Ewan McGregor walks in and says hi, his paunch belly protruding over his ill-fitting slacks, the fluorescent lighting bouncing off his bald head, the straggles of red hair around his crown dirty and knotted, and his handlebar mustache less Tom Selleck-swoony and more last call at the truck stop bar off-putting.
Fargo, if nothing else, is constantly reminding you that nothing works out quite like you expect it to. And thus instead of staring into Ewan McGregor’s gorgeous Scottish eyes, here we are with him dressed like a Midwest parole officer.
Its first two seasons featured the most impressive wrangling of star acting talent not corralled by Ryan Murphy—Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Martin Freeman, and more—but Season 3, which begins Wednesday night on FX, literally doubles the star power. We get two Ewans.
McGregor plays brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy in the new season. Ray is the vision we’re holding court with in a break room on the Calgary set where the series shoots. Emmit, you’ll be relieved, more closely hews to McGregor’s celluloid handsomeness.
“We did it because we knew that we could hit a Ewan McGregor-like stratosphere of star if we made it one actor playing both roles,” Executive Producer Warren Littlefield says about the decision to use camera trickery and bank-breaking prosthetics to cast McGregor as both leads. “We joke that we should chryon on the screen in the credits Ewan’s name twice, because you really can’t tell.”
Littlefield is beaming a bit broader than anyone in the Calgary cold on the set of a brutally violent TV show might ordinarily be. But he’s earned the right to gloat.
He shepherded a TV adaptation of 1996’s Coen Brothers masterpiece to FX so successfully that his one-way ticket to the loony bin for even trying has been exchanged for seemingly endless return trips to the Emmy Awards.
He brought in the “writer who dared,” Noah Hawley, to take the spirit of the Coens and apply it to a universe both of their world but also identifiably its own—in turn vaulting the detail-obsessive showrunner to the top of the TV genius list, from which he now also oversees FX’s Legion.
And with Year 3 of Fargo, as FX likes to call it, he once again assembled the kind of acting ensemble TV fans salivate over: The Leftovers breakout Carrie Coon as morally grounding police chief Gloria Burgle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (BrainDead) as leopard-print grifter Nikki Swanson, and British thespian David Thewlis (Harry Potter’s Professor Lupin) as this year’s Big Bad, V.M. Varga.
More, the potent cocktail of menace, suspense, satire, and pulp is as perfectly mixed as in previous seasons—tasting enough like the original Fargo to be familiar, but spiced with enough originality to be more than a pale imitation.
And while Year 3 is certainly as bloody and thrilling as you’ve come to expect from Hawley’s work and Fargo, in general, this season is haunted by the faint whir of something far more terrifying than the wood chipper, or even Billy Bob Thornton in a pageboy haircut: Donald Trump.
At the invite of FX (full disclosure: the network covered travel expenses) we flew to the Fargo production in Calgary to tour the new sets, talk to the cast, and watch Ewan McGregor brandish a gun—and learn how a series lives up to Fargo-levels of hype.
His name is whispered everywhere. It appears to be reverence. It might a little out of fear. Maybe it’s the combination of both that contributes to level of quality Fargo has managed to achieve.
“Noah, you know, is so specific.” “Noah really likes things to be as realistic as possible.” “It’s all up to Noah.” “Noah, well, he likes things a certain way.”
Noah is Noah Hawley, the benevolent ruler of all things Fargo, from the scripts he himself pens down to the art that hangs on the walls of the set. “With Noah you always know that the gun on the wall is going to go off,” says producer Kim Todd. “So you have to get it.”
Todd is touring the soundstage sets of Year 3: a makeshift home in the back of a truck trailer that will figure prominently later in the season, a dingy apartment, and, later on location, a ranch mansion that production refurbished itself (and would be impressive even if it were not for the 9-foot-tall stuffed bear that towers near the foyer).
She recalls a back-and-forth with Hawley about a comic book a character holds at one point. He wanted The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, an allusion to a character’s wealth. The rights didn’t clear. “I can get you an Archie,” she went back. Nope, he said: “How about Richie Rich?”
It extends to every department. Costume designer Carol Case is walking around racks of parkas and police uniforms and meticulously hum-drum slacks that make up the Fargo wardrobe department, where, at Hawley’s behest, specificity is key, from the garish flair adorning Winstead’s Nikki Swango—“Noah said she’s the only character who gets to be really hot”—down to the anonymous bit players you ordinarily wouldn’t notice.
“One of my favorite recent characters was a parking attendant,” she grins. “He looked exactly as I imagined.”
But if the devil is in the detail, then God is in the story. And this one, help us all, involves Donald Trump.
“This is a true story.”
The message launches each season of Fargo, as it did the film. “At the request of survivors, names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
It sets up a true crime narrative that, for Year 3, takes us to 2010 Minnesota, the most modern setting yet for a season of Fargo.
