FARGO, Season 3, Ep. 2: “The Principle of Restricted Space”

The eccentric mysterious criminal “businessman” V.M. Varga and his Russian thugs show what they’re capable of in “Fargo,” Season 3’s “The Principle of Restricted Space.”

The FX series “Fargo” takes viewers on a “true crime” adventure through the snow-swept landscape of Minnesota. Based on the Coen Brothers Academy Award winning film “Fargo,” each season of the TV series explores a new story cast from the themes of innocence lost, human failings, and the redemptive power of goodness.

Northern Minnesota author Aaron J. Brown reviews each episode of “Fargo” with an eye for unique details from the place where the show is set.

Now, for this week’s review. I rate the details from INTERESTING  (bad), to COULD BE WORSE (not so good) to PRETTY GOOD (not so bad), and OH, YA! (real good then).

Beware the spoilers.

The Principle of Restricted Space

(Original air date: April 26, 2017)

An older technology-averse Minnesota lawyer pecks out a name on The Google with his index fingers … and you won’t believe what happens next.

In “The Principle of Restricted Space” the menacing events of last week’s premier settle quickly. The blood from where the air conditioner squished Maurice still stains the sidewalk outside Nikki’s apartment. Nevertheless, she and Ray appear to have gotten away with the crime, or at least Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) thinks so.

Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coons) is on the case, trying to figure out who murdered her step-father Ennis. In the “Fargo” tradition, the protagonist quickly demonstrates good police work. She learns that the man she knew as Ennis Stussy lived as a science fiction writer named Thaddeus Mobley. We also learn that her relationship with the man was even more strained than previously believed. Ennis was only married to Gloria’s mother for four years and he played little role in raising her. But she believed that her son needed a male role model after her divorce. (Her husband left her for a man and moved away, further complicating her feelings). So she brought him back into her life, only for she and her son to lose him to a case of mistaken identity.

We get some procedural drama as Gloria learns that her title of “Chief of Police” is no more. Absorbed into the county sheriff’s department, she’s now just an officer who happens to be stationed in Eden Valley. The tension between her and her new boss will no doubt play a role in the story to come.

Meantime, the brotherly war between Emmit and Ray Stussy (two different versions of Ewen McGregor) escalates. At Nikki’s prompting, Ray embarks on a mission to steal the “Myth of Sisyphus” stamp himself. However, he finds that pretending to bury the hatchet while Nikki steals the stamp feels pretty good. Unfortunately, Nikki doesn’t know that. In sneaking into Emmit’s house, she finds that Emmit has moved the stamp. She takes offense that he’s replaced the framed stamp with a picture of a donkey. So Nikki again drives the narrative of the story forward. Going rogue, or more accurately rouge, she does something horrible with a used tampon in Emmit’s office.

For Emmit and his business associate Sy, this is unforgivable — and deeply uncomfortable. Emmit and Ray are now at war.

But Emmit has a much bigger problem than his brother. The strange and shady V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) has not only imposed himself as an unwanted business partner to Ennis’s parking lot company, he’s literally taking over office space and parking lots for his own use. Ennis seeks the help of his lawyer Irv Blumkin, asking him to research Varga. But even the act of searching Varga’s name on Google proves fatal.

All Emmit and Sy can do is watch and pretend they aren’t angry and scared. What’s in the truck? Turns out to be office equipment and files. But maybe the next one has “slave girls,” as Sy suggests. We just don’t know.

This episode gave us something we don’t often see from Noah Hawley’s “Fargo”: a place-holder. Despite the fact that poor Irv Blumkin gets thrown off the top of a parking garage, the episode featured little action. Just constriction. Tightening. Pressure.

Still, I am still looking for more out of this season. All the classic “Fargo” elements may be found. The unwelcome incursion of evil (Varga). The noble, traditional view of good (Gloria). But normally the flawed characters who dwell in between these extremes draw more sympathy. Their motives are clear, understandable. You could relate to some of the Gerhardts in Season Two, or even Lester Nygaard in Season One. Even though the show remains entertaining and well-shot, the character dynamic in Season Three feels muddled.


