‘Fargo’ season 3 recap: "The Law of Vacant Places"

FARGO -- Year 3 -- Pictured: Ewan McGregor as Ray Stussy. CR: Chris Large/FX

FARGO -- Year 3 -- Pictured: Ewan McGregor as Ray Stussy. CR: Chris Large/FX

What’s in a name? That’s the question at the heart of Fargo’s season three premiere.

The show opens with a vignette in 1988 East Berlin, where a case of mistaken identity leads what seems like an innocent man (giving William H. Macy vibes) into police custody for killing a woman with the same first name as his wife. When the man questions the state’s reasoning for the inquisition, the officer says firmly: “We are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth.”

Of course, about 30 seconds later, an old chestnut flashes across a hoary Minnesota scene and brings us to 2010 with Fargo’s familiar disclaimer: “This is a true story…”

After two years, Noah Hawley’s love letter to the Coen brothers is back — and its return is predicated on mistaken identities (how very Big Lebowski), mistaken deals, and mistakenly placed trust. The juxtaposition of truths and falsehoods at the opening is practically begging us not to trust anything or anyone, because in Coen-land, just about everyone is a wrong turn away from ending up on the wrong side of a wood chopper. (Or in this episode's case, an air conditioning unit.)

Speaking of brothers, this season follows two: Emmit and Ray Stussy. Both are played with zeal by Ewan McGregor, but that's where the characters' similarities end. Emmit, the elder Stussy, is the one who's got it all figured out. The so-called "Parking Lot King" has it all: a family, a business, a henchman, a bushy head of hair, and an altogether cushy existence in Eden Prairie. We meet him at his 25th anniversary party, telling the oh-so-wholesome story of how he and his wife started dating (and coincidentally lived in the same apartment, albeit at different times).

On the other hand, Ray is Emmit's polar opposite. He's balding, has had a string of partners (his current one has him wrapped around her little finger), and is hard-up for cash. After all, money is the only reason Ray has deigned to show up to this bougie affair. Through a deal with Emmit's henchman Sy, Ray secures a few minutes of Godfather-style begging for funds.

After the Stussy's philatelist father passed away years prior, he left the boys a few dozen vintage stamps and a little red Corvette. The elder brother saw opportunity knocking and swapped the car for his younger brother's share of the more lucrative stamp collection. Emmit sold off most of the stamps for a mint, leaving Ray with what's now an aging car in constant need of attention. The crown jewel of the collection still hangs over Emmit’s desk: a two-cent stamp bearing an image of the myth of Sisyphus.

"How about you just gimme back my stamp? We’ll call it square," Ray offers.

Emmit fires back, "Nobody took advantage. It was a trade. If I had a time machine, you’d see, I’d play back the tape."

Ray makes an appeal of the heart, revealing that he wants the money for an engagement ring.

Sy, with a flat top you could balance books on, is the kind of henchman that gets invited to his boss’ daughter’s no-shoes wedding in Cabo. (Meanwhile, her uncle Ray doesn’t even warrant an invitation.) Coen alum Michael Stuhlbarg (A Simple Man) bristles delightfully as Emmit's money-conscious, deadpan companion.

“You meet her at work?” Sy asks.

It’s an innocent question in most circumstances, but it’s a loaded one in Ray’s case. See, he’s a parole officer dating his parolee, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She's a brunette-bobbed parolee with a penchant for bubble gum, faux fur… and Bridge. (The episode title is inspired by the game.)

McGregor as both Stussy brothers is divine casting. McGregor sparring with himself over a long-gone stamp collection is a treat, without the usual awkward hang ups that actors face (literally) when playing multiple characters in the same scene. He lends each brother enough distinction that viewers won't even need the distraction of the Stussy brothers' equally bad hair to tell the difference between the elder and the younger. How often the pair of Stussys face off in the same place again remains to be seen, but let's hope it happens again soon.

Emmit’s company is finally in the black, and he’s ready to make good on the year-old loan that helped kickstart his business. Only thing is, when he calls to arrange a pickup for the money, all he hears is "clicks and buzzers." That phone call later brings the surprise arrival of V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), a bad Brit with a maw as rotten as the villainous intent behind his fancy words. According to Varga, it turns out that loan wasn’t a loan at all; it was an investment. Unable to back out on the deal, Emmit and Sy are stuck in a holding pattern until they can figure out how to deal with Varga and his people. (Will Varga be this season's Malvo?)

Meanwhile, Ray decides he's had enough of Emmit lording his wealth over his head. Hell, the parking lot at his parole job is owned by his brother. So Ray buddies up to another parolee — the mulleted, perma-high Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy) — and enlists him to pilfer the Sisyphus stamp from Emmit's Eden Prairie McMansion. True to Coen universe form, the bumbling Maurice loses Emmit's address in an actual whirlwind and the piece of paper winding up half-tucked in a snow bank. To his credit, Maurice tries to repair the damage and find the address in the phone book — but he gets Eden Prairie confused with Eden Valley, where another E. Stussy lives.

Carrie Coon takes on the role of season three's resident law woman, Gloria Burgle, stepping confidently into the shoes filled by Frances McDormand (Fargo, the film) and Allison Tolman (Fargo, season one) before her. As both police chief (a position which will soon be taken from her as the department merges with another) and a single mom, she's got a lot on her plate. And that’s before discovering that her no-nonsense, hard-drinking father is killed during a suspicious break-in. (Yep, it’s Maurice.) Add all that to the mysterious box she finds underneath his floorboards, and Gloria's found herself in a pressure cooker that's cranking the heat. Maurice flees the scene and makes his way to Nikki's apartment to debrief and drop off the ill-gotten goods. He decides he's held up his part of the bargain more than sufficiently, he pulls a gun on both Ray and Nikki, demanding payment by the next day before he stumbles out of the apartment in a haze.

It's here that we realize that Nikki, a Midwestern femme fatale to the core, always has something up her sleeve: whether it's distracting the enemy with her assets... or counting the number of seconds after Maurice leaves so she can correctly time dropping her air conditioner on him. As the seconds build, it’s clear that this isn't the first time she's had to think on her feet this quickly — or violently. Heck, she doesn't even think twice about killing the guy. (Which she does successfully with a karate kick assist from a frantic Ray.) And it makes you wonder what made her cross paths with her parole officer in the first place.

So, after all that, what's in a name? The difference between life and death.

Random notes:

Does the myth of Sisyphus sound familiar? It was also the title of one of last season's episodes.

About that weird, old book in the box: Are the aliens from season two back? Is there a faction of pseudo-Scientologists in our midst? What conspiracy theories are lurking below the floorboards?

What’s up with the sensor on the country store? That's going to come back to haunt them.

Have piss tests ever looked so glorious?

Goodnight sweet, stoned Maurice. You literally didn't know what hit you.

Taking bets on whether Nikki’s in it with Ray for love. She does say they're "Sympatico to the point of spooky." Plus, who would’ve thought Bridge would be her game?

A perfect character study in a single conversation: Nikki: "You’re the hand and I’m the glove." Ray: "You’re the bottle and I’m the beer." Nikki: "Or the beer in the glass, in my case." Ray: "Oh yah, I mean... it comes in a — I know."

Death count: Two.