The first episode of the third season of “Fargo” has all the appealing trademarks of the earlier seasons, including the notion that the minute you think you deserve better than you’ve gotten so far, fate is going to disabuse you of that notion, even if it kills you.
Notwithstanding all of its delicious qualities, the season opener (9 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, on FX) has just a whiff of same old same old about it.
FX belatedly made a second episode available for review, almost as if it realized critics might need a bit more to suggest that creator Noah Hawley can once again forge something new and engaging from familiar raw materials. Viewers may need that second episode as well.
The premiere begins by throwing us off base, as a young man is brought in by the East Berlin Stasi for questioning about a suspicious death in 1988. It is a case of mistaken identity, but it doesn’t matter. Since the state cannot make mistakes, the young man must be to blame for the death. He may be innocent, but innocence is rarely an effective protection against doom in “Fargo.”
In a few minutes, we are returned to more familiar territory. We meet two brothers in 2010, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor). Emmit is the parking lot king of Minnesota, a kind of petit debonair in the middle of nowhere. Years before, he and Ray struck a deal that enriched Emmit but not Ray, who opted for a Corvette and let his brother keep a priceless stamp (which depicted Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill).
Ray is a parole officer with a pot belly and receding hairline, a now faded Corvette with a license plate that reads “Ace-Hole” and a cool dime-store femme fatale named Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Ray regrets the deal he made with Emmit and needs money so he and Nikki can get married. Emmit makes a deal of his own, to borrow capital from a greasy Brit named V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), only to find out … well, let’s just say he finds something out, as most characters in “Fargo” do when they fail to read the fine print in life.
The only truly grounded character is, once again, the female local cop, chief of police of Eden Valley, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon). The most untethered character is a stoner ex-con named Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy), who bungles a job for Ray, things ensue, people die in creative ways.
The season’s second episode signals that Hawley will probably make great use of the “Fargo” template. But three seasons in, it has to be more of a challenge to take similar characters, situations and sensibilities, all of which are narrowly defined, and make them feel completely fresh. For now, though, we’ll give “Fargo” the benefit of a very slight doubt.