Notes on the Minnesota details:

Set in 2010, the characters in this “Fargo” story clearly struggle with technology. In fact, technology might prove to be one of the dominant themes of Season 3. As police chief, Gloria Burgle never took the city’s computers out of the boxes. Instead, she stashed them in the closet. She makes coffee on the stove. Even automatic drip is too much tech for her world. Automatic doors don’t seem to notice her.

In 2010, heck, even today, the encroachment of technology into everyday life becomes a big part of conversation and controversy in rural Minnesota. That was when “your parents” signed up for Facebook. ALL CAPS status updates about the weather started appearing. Longstanding institutions began to develop terrible webpages. The tech existed long before then, but this is when the technophobes were forced to reckon with the future. Like the Reconstruction South, the 2010s become a period of occupation for rustic traditionalists.

In fact, the whole sequence involving the older lawyer Irv Blumkin and his secretary and their ill-fated Google search could be a parable. You have to suspend disbelief a little. Irv searches “V.M. Varga” to find only one search result. It’s an unmarked file, which he choses to download. “No,” calls out his secretary, too late. Once downloaded the program takes a webcam picture of Irv and the secretary and then shuts down all the computers in the office.

Now, this whole thing is implausible, but it’s effectively menacing. Having your computer taken over?Random people looking at you? Bad things happening later? That’s what everyone in Irv’s generation thinks will happen with this infernal machines. I once served on a board of directors for an organization. Tasked with starting a webpage, I once had to explain to a fellow member of the board that just because we would have a webpage would not mean that a stranger could randomly post pornography on it.

But in Irv’s case, the worst DOES happen. The fears are justified! Great element. I hope the show explores this theme further. OH YA!

The “St. Cloud Herald” is a rinky dink-looking paper for central Minnesota’s largest city. Even in 2010, the front page is black and white. INTERESTING.

I’d need a ruling, but the big rig that V.M. Varga leads into the Stussy lot appears to be overlong for Minnesota roads. Fitting that the lawlessness starts upon his arrival. OH YA!

The business with the small town Eden Valley police department being absorbed by the county is actually spot on. This is happening to small town police departments across Minnesota. In fact, this version is even kinder. Most often the police officers are laid off and have to hope they can catch on with the sheriff’s department or some other agency if there’s an opening. OH YA! (as a detail) INTERESTING (for small town law enforcement) PRETTY GOOD (for the bean counters at city hall).

Gloria’s fellow Eden Prairie officer is Donny Mashman (Mark Forward). This was the part that was supposed to go to Jim Gaffigan who had to pull out for scheduling reasons. I didn’t know that at the time. My thought on seeing Mashman for the first time was, “wait, so we’ve got this guy AND another guy played by Jim Gaffigan? Why is that necessary?” Well, it’s not. This is poor man’s Gaffigan, eatin’ off-brand Hot Pockets. COULD BE WORSE

That’s not how you clean blood off a sidewalk in December. INTERESTING.

Speaking of blood, this episode provided a first. Perhaps you’ve heard of the dramatic principle of “Checkov’s gun.” The famous playwright believed that a gun hanging on the wall in Act One should be fired by the end of Act Three or it shouldn’t even be seen. In Act One of this episode, Nikki mentions she’s on her period. Why? Because in Act Three she uses a tampon to scrawl a threat on Emmit’s office wall. This might be the first recorded case of Checkov’s tampon.

Mad props to the aborted Midwestern male hug between Emmit and Ray after their very brief reconciliation. If anything, it wasn’t awkward enough. PRETTY GOOD

Gloria’s investigation finds that the store clerk was listening to the Gophers game, not the Vikings game. Excuse me, the Gophers and Vikings never play on the same day. INTERESTING.

