A Look at Fargo- Season 3 Premiere: “The Law of Vacant Places”

Clicks and buzzers.

In December of 2015, we learned that Noah Hawley’s Fargo would return not in 2016, but 2017.  It was unfortunate, but not a bad thing.  Hawley himself is a busy man and we still got our fix of his work with Legion, so the drought would be temporary.

All the same, while I didn’t think that Fargo necessarily needed a second season, I wasn’t against it.  But after such a stellar first season, I didn’t know how, if at all, another season could top it.  In many respects, the second season managed to do just that.  Fast forward to now and Hawley presents us with another installment and it’s off to a strong start.  Let’s take another trip to Minnesota in “The Law of Vacant Places.”

The season begins in East Berlin, 1988, where a Stasi officer, played by Aaron Belot  receives a visit from a man who calls himself Jakob Ungerleider, played by Fabian Busch. The officer pulls out a file, turns on a recorder, and requests that Jakob have a seat.  He asks for Jakob’s current address and if his name is Yuri Gurka, but Jakob insists that he is, indeed, Jakob, and a German citizen to boot.

But based on the address in the file, this man must be Yuri.  This is problematic. If Jakob is right, then that means the state is wrong.  Okay, so Jakob admits that his name is Yuri. His wife’s name is Helga Ungerleider, not Helga Albracht, and that she’s at home.  The officer then asks if Jakob strangled his wife this morning or last night.  Jakob is adamant that his wife is alive.  She even offered tea to the soldiers who came for Jakob.

The officer presents a photo of Helga’s body- she’d been strangled and left on the banks. And the officer has seen this body and knows that Helga is dead.  It doesn’t help that there’s snow dripping from Jakob’s shoes, so the notion of his wife having the same first name, yet different last name as a recently killed woman is a stretch.  And the officer wants the truth.

This is a true story.

But enough about that.  We transition to Minnesota, 2010, and enter a swanky office as Emmit Stussy, played by Ewan McGregor, and his companion, Sy Feltz, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, speak with a third party, Buck Olander, played by Dan Willmott, about some complications.  The two have been trying to get in touch with someone, but haven’t even been able to leave a message.  They just got a series of clicks and buzzers.

So they thought they’d bring in Buck, since Buck vouched for him, but that’s it.  Buck doesn’t know the guy, just vouched.  He’s just an information conduit.  Everything went great last year when Emmit and Sy met the broker last year, guy by the name of Mr. Rick Ehrmantraut, and now the company is in the black.  But when Emmit called to arrange payback, just got clicks and buzzers.  And that’s a lot of money sitting on the books.

Sy then mentions that there’s this widow storage queen that Goldfarb wants to meet, as she’s been sniffing around for a possible silent partner type arrangement.

Downstairs, at the festivities, Emmit addresses the crowd about the day when he met his beau, Stella, played by Linda Kash, 25 years ago.  Over dinner, she asked Emmit where she lived, and turns out she lived in the same apartment as him for three years.  A week later, she moved in with him.

Down the line, they’re still together.  And now they’ve got Grace, played by Caitlynne Medrek, and her husband, Dennis, played by Niko Koupantsis.  Everyone raises a toast to Stella.

In the back, watching this play out, are Ray Stussy, also played by Ewan McGregor, and Nikki Swango, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.  Sy approaches Ray and tells him that he’s got five minutes.

Emmit greets the crowd as he watches Ray head upstairs.  He’s brought into Emmit’s office, which, among other things, has a framed stamp that Ray eyes.  When Emmit arrives, Ray congratulates his brother on the new place which, luck would have it, just had the floors done.  They talk of Grace and Dennis’ exclusive ceremony on a beach in Cabo. Invite said no shoes, even.

Yes, Emmit went, but in his defense, it was a high end resort.  And Ray takes offense to this, thinking that he wasn’t invited because he’s just a parole officer.  He announces to his brother that he’s getting engaged to Nikki, who, through a brief flashback, we see that Ray met when she was carted in one day and fell head over heels for her on first sight.

