FARGO, Season 3 premiere: “The Law of Vacant Places”

Ewen McGregor plays twin brothers Emmit and Ray Stussey in “Fargo,” Season 3.

The FX series “Fargo” takes viewers on a “true story” 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 different stories within 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 (that’s bad), to PRETTY GOOD (the ol’ Minnesota default), and OH, YA! (real good then). Beware the spoilers.

The Law of Vacant Places

(Original air date: April 19, 2017)

Our story begins in an unlikely place: Communist East Germany in 1988. A military officer interrogates a man who has obviously been mistaken for someone else. Nevertheless, the “State” doesn’t make mistakes, so the officer continues. He tells the man that his pleadings of being someone else is “just a story.”

We cut forward to 2010, where we see traditional “Fargo” disclaimer, “This is a true story,” only juxtaposed with the officer’s caveat, “just a story.” We will learn that pleading mistaken identity doesn’t prevent bad things from happening. In a season that features two rival brothers played by the same actor, this seems to channel our theme for the story.

So, it goes like this. Emmit and Ray Stussey, both played by Ewen McGregor, are brothers at odds, owing to a dispute over their late father’s wishes. Ray got the Corvette, a well-worn muscle car which he still drives year-round (road salt, fella! ROAD SALT!). Emmit got the priceless “Myth of Sisyphus” postage stamps, most of which he sold for considerable cash, but one of which remains hanging on his home office wall.

Emmit is a (seemingly) successful businessman, the “Parking Lot King” of Minnesota. Ray is a broke, put-upon parole officer who consorts with a much rougher crowd. Ray asks Emmit for money to buy his ex-con girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a decent wedding ring. “Not a good time,” says Emmit and his ever-present lawyer Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg), a classic Minnesota retort designed to smother such requests with a bed pillow.

Ray convinces one of his most hopeless parolees to break into Emmit’s home to steal the remaining stamp, which he felt should have gone to him. The hapless, perpetually baked Maurice (Scoot McNairy) isn’t really up to the task. He loses the address after almost setting his car on fire with a joint while driving. His memory stinks, so instead of driving to Eden Prairie, the affluent Twin Cities suburb where Emmit and his wife  lives, he goes to tiny Eden Valley, a small town outside St. Cloud. He finds the only Stussey in the phone book, which is not the right Stussey (another case of mistaken identity).

Meanwhile we meet Gloria Burgle, the “chief” of the Eden Valley Police. More accurately she’s the “highest ranking local officer,” after the city subcontracted its police services to the county, essentially demoting her. She’s a recently divorced mom of a teenage son who also checks in on her alcoholic stepdad who runs a small grocery store. Her stepdad’s name: Ennis Stussey. (Uh-oh)

Things are bad for everyone in this first episode. Even golden boy Emmit is up to his eyeballs in troubles. After borrowing money to bail out his business a couple years ago, he’s ready to pay back the shady company who put up the funds. But the company — in the physical form of V.M Vargas (a menacing David Thewlis) — doesn’t want the money. Vargas informs them that the money was not a loan, but an investment. His company would now be using Stussey’s as a money-laundering front for its nefarious activities.

Maurice returns to Ray and Nikki after stealing the wrong stamp from the wrong guy and threatens them. The results are “Game Over” for him, thanks to quick and diabolical thinking by Nikki — already shaping up to be this season’s most interesting wild card character, much like Peggy last season.

Notes on the Minnesota details:

First off, the accent report. Everyone’s been coached in the exaggerated “Fargo” style. Minnesota viewers can either handle that or they can’t. I have long since accepted it as part of the artistic milieu. Interestingly, Ewen McGregor has the worst and best Minnesota accent. Ray Stussey’s accent is understated and smooth, but Emmit’s is bad. It’s not easy to spit out a refined upper class Minnesota accent. That’s a tough nut. Carrie Coons as Gloria Burgle is solid and I think that’s the most important thing. Perhaps Emmit’s accent will level out when the brothers come to blows. The best Minnesota accents are forged by quiet desperation. (PRETTY GOOD)

Incidentally, the location shots for this episode were great. You got the rolling hills, the icy roads. For it being western Canada, it was acceptably central Minnesotan. Lots of casually spinning tires and engine squeals. (OH, YA!)

I shouted “Hell, yes!” when I saw the vintage Red Owl logo at Pop’s grocery store. Growing up, the first grocery store I remember was the Hibbing Red Owl. It was a great store. Unfortunately, Supervalu bought them out in 1988 and stripped that glorious logo off all the buildings. So there wouldn’t be a Red Owl in 2010. I’m going to let it slide, though, because old school Minnesota-based Red Owl deserves the attention. So on that: (OH, YA!)