Emmit’s man Sy goes nuts in a restaurant parking lot, smashing up Ray’s Camaro with his Hummer. But the waitress only refers to him as a “monster” after he also accidentally clips her bumper. Not sure why he takes Ray’s rivalry with Emmit so personally, but the parking lot demolition derby added a little zest to the episode. PRETTY GOOD.

We simply must acknowledge V.M. Varga’s monologue about Minnesota at the end of the episode. “Do you know what I love about Minnesota? It is so perfectly … sublimely … bland.” Hey pal, that might describe the town five miles down the road. Or the one five miles up. But not my town! OH YA!

But seriously, Varga came here because it’s a bland landscape. Stussy’s business is simple, and easy to manipulate without any trace. Underlying all of this is the central idea of “Fargo.” The noble simplicity of a simple life provides a blank canvas for evil.

Other random observations:

  • The Russian thug who tosses Irv over the parking garage railing claims to be a Cossack, descended from the soldiers who drove Jews out of Russia more than 100 years ago. The opening song from Episode One was sung by a traditional Cossack choir.
  • Emmit and Sy need to run something past Stan Grossman. Same Stan from the movie version? Nice callback.
  • Ray: “I’ve never killed anyone before.” Nikki: “Me either. Life’s a journey.”
  • “Unfathomable pinheadery.”
  • Nikki, upon realizing that her impulsive actions have created unimaginable chaos: “This is going to be a process.”
  • The tactless undertaker. He croons a calming tone of voice, but everything he says causes Gloria to wince. “He was a horrible man.” Cites the brand of coffin he used for her mother.
  • Ray has to read aloud. Another element we’ll see again?

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “The Law of Vacant Places

Next Episode: “The Law of Non-Contradiction


  1. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Just got around to watching — time shifting so it is not past my bedtime.

    The St. Cloud paper should have color on the front page — even the NY Times gave in on that, and the Wall Street Journal added color after Murdoch bought it. Interesting. But the fact that the paper for a metro area of almost 300,000 people with a huge regional shopping and services industry is just slightly larger than “My Weekly Reader” is spot on for the collapse of regional newspapers. Pretty good.

    Nikki continues to be the most interesting character — although Varga is giving her a pretty good run for the money — and the quotes you cite are excellent examples of her intelligence. But the tampon trick is a huge misstep for her, suggesting that she may have anger and impulse issues that are what got her in the parole system in the first place. Pretty good.

    For some reason, Ennis has a lot more trouble controlling his Scots accent than Ray does, possibly because he speaks noticeably faster. Interesting.

    The brewing dispute between Gloria and her new boss is another of the typical “Fargo” plot lines in which a smart woman is under the thumb of one or more stupid and tyrannical men. Historically the show has resolved that plot line by having the man’s blundering get him killed off before the show ends, clearing the path for the woman to solve the crime. Pretty good.

    I took the not knowing whether the Vikings or the Gophers were playing was a sign that Gloria had no interest at all in spectator sports. Although quite a few women are into major spectator sports, there are still enough who are not so that the movie industry always schedules the opening of a chick flick or two for Super Sunday weekend. My reaction was that she made the “Vikings” mistake because she doesn’t care enough to know. She probably does not really care about the fine points of Ford versus Chevy pickups either. The store clerk was obviously portrayed to be incredibly dumb, and his absorption in the Gophers was just another sign. It also gave the writers a chance to refer to the Gophers, which most coastal types think is an absolutely hilarious and incredibly hick name for a team, missing all the meta qualities of the U. of California Irving Aardvarks or the U. of California Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.

    I actually thought that a murder, a break-in complete with Manson style writing in blood, a revelation that a Norwegian bachelor farmer type was actually a pulp sci-fi writer, and a personality break by Sy leading to an outburst of parking lot aggression (Sy, like a lot of stiff Minnesota males, has a streak of mayhem under the surface, but his doesn’t even need the usual six shots of Windsor or the opportunity of an anonymous blog comment to come out) was a pretty busy session plot wise, Pretty good. My wife, who usually falls asleep during periods of exposition in crime dramas, liked it better than episode one.

