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.