Last week, the season premiere of Fargo opened with a cryptic scene, set in East Berlin in 1988: A man, under intense questioning by a Stasi officer who accuses him of murdering his girlfriend, insists that the office has mistaken him for somebody else. As urine runs down the man’s leg and through the drain in the floor, fear fully taking over, the camera pans to a picture that transports us to the winter landscape of Minnesota in 1988. Fargo loves to play with the notion of time and human connection, but the abstractness of that opening was a real head-scratcher.
“The Principle of Restricted Choice” doesn’t exactly clear everything up, but it does build upon the premiere’s exploration of how chaos can bring about truth. Take the murder of Ennis Stussy (Scott Hylands), for instance. Like the man in the premiere’s cold open, he’s a victim of mistaken identity. Where the promise of violence that comes from the Stasi officer is the result of an oppressive regime, the violence that comes knocking at Ennis’ door is more haphazard, the unfortunate result of a bumbling stoner escalating a simple robbery into something much more vicious. The reasons for those moments of violence may not be connected, but the victims are. They are men in the wrong place at the wrong time, with names that don’t match who they really are.
The man in East Berlin is not accused murdered Yuri Gorka, and Ennis Stussy isn’t, well, Ennis Stussy. Rather, he’s Thaddeus Mobley, a once-important sci-fi writer who, a newspaper clipping tells us, once won a Golden Planet award for one of his books. In the premiere, Gloria’s (Carrie Coon) sweep of the house revealed an award that looked a lot like a Hugo, and now the pieces are falling into place. Why did Thaddeus Mobley change his name, and why did he come to Minnesota? With Fargo, you’re never really sure if those questions matter in the grand scheme of things, or if they’re important to the murder investigation and the ongoing feud between the Stussy brothers (no relation to Ennis). But those questions do provide depth to this world.
In essence, Ennis/Thaddeus is our connection to Season Two of Fargo, and another example of the themes of identity and fate that the series continues to explore. Gloria tells a particularly cold funeral manager that Ennis came to Minnesota in 1980 and married her mother in 1982, a marriage that would last only four years. Considering that Season Two was set in 1979, it would be reasonable to suggest that Thaddeus was a witness to the UFO that found its way into a motel parking lot shootout, or at the very least had a similar sighting at some point that year. Shaken to his core, his sci-fi stories having come to life in front of him, Thaddeus retreated to Minnesota, starting fresh as Ennis Stussy—a name that would unfortunately get him killed two decades later.
The suggestion here might be that the past always catches up with you, even if you don’t deserve it, even if you were just trying to escape the unimaginable. That’s certainly where Emmit (Ewan McGregor) and Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) find themselves, as their unquestioning embrace of a million-dollar loan now has them connected to organized crime. Emmit’s rush to be The King of Minnesota Parking has left him in a tough spot, seemingly stuck in quicksand that only pulls him deeper the more he struggles. The mystery of who V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) is and what shady motivations he boasts isn’t all that compelling, but it’s also the source of this season’s most rewarding tension to date. Varga may have a sinister way about him, but that’s not where the suspense comes from. This isn’t traditional mob villain stuff. Rather, the eeriness comes in the form of how predestined it all feels. “You’re trapped,” says Varga, and it’s as simple as that. Where Ray and Nikki might be able to outrun their past in their Corvette, there’s a sense of finality with Emmit and Sy. Like Ennis being a victim of mistaken identity after he looked to escape his previous one, Emmit’s ambition to stake his claim as The King has put his head right into the guillotine. His identity has groomed his downfall.
But maybe Emmit is just getting what’s been coming to him. Maybe everyone here is just getting what’s been coming to them. When you don’t adapt or change, when you live with blinders on, the world passes you by and leaves you isolated, alone, sitting dead by an open freezer with your mouth and nose glued shut. Or, in the case of Emmit, you’re left feeling cold toward your brother who’s trying to make amends. Sure, Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) does leave a used tampon in Emmit’s drawer, but Emmit doesn’t know that when Ray (Ewan McGregor) tries to give him a hug and really heal their relationship. No, he doesn’t know it then, but that doesn’t stop him from refusing his brother’s affection. He’ll accept the apology because it does him good, but he won’t accept the hug because that’s for Ray. That would be going too far, giving him too much forgiveness.
Back to identity: Everybody here is pretty sure of who they are, but “The Principle of Restricted Choice” shakes them out of that complacency. Identity isn’t such a stable concept in Fargo. Ennis is more than just Gloria’s stepfather; he’s a sci-fi writer with a secret past. The gas station clerk is convinced that Maurice (Scoot McNairy), the man who tore a page out of his phonebook, is Russian. Irv isn’t just a tech-averse lawyer; he’s a threat to V.M. Varga. Emmit isn’t just the patient, gullible King of Parking; he’s a man that leans toward competitiveness, a trait that sees him firmly in the grips of Varga’s operation. Even Gloria, the most stable of the cast of characters, isn’t safe from the plague of identity crises sweeping Minnesota. She’s no longer the chief, and clinging to ancient technology doesn’t stop time from moving forward and devouring everything we thought we knew and understood about the world and people around us.
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.