Ray doesn’t want Sy here, but Sy is always present for money conversations, and turns out that Ray wants to buy Nikki a ring.  He figures that Emmit owes him from what happened when they were kids.  But Emmit has already fronted Ray $850 for car repairs, not to mention co-signing Ray’s mortgage so he could get his apartment.  Even still, it’s not the best time.

Okay, that’s fine.  Then Ray will take the stamp and threatens to sue if he doesn’t get what he wants.  However, Emmit says that it was a trade, with him getting the stamps and Ray getting the red Corvette.  And a legal document bequeaths certain things to specific parties.  And Emmit never asked what he got from the vintage collection as a whole.  Still, Ray wants to do right by Nikki, but he ends up leaving empty handed.

He later tells Nikki that it apparently wasn’t the best time, but he’ll still handle this.  A valet brings around the Corvette.  Ray gives the valet a tip: get a real job.

On the road, Nikki tells Ray about the upcoming Wildcat regional bridge game on Thursday. The top three mixed pairs qualify for the Upper Wisconsin semi professional. Sounds lucrative, but Nikki isn’t allowed to leave the state.  Hell, they’re not even supposed to be dating, so keep that a secret.  But there’s still big money ready for the both of them, and Nikki’s talking beyond regionals.

If they get themselves on the local map, bridge-wise, they could come across sponsorship opportunities bordering on six figures.  That way, the two of them won’t need Emmit or his money.

Over at the Red Owl Market, all is quiet until there’s a visitor.  It’s here that we meet Gloria Burgle, played by Nora Durst herself, Carrie Coon.  Gloria’s here to pick up her son, Nathan, played by Graham Verchere, all while her stepfather, Ennis, played by Scott Hylands, stays at the shop.

Ray, meanwhile, does his parole work and talks with his parolees, all while taking their urine.  He’s not exactly that attentive or interested in their issues, and I can’t say that I blame him.

Sometime later, he drops by a bar and meets up with Maurice LeFay, played by Scoot McNairy, who failed his urine test.  He drops off the failing paper and tells Maurice that this could get him revoked.  Maurice wants to know why they’re meeting at a bar instead of Ray’s office, but Ray has use of Maurice, based on his last stint when he broke a rich house and stole some flat screen TVs.

And now, Ray has a place that needs some robbing.  If Maurice can deliver, then this problems go away.up Maurice’s last stretch for theft.  He knows a place that needs to be relieved of a certain vintage stamp, and if Maurice can do this, his failed test will vanish. Maurice asks why Ray can’t just ask for this item back if he needs it, but it’s a complicated matter.  Ray then hands Maurice an address.

That evening, Emmit gets a phone call from Sy, who tells him that someone just arrived at the office.  He prepares to leave, but luckily, Stella informs him that he’s in his house shoes.  Never leave your house in your house shoes.

On the road, Maurice talks on the phone to his therapist about how morgues never go on the top floor of a hospital.  It’s always in the basement, like its own elevator.  Maurice, turns out, has real insightful thoughts like this.  Like does a JC Penney close down just so the President can buy his clothes?  He tells his parole officer that when Ray was mean to him, it left him feeling down.

He maintains that he’s not hurting anyone or getting high, but when he’s called out on that, he rolls down his window to toss out his smoke.  The breeze then takes the slip with Emmit’s address, so Maurice is forced to stop the car and trudge through the heavy snow to find it.  He soon gives up, claiming that he remembers the address anyway.  Sure.

Emmit arrives at his office and meets up with Sy.  The two speak with their mysterious visitor: V.M. Varga, played by David Thewlis.  Emmit thanks Varga for the loan from his firm, Narwhal, and he’s ready to pay it back now that his company is in the black.  Varga, though, tells Emmit that he can keep it.

Sy and Emmit maintain that they borrowed a hefty sum, so they figure someone like Varga would want that sum back with interest.  Oh, but in Varga’s mind, that money wasn’t a loan.  More like an investment.  You can’t confuse singularity with continuity.  No point in ending something that’s just begun.

