis/Maurice fiasco, setting sights on winning the sponsorship of the superbly-named Burt Lurgsman, vacuum filter magnate.  She just wants to wear the shoes of a bridge champion, but she is easily derailed from that goal by a coincidence she takes as a deliberate taunt, taking the “blood feud” she spoke of earlier to a very literal level.
 
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On the other end, Sy likes to think of himself as the hardcase half of the Stussy Parking Lot empire, counseling unwavering austerity with Ray and affecting a tough guy scowl when dealing with him that he never tries on anyone else.  He tells Emmit that his brother’s jealousy is not about stamps, but his life, and that if he were to give an inch, it would quickly become a mile.  It’s an astute observation, but he doesn’t seem to be able to apply it to the special enmity he bears Ray, as it’s clear that despite having long since taken pride of place in Emmit’s business and family functions, on some level he still envies Ray’s blood tie as an actual Stussy.  Sy’s hardass pose with Ray is also no doubt heightened by his helplessness in fending off an actual bad dude in Varga.  There, the best plan he can manage is one of strategic ignorance as to the precise contents of the trucks and files that are being quartered with his business.  It’s a plan that, at best, offers a meager defense to the felony charges that it guarantees are going to keep piling up.

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"I didn't know it was slave girls.  I just knew it
could be slave girls.  The defense rests."

Varga explains that he targeted the parking lot business because its minimal reliance on technology makes it easier to remain invisible.  He should perhaps consult Gloria, who still can’t get technology to recognize her, perhaps because she refuses to recognize it.  She gets an earful about her old-fashioned ways from her new boss, played by television’s go-to for ineffective chiefs of law enforcement, Shea Wigham.  He somewhat unfairly blames character, when clearly the problem lies with the actress playing her, as Coon’s character on The Leftovers struggled with the exact same issue just last weekend.  Poor Gloria doesn’t even have the heady combination of the Wu-Tang Clan and a trampoline to lift her through her period of grieving.

My biggest reservation about the season so far is how isolated Gloria has been in the early going.  Fargo plotlines are always sprawling creatures that wind up less shaggy than they initially appear, but after two episodes that weigh in at over an hour apiece, she has conducted exactly one witness interview, which does not represent much progress in connecting her to the Stussy/Swango/Varga show.  She does gain evidence from that interview, but she’s still a ways from knowing who she is looking for, much less that he is already dead, much less what he was trying to do when he wound up at Ennis’s house.  Oddly enough, it may be a false lead that is most promising.  The gas station clerk, who is definitely puffing up the extent to which he fought back in the retelling, also seems genuinely convinced that Maurice was Russian.  As he didn’t put on an accent or anything, I can only assume this was a result of mishearing him slur “Stussy”, but the interesting thing is that we do have a Russian with a connection to a Stussy introduced this week in Yuri the Cossack.  Whether he has a literal connection to the Yuri Gurka who was the subject of the mistaken identity in the premiere’s opening is still in the air, but it could lead officer Burgle to some real Criminals.  That searching for the wrong Russian might put Gloria on the trail of wrong Stussy, while investigating the murder that took place because someone was trying to rob the wrong Stussy…well, that sure seems like something Fargo would do.

Okay then, not much Coen Bingo this week but some other random shit:

 

  • Ray has trouble with waitresses ignoring his protestations that he is still working on his breakfast. I don't know if was meant to echo Gloria's trouble with automatic doors, but it crossed my mind.
  • Also, Ray moves his lips when he reads.

  • I didn't realize this was a Fargo trope until just now, but Yuri and Mr. Earbuds appear make the third pairing of partly-mute foot soldiers, following the Kitchen Bros and Wrench and Numbers.

  • The parolee muttering about eating tears in fallow times recalls HI’s bunkmate musing about eating sand in Raising Arizona.  And it’s a stretch, but the gas station attendant saying “if singular means just one” reminded me of the attendant in that film noting that his balloons don’t blow up into funny shapes “unless round is funny”.  Hawley has a knack for recreating the rhythm of Coen dialogue, even when he's not lifting direct quotes.

