Wednesday, April 19, 2017

REVIEW: 'Fargo' - Ray Hires a Parolee to Steal a Stamp From His Brother in 'The Law of Vacant Places'

FX's Fargo - Episode 3.01 "The Law of Vacant Places"

A petty sibling rivalry between two brothers escalates and brings chaos to a small Minnesotan community.

The first two seasons of Fargo were mesmerizing to watch. They were two perfect seasons of television that defied all reasonable expectations. They were so surprising and audacious to watch. That means the show has a very high bar set for itself each season. Each year is a complete reinvention. The story doesn't continue from year to year. Yes, the first two seasons had characters named Lou Solverson. But they were their own distinct things. The third season has no obvious connection to the previous two installments. It's set in 2010 which is the closest to the present-day the story has ever been told. All of this means the show still needs to prove to the audience each year that it deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest TV shows currently on the air. "The Law of Vacant Places" is a solid premiere for the season. It does a great job in introducing this new cast of characters. The actors continue to do impressive work. The directing and writing continues to be stellar as well. There's just an underlying sense of repetition and familiarity throughout this premiere though. It could become a troubling characteristic of the season as a whole. Or it could simply be a feeling that goes away after a few more hours. Nothing in this opening episode is completely new. And yet, it doesn't need to be either.

Of course, "The Law of Vacant Places" has a very disorienting opening scene. The story starts off in 1980s Germany where a case of mistaken identity has led to a man being accused for murder simply because he rented an apartment from the wrong guy. It's an absolutely terrifying scene that shows just how dangerous this world can be when it doesn't put in the effort to actually care and investigate. It's a cold and alarming sequence. It's all simply an argument between stories and facts. The two men have different interpretations of what's happening. The detective simply wants to believe the boyfriend of the deceased woman killed her. That's all the investigating he does. He believes the man living in the apartment is the guy who owns it. That's simply not true. That guy has a wife who lives there with him. But it's all completely pointless when he tries explaining that to the detective. He's already made his mind up. It's depressing. But it's clearly a significant scene to establish the mood of this season. It's unclear if this particular murder or case of mistaken identity will ever be important again this season. Right now, it's just important because it shows that the issues faced by the characters this season in 2010 have been happening all over the world for a long time.

When the show actually moves ahead in time to tell the main story of the season, it introduces the audience to two feuding brothers: Emmit and Ray, both played by Ewan McGregor. Emmit is the more successful of the two with a thriving parking lot business and a happy family. Ray is a down-on-his-luck parole officer who believes the world is constantly rigged against him. The main issue between the brothers is the ownership of a stamp from their father. Ray inherited the entire collection when they were kids but traded it with Emmit for his father's car. It was a foolish trade that Ray now regrets. It's just murky what actually happened. Ray believes his older brother tricked him because he didn't know any better. Meanwhile, Emmit suggests that it was entirely Ray's idea because the car was simply cooler. That's the entire backstory that is relevant to understanding these characters. They are simply two brothers who don't get along and whose lives have gone in massively different directions.

Neither of the Stussy brothers are particularly ethical though. Emmit finds himself in a compromising position because the company that loaned his business a million dollars following the housing crisis now wants to use it as a front for more criminal operations. He and his lawyer, Sy Feltz, had no knowledge of that but are seemingly trapped in this arrangement now. That's going to cause problems in the future. Meanwhile, Ray is actually dating one of his parolees, Nikki Swango. That's very much against the rules. And yet, he believes he's finally found the girl of his dreams. He wants to marry her and then his life will suddenly turn around. He also hires another parolee, Maurice, to break into Emmit's house to steal the stamp. Of course, it all goes awry when Maurice loses the address of the place he's suppose to rob. He's a very memorable character because he's such a clueless stoner. Scoot McNairy is really amusing in the role. There's an underlying sense of dread the moment he loses the address. It's clear that he's going to go to the wrong house. It's all going to end badly. Of course, it does and that's the action that sets everything into motion moving forward for these characters.

And yet, it's still inspiring and darkly tragic to watch as Maurice shows up to hand over the stamp to Ray and Nikki. It's disorienting because Maurice is just able to break into Nikki's apartment while the two of them are in a bath. It also takes awhile for everyone to realize what's going on. Nikki definitely perks up upon realizing that her boyfriend did something like this. It shows that he may have a criminal streak that is much more exciting than simply winning a bridge tournament - though that sequence is a ton of fun as well. Of course, it's also clear that Nikki has the brains in this relationship. Ray is very dim. He can't even grab Maurice's gun when Nikki makes a distraction. He has to be told what to do. The two of them become aware that Maurice killed a guy because he unknowingly went to the wrong house. And thus, they get pulled into more danger when they kill him by dropping an air conditioner on him. That's a brutal way to go. That sequence is perhaps elongated too much. Nikki counting has a looming sense of dread to it. And yet, she still needs Ray to spot her for when Maurice leaves the building. Meanwhile, the camera showing things from the perspective of the air conditioner is a very cool shot. Again, it shows how disorienting this world can be. But it's a cool trick to keep the inevitable from happening just a little bit longer.

Nikki seemingly knows how to cover up this crime as well. She knows how to craft a story. She knows what Ray should do to avoid any further suspicion. Maurice being killed would seemingly put an end to the murder investigation of the guy he killed while looking for the stamp. And yet, that won't be the case because Gloria Burgle is the chief of police in her town and she's the stepdaughter of the man killed. She's largely a supporting character in this opening episode. But it's clear she's going to be important because law enforcement has always been a crucial element of this show. Plus, Gloria is played by Carrie Coon, who immediately brings a likable and compelling presence to the character. Her life is defined by these brutal twists of fate. Her husband has left her and is now dating another man. She's chief of police but that title may soon be taken away because her department is being absorbed by the surrounding county. And now, her stepfather has been brutally murdered. She discovered the body simply because her son left his birthday gift at his grandfather's house. She'll quickly get to work but her life seems increasingly in flux at the moment. Again, that's a predictable quality of this show. One devastating murder in the opening episode changes the lives of these characters and the community for good. It's a solid formula. It's just a bit more repetitive in this premiere.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Law of Vacant Places" was written by Noah Hawley and directed by Noah Hawley.
  • Emmit has a sense of superiority when it comes to his dynamic with his brother. Perhaps that's why Ray feels like the more compelling character in this opening episode. Or it could just be because Ray simply has more screen time than Emmit. Of course, both of their lives are about to be changed because of crimes. They are just completely different crimes.
  • It takes awhile for Emmit and Sy to understand what's going on with V.M. as well. They don't kill him after finally realizing what the truth is - like Ray and Nikki do. They aren't criminals like that. But they are unsure of what to do because V.M. just outlined an illegal relationship that neither one wants to be a part of.
  • And yet, V.M. is immediately a fascinating character to watch. Yes, he's this season's oddball character who has a unique view of the world accompanied by a distinct cadence. But that still continues to be a very entertaining quality of this show.
  • Even though her marriage didn't work out, Gloria seems to be perfectly fine with her husband's new relationship. She even says that if he married his boyfriend, then her son would have a new stepdad. She's accepting of it even though her father is not.
  • It's a chilling visual to see Ennis' body in the kitchen. It's just as surprising to see Gloria's son show up as well. He shouldn't have seen that but he did. He was innocent and now he's traumatized. However, it's also clear that Ennis was keeping secrets. What those secrets are though is still a bit of a mystery.