FARGO: “The Law of Vacant Places”

Noah Hawley’s “True Crime” series returns after an 18-month hiatus, and it’s as sharply drawn as ever.

We are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth.

–Col. Lagerfeld

Fargo isn’t a show, it’s a worldview.

When that familiar red text appears, accompanied by the classic Carter Burwell theme, we know what we’re going to get — to a point. Last night we began the next story of Noah Hawley’s “Anthology of Midwestern True Crime,” another season shot through with dreary snowscapes and scuzzy businessmen and hardworking, underappreciated police officers; we settled in for another morality tale, a winding yarn of coincidence and bad decisions where we can be assured that its desperate characters will eventually get what’s coming to them. That’s the Coen way, spinners of fables where the arc of the Universe is long but bends toward karmic retribution, and it’s what Noah Hawley has adopted in his brilliant adaptation for television.

Surprisingly, some critics are already crying “diminishing returns,” perhaps growing weary of these plots and the vividly drawn archetypes that inhabit them. I firmly disagree, of course, but concede that it’s still certainly up to Hawley and his team to continue to find fresh ways to tell the same essential story: the downfall of mediocre people in the Minnesota winter. The first season was electrifying not just for what it presented, but that it worked at all. The second, set in the swinging 70s amidst a gang war, was a stylistic leap forward, leavened by period touches and Bokeem Woodbine’s marvelous sideburns. This time around, after a production hiatus, we return more or less to the present day (2010, at least), seemingly devoid of any connection to characters we’ve met before. And though we can see the broad strokes of the story laid out for us, we can trust there will be many twists and gasp-inducing bursts of violence ahead.

For example, it’s hard to think of a more gruesome way to go — wood chipper aside — than getting an apartment AC unit dropped on your head, but that’s what happens to poor Maurice (Scoot McNairy, picking up the odd job between seasons of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire). He gets the Kieran Culkin role this year as the lowlife dingbat who unwittingly gets the train of stupidity rolling, hired by Ewan McGregor’s schlubby Ray Stussy to steal a valuable stamp from Ewan McGregor’s Emmit Stussy. Ray isn’t an evil man, just a weak one; not bad at his day job as a parole officer, but foolish enough to fall in love with one of his charges: the fabulous (and fabulously-named) Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a gum-chewing card shark who has weaponized Ray’s natural talents for Bridge. After they take out Maurice, a move so Hollywood neither can believe it actually worked, Ray admonishes her more for carrying a fake ID than for being an accessory to murder.

These two are our protagonists, our Ed and Peggy Blumquist, our Lester Nygaard. Ray is locked into a Cain-and-Abel grudge match with his older, smarter, exceedingly wealthier brother: Ray claims Emmit tricked him into taking their late father’s Corvette instead of his stamp collection; Emmit says it was all Ray’s idea, and Ray’s foolishness. Now Emmit is the “Parking Lot King of Minnesota,” a business magnate on the verge of a big expansion, with his lawyer Sy Feltz (actor’s actor Michael Stuhlbarg) at his side, but as I’ll note in a second, he has his own problems.

The choice to have McGregor play both roles is the kind of masterstroke that sounds fabulous on paper and actually lives up to the hype, because the actor and his makeup team differentiate between the brothers so effectively (especially with Ray in that greasy balding cap and paunch), you forget within moments they’re the same person. As Emmit, McGregor brings every ounce of his cocksure charm, where as Ray he’s perpetually slouching and downcast, only brightening up in the presence of questionable influence Nikki. The odds are probably quite low that both brother survives the series, but as long as we get to see McGregor share the screen with himself — something he’s done before, fittingly as Jesus and Satan in 2016’s Last Days in the Desert — I’m going to enjoy it.

“The Law of Vacant Places” is directed as well as written by Hawley, and he returns to a more classicist, shot-reverse-shot style after the dizzying mania of Legion. The most stylish sequence is the agonizing slow-motion demise of Maurice, shot from the POV of the twirling AC unit. (There was also that pee montage, though I could have done without that.) But he does get to hit one new Coen trope, and call his shot in the opening minutes: a disorienting visit to 1988 East Berlin, where an unfortunate man is railroaded into confessing to a murder he claims to have not committed, and the themes of the season to come are laid out. One detail that sticks, though, is the closeup of poor Ungerleider/Gurka’s house shoes — seemingly identical to the pair Emmit Stussy is wearing before his unsettling meeting with the shady V.M. Varga (David Thewlis, instantly memorable).

Does that make Emmit the “wronged man,” or the guiltiest of them all? He certainly accepted a loan from an organization he shouldn’t have — now, instead of letting him pay it back, Varga calls it an “investment” so he’ll look the other way during their dealings. His brother’s out to get him, but whether that’s justifiable or not is yet to be determined. Either way, according to the compassionless Colonel Lagerfeld, guilt and innocence are fluid ideas. Truth is absolute, and it’s written by those who wield the power to write it.

It’s hard to say whether Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon, long excellent on HBO’s The Leftovers) will have that power, and right now she doesn’t feel like it. Her small Eden Valley operation is about to be absorbed by another force, which makes her only a temporary Chief. Her husband left her for another man, a concept the Midwest of 2010 is still struggling to grapple with. Automatic doors don’t seem to recognize her presence. Worst of all, Maurice’s weed-fogged burglary attempt on the wrong Stussy in the wrong neighborhood has left a corpse behind: her father, the secret sci-fi author. So unlike Molly Solverson or Marge Gunderson, Gloria right away has personal stakes in unraveling this conspiracy. Also unlike her sisters in law enforcement, she’ll be cynical enough to recognize how hard that’s going to be. It won’t take much to connect Maurice’s splattered remains to the burglary, but linking them to Ray and “simpatico” Nikki will be another matter entirely.

Another area where Fargo’s idiosyncrasies never get old are its music cues. “Vacant Places” seemed to go out of its way to pick songs for sound rather than meaning — literally so with its use of “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” Adriano Celentano’s 1972 track of American-sounding gibberish, for Ray and Nikki’s tournament montage. Later, Gloria’s search of her father’s house was set to Mongolian Radik Tyulyush’s throat singing. The message, ironically, is clear: how can you know what’s fact and what’s fiction, or cause and effect, if you can’t even make out the words?

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