  • Gloria’s dimbulb partner is very reminiscent of Marge’s in the film. He was apparently supposed to be played by Jim Gaffigan at some point, but that would have been too perfect, I guess.
  • Nikki’s visualization and Chi-clearing nonsense would find a receptive audience in Peggy Blumquist, methinks.


Season Body Count (3):  Ennis Stussy, Maurice Lafey, Irv Blumpkin 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

FARGO 3.01 - "THE LAW OF VACANT PLACES"




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In its freshman year, Fargo presented a startlingly great answer to a question no one had been asking. Then its sophomore effort made such a leap in time and scope that it granted a renewed sense of novelty to what was nominally a prequel, that most fallow ground for such.  This year returns us to the roughly-present day environs, and introduces a cast of types, if not faces, that we recognize, and thus a degree of familiarity, if not predictability, sets in.

But that difference between “predictable” and “familiar” is as vital to the experience of TV as the difference between “singularity” and “continuity” is to VM Varga’s investment lessons.  Predictability is when specific plot points are obvious to the audience before they happen, and is about the worst narrative sin there is.  Predictability is boring.  Familiarity is more general, and is central to the appeal of any fictional series, television or otherwise.  Familiarity is comforting.  It provides the ballast for the unpredictable moments to hit hard without knocking you out of the show entirely.  And this applies to comedy as well as drama; unpredictability is key to giving the punchline its punch.  The last thing, I mean the very last thing, I want is to know what is going to happen on the next season of Game Of Thrones before it starts.  Nor would I want to read the jokes on an episode of New Girl before watching the actors bounce them off each other in real time.  But the entire reason I get excited to sit down and watch those shows is that they will not be a complete blank slate.  I don’t know exactly what will happen, but I have a strong enough sense of the environments and personalities within Westeros/The Loft to know that whatever happens will be thrilling or harrowing or sweet or kooky in turn.  I have confidence that whatever befalls the characters, the show itself will continue to operate in character. 

To that end, let’s look at the familiar types the premiere introduces to us.  May they never become predictable:

THE CRIME – As with the prior two premieres, we are presented with a murder that should not have been a murder but for the criminal’s haplessness.  This time, our sacrifice was Ennis, like the judge/waffle hut patrons and Ms. Nygard before him.  While Scoot McNairy did his best to make Maurice as distinctively pathetic a screw-up as Kieran Culkin did with Rye Gerhardt last year, I have to give it to Nygard on shock value and the Waffle Hut sequence for scale and humor.

THE COVER-UP – As apparently is Fargo’s wont, it’s not the first murder that is the actual inciting incident for the season’s big events, but one committed as part of a cover-up.  To that end, Maurice’s end by plummeting AC unit may be telegraphed much more heavily than those in prior seasons, but it definitely wins on style points.  The camera tumbling end-over-end with the unit was a fantastic touch, and the impact a gloriously, gorily abrupt capper to such an indulgently cinematic sequence.

THE CONSTANT CONSTABLE – The newest in our line of small-town cops that previously included Gundersons and Solversons is Gloria Burgle, played by Carrie Coon, who is one of the very best actors working today.  If there is any justice in the world, she will grow into Meryl Streep’s career shoes.  And if Gloria hews to the mold of prior seasons, she will prove to be decent, brave, and craftier than her colleagues or targets (or motion sensors) give her credit for.  The most significant difference with her predecessors seem to be that she is more personally involved in the initial crime, with her crusty stepfather being the victim.  Maurice didn’t cover his tracks very well with the gas station attendant, and Nikki mentioned that she rented the apartment he died in front of with a fake name.  If she is true to her type, that will be enough string for her to pull on.

