On the face of things, the opening of “The Law of Vacant Places,” the magnificent season premiere of Fargo Season 3, is about evil. A cold, detached military officer in 1980s Berlin tells a confused, worried man that he is the murderer of his girlfriend, despite the man’s insistence that they simply have the wrong name under the wrong address in their files. He insists that he has a wife, not a girlfriend, and that she offered the officers that came to pick him up cups of tea for their trouble. Still, the officer is unmoved, for if he is to question their records and reasoning, it would be no different from questioning the men above him, those who would murder thousands before admitting that they were even “mistaken.” They would sooner be teared apart by a pack of hungry dogs than admit that a single thing they believe or say is wrong.
That’s one way to see it, at least. Another would be that, despite all historical evidence that would suggest that the officer is simply imposing a death sentence to ensure that the paperwork looks good, that the man is indeed the man who killed his girlfriend, and that he’s coming up with a flimsy, urgent excuse to get himself out of a serious crime. Either way, the conversation will almost certainly end with the scared man being dragged off to his death. The officer says that the man is simply living a “story” that he made up, ignoring the fact that the communists had sustained themselves and their movement on the story of their own superiority. When “Based on a True Story” comes up on the screen, the rest fades before the word “story” does. Everyone, even the innocent, are sustained by a story of themselves (and the world) that they tell themselves and each other, and it’s the clashing “truths” of these stories that makes up the kindling of Noah Hawley‘s drama in “The Law of Vacant Places.”
Cut to 2010, back in Hawley’s beloved Minnesota. Another story seems to be getting in between two very different, near-identical brothers, Ray and Emmit Stussy, both played by Ewan McGregor: a childhood trade in which young Ray gave over a collection of incredibly valuable stamps to his older brother, despite their father’s stipulated wishes that Ray should have them. As Ray sees it, Emmit grifted his more naive sibling and owes him; as Emmit sees it, he’s done nothing wrong and has been supporting his brother in a variety of other ways over the years. This time, Ray, a parole officer by trade, wants to buy an expensive wedding ring for his girlfriend, Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a seemingly reformed con who fell for the balding lug over a love for the game of bridge. Somewhere in between, the truth lies, but as Hawley sees it, those who insist on such a thing as truth are often the most foolish people alive. For all the evidence that the scared German man in the beginning and Ray offer, they do not have money and they do not have power, which is almost exclusively the name of the game in America and almost anywhere else.
The timeliness of this should not be lost on anyone, but to harp too extensively on the thematic backbone of “The Law of Vacant Places” would devalue the humanity that Hawley and a dedicated, inventive cast have brought to this inaugural episode. Away from the promising quasi-mimicry of Season 1 and the period-setting trappings of Season 2, Hawley immediately signals a newfound assurance and clarity of storytelling in the season premiere. As both writer and director here, he plots out a strange tale of the Stussy boys and their connections to the local chief of police, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon); a pot-smoking fuck-up named Maurice (Scoot McNairy); and a weird and weirdly imposing man named Varga, played with grand theatrical malevolence by the great David Thewlis, working for the ominous company that has been the constant in Fargo. The set-up sounds similar to the past two seasons but Hawley summons a newfound tenderness and intimacy early on that separates this from almost everything else he’s done, including Legion.
This is most noticeable in his detailing of Nikki and Ray’s relationship. Again, one could look at the familiar story: a smart, alluring con-woman seduces her dopey parole officer into letting a few infractions go and helping her set-up a new criminals scheme. That’s the story that both Emmit and his number two, Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), believe, especially considering the intimation that something similar has happened before to Ray. And yet, when they are together, they are…kinda cute. They talk enthusiastically about bridge and update Facebook with third-place runner-up showings. They take romantic baths together with champagne, only to spend time texting. When they get into a jam involving Maurice, who agrees to steal away the last stamp in Emmit’s collection for Ray to keep his drug abuse quiet, they work in tandem incredibly well and watch each other’s back with fluidity and attentiveness. Some of this can be attributed to Hawley’s routinely involving and witty dialogue but it’s most due to how wonderfully Winstead and McGregor play off of one another, suggesting understanding, loyalty, and compassion with seemingly no effort whatsoever, even as Ray and Nikki drop an air conditioner on Maurice’s head.
Of course, Maurice had it coming, after killing that poor old man for no reason and immediately embroiling Ray in a calamitous murder-robbery plot. And yet, even Maurice isn’t simply cast off as some loser who does everything wrong. The simple fact that he sought out a shrink, court-ordered or not, and speaks openly with him (on a cellphone) suggests a desire to understand himself better. This world of small-town crime and big-time fictions that Hawley has created reveals the human in even the most seemingly mundane or evil characters, sees the sincerity and good intentions behind the most bumbling and dangerous of actions. Only Varga seems to be of alien origin, cryptic and openly nefarious, as he is tied to the heartless bureaucratic corporation that was behind every violent criminal operation that we got a glance within at the end of Season 2. By the end of “The Law of Vacant Places,” one can hope that Gloria or someone will be able to finally really put an end to the legion of mundane evil that employs Varga. Then again, that might just be me telling myself another story.