This much we know after two years in Minnesota: Choosing to embark on a new season of “Fargo” is akin to inviting tragedy unto yourself. Each year, the opening disclaimer originated by the Coen Brothers in their 1996 film promises bodies: “This is a true story… At the request of the survivors… Out of respect for the dead…” And each year we’ve come to love and lose characters within a very short amount of time. You know what you’re getting yourself into, even if — like the UFOs in Season 2 — you can never predict exactly what you’ll see.
As Season 3 begins, what’s oft-referred to as a black comedy, midwestern drama, or anthology crime story, feels better suited for another genre:
Going in, you know any number of the characters you’re watching could die at any moment. Their end could be gruesome or sickly comical; deserved or regretted; outrageous or mundane. That you know it’s coming and have to wait creates enough suspense to make you hide your eyes, and the macabre atmosphere is rarely lifted. Most of all, “Fargo” plays into our fear of bad things happening to good people; of right and wrong not being matched by cause and effect. Noah Hawley’s series elicits empathy for almost everyone within it, and then makes you sit and wait in a tortured emotional state to discover who survives this death trap.
Season 1 featured a literal interpretation of this savage ambush, when Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo walked through a gangster’s office, murdering 22 people in the process, and one of its most impressive accomplishments was making us worry for the cold-blooded assassin’s safety. We knew Malvo deserved what came to him, but we didn’t root against him like a traditional antagonist.
While Season 2 actually showed us the Sioux Falls massacre, it also kept us agonizing over the fate of its characters, namely Ted Danson’s Hank Larsson and his grown daughter, Betsey Solverson (Cristin Miliotti). Even though we knew Betsey passed away long before Lou thanks to the events in Season 1, audiences couldn’t bare to witness her death first-hand in the prequel season. Not when little Molly Solverson — the future hero of Season 1 — was just a quiet, happy little kid. Though good ultimately triumphed over evil, enough evil was done to make our heroes look at life differently from that moment forward.
And during the opening minutes of Season 3, I found myself sitting and praying for the safety of Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) and Nicki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an inherently likable and inherently mischievous couple whose providence washes away as the damning titles pop up over their little red Corvette.
Like in a horror movie, fans may spend the first half-hour bargaining for the lives of every character. Ray and Nicki are instantly endearing. Shunned by high society because of their criminal associations — she’s an ex-con out on parole, and he’s her parole officer — the purity of their love steals the spotlight early and often; a powerful juxtaposition, two suspicious individuals bonded by true love, even as you see them plant the seeds of their own downfall.
Ray’s twin brother, Emmit (also played by McGregor, whose total embodiment of each character makes up for his Scottish accent slipping out every so often) is a bit trickier. Not exactly the warmest brother, Emmit is a successful businessman looking to protect what’s his, both financially and socially. Having Ray around, whose Sunday best appears to be an untucked button down and leather jacket, isn’t exactly simpatico with the image he wants to project.
And then there’s Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), an honest cop trying to do what’s right by the badge and for her son. A woman defined by her patient, playful reaction to a broken automatic door that’s keeping her locked out in the cold, Burgle is instantly untouchable: meaning if anything happens to her, our hearts may never recover.
That’s not to say she’s safe. As we’ve seen in the first two seasons, coincidence, fate, luck — whatever you want to call it — plays a major role in the battle between right versus wrong. Anything can happen to anyone, making for a tense first hour and what will undoubtedly be a fraught full season. And while “Fargo” is scary, the scares aren’t cheap — far from it. Rather than the “gotcha!” moments or gory abominations dominating studio horror franchises, what’s frightening in “Fargo” is a blend of good intentions and bad ideas escalating beyond control.
Yet unlike many horror films, what keeps us coming back to “Fargo” is that Hawley’s stories are always focused more on the good in people than the bad. We’re not tuning in to see the carnage, but to see who can escape it. “I think deep down we all have something positive inside us, don’t you think?” Gloria Burgle tells her son during the opening episode. And other than perhaps one obtuse character, it’s evident in the 65-minute premiere that this is true. There’s something good in each and every one of these Minnesotans, and we see enough of it to inspire hope that “something positive” can carry them through the horrors that lie ahead.
It’s a painful journey, but one that’s always proven rewarding. The first episode of Season 3 has given us no reason to think it won’t be worth the torment again.
“Fargo” Season 3 premieres Wednesday, April 19 at 10 p.m. on FX.