Blood stains the untarnished snow a deep, succulent red; an inconsequential town with a tiny population feels the loss and excitement of murder; the residents must go to extraordinary lengths to escape their undesirable circumstances. Fargo, one of my favourite US dramas, returned to the UK this evening. Now in its third iteration, I was especially excited because, for the second time in its history, a Brit is at the helm. Ewan McGregor is the second Brit to take on a protagonist role in the hilarious and thrilling TV adaptation of the cult Coen brothers’ film. Martin Freeman, who played the first season’s protagonist, excelled in his portrayal of a jittery, nervous North Dakotan who, having reached breaking point with his daily annoyances, became murderous. It was a role first tried on by William H. Macy in the 1996 film, but in the third season of the acclaimed anthology series, Ewan McGregor takes on a more difficult task.
McGregor plays both Emmit and Ray Stussy, a pair of feuding brothers from Minnesota. The first episode sees parole officer Ray (a greasy, leather-clad Ewan McGregor) request money from Emmit (a suited, well-to-do Ewan McGregor) so that he can marry his parolee Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Emmit declines and so Ray employs another parolee, Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy), to rob Emmit’s house. However, in his drunken stupor, Maurice loses Emmit’s address and so instead ransacks a different house, killing an aged curmudgeon in the process. When Maurice reports back to Nikki and Ray, it becomes clear that he had mistaken Emmit’s house for another. To clear their tracks, Nikki kills Maurice like an ant on a paving stone – in spectacular fashion she kicks from her apartment window a radiator that squashes Maurice instantaneously. The radiator’s long, dramatic fall through the sky is graceful, campy, and satisfyingly beautiful. Unfortunately for Ray and Nikki, the house that their murder victim robbed turns out to be that of police chief Gloria Burgle’s (Carrie Coon), and the old man he killed was Burgle’s stepfather (Scott Hylands).
The premise is typical Fargo, and the hilarity comes from the unlikelihood of the crime scene. Noah Hawley’s third season is instantly no less intelligent nor hilarious than his first two. Setting McGregor up to play more than one character was a risk, but it works. There’s always a chance with ‘double casting’ that an actor will veer off into gimmicky territory – the audience need to believe that these two characters really are different people. McGregor follows in the footsteps of some of the great doppelgangers; Tom Hardy (Legend), Tilda Swinton (Hail, Caesar!) and Armie Hammer (The Social Network). The trick is to persuade us that these two people are independent of one another. McGregor’s characterisation of Emmit and Ray is excellent. Ray fumbles and apologises where Emmit dictates and intimidates. Ray’s oily comb-over is met by Emmit’s “house shoes”. Ray’s constant anxiety contrasts Emmit’s calm, platitudinous remarks (“Orrrrrkay then”, “oh jeez”).
Sunday Times critic Camilla Long said in her review of T2 Trainspotting that McGregor is “now in a bumpy patch in his film career after two decades of having his eyelashes dyed and pubic hairs individually combed in LA”, but I’d hasten to disagree. Yes, his roles of late have been questionable choices for an actor so far into his career (Beauty and the Beast, for example), but his performance in Fargo alone is enough to remind us of his expert ability to transform into a character. I’m going to be sticking with this one, I think it’s going to be good.
Fargo continues next Wednesday (07/06/17) at 10pm on Channel 4.