Emmit and Sy were apparently clear about a short term when they signed the legal documents last year.  And Sy knows this- he’s a lawyer.  Even though a document is just a piece of paper, it is still legally binding.  Varga reminds Emmit that, at his low moment with the real estate business, and after trying all normal channels like banks, he came to Varga’s company for a loan.

Thing is, Narwhal loaned the $1 million loan, but didn’t ask for collateral, and Emmit never asked why.  And that point, not now, is when Emmit should’ve asked questions.  Narwhal has taken the past year to study Emmit’s business so they can better disguise their activities.  That first sum was an investment, and all future funds will run through the front office, like all other Stussy income- a thousand or so a month.

In addition, Narwhal will have to account for the comings and goings in Emmit’s software. Yeah, they’ve already got access to Emmit’s system just to monitor his activity and make sure he’s adjusting.  Also, it goes without saying that Emmit and Sy shouldn’t mention this to anyone.

Later, Ennis presents a figurine to Nathan for his birthday.  Also, things are changing in Gloria’s life- there could be a potential absorption of the local precinct into the larger county force. Gloria would still be the highest ranking local officer, just not Chief.  Nathan, meanwhile, is heading away for the weekend to spend time with his his father and his partner, Dale.

Dale and his partner haven’t been together that long, but if they got married, Dale would become Nathan’s stepfather.  Huh.  How slightly progressive for 2010 Minnesota.

Then we cut to Nikki and Ray arriving at the world’s most intense bridge tournament ever.  They take their seat and begin the game.  I doubt bridge is this intense, but it’s still a great scene to watch.

Back on the road, Maurice is trying to remember Emmit’s address, but he’s still under the influence.  He spots a sign that reads Eden Valley and believes this is where he’s supposed to go, never mind that it’s actually Eden Prairie.  Whoops.

He later arrives at a store and asks for a phone book, but the clerk won’t give it to him until he gets roughed up a bit.  Maurice looks through it and, after finding the address, tears out the page.  Such disrespect for public phone books.

Back at the house, Ennis, who is in the middle of watching something very familiar looking on television, gets a drink from the freezer when he spots approaching headlights.

On the road, Gloria asks Nathan, who have left for the night, talk about the model Ennis made until Nathan realizes that he left it at the house.  Gloria offers to swing by and pick it up in the morning, but she soon relents and makes a B-word back to the house.

But when they arrive, Gloria finds the front door already ajar.  She finds the house now in disarray and finds Ennis dead in the kitchen- strapped to a chair with his nose and mouth glued shut.  She hears rumbling from upstairs and orders Nathan back to the police cruiser, where he’s to call Donny and tell him to radio the state police.  Before heading back in, she grabs a shotgun from the trunk.  Betsy Solverson would be proud.

She searches the home up and down, but finds no one.  As she examines a desk, she figures that the intruder came looking for something.  After hearing a creek in the floor, she pulls up some floorboards and finds a box.  Inside, some books- among them is one with a cover that features characters very similar to the figurine that Ennis made for Nathan.

With bridge over, Ray and Nikki head to Nikki’s place and congratulate themselves on their third runner up win.  So great that Nikki posted it on Facebook.  A jittery Maurice soon enters and informs Ray that the operation didn’t go well, but Ray reminds him that no one was to be hurt.  Maurice explains that he went out to Eden Valley and robbed who Ray wanted to get robbed, but then Ray corrects him on the name Eden Prairie.

Naturally, Nikki isn’t pleased that Ray would hire one of his parolees to steal from Emmit, but he did it in the name of love so Nikki would have a ring.  Oh, but Maurice isn’t done explaining himself yet.  He’s unsure that Ray and his brother were related, given the age difference, but he got what Ray wanted.  Except it’s not a stamp that he got.

