"Fargo" is back and the snowy fields of Minnesota have never looked more menacing.
Show creator Noah Hawley promised a third season filled with mistaken identities, sibling rivalry and general mayhem, and we're going to get it: Last night's premiere delivered a body count and more talk about playing bridge than any other show on television.
Hawley's Minnesota isn't the real Minnesota, for the record. He's said it himself. Consider it a reflection in a fun-house mirror: always entertaining, not always flattering. This Minnesota is a place of permanent winter, where the accents are thicker than the parkas and where one bad decision can have 10 episodes of lethal consequences.
The plot of the show's third season is set to revolve around two warring brothers, Ray and Emmit Stussy. Emmit's got it all: He's the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary with ice sculptures and champagne at his sprawling house in Eden Prairie. Ray, on the other hand, is less financially and follically blessed. He's a parole officer trying to scrape together the money to buy a nice ring for his fiance — who also happens to be his parolee. (You can't choose who you love, right?)
Both Emmit and Ray are played by Ewan McGregor, who has traded in his natural Scottish brogue for his best shot at a Minnesota accent. (I'll give him a "A" on his mastery of two roles, and a "B" on the accent for now.)
But Hawley never tells a story without a twist, and the opening scenes of "Fargo" don't start anywhere near the Midwest. The show opens instead in an interrogator's office in 1988 Berlin. Why? It may take all season for this German field trip to pay off, but that's the genius slow burn of "Fargo."
As the German interrogator tells his quivering captive, an unlucky man who has been mistaken for a murderer: "We are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth."
"Fargo," of course, always puts itself forth as the truth. Both the Coen brothers' original film and the first two seasons wrapped themselves in the sheen of a "true story."
The third season does just the same: The following really happened, the opening credits insist, in Minnesota in 2010.
Ray has come to Emmit's valeted, catered, champagne-bubbly anniversary party to right a long-buried wrong. Their father died when they were just teenagers, we learn, and he left them two things: A red Corvette and a sheet of old stamps.
Ray went for the Corvette. Emmit got the stamps — stamps that turned out later to be very rare and very valuable.
Years later, Ray still feels swindled by the uneven deal. He has come to collect, to get "his stamp" — which is framed and hanging on Emmit's wall — but Emmit, at the insistence of his lawyer and mustachioed sidekick, Sy Feltz, issues a hard "No." Not another dime and not another favor for Ray and his questionable life choices.
(Does that stamp look familiar, "Fargo" fans? A man pushing a boulder up the hill? Shades of the Sisyphus theme from season two.)
Rebuffed, Ray storms out of the party, trailed by fur-coated Nikki Swango, his parolee fiancee who has big dreams of sweeping the competitive bridge-playing circuit. (Can someone explain bridge to me before we get any further into this season?) Swango is played with absolute delight by Mary Elizabeth Winstead: She knows what she wants, and nothing like a little parole violation is going to stop her.
They tear off out of Emmit's place in that seen-better-days red Corvette with the license plate ACE HOLE.
Back in the house, Emmit has more troubles than just his stamp-coveting brother. He made certain arrangements during the recession to keep his parking lot empire afloat, and now the loan has come due. It's not that he doesn't have the money to repay it — he just doesn't know who to repay. He keeps calling the number he has on hand, but all he gets are "clicks and buzzers."
"Fargo" business tip No. 1: Always know who you're really borrowing from.
The story takes a detour from the brothers' escalating tensions out to Eden Valley. (Not to be confused with Eden Prairie. Really. Don't mix them up. It won't end well.)
Eden Valley is a small town outside St. Cloud — so small the two-person police department is being swallowed up by the county.
The takeover means current Eden Valley chief of police Gloria Burgle (yes, Burgle), played by Carrie Coon, could soon be out of a job. But she's not ready to deal with that just yet. She's divorced with a young teenage son — her ex-husband is now in a relationship with a man — and she still makes time for dinner with her beer-guzzling, elderly stepfather, even if the table isn't overflowing with affection. ("Happy birthday or whatever," the old man says, as he hands a hand-carved gift to her son. There's that Minnesota Nice.)