However, Minnesota grocery stores can’t sell liquor. So even if a Red Owl somehow survived the 1980s, it wouldn’t sell hooch behind the counter. That doesn’t mean we don’t have alcoholic grocers like Gloria’s stepdad. It just means they have to plan ahead before they get to work. (INTERESTING)

For hours after the airing of the episode I was haunted by the art house pee montage that showrunner and episode director Noah Hawley gave us. We get it. Ray is a parole officer who has to collect urine samples (“piss tests,” in the biz). Put on some gloves, Ray. God Almighty. (INTERESTING)

Later, when Ray pulls up to the bar to recruit Maurice, he pulls his Corvette into a parking place next to Maurice’s car, which is parked opposite the angle parking scheme. Nobody knows how to park in Minnesota during the winter. Parking lots become fields of anarchy. And this season features the “Parking Lot King of Minnesota.” Nice touch. (OH, YA!)

Not everyone in my world endorsed the exchange between Emmit and his wife when Emmit tried to leave the house wearing “house shoes.” We call them slippers where I live. I checked around and some Minnesotans do call them house shoes. I think it’s kind of a “Duck, Duck, Goose/Duck, Duck, Grey Duck” kind of situation. In any event, house shoes make for a good detail. You gotta wear slippers/house shoes or else you step on the little balls of slush from people’s boots in the foyer and your socks get all cold and wet. (OH, YA!)

I loved the Grandpa Ennis character, a wonderful single-episode performance by Canadian character actor Scott Hylands. He carves a small model to give to his grandson for his birthday, an image of an older man and younger boy fishing. As he gives it he says “Happy Birthday or whatever.” What is it? “Just some dumb thing I carved.” Pause. “Like when we went camping.” This is SO important to Ennis, but his Midwestern affect prevents him from demonstrating any real emotion. And midnight freezer vodka is the best kind of vodka. Ennis also seems to have a secret hiding in his home that will play into Gloria’s investigation of his death. Secrets, self-defeating behavior and repressed emotion! (OH, YA!)

As an aisde, “Fargo” consistently glosses over the distance that characters have to cover in their exploits. Eden Valley and Eden Prairie are probably three hours away from each other. Plus you have to drive through the expanse of the Twin Cities to get to Eden Prairie from Eden Valley. On the plus side, we know Maurice spends his time in the car talking to his shrink while getting stoned. (INTERESTING)

When Gloria’s son Nathan (Graham Verchere) realizes he left the model behind at Ennis’ house, Gloria turns her prowler around to go get it. When she does she says “I’ll flip a B-word.” I watched this line half a dozen times trying to understand it. It’s always been “Flip a U’ey” for me. (As in U-Turn). People “whip shitties” (aka “donuts) in parking lots, which is a little like a U-turn. But I have no idea what “B-word” Gloria is referring to. The only “B-word” I know makes no sense in this context. (INTERESTING)

Ennis has a light in his freezer where he stores his vodka. But a guy with an old TV like that wouldn’t have a light in the freezer. Fact is, Hawley needed the light for that shot. But it was a good shot. (PRETTY GOOD)

Two things as we wrap this up. We see the interior of a car outside Ray’s apartment before the Maurice/air conditioner incident takes place. Inside, one of those ubiquitous pine tree air freshers hangs from the rear view mirror. I was trying to figure out what else was hanging there with it. I think it was the bag for the air freshener. That brings me to one of my big frustrations about pine tree air fresheners. You’re supposed to open the bag a little bit more each week for seven weeks, preserving the life of your freshener and avoiding the overpowering smell of PINE(!). But who has time for that? Honestly? I don’t want a relationship here. So I just rip the bag off and knock down the odors with extreme prejudice. Anyway, pine tree air fresheners are on point. (OH, YA!)

Finally, the climax of the episode involves an air conditioner being dropped from Nikki’s apartment to squish Maurice. Now, from a “Fargo” standpoint, great scene. Incredibly dark yet somehow funny. Nikki says that she asked the super to take out that air conditioner “weeks ago.” If this is December (remember, inflatable Santa at Emmit’s house), that lines up. But there is no way anyone in Minnesota would tolerate a room air conditioner left in the window past October. The resulting cold would deter the kind of casual nudity we enjoyed in this episode. (PRETTY GOOD).

Oh, and the soundtrack: OH, YA! All of Hawley’s shows use music well, and this was a master class. I was impressed to hear “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” a 1972 song by Italian singer Adriano Celentano, during the bridge tournament scene. It’s a gag song in which the Italian sings words that “sound like” English but are, in fact, gibberish. Great song! And I thought I was cool for knowing about it and having it on my phone.

All told, we’re off to a good start! Turns out, this is the show we thought it was. Or is it?

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “Palindrome

Next Episode: “The Principle of Restricted Choice”


  1. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Good review. The thing I like about this episode is that it is more funny, in its own dark way, than the second season. Hawley may be the best writer of dramatic comedy on TV today — and let me put in a plug for his recent novel, “Before the Fall,” a suspense mystery that features the same very dry, dark humor and was on almost all the “year’s best” lists last year.

    Nicki Swango (oh yea) is much more of a femme fatale than previous “Fargo” bad girls — smarter and more serious, as well as more cynical in her attitude toward her hapless man, although her ambition to be a pro duplicate bridge player fits with the general history of “Fargo” characters having bizarre goals. I am looking forward to seeing a lot more of her — although we did see quite a lot in this episode. Nikki in some ways resembles the women who have been on the law enforcement side in earlier seasons, stuck trying to navigate the problem of being a lot smarter than the men they work with and love. This time she is the bad girl.