Ray gets rough with Maurice, prompting him to pull out his gun.  He thinks he managed to cover his tracks, but he now wants  $5000 since Ray touched him.  That’s more than fair, considering the man Maurice robbed is probably dead.  Maurice doesn’t reveal his name to Nikki, but she makes a fair point when she mentions that she’s seen his face and Ray already knows his name anyway.  A valid point, so Maurice tells her his name.

So Nikki stands up, ass-naked, and asks for a towel.  This would be Ray’s cue to take the gun, but like any normal person, he’s too distracted by Nikki’s naked body to grab it and when he makes an attempt, he fails.  Hey, anyone would be distracted by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s naked body, so I’ll give Ray a pass.  Anyway, Maurice gives Ray one day to get the money or he’ll go to the cops.  That or kill them.  He then leaves.

Almost immediately, Nikki starts counting while she grabs a screwdriver and begins to unscrew the air conditioner.  She asks Ray to look out the other window to see if he can spot Maurice.

Indeed, he’s outside taking a smoke and is directly in the line of fire and right where he needs to be when Ray kicks out the air conditioner.  It lands smack dab on Maurice, killing him instantly.  A now ‘distraught’ Nikki calls the police.

And Nikki has been trying to get the landlord take out the air conditioner unit for weeks- it’s on record, even.  Tonight, it just ‘happened’ to come loose.  As she speaks with officers over the phone, she tells Ray to leave since, as Maurice’s probation officer, he shouldn’t be there.  Nikki’s covered her bases here, too, as she gave a fake name when she rented the place- a violation of her probation, but clever plan nonetheless.

At the same time, Nathan and Gloria sit outside their home just as Nathan’s father, Ron, played by Andrew Moxham, and Dale, played by Joel Labelle, come to pick up Nathan. The three leave while Gloria no doubt prepares to get to work.

Welcome back to Fargo, indeed.

Okay, can we start with this episode’s title?  I’ve never played bridge, so I’ll confess to giving this a search online, but in the game of bridge, the law of vacant places refers to guessing the location of a card in any of the four hands.  Again, a guess.  Now a guess can turn out to be true, but there’s grounds for it to be just an estimation with little to no truth or basis in reality.

So much of Fargo, whether the film or this series, is often based on assumptions.  And assumptions make asses out of us, so an assumption can lead to a bad or wrong decision.  And that can lead to someone getting hurt, no matter how much you try to convince yourself that you made the right decision.

Whether the cold opening that Hawley presents to us comes into play later, it does a good job setting up the narrative of stories versus the truth, made evident in the sibling rivalry between Ray and Emmit.  Despite their relation, they live in two different worlds and tell themselves a story that they consider the true version.  Which is based in reality? We as an audience don’t know, but are left to guess for ourselves.

Emmit has affluence, popularity, and respect from all around him.  Despite his wealth and power, he’s not above guesses that could come back and bite him later.  It could have just been him assuming the best in Narwhal when the company didn’t ask for interest in addition to the $1 million ‘loan.’

And since he didn’t think to ask questions or figure anything out of the sort, he’s in business with a shady organization that has already infiltrated his business like a virus.

We don’t spend much time with Varga, and I’m fine with that because there’s an air of mystery to him that I wouldn’t want revealed in one scene.  He’s no Lorne Malvo, but David Thewlis is great in his performance and has an air of menace about him.

On the flip side of this rivalry is Ray, who got the short end of the stick and is already disinterested with his job as a parole officer.  He makes some bad decisions, but he’s not altogether an unsympathetic character.  He’s motivated part out of desperation, but also by his love for Nikki.

So in Ray’s mind, he’s the one robbed of the wealth that Emmit craves, although Emmit remembers a different version.  He’s willing to do what it takes to get what he feels he deserves, but he has his limits and does abide by a code.  He warns Nikki against leaving the state because of her probation, acknowledges that the two of them shouldn’t be dating, and didn’t want Maurice to harm anyone while retrieving the stamp.

