The first couple episodes start off a sillier crime story.
Mistaken identity is not as prominent in the Coen Brothers filmography as you’d expect. Outside of the mix up in The Big Lebowski, this specific kind of comedy of errors can’t be found. But it has seeped into Noah Hawley’s Fargo series, which continues to check off Coens tropes as it pays tribute to their movies, quite comfortably. Yet still maybe not as we’d presume. The new season focuses on a set of lookalike brothers, but they’re not, as Shakespeare would have it, confused for each other. Instead, like in Lebowski, it’s a name that sets this caper in motion.
Following a prologue set in East Germany in 1988 involving its own tragic misidentification, Season 3 jumps to central Minnesota, this time in the year 2010, as Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) attempts to settle an old inheritance dispute with his much more successful brother, Emmit (also McGregor), aka “the Parking Lot King.” When that goes poorly, Ray, a parole officer, tries to get one of his clients (Scoot McNairy) to help out in a criminal manner, and of course that goes even worse. Hilarity ensues, blood soaks the snow, and Fargo is discernibly back.
Now that the show is in its third season (series? installment?), it is settling a bit into its own groove, so despite some familiar elements, clear homage, and even direct reference to characters from the movie Fargo, it doesn’t feel as much like a Coen Brothers pastiche as it does just another story in this independent entity. Based on the first two episodes (that’s as much as we’ve had access to ahead of the season premiere), it appears to be immediately following the same pattern where two different Midwestern communities become linked through a bungled crime that results in murder.
The formula does come from the movie— there’s also a new small town police chief (Carrie Coon) investigating the cross-jurisdiction case – but the expansive feel of these ensemble stories, which obviously have more time to play out, is more the spinoff series’ specialty. Once again there’s a mysterious devilish figure (David Thewlis), a curious pair of henchmen (Goran Bogdan and Andy Yu), fraternal sibling rivalries, and a romantic duo where the woman proves much smarter and more dominant than her usually dim-witted or oblivious male partner.
Season 3 of Fargo also has its own unique touches, most notably its interest in the world of contract bridge tournaments. Ray and his client/lover Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) play the card game, and the first two episode titles, “The Law of Vacant Places” and “The Principle of Restricted Choice,” refer to its principles. There also appears to be a subplot dealing with someone’s secret past as a pulp sci-fi novelist, possibly inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout character (Hawley is a fan of the author and is currently working on a series based on his book “Cat’s Cradle”). There may also be something timely to do with Russia.
So far, this installment seems sillier than the previous two, though that might just be an observation propelled by the catchy Russian folk song, “Kukushka” (or “The Cuckoo”), that kicks off the first episode. Fargo has had a dark comedic tone since the start, but this time it’s more consistently goofy, thanks in part to McGregor’s two distinct roles, each marked by their funny wigs (Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Emmit’s right-hand man, also has a distracting hairdo). We’re not used to him looking so strange, and as Ray in particular, the actor comes across like a Mike Myers character. Well, not that over the top, but Season 3 is at least broader than Season 2.
At this point, though, I don’t see it being as memorable as the first season in terms of its most cuckoo characters – Billy Bob Thornton’s is hard to match let alone top – nor do I think it will be as strong as the second season in terms of its performances. McGregor deserves recognition for playing such dissimilar characters, even if each might not be too praiseworthy on its own. There’s no one as enjoyable as Martin Freeman in Season 1 or as alluring as Bokeem Woodbine in Season 2. Winstead could turn out to be Season 3’s Kirsten Dunst-level talent, but we’ll have to see where the show takes her.
Of course, it’s hard to get a proper feel for this series after just two episodes, even if that’s a fifth of the way in. There’s no connection to the other seasons’ storylines, which makes it feel sort of apart and so a little off. Also, we don’t immediately get much of Coon’s character outside of some teased tension between her and a new boss played by Shea Whigam that seems too reminiscent of his position in Agent Carter (Coon’s arc reportedly picks up steam in the third episode). If there’s anything to know about Fargo, it’s that it never winds up going precisely where you expect. Hopefully I’m just mistaking Season 3’s identity for something lesser than it is.