Although 2017 is still young, it has already proven significant for the growing brand that is Noah Hawley. The writer, director, executive producer, and novelist followed up two seasons of Midwestern quirkiness and darkly comical violence on the Emmy-winning Fargo by turning his eye toward a trendy take on the world of superheroes. The result was Legion, a modish blend of contemporary comic book adaptations and what is increasingly becoming Hawley's own visual style – kind of an amalgam of Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson – that, from its premiere forward, felt like nothing else on television and certainly breathed new life into the world of superheroes on the small screen.
Even before Legion, though, Hawley had already demonstrated a knack for taking established material and putting his own stamp (Fargo season 3 reference!) on it. While David Haller was a lesser-known character in Marvel's sprawling mutant line-up, the first season of Fargo was not. The film itself is, for lack of a better word, beloved by many and certainly a well-regarded entry in the highly debated oeuvre of Joel and Ethan Coen. To his credit, then, Hawley stealthily launched his brand with an incredibly high degree of difficulty; one that saw him construct a television universe all his own (in more ways than one) from the 1996 underworld-meets-Minnesota-nice yarn. He's been so successful that at this point the name "Fargo" is, for better or worse, perhaps as closely associated with the initial "installments" of FX's idiosyncratic crime drama, as it is the Academy Award-winning film from which it was spawned. It's no surprise, then, that the third installment of the series comes with an elevated need to deliver something greater than what's been done before, while also giving the audience more of what they have come to expect –from both the series and from Noah Hawley.
In the early goings, however, the pressure to deliver doesn't seem to be holding the series back any. Rather than offer another account of down-home criminal misconduct directly connected to previous narratives, Hawley has fashioned a more modern-day tale set in 2010 ready to take advantage of the technological conveniences and complications that are part of everyday life, and to construct a story that's as much about stories and the blurred lines between truth and fiction as it is the eccentric criminals that seem to inhabit the heightened reality of this Midwestern region.
Headed-up by Ewan McGregor in a dual role as brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy, the third installment offers up a familiarly quaint tale of petty criminal misconduct that quickly spirals out of control and promises to irrevocably alter the fortunes (and eventually the names) of those involved. At the start, the brothers Stussy find themselves embroiled in a years-long feud involving their split inheritance of a corvette and a stamp collection, the latter of which the down-on-his-luck (we know this because he's Ewan McGregor but overweight and balding) Ray feels he was bamboozled out of by Emmit, the future Parking Lot King of Minnesota. In Ray's corner is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his parolee girlfriend and bridge partner Nikki Swango, while a mustachioed and heavily accented Michael Stuhlbarg enters the series as Emmit's brother from another mother, Sy Feltz.
While the two brothers fight over their respective birthright, the sinister V.M. Varga, played by David Thewlis, sets upon Stussy Lots Ltd. looking for much more than a simple return on his investment. And because this is Fargo (and because it is season 3) there is whole other narrative running parallel to the Stussy parable that involves the fantastic Carrie Coon as budding luddite Chief Gloria Burgle, which, following a bungled burglary carried out by a bumbling Scoot McNary, promises to converge with the rapidly escalating sibling rivalry and not-so-subtle intonations of organized crime sooner rather than later.
As much as Hawley's work has come to be defined by his distinctive eye and taste in well-timed needle drops (which, in the premiere, adds an unexpectedly energetic air to, of all things, the Minnesota competitive bridge circuit), there is also a current of inscrutability running through his 2017 television offerings that perhaps speaks more to the creator's burgeoning brand than any perceived inclination toward a certain aesthetic. In the first hour – which, with ads, clocks in at around 90 minutes – Hawley cooks up a number of absorbing mysteries. Some are directly related to the narrative, like a lock box full of pulpy, pseudonymously written novels and the aforementioned organization that Varga represents, while others, like a striking opening sequence set decades before in snowy Berlin seem incorporated just to keep the audience guessing (and talking in between episodes) about the bigger picture and what it all means.
Hawley has demonstrated a knack for casting his narrative lines far and wide before reeling them in, and Fargo season 3 sees those lines cast wider than ever before. One line concerns Gloria's distrust in and distaste of technology – though that last bit might be the other way around considering Chief Burgle is seemingly invisible and inaudible to various modern conveniences. Another key through-line presented in the first two episodes made available to critics is the notion of kings and queens, and the land and people over which they once ruled but now stand to be deposed from. Mix all that with a coveted stamp depicting an image of Sisyphus and the edges of yet another darkly humorous story about the human condition's relationship with futility begin to emerge.
In the wake of two successful seasons it may seem odd to think, but this iteration of Fargo somehow has more to prove than its predecessors. That mainly has to do with the issue of familiarity. At this point, the windswept locales, character ticks, and "aw, shucks" facades of the morally compromised are as well worn as a parka first donned during the Reagan administration. The series has enlisted an impressive lineup of talent to help keep things fresh, and it pays off in the first two episodes. But despite the presence of the Ewan McGregor, Carrie Coon, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Stuhlbarg, and more, the image of that boulder and that hill never quite seems to fade completely.
Though there are signs the series has slipped into narrative replication, Hawley's compositional inventiveness and willingness to embrace inscrutability at times makes the third installment of Fargo a captivating and stylish addition to this sprawling Minnesota crime saga, and to the growing brand that is Noah Hawley.
Fargo season 3 continues next Wednesday with 'The Principle of Restricted Choice' @10pm on FX.