Fargo kicks off its third season not in the dead of the Minnesota winter, but in East Berlin in 1988. Disconnected (for now) from the narrative that unfolds throughout the rest of the episode, the opening scene is all about atmosphere. It boasts the terrifying calm and control that’s defined many scenes in the first two seasons, and acts as an immediate introduction to this one. As a Stasi officer questions a man about the murder of his girlfriend—a case of mistaken identity, the man insists—the tension builds. It’s unbearable, as lone, isolated sounds punctuate the eerie pauses between questions: Water drips down a drain in the floor, screams can be faintly heard in the background, and the officer casually chews his chocolate treat. The scene may not bear much relation to what’s happening in the main plot just yet, but it does set the mood for what’s to come. “We are here to tell the truth,” says the Stasi officer, only moments after insisting that the State can never be wrong. Then the signature words included in every Fargo episode pop up: “This Is A True Story.” The show is already telling us that “truth,” despite its definition, is subjective, and means different things to different people.
That prompts a move to Minnesota in 2010, where Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) and his wife, Stella (Linda Kash), are celebrating their 25th anniversary. Well, the proclamations of love and rambling stories of how they met are secondary to the dealings we’re privy to. There’s Emmit and his business partner, Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), meeting with a man named Buck in the hopes of repaying some sort of loan from years earlier. Then there’s Emmit’s younger brother, Ray (also McGregor), asking his brother for money so that he can buy his new girlfriend, Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an engagement ring. The content of these two scenes doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they reveal about these characters and the way this season is structured. This is Fargo doing what it does best: dropping hints of information that only clarify plot points as the episode and season roll on. So, we learn about Ray inheriting a valuable stamp collection from his father as a child, only to be swindled out of it by Emmit in a trade for a Corvette, and the subsequent scene with Buck plants the seeds for an uncomfortable confrontation later on.
“The Law of Vacant Places” takes its time setting up the story, and while its 90-minute running time is occasionally sluggish, it’s all in favor of building tension, which pays off in the episode’s climax. Because the opening scene is built on the uncomfortable foreboding of violence, everything that follows is imbued with tension. The overarching mysteries that will dominate this season don’t coalesce until the final few scenes, but the palpable atmosphere of dread never leaves. Before Emmit and Sy realize they may be in over their heads with a shady investor, and Ray’s commissioned robbery goes south, and police chief Gloria Bugle (Carrie Coon) finds her stepfather murdered, we wait for the conflict and violence. It’s excruciating in the best way possible.
If you’re a fan of the first two seasons of Fargo, there’s little in “The Law of Vacant Places” to suggest that the same won’t be true of this season. The tone and atmosphere remains intact, from the unsettling hush of the snowy Minnesota landscape to the disquieting way so many shots are dimly lit. In fact, it’s the visuals that really leave an impression once the credits have rolled. More than any backdoor deals or botched robberies, certain scenes linger because of their composition. The camera moves uncomfortably close to V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) as he calmly threatens Emmit and Sy. A freshly murdered Innis Stussy sits upright in a kitchen chair, the glow of the open freezer door illuminating his bruised face; an overhead shot reveals black scuff marks on the floor, a sign of struggle and a nod to No Country or Old Men. Light reveals a lot. The flashlight on the end of Gloria’s shotgun reveals the body of her stepfather, and the candlelight by which Ray and Nikki take a bath reveals their overconfidence. The couple, parole officer and parolee, are calm, cool and collected after a successful night at the Wildcat Regional Bridge Tournament, but Maurice (a delightfully stoned Scoot McNairy) is about to shake them out of their complacency. A hilarious struggle for a gun escalates, leading to Nikki dropping an A/C unit on an unsuspecting Maurice in order to cover up Ray’s hastily planned robbery.
These moments linger because they’re the chaos that Fargo revels in. Sure, there’s appeal in the series’ winks to the Coen Brothers canon—both Maurice dropping a roach in his lap while driving and the notepad containing a vulgar image certainly call back to The Big Lebowski—as well as its dark humor, but the real meat comes in the form of continually escalating conflicts. The intrigue comes as every single well-laid plan begins to devolve into pure pandemonium. Single moments of unsuspected violence boast a ripple effect. A decades-old feud between brothers leads to the death of an unrelated old man, and a single mother’s life is forever changed. No amount of preparation can shield you from the worst of other people. “The Law of Vacant Places” may take a bit to expose the worst of other people, but that doesn’t dull the impact of those revelations.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.