That grouchy old man, Burgle's stepfather — Ennis — has the distinct misfortune of sharing the last name with our troubled brothers: Stussy.
Meanwhile, if you're a man who needs help with a crime, being a parole officer is just darn convenient, it turns out. Ray is not ready to give up on that stamp. He crafts a a plan to steal it back.
Armed with a failed drug test, Ray makes a deal with one of his more vacant-minded parolees, Maurice LeFay. If Maurice breaks into Emmit's house and liberates the stamp, then voila, the failed drug test will disappear.
Simple enough? Not for Maurice.
Emmit's tangled finances are about to get more complicated, too. Just when he's settling in for the night, he gets a call from the office. There's a man there, at last, to talk about the loan.
That man is V.M. Varga, whose rotten, twisted teeth may be the true window to his soul. He's played with cool, British menace by David Thewlis. (Anyone concerned that no shady eccentric character could top Bokeem Woodbine's character from last season, this may be your guy.)
Varga has some news for Emmit about his parking lot empire: It's no longer just his. That million dollars wasn't a loan, it turns out: It was an investment. And now that Varga understands how Emmit's business works, they're going to keep pouring money into it, and taking it right back out.
Somehow the Parking Lot King has become a money-laundering stooge, and there's nothing he can do about it.
The story then veers back onto the snowy roads, to follow Maurice on his burglary errand. As he drives, he spills his deep thoughts to his therapist over the phone. (Where does a president buy his suits, he wonders. Do they just shut down a whole J.C. Penney while he shops?)
Balancing phone therapy, a spliff and the sheet with Emmit's address proves to be too much for Maurice: The address slip get sucked out of the window and into a snowbank.
Maurice is left to operate from memory. Which place was he supposed to rob? Where did Emmit live again? It was something biblical, he remembers. He spots a sign for Eden Valley. That was the one... Right?
He terrorizes a gas station attendant to get the phone book for Eden Valley, and as luck would have it, he finds a Stussy.
He's back on track, he thinks. Just needs to get that stamp.
Gloria is the one to stumble on the season's first murder gone wrong: She turns her police car around when her son realizes he forgot the hand-carved model back at Ennis' house.
By the time she arrives, the front door is wide open, the TV's turned to static, and Maurice's work is done. She finds Ennis duct-taped to the chair in the kitchen, the mist of the open freezer pouring over him, his eyes glazed over. Dead.
She searches the house, but Maurice has come and gone. She finds nothing except a box of old sci-fi novels hidden beneath the floorboards. Strangely, she notes, the cover of one novel mirrors the model that Ennis had carved for her son.
So, there's our sci-fi angle: There may be no UFOs like season two, but there's something about aliens that Hawley can't let go.
Miles away, at Nikki's apartment, Nikki and Ray are taking a victory bath after coming in third at the competitive bridge meet. (Meet? Match? Tournament? Help me with the bridge lingo here, folks.) Third is pretty good, Ray notes. "In the Olympics, that's bronze!"
But their candle-lit celebration is disrupted when Maurice stumbles into the bathroom.
"I'm not gonna lie," he says. "It didn't go smooth." (That could be the motto for all "Fargo.")
The guy put up a fight, he says, but he got the stamps.
Maurice shows Ray exactly that: A sheet of regular postal stamps. The yelling and mayhem begins. In the scuffle, Maurice pulls a gun and demands $5,000 — he says he needs to leave town for a while, on account of the murder. He gives Ray one day to get him the cash, and back out of the apartment.
This is just the kind of gesture Nikki's looking for, apparently: She finds Ray's plotting romantic. There's just the little problem of Maurice...
From the moment he leaves the apartment, Nikki starts counting. She's doing calculations in her head: How long will it take him to get downstairs? How long will it take him to step outside?
Armed with a screwdriver, she starts pounding on her window air-conditioner, wrenching it free. Counting and wrenching. Counting and banging. Her timing is spot-on: With one last kick from Ray, the air-conditioning unit breaks free from the window and tumbles end over end, smashing Maurice LeFay flatter than a pancake on Nikki's front sidewalk.
So, that's one body down by the light of the freezer and one body down underneath the A/C.
Final body count for the premiere of "Fargo's" third season: Two. The cold is deadly.