    Shades of the movie, Ennis and Sy’s receptionist is another character of East Asian descent with a thick Minnesota accent.

    Maybe I don’t know the work of Jim Gaffigan well enough, but I thought the sub did just fine with Donny, up to his helping himself to Gloria’s coffee and treating his boss like she worked for him, and forgetting the gun in the car. Pretty good.

    And again, the show this season seems to be more funny than the previous seasons. Oh ya!

  2. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Whoops! That’s the Irvine Aardvarks. Irving is in Texas.

    “Aardvarks, Aardvarks, zot, zot zot!” The only team in America that most of its fans can’t spell.

  3. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Also, Emmit, not Ennis, with the receptionist and the Scots accent breaking through. Interesting. Told you it was past my bedtime.

  4. I wrote this whole review with the word Ennis instead of Emmit … had to be corrected to fix it. VERY easy to do.

    I like the observation that this season is more funny. If you look at this more strictly as a dark comedy I think it holds up better. I guess I was just so influenced by the heavier themes of last year’s fantastic season that I was expecting more of that.

    I was disappointed in Nikki’s move at the end of this episode. Until then she was unpredictable, but usually to her own advantage. I just don’t see what she would have thought was the up side of leaving a message without taking what she came for. Especially if she knew the particular misdirection Ray was running out front with Emmit. Like you say, this shows a weakness that will likely be her undoing.

    I don’t read any other reviews before I write my own. After posting this one I was pleased to have noticed some of my themes in the bigger review sites. However, those sites seemed more bullish on the season than me. I’m still waiting for something to catch — a big moment that shocks expectations.

    • Pat Schoenfelder says

      I like Nikki a lot, and agree that the tampon episode was a big departure for her. However, Nikki has to have more problems in her backstory to just be where she is — on parole in North Central Minnesota — which is not where you would expect an obviously smart and attractive young woman to be. She could just have a background that has weighted her down and made it hard for her to succeed, and that may be part of it. I think, however, that where this is going is that she is subject to fits of violent temper and impulsive aggression that get her in trouble and block her progress, but will also drive the plot. In some ways the air conditioner episode was part of the same pattern, in that on the spur of the moment she acted violently and murderously, but that one happened to work out. I predict that as the plot moves forward she is going to be the flip side of Varga, with Varga being coldly reptilian and carefully planned in his use of murder and violence, and Nikki being white hot and impulsive. I expect both to rack up a long list of victims before the curtain falls, and suspect that their victims will include both Emmit and Ray by the end.

      Also think that the crazy streak in Nikki will be an ideal way to end Gloria’s male chauvinist boss, since his attitudes toward women would make him Nikki’s natural prey, since he would not be able to think of her as smart and dangerous enough to destroy him.

      Sy is going to end up engaged in some murderous mayhem too, with his parking lot outburst a preview of his own ability to go off the rails rapidly.

      All fits with the Chekov theory of story structure.

  5. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Have to add one more “Oh Ya!” for the line that Gloria’s new boss gives her about “smart mouthing me like my teenage daughter” Absolutely one of the best and clearest statements of piggery ever, and obviously marks him for the chop, at least based on previous seasons. The most clear theme in all the incarnations of “Fargo” over the years is that virtue is, in the end, rewarded, if sometimes in an oblique way and taking the long way around, and that evil is punished, either by death or by sentence to a Sisyphean/Promethean existence of lifetime condemnation to misery, like Milligan and Peggy in season 2. If innocents do die, it usually is of stupidity or of momentary surrender to vice, usually greed.

  6. This
    “Gloria’s fellow Eden Prairie officer…”
    should be Eden VALLEY.

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