Is there anything more comforting than seeing, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in xxxx. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred” appear on screen? For two series, Fargo has been one of the real treats on television; taking the Coen brothers’ original tone, darkness and humour and expertly transposing it to a new medium. Series one saw Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton engage in a morality tale of good versus evil, while series two saw two more innocent people get embroiled in things they shouldn’t have been near. And that’s really what Fargo is all about – fate, or if you don’t believe in fate, chance. After the opening episode of series three, it was pretty evident that these themes were about to be explored again.
East Berlin, 1988… was not the location I was expecting this series to start in. But then again, I should know better by now than to expect anything conventional in Fargo. So yes, East Berlin, 1988… a Stasi chief was sitting behind a desk interrogating a terrified man. In this cool, grey and spartan office – shadows of falling snow flecking the scenery as the interview took place – the Stasi chief was convinced that the man was someone called Yuri Gurka, and that he had killed his wife. The man denied this identity. The Stasi chief pressed in a methodical, clinical and calm way. No, you are Yuri Gurka. The man, caving into pressure from his feared interrogator, pissed himself, bodily fluid trickling into a drain on the floor. “What you are giving me are words… the wife who is alive, a different last name. That is called a story. And we are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth.”
I liked this opening scene, even though it had seemingly nothing to do with Minnesota in 2010 (there probably will be a connection later on down the line), the setting for series three. What interested me was this notion of the truth, and how Fargo presents things as such. The stories that Fargo often give us are so far-fetched, so remarkable in their quirkiness (remember the raining frogs in series one, the UFO in series two?) that we often question what the truth is, even though we’re told, at the top of each episode, that this is a true story. And it often is – the underlying themes about identity, who we are, the consequences we face after the decisions we make, greed, lust… they’re all human conditions and elements. They’re truths wrapped up in stories; wrapped up in riddles and allegories; and they’re often Biblical in feel and presentation.
So series three’s story… the Stussy brothers, Emmit and Ray (both played by Ewan McGregor), two brothers. Cain and Abel. Or in this case Cain and Not-Very-Able. Emmit, the rich, smooth business owner who has everything; Ray, the balding, paunchy bitter under-achieving parole officer, who comes to his brother’s anniversary party begging him money to fund the purchase of an engagement ring. He’s to be married to one of his clients, Nikki Swago (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has more sass than you’ve ever seen in your life), he pronounces. Straight away the brothers’ simmering rivalry began to bubble up and we found out the cause: the bequeathment of a set of vintage stamps by their late father to Emmit. Ray maintained that the stamps were for him and that Emmit cheated him out of his rightful inheritance. Emmit said he got them fair and square.
But the bitterness wouldn’t let Ray go (or vice versa), so he hired a drunk and stoned parolee who had violated his confinement rules to break into his brother’s house and steal back what was rightly his. One problem: except that Maurice – the man with the task – was so much of a stoned fuck-up he lost the slip of paper the address was written on out of the window of his car and, thinking he could remember the words and letters, went to the wrong address. And killed the man who wouldn’t hand over stamps he did not own.
Fate, chance. The domino effect, a chain reaction of catastrophic events caused by a bad decision; a fuck-up leading to carnage. It was typical Fargo.
But that wasn’t the end of the decision-making. Ray, relaxing in the bathtub with Nikki after a competitive bridge tournament (man, the characters and their quirks in this series), was interrupted by a distressed Maurice, who demanded that he now be paid for the deed he had committed. Murder was not part of the original agreement, he said walking out, stumbling slowly down the stairs trying to light a joint. Nikki sprang into life, marching into the living room in her bathrobe and began hacking away at the air conditioning unit embedded in the wall that faced the street. They were on the third floor and she counted the seconds, trying to calculate how long it would take Maurice to reach the ground floor. She had a plan and she was putting it into action while Ray paced the room, frantically trying to figure out what to do next. Still she counted as she loosened the heavy unit. Tick-tock… 21, 22, 23, 24… It was pure bravado storytelling – counting down the seconds that preceded an event to give that event extra, super-impact – and as Maurice stumbled out onto the street below, Nikki ordered Ray to give the unit a final kick. Sure enough the unit flew out, tumbled through the air and landed with a destructive thud onto Maurice’s stupid head, caving it in and ending his life with ignominy and an almost Tom And Jerry act of violence. Again typical Fargo.
Other things happened: unfortunately for Ray and Nikki the man that Maurice murdered was the step-father of local cop, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), who was the kind of character Fargo likes: a beacon of goodness, a smiling, matter-of-fact Minnesotan with not a bad bone in her body.
Emmit, too, was having problems. He took a late-night visit from VM Varga (the always brilliant David Thewlis), who was a grimacing British businessman/henchman sent by the shadowy organisation Emmit and co had borrowed money from the year before to collect his debt. Or not debt, as Varga menacingly told Emmit – to make sure there was a continuing cooperation between the two companies. Again, another character Fargo likes: the hitman or the henchman. We’ve had some goodies in previous series: Lorne Malvo, Mike Milligan, and the Coen brothers gave us Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. Now we have VM Varga, who, what looks like, another manifestation of evil, a relentless tide of menace that our characters, suddenly finding themselves in worlds they have business being in, have to deal with. They now live with the devil; a pandora’s box has been opened. We all know he it usually ends.
(But a word about Thewlis’s portrayal of Varga (another GREAT name for a villain). The fact he retained a slightly whiney, sneering Cockney accent made this tale the nearest thing to an Ealing Comedy I’ve seen so far. And we all know that the Coens love an Ealing Comedy.)
So it was a good first episode. Not quite the sparkling, dizzying mess of the first two series but certainly a strong start. An A- or a B+ maybe. There was nothing wrong with the plotting – it was as slick and as seamless as ever – in fact you could argue it was too good, if there is such a thing. Too familiar, too slick, too everything. Fargo has settled into such a groove, and has hit such a rich seam of brilliant ore, that it almost makes us complacent. Ewan McGregor, of course, was centre stage, playing two characters. Once you got over this – oh look, it’s Ewan McGregor with a bald head; oh look, there he is again with a tight perm – there was a sense of settling down.
But really, this is Fargo, and it’s still one of the best things on television.
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