THE QUOTE-UNQUOTE MASTER CRIMINAL  – From Jerry Lundegaard to Lester Nygard to Ed and Peggy Blomquist to (now) Swango and Stussy, Fargo isn’t Fargo without an amateur stooge convincing themselves they have what it takes to commit the perfect crime, to bloody disastrous results.  Making the single desperado a duo was one of last year’s best innovations, but this year’s twist is to introduce some actual romance to the pairing.  The Blomquists marriage was clearly never great, and Peggy’s huge but vague desire for something better stands in contrast to Nikki and Ray’s endearingly small visions of regional bridge glory and a decent engagement ring.  It’s totally the middle child in me, but I found Ray and Nikki’s crowing about their 3rd runner-up finish really sweet.  But they are not, as she says, simpatico.  They can’t agree on a proper beer analogy, she has to remind him that she likes her doors and chairs pulled out for her, and Ray is not quick enough to pick up on her bathtub distraction in time to actually disarm Maurice.  Though it’s kind of sweet all over again that it’s due to his being just as entranced by her nudity as the mark. 

THE LOQUACIOUS NO-QUOTE CRIMINAL – David Thewlis’s Varga doesn’t waltz into town with as much style as Mike Milligan or the demonic glee of Lorne Malvo, but he seems to promise just as much trouble for the Stussy family as they did for their regional rubes.  You might say that the rotted teeth are laying it on a bit thick, but that’s only because they are laying it on a bit thick.  His puzzled response of “America?” when asked where he’s from suggests that he won’t be entirely lacking in his predecessors’ sense of fun, at least.  Also promising is that he has Ewan MacGregor and Coen vet Michael Stuhlbarg to play off of. 

JAKOB UNGERLEIDER – No seriously, what the fuck is up with Jakob Ungerlieder?  What does the opening, with his troubles that would make Franz Kafka weep blood, have to do with the price of fish?  Okay, I can see that mistaken identity issues play into the troubles of Maurice and the Stussys.  And obviously the line about how “we are not here to tell stories, we are here to tell the truth” fading into the This Is A True Story disclaimer (with the “True” fading out first, and “Story” last) suggests that there will be the customarily heavy lean on the intersection of truth and fiction throughout the season.  So far it seems like elder brother Emmit has the most direct link to this bit, as he almost leaves the house in the same slippers Jakob was dragged off wearing, and gets to experience both sides of the opening dynamic:  successfully imposing his version of the stamp/car trade on his brother, but then having his interpretation of the deal with Varga overridden by the latter’s views on continuity vs singularity. 

But I also wonder if the opening is just a parable, or if we are going to see Jakob or the interrogator pop up down the line in some fashion, the way Ronald Reagan or even Jermaine Clement’s character on Legion eventually did after being introduced via such a disconnected vignette.   It’s a device that feels familiar, but I don’t have any idea where they’re going with it.  That’s the sweet spot this season of Fargo needs to stay inside.

Okay, then.  Let's do Coen Bingo and Other Random Shit

                                                                                                                                               
COEN BINGO AND OTHER RANDOM SHIT

  • The opening recalls the Coen-scripted Bridge Of Spies in content, and the oblique parable about the dybbuk that opens A Serious Man in terms of structure.
  • Buck claim that “Don’t know him.  Don’t vouch for him.” Is a direct quote of Shep Proudfoot from the film.
  • Also “I gotta say, you’re math seems shaky there” recalls “I gotta disagree with your policework there,” which is one of Marge Gunderson’s most memorable lines.
  • Vargas’s broker is named Ehrmantraut, a name I can only spell because it is the name of Jonathan Banks’ uber-fixer from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.  If I’m right in guessing that this is the role Jim Gaffigan is playing, I doubt he has much in common character-wise.
  • Maurice fails to flick his joint out the window while driving, and it drops back into his lap.  The Dude Empathizes.
  • Gloria stumbling on the sci-fi books that served as inspiration for Enis’s carving recalls Betsy’s finding of her father’s secret glyph project last season. 
  •  As far as murder schemes go, Nikki’s AC drop gets a 10 for Improvisational Inventiveness and a 1 for Practicality and Precision.  Even with Maurice helpfully stopping to stand still on a cold sidewalk, it still seems like it had about a 5% chance of solving the problem and a 95% chance of sending him running either straight to the police or back inside, gun blazing.