I say this because while it would be easy to paint Ray as a dimwit compared to Emmit, he has more layers than that.  Since he’s down on his luck and trying to make something of himself, I find him more relatable than Emmit, who looks to already have what he wants.  While Ray has his love for Nikki, he wants to do right by her, so he’s willing to take risks.  And of the twins, I find Ray to be the stronger of McGregor’s performance.

He has great chemistry with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Nikki seems to be the brains of this relationship, but not in a bossy way.  Nikki wants money, but she’s not vapid or materialistic.  There’s a genuine bond between the two and I buy that Ray would fall in love with her at first sight, even though she’s not overflowing with money or living in a mansion. When she calls Ray’s gesture to get her a ring romantic, I believe it.

It’s also clear that she’s smarter than one would give her credit for, given how much she maps out in advance.  She’s even creating her own stories both with the falsified information she used in order to get the apartment and the possibility that she and Ray could receive six figure sponsorships if they wind up on the local bridge map, even though there’s no guarantee.

But if there’s one thing that isn’t left to chance, it’s the hilarious way in which she manages to kill Maurice when she’s counting and unscrewing the air conditioner.  For a moment, I thought the show would fake us out and Maurice would take one step too many so the air conditioner unit would miss him.

But I was wrong and Maurice wound up a bloody mess on the ground.  In typical Fargo fashion, there isn’t an overabundance of violence, but what violence we do get is very gruesome and manages to bring the quiet, Minnesota community to a screeching halt during an otherwise mundane day.

Sticking with Maurice for a second, he’s another character who takes part in telling his own stories.  He claims that he allegedly stole flat screen televisions, but once he’s convicted, as Ray points out, the alleged part turns into a bonafide fact.  And rather than rely on Ray’s instructions, he creates his own scenario where Emmit lives not in a mansion, but in an unassuming home.  And Emmit is also apparently an old man.

So even if Maurice hadn’t met his death by air conditioner, he might’ve wound up dead before the season ended anyway.

But it’s this murder of an innocent person that brings in the local officer that we’ve come to expect with Fargo.  Otherwise, there’s nothing that ties them to the sibling rivalry.  At the same time, like Marge, Molly, and Lou before her, Gloria is no fool.  I mean, she can’t seem to work an automatic door, but that aside, this small town cop goes from passive to authoritative when she senses something amiss at her stepfather’s home.

Before that, she refers to a U-turn as a B-word and tries to talk to her son about two men getting married, but as soon as trouble’s afoot, she’s grabbing a shotgun, giving orders to Nathan on what to do if someone attacks him, and enters the home with trained precision.

And by episode’s end, whatever calmness she had going on has been shattered by Ennis’ unfortunate death, but she’ll no doubt get to the bottom of it, setting her on a collision course with the other characters.

I love Carrie Coon in the role already.  She’s a great actress with a ton of range and if you need any proof of that, just watch The Leftovers.  Oddly enough, at the time of writing this, The Leftovers has just started its third and final season just as this show began its third a few days later.

In fact, I have a theory: on The Leftovers, we know that Coon’s character, Nora, is going to be leaving.  Not for the convenience of having her story take place off-screen so Coon can appear on Fargo, but because she’s traveling to Australia.  In my own story, I’d like to believe that Nora’s leaving because she’s been summoned to handle a situation in Minnesota, thus connecting us to Fargo.

Hey, if the characters can make up their own versions of story to fit their narrative, why can’t I?

By the way, this was first pointed out on Reddit, but did you notice what Ennis was watching on television?  Have a look here.

Now look back at this image from Season 2, Episode 9: “The Castle.”  Notice any similarities?  Could be a stretch, but if that’s intentional, that is damn clever on Hawley’s part.  Now to see if UFOs make any random appearances in this season, too.

“The Law of Vacant Places” is a strong return for Fargo.  While on first viewing, I don’t think I like it as much as “The Crocodile Dilemma” from Season 1 or “Waiting for Dutch” from Season 2, this was still a solid premiere that sets up our group of characters and gave us the same dark humor we’re accustomed to from Fargo.  Looking forward to the rest of the season.

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