That idea of the “truth” underscores this season more than ever, says Littlefield, given the politically charged climate the series is now airing in. “We woke up and we live in a world of a Trump administration,” he says. “So the notion of ‘the truth is what we say it is’ has become wildly more relevant.”
McGregor adds, “There’s some very beautiful work by Noah where he’s slipped in here and there little comments about what’s going on politically at the moment. Not heavy-handedly. You wouldn’t necessarily notice. But there is that idea about what a fact is. That alternative-facts idea is slipped in here and there.”
Everyone is quick to note that one shouldn’t expect the season to, as Hawley says, “lecture or voice a political opinion.” But when the world this “true story” was going to premiere in began to crystallize, he couldn’t resist leaning into it.
More broadly, though, this season of Fargo is a family drama. At the heart of it are McGregor’s brothers, Emmit and Ray, and their rivalry.
When their father died, he left Emmit a Corvette and Ray, who was only 15 then, a stamp collection. Bruised, petulant, and unable to look into the future, Ray convinces Emmit to trade him—though the ensuing decades allow time for alternate truths to emerge over who instigated the trade.
The stamp collection proves to be worth a fortune and funds Emmit’s ascent to extreme wealth. Ray, years after the Corvette headed to the junk yard, has accrued not much more than a chip on his shoulder. As it stands, Ray is a broke and embittered parole officer with little to brag of beyond a new romance with one of his charges, Winstead’s Nikki Swango.
“It’s been quite interesting with the whole Trump thing, because I feel sometimes there’s moments that I’m channeling a bit of Trump here and there with Emmit, like his thin skin and the way he can react when the shit goes down,” McGregor says. “He doesn’t react very well. Which is why he’s got Sy [Michael Stuhlbarg], his right-hand man. You get the impression that he’s sort of Bannon, you know what I mean? He’s better at dealing with stuff, I guess.”
This is Fargo, of course. Shit, as it were, starts to go down quickly.
Ray, at Nikki’s encouragement to take a stand against Emmit, blackmails one of his charges, a hapless stoner named Maurice played by Scoot McNairy, to break into his brother’s house and steal back the last, most valuable stamp from the collection for Ray to cash in.
The mission goes violently sideways, and there you have Fargo: everyday Average Joes who make one immoral decision and end up in over their heads.
Meanwhile, Emmit finds himself in his own precarious situation when an enigmatic, utterly creepy investor turns up—Thewlis’s V.M. Varga—to scare the bejeezus out of them with his unclear ulterior motives.
“His particular form of malevolence is mental and very much about finding the weakness, particularly in Emmit,” says Thewlis. “It’s entirely manipulative and psychological, but ultimately for financial gain.”
Completing this year’s Fargo puzzle is Carrie Coon’s Gloria Burgle, the local police chief and divorced mother whose connection to the premiere’s central violent crime is more personal than any other law enforcement’s in previous Fargo seasons.
She’s a fascinating character: cynical and hardened, but soldiering, warm, and dutiful in the way you’re conditioned to expect from a Fargo heroine.
“What’s interesting to me about the Fargo world is that it’s set in a very specific place, which is that Minnesota reason known for its niceness,” she says. “The thing about that niceness is that it’s actually a veneer for some other things going on, which are a kind of stoicism, a lack of ability to be fully expressed.”
There’s a running sight gag with malfunctioning technology—automatic doors that won’t open, faucets that don’t turn on—that have an existential effect on Gloria, compounding with her divorce and facing a possible demotion to make her feel slightly invisible.
But of course, Gloria actually carries a huge presence in the series. She’s the female lead, and, if you know Fargo, you know how important that is.
“Because of the film I think that Fargo as it exists has a very strong female identity,” Hawley says, referring to Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning Marge Gunderson. It’s an identity that is certainly evident in Hawley’s series, from Allison Tolman’s Molly, the Marge surrogate in season one, to Kirsten Dunst and Jean Smart’s characters in season two.
Winstead marvels over the contrast between Coon’s Gloria and her own Nikki, and the expectations over how you’d expect them to behave. Nikki has a criminal background, dresses in short and tight clothing, and carries an air of danger. But there’s more to her than it seems.
“So on the one end you’ve got Carrie playing who you think would be the hopeful, fresh-faced cop, but she’s a little more cynical and she’s dealing with a lot in terms of what’s going on in her life,” Winstead says. “Then you’ve got this ex-con who’s less cynical and has more optimism about the world and about life. Everything is subverted in unexpected ways.”
That, perhaps, is the very Fargo ethos, and the reason it works so well.
The extreme niceness of these Minnesotans, juxtaposed against the brutal violence they become enrapt in. The operatic circumstances these gee-golly folk find their everyday lives disrupted by. These heroes and villains who are each as recognizable as you and me.
“That’s why you always end the season feeling there’s hope for humanity, even though you’ve seen some absolutely diabolical expressions of evil,” Thewlis says, then grinning the devilish smile of a proper Fargo villain: “Of course I haven’t read the last episode yet.”