What Are You Going to Do When Everybody’s Insane: Fargo, “The Law of Vacant Places”

There’s a bit of Jerry Lundegaard in Ewan McGregor’s Ray Stussey, surprisingly, in his Emmit, too. Incredibly, neatly wrapped in their individuality, the two wholes of quite opposite brothers come together to form a perfect mess of a fella. In McGregor’s pairing, Noah Hawley has created another perfect Fargo foil.

“… we are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth”. And so kicks off a Kafkaesque Season 3 opening in 1988 Berlin, to the sounds of The Cuckoo, with an unknowingly duplicitous man questioned by a German officer. Accused of being Jakob Ungerleider — not, as he claims, Yuri Gurka — and killing his girlfriend (Helga Albrecht), the officer sets his story straight as the man quietly pees his pants, and with that we’re off to Minnesota, circa 2010, by the flutter of shadowy snowflakes ominously floating down, down, down. (What a gorgeous, detailed shot that was.)

Any worries we’d had about Ewan McGregor’s accent or his uncanny ability to split in two are disappeared as quickly as his movie star persona; a man simply melts into his roles and accepting his quirky pairing required zero effort, thanks to the actor’s natural gift. Diving right into a quirky meeting between Emmit, his bestie and right hand attorney, Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), and another businessman, the Fargospeak settles us in with a series of clicks and buzzers, a discussion about paying back a company debt to some unknown benefactor (David Thewlis’ V. M. Varga) who’ll later reveal his motives in a most disconcerting conversation. Shortly thereafter, having heard Emmit’s Harry and Sally-ish anniversary meet cute tale, we’re clued in on a point of contention between Emmit and his true better half (though not good enough for a wedding invite), Ray. Of “stolen” vintage stamps or, depending upon who’s telling the story, a fair deal for a little, red Corvette, we find the difference between two brothers’ standing may be as small as a postage square … but oh, the consequences of letting a little sticky thing go. Still, Ray’s about-to-be fiancée, Nikki Swango (the fabulous Mary Elizabeth Winstead) deserves a sweet ring, and she more than proves her merit in the hour’s last scene. Nikki also has her own plan for how they can get the money; it involves love, playing bridge and Ray’s “steely gaze striking fear into the hearts of the elderly”. But first, we’ve got a few other nifty denizens to meet.

This season’s not-Marge is Carrie Coon’s police chief (’till the end of the year, anyway), Gloria Burgle, fresh off her husband leaving her for another man; her son, Nathan (Graham Verchere)  and step-father (unfortunately named), Ennis Stussey run the town store, standing in for this year’s diner, I suppose. At a low key — “Happy Birthday or whatever” — family dinner, Ennis gives Nathan a carving that serves as the catalyst to a brilliantly choreographed (and soundtracked, [Oskus Urug Radik Tülüsh] by Jeff Russo) scene, with Gloria discovering Ennis was (mistakenly) murdered during Ray’s parolee, Maurice’s (Scoot McNairy) bungled burglary. With a reassuring “I got it. I’m chief” to her worried son, Gloria makes another strange discovery, and one viewers must be just as curious to discern — why is Ennis’ carving is kinda-exactly (there’s this season’s alien sorted) like one pictured on the cover of The Planet Wyh? And, why did her stepdad hide those books under the floorboards?

“The Law of Vacant Places'” finest scene is also its final one, with another powerhouse performance by the show’s other brilliant woman, who simply astounds everyone when she simultaneously and instantaneously assesses a threat, comes up with the plan and carries it out to utter, literal jaw-dropping — Ray’s reactions are glorious —  perfection. That poor coyote never saw the anvil air conditioner coming, and in one fell swoop, Nikki wiped away their biggest problem …

… for now, because we know by set (both the Coens’ and Hawley’s) Fargo standards, Gloria stands at the other end of this puzzle, ear (and gun) necessarily cocked, unexpected clues left for her to find. As laid out in this wickedly humorous, lighthearted yet ominous opener, a whole barrel of shit’s about to come rolling down the hill. And though Gloria and Nikki are each smart enough to get out of its path, we know two very odd and different but similar brothers (plus, a few others, we’re sure) are about to find themselves inescapably buried.


Deep Thoughts:

Adore Hawley’s continued smart women in charge of everything theme. We slip directly from Legion‘s Syd and Melanie (and previously Fargo Gerhardts) to this season’s Nikki and Gloria, and we couldn’t ask for better actresses or characters. Coon (doing double duty with HBO’s The Leftovers) and Winstead are both great in these roles.

The stamp displayed on Emmit’s wall is part of this season’s collection; it depicts Sisyphus rolling a boulder uphill. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus and his brother Salmoneusa couldn’t stand each other, and Sisyphus schemed to kill Salmoneus. Having cheated death multiple times, himself, the egoistic brother was punished for his conceit and deviousness, condemned by the gods to forever roll a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back down and forcing Sisyphus to start over.

In the game of bridge, the “Law of Vacant Places” is a way of calculating the most likely location of a card; as cards in players’ hands become known, the odds on where a particular card must be are constantly updated, narrowing the odds of the location of the card.

Amusing that Nikki and Ray met when he became her parole officer; after the A/C … incident, he reminds her she’s in violation. WHO CARES? “You, you’re so sexy!” That was a brilliant bit of Road Runnery right there. Kudos to Scoot McNairy, who made the absolute most of his relatively small contribution as the bumbling Maurice.

Was that Varga in the car, smoking and watching Ray and Nikki when they came out after their 3rd place bridge showing? Or is it this guy, who passed them on the sidewalk?

Nikki and Ray are adorable together. That whole “I’m the bottle, you’re the glass” thing was so fun.

“Quiet, I’m counting!” Seriously though, Nikki is so the brains of this pair — it took Ray SO LONG to figure out what she was doing.

The character names are simply delightful:  Nikki Swango, Gloria Burgle, Sy Feltz, V.M. Vargas … Stussey, Stussey and Stussey!

Pee plays an oddly connective role in this episode.

The scenes in black and white with dashes of red; stunning. Just gorgeous.

Just in case it comes up again, Emmit’s house number is 914.

The paper Maurice lost out his window, the one with Emmit’s address on it, was an actual (dirty … HEY!) “Things to Remember” note from a pad.

The music:

The Cuckoo, Ural Cossacks Choir
Crazy on You, Heart
Moanin‘ Lambert, Hendricks and Ross
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear Burl Ives
Prisencolinensinainciusol Adriano Celentano
Oskus Urug Radik Tülüsh
S.O.B. Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

Great lines:

Vargas to Emmit:  “You had a problem, as you said, last year. Tried normal channels … came to us. Never thought to ask why we’d lend you a million dollars with no collateral? That was the time for questions, not this. We’ve taken the time to study your business, so we can better disguise our activities”.

Emmit to Vargas:  “Where you from?”
Vargas:  “America.”

Maurice in his car, on the phone:  “Where does the president of the United States buy his clothes? Do they shut down the whole JC Penney?”

Maurice to Ray about Ennis (who he thought was Emmit):  “Although, I gotta say, brother must’ve been from another mother”.

Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis has been writing about the entertainment industry for ​over ten years, and is the ​Editor-in-Chief at Oohlo, where she muses over television, movies, and pop culture. Previous Senior News Editor at Pajiba, and published at BUST.

You may also like...