Thursday, April 20, 2017

Coen Brother Ephemera Remixed in Fargo Season Three - Introduction, Episode 1

Season Three of FX's expansive adaptation of the Coen Brothers' 1995 film Fargo premiered this week. If the first two seasons are any indication, series creator Noah Hawley and his writers and directors will have littered the scripts and the corners of the frame with references to the Coens' entire catalog. As with last year, I will be taking notes on these connections during each episode and sharing them here.

If you see that I've overlooked one, please let me know in the comments (but please wait until after I've added a given week's episode, as I watch with a day or two of delay, and would like to see it fresh. By the same token, spoiler alert!).

Before we get into the episodes, here's what we knew about the season's Coen bona fides before the first episode even aired:
  • The whole series, of course, borrows the title, Minnesota/Dakotas setting, genre (an inciting event blows up into desperate, bloody fiasco, while competent cops chase down the perpetrators), and tone of the namesake movie.
  • Like that film, all three seasons claim (facetiously) to be based on true stories, and include the same opening disclaimer regarding names having been changed but details preserved.
  • Via Season One, the series has a plot element that suggests a shared narrative universe: Carl Showalter's (Steve Buscemi) ice scraper and suitcase of buried ransom money.
  • Composer Jeff Russo's score frequently (but not always!) works in the mood and style of Carter Burwell's score to the film. There's a recurring motif used as a main theme to the series, that follows the chord progression of "Fargo, North Dakota," the theme piece from the film. That theme was directly quoted once each in the final episodes of the first two seasons, and I would be shocked if it didn't return this year as well.
  • Casting announcements tell us that at least three Coen veteran actors will appear in the season: Michael Stuhlbarg and Fred Melamed (Larry Gopnik and Sy Ableman in "A Serious Man") play Sy Feltz and Howard Zimmerman, respectively, and David Thewlis (video artist Knox Harrington in "The Big Lebowski") plays V. M. Varga.
Episode 1: "The Law of Vacant Places" (4/19/17)
  • We start with a prologue in a foreign place, language, and time, in this case 1988 East Berlin. Hawley has said that he likes the idea of beginning with a distinct scene that, while disconnected from the main story, explores the same themes. He cites the opening story of the dybbuk impersonating Reb Groshkover in A Serious Man.
  • Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) is the "Parking Lot King of Minnesota" (Side note: Oliver Platt in Season 1 was the Grocery King of Minnesota, Nick Offerman in Season 2 was the Breakfast King of Loyola, and now we've got the Parking Lot King, and a reference to the Storage Queen. I like to think that there's a statewide department keeping track of these titles). In Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard wants his father-in-law to invest in a parcel of land on which he intends to build a parking lot.
  • Speaking of that movie and topic, we get a straight-down shot of Ray Stussy (McGregor) parking his car, reminiscent of several shots of Jerry.
  • Red Owl grocery store in Eden Valley, a reference to the Red Owl in the Parable of the Goy's Teeth in A Serious Man. There was a Red Owl in my neighborhood when I was little. Wasn't a terribly impressive grocery store, but I have always loved the logo. Supervalu bought the brand and converted the remaining stores in the late 1980s.
  • Maurice pulls a Jeffrey Lebowski in trying to throw a joint through a closed car window, with opposite results vis-a-vis the finding of pieces of paper.
  • Maurice also pulls a The Big Lebowski case of mistaken identity in robbing the wrong E. Stussy in a town with Eden in its name, with far more deadly results. Too bad: Gloria's stepfather really tied the room together.
  • Minor or tenuous connections: 
    • "Vouch" -  Shep Proudfoot for Carl and Gaear in Fargo, not Buck Olander for the Narwhal organization in Fargo S3.
    • The valuable 2 cent stamp recalls the three cent duck stamp for which Marge's husband Norm won the design contest.
    • "Bona fide" - Not Narwhal organization in Fargo S3, nor Ulysses Everet McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou
    • The bridge team bowling shirts of course put me in mind of The Dude's bowling league in Lebowski
  •  References to previous seasons of the show Fargo:
    • Somebody help me out: I swear there was a Fjord's restaurant elsewhere in the series. Maybe the place in St. Paul where Molly meets her old friend in S1?
    • The afore-mentioned stamp also features the image of Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill. The myth of Sisyphus (and Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus) both figured prominently in Season 2.
    • The page Maurice tore from the Yellow Pages has an ad for Dazzle Beauty, the salon where Peggy and Constance worked in S2.
  • I love this paragraph from Sean T. Collins about how the Coen elements function in this show:
  • "I still find it absolutely enthralling how Hawley has used the original Fargo as a pivot point for a whole “Songs in the Key of Coen” performance. Take the LeFey character, seemingly a one-and-done affair. In this one person Hawley has managed to create a sort of The Big Lewbowski golem who combines everything going on in that movie in a single role. LeFey is a long-haired stoner fuck-up with a cool t-shirt and a worrying tendency to drop a lit J in his lap while driving. He’s also a two-bit criminal who breaks into the wrong house and roughs up the wrong guy in a case of mistaken identity in order to kick off the action. His storyline involves a confrontation with a nude man in a bathtub, a glamorous woman standing before him in the buff, and a page torn from a notepad with an obscene illustration on it. None of this feels like cheap heat from fanservice, mind you. It’s just a deft demonstration of Hawley’s understanding of the Coens’ source material, and his ability to recombine its constituent elements in new forms like Legos."

To be continued...

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