    Speaking of which, I can’t believe that they killed off Scoot McNairy’s stoner thief Maurice, partly because he was so hilarious and partly because he was Scoot McNairy, who usually would be unavailable for a one episode support role. Or did they? Since we never saw him actually get hit, and since the body was obscured by the fallen air conditioner, and since this is “Fargo,” perhaps someone else is under there and Scoot will be back to haunt Ray and Nikki. Or maybe the “pine tree” car has a witness who will take that role.

    I definitely agree with your comments on the grandpa’s store, and the incongruities that most Minnesotans would notice immediately. My guess is that the Red Owl name sounded way too silly and the logo was way too strange and way too striking for the art directors and set designers to resist, and that the liquor in grocery stores was just a mess up by a group of California based writers who have never set foot in Minnesota, or if they did restricted their drinking to hotel bars and minibars.

    However, having lived in Richmond, MN, for a short time years ago, your comment about the time and distance between Eden Valley and Eden Prairie is wrong. It is about 75 miles by the shortest driving route — highway 55 to 494 and down — and Google maps figures it to be around 90 minutes. Back when I lived there and was younger and more reckless I could regularly make that trip in about an hour and fifteen minutes as long as it wasn’t rush hour, although I admit that that was toying with the chance of a ticket. You also don’t have to drive through anything but the Western suburban fringe of Wayzata, Minnetonka, and Eden Prairie itself to get there.

    Also, Gloria is not saying “B-word.” She is saying “b-ward,” for backward. I have run into people who say that when they have to make unexpected reversals either in driving or in other activities. Obviously the phrase is playing with the concept of THE b-word as an expression of frustration at a reversal and loss of time, but the saying often does not intend to convey that.

    Anyhow, good review, and it looks like a very good season to me.

  2. Tucker Nelson says

    McGregor’s Scottish accent shows up from time to time, but I agree that his Emmit voice isn’t as good. I feel like his voice sometimes takes on that choppy, confidence-lacking quality that Jerry Lundegaard and Lester Nygaard had. Emmit’s lawyer’s accent is probably most like the movie accents. The only complaint I’ve always had about the accents in the movie and on the show is that it seems more common to say something like “fisheen” than “fishin’.” I don’t think Minnesotans drop the G on “ing” words nearly as much as they do on Fargo.
    I love seeing Red Owl come back to life! It was also a nod to the Coen Brothers’ movie A Serious Man, set in the Twin Cities during the ’60s. My paternal grandparents met at a Red Owl in 1957.
    Season 1 made Duluth and Bemidji seem much closer than they really are. I don’t mind them taking liberties with things like that, especially when they appropriately placed rich Emmit in Eden Prairie (Edina would have worked, too).
    Adriano Celentano’s song “Piccola” was also featured in Season 1! I agree, the music was great. Even the weird throat singing when Burgle searched Ennis’ house was fitting.
    One thing I found hard to believe was that even a small town police department in 2010 didn’t have computers, even if Burgle didn’t find them necessary.
    Overall, it was a great season premiere! I’m interested to see how complicated the plot gets and how Varga’s company works.

  3. Bret Hanson says

    Guessing the U Turn flipping a B-word stood for Bitch. That is what you flip when doing a U-turn in some southern MN locals, though may be a dated term.

  4. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Eden Prairie is a lot more nouveau than Edina, with a lot more McMansions, so I think it was the better choice. Edina was pretty much built up by about 1970, whereas Eden Prairie was just getting started then, and it still has a fair amount of open space even now.

    As far as the dropping “g” in “ing” words, I have to say that I think that that is very common in Minnesota. I find myself doin’ it a lot. But as far as who is right, without a linguistic study for now we will just have to admit that the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

    The other Minnesota-ism that seems pretty widespread and that people from other states comment on is that we frequently switch “t’s” that are in internal positions in words to “d’s” — for most of us we live in Minnesoda, not Minnesota, whether we come from a big cidy or a liddle town.

  5. Steven Hoober says

    “Flip a bitch” is even on urban dictionary. Illegal U-turn, in some regions. I had never heard it, my wife vaguely had so we went a-googling.


  6. Pat Schoenfelder says

    I stand corrected. I personally have not heard it around Minnesota, or while living in Missouri either. People always say “flip a u-ie.”

    Back when I was working farm jobs and construction, the phrase “oh jeez, we’re going b-ward” was fairly common if things started to go backward (a stack of bales falling off the wagon, for example.) Who knows, maybe they were actually saying “b-word” too, but I always thought they were just making a pun on it to make “backward” more funny.

    In a lot of ways that makes the character of Gloria more well defined. She is thinking in obscenities (even more so as a woman) but censoring herself, either in front of her son or because she always does.

  7. What year is the red Corvette? Anyone?

  8. Robin Postal White says

    Did you catch that she uses a 1970s Hugo Statuette as a defense weapon when she first enters her stepfather’s house?
    The old rocket ship design, made of metal on a wooden base with a name plague on the wooden base. Amusing.

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