Fargo series three adds Ewan McGregor to a familiar formula – but it’s different enough to keep things interesting for now

Ben Dowell pays another visit to the freezing blood-soaked wastelands of Minnesota and wonders if it could be one trip too many....

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Another year, another visit to the freezing, folksy Minnesota of Fargo-land where the accents are slow, the locals are ever so polite and the snowscape is usually steeped in blood.

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In this, the third series, there is definitely a sense that showrunner Noah Hawley knows his formula: self-consciously told stories of bungled crimes that spiral out of control leading to death disaster and mayhem, all investigated by decent cops, purveyors of that deadpan so-called ‘Minnesota Nice’.

Of course you may not have the stomach for more after the horrors of the last two series. Who can forget the casually malign Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) in series one? Or the cruel mayhem unleashed by the Gerhardt feud in series two, where the bodies just mounted up with almost absurd regularity?

It’s familiar, yes, but my goodness does Hawley do it stylishly with some superlative visuals, amazing music and the bold trick of having Ewan McGregor leading the cast as both of the two Stussy brothers.

That’s right, the Trainspotting legend plays both rich and successful Emmit and bitter and hapless parole officer Ray (with both men kick-starting the trouble in their own ways, by the way).

Episode one opens a long way from the Mid West, however. We start in East Berlin in 1988 and the Kafkaesque questioning of a poor man accused of a murder he didn’t commit. His only crime is to live in the same place as the perpetrator who left six months before. The State has hauled him out of bed for questioning but if he denies the murder then the State is therefore wrong. And the State is never wrong.

This chilling moment is left hanging (no doubt to be picked up later) as we travel to Minnesota in 2010 and the usual instruction that “this is a true story” and that “at the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

How this story will play out is anyone’s guess and there is a definite sense that Hawley has amassed an even more diffuse bag of plot strings.

Ray is accompanied by his inexplicably sexy and bewitching lover, the brilliantly named Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, below) who helps him in his mission to get his own back on Emmit; Ray is smarting over a stolen, valuable stamp – as small an object to grievance-monger over as you can imagine, which is probably the point.

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But Emmit has other problems, chief of which is becoming rather stupidly become embroiled with David Thewils’s chilling, snaggle-toothed gangster VM Varga who has supplied a $1m loan and doesn’t want paying back in the conventional sense. Varga wants to use Ray’s business as a cover for some massive money laundering operation.

So there we have it – a small Minnesota feud which is blown out of the water later by bigger, darker more nefarious forces, just as in the previous series.

I get a sense, though, that this visit will be more brutal, less warm; the locals feel slightly less likable and possibly even more imbecilic this series –  Emmit’s elderly lawyer doesn’t even know how to use Google. 

What should hold this series together is Carrie Coon’s clever (and fabulously-named) cop Gloria Burgle (below).

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Like all the characters in that role – Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the film, Molly Solverson (Allison Tollman) in series one and Lou Solverson (Molly’s Dad, played by Patrick Wilson) in series two – she is the homely face of decency up against outsider cruelty and greed and what is described in series 3 as hickish “pinheadery”. She allows us to stomach the blood, the cruelty, the horror. Or so we hope.

Will she be up to it? Someone close to Gloria is murdered in the opening episode. What she doesn’t yet know is that it was an accident. The hit man hired to do the deed got the wrong house. But you have a feeling she will get there in the end.

But it’s the start of a long road and a series which starts slowly. In fact, in episode three the investigation takes an altogether different tangent. It’s set entirely in LA, and sees Gloria investigating Ennis’s mysterious sideline as a hack novelist.

Some may think it sacrilege to leave Minnesota for so long but it’s the best of the three I’ve seen and gives the show an injection of fresh energy and narrative drive. Because however comfortingly familiar Fargo is, it won’t work if it’s just more of the same. And I think this series just about avoids that trap. So far anyway…

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Fargo series 3 starts on Channel 4 on Wednesday May 31st at 10pm