Warning: This recap of the “The Law of Vacant Places” episode of Fargo contains spoilers.
In which we return to Minnesota, in the year 2010, and make the acquaintances of interesting folk named Stussy, Swango, Burgle, Feltz, Varga, and LeFay.
Ray and Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor)
The Stussy brothers followed decidedly different paths in life, and it all began with some postage stamps and a Corvette. When Emmit and Ray’s dad died, he bequeathed his prized car to Emmit (the eldest) and a stamp collection to Ray. Ray, according to Emmit, begged his sibling to swap inheritances, and Emmit did. Travel forward to present day (Fargo Season 3 present day, that is), and Emmit has parlayed that valuable stamp collection into the capital he needed to become the parking lot king of Minnesota. Ray is a parole officer whose days are spent collecting urine samples from his clients, driving a Corvette (license plate: ACEHOLE) that has seen better decades, and in need of frequent loans from his big brother so he can repair said automobile.
Ray also can’t afford a fancy engagement ring for his girlfriend, the one bright spot in his fairly bleak existence. That’s why he shows up at Emmit’s anniversary party: Ray wants yet another loan. But unlike Vito Corleone on his daughter’s wedding day, Emmit Stussy can, and does, refuse a request on his own 25th wedding anniversary: he offers no cash for Ray’s engagement rock purchase.
Ray’s angry and reveals a long-running bitterness about the stamp switcheroo, which he claims he was tricked into by Emmit. He storms out of the swanky Stussy manse after being denied by Emmit, but he’s clearly not willing to let the matter drop now, after years of accusing his brother of malfeasance.
Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)
And she’s the reason why: Nikki Swango (one of the best character names in the history of Fargo, which is saying a lot), Ray’s girlfriend… and his parolee. That’s where they met, and now they are “simpatico to the point of spooky,” as she puts it. She’s got big plans for herself and Ray: they’re going to become bridge champions — yeah, the card game — and after getting a few wins under their belt, she reckons they’ll be able to get themselves a sponsorship and enter the world of big-money bridge.
They get a third-place win at a local tournament and plan to keep going, but Ray can’t let go of the stamp situation with Emmit. So he blackmails another of his parolees, one who has failed a drug test. He’s “got a place that needs some robbin’,” he tells the thief, and in exchange for procuring the most valuable stamp Emmit still has in his possession and delivering it to Ray, Ray will forget all about that positive pee test.
Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg)
Unbeknownst to Ray, Emmit has some problems of his own. The parking lot game wasn’t running so smoothly a year earlier, so he and his attorney/right-hand man Sy went looking for a million-dollar loan. Traditional banks said no, so Emmit and Sy went another, shadier route, signing a contract to borrow seven figures from a man named Ehrmantraut. Now, they’re ready to repay the loan, with interest, but when they call the number Mr. Ehrmantraut gave them, they get nothing but “clicks and buzzers” on the other end of the line. But Sy seems more concerned with rubbing his close relationship and business partnership with Emmit in Ray’s face, including making sure Ray knows Sy was invited to the small Cabo beach wedding of Emmit’s daughter Grace. Ray was not.
Of course, Ray also isn’t about to come face-to-face with a very intimidating man who’s about to turn the Stussy/Feltz parking lot world upside down.
V. M. Varga (David Thewlis)
That would be Varga, who shows up one evening at Stussy headquarters, ready to discuss that loan. He’s the replacement for Ehrmantraut, and actually, he’s not interested in talking about a loan; he says it was an investment. Like it or not — and they don’t — Narwhal, the firm Varga works for, doesn’t want the money back. They want to use the Stussy business to launder their funds. And despite some attempts at blustery protestation by Sy, Varga and his mouthful of cattywampus teeth shut down any discussion. His people have already accessed Stussy’s computer system, and now it is laundry time.
Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy)
Not that the big bridge tournament placing means all is rosy in Ray-land. Forget that he understands he and Nikki need to keep their against-the-rules personal relationship on the down low, yet he says nothing when she mentions she Facebooked their tourney finish. No, more immediately pressing is that he has hitched his star to Maurice’s wagon. Maurice is one of Ray’s parolees, a hapless sort who participates in therapy sessions via cell phone and tells the shrink he thinks he’s insightful because he notices morgues are always on the basement, never the top floor, of hospitals, and because he wonders about things like, does the President of the United States have to shut down a whole J.C. Penney store when he needs to buy a new suit.
Maurice is the guy with the drug-laced potty, and he is the one Ray sends off to Emmit’s house — with Emmit’s address written, by Ray’s hand, on a piece of distinctive notepad paper belonging to Ray — to steal the stamp. Maurice, predictably, bumbles this assignment, in the following ways: the piece of incriminating paper blows out of his car window when he tries to throw a joint out of it; he tries to work from his memory of what was on the paper, and remembers the wrong town; he stops at a gas station in that wrong town and looks up an “E. Stussy” in the phone book, then rips that page out of the book, in front of the clerk/witness, and drives to that address… the address of a Mr. Ennis Stussy.
Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon)
Ennis Stussy is the stepfather of Gloria, the local police chief. Gloria and her son Nathan are celebrating Nathan’s birthday at Ennis’s house, where Ennis presents Nathan with a handmade carving of a man and a boy on a camping trip. When Gloria and Nathan are on their way home later, Nathan realizes he forgot the gift on the table, and wants to return immediately to retrieve it so Ennis won’t think he didn’t appreciate it. When they arrive back at the house, the front door is open, and upon a quick investigation, Gloria finds Ennis dead, bound to a chair, in his kitchen. When she hears a noise upstairs, she investigates and finds Ennis’s desk ransacked. She also finds a loose floorboard, and underneath it there’s a metal box that contains some old sci-fi novels — The Dungeon Lurk and The Planet Wyh — written by a Thaddeus Mobley. The cover of The Planet Wyh features two men in the exact same position the figures in the carving Ennis made for Nathan are in. Was Ennis really Thaddeus Mobley?
The Stussy/Swango/LeFay Affair
While celebrating their bridge tourney finish with a bath at the Swango home, Ray and Nikki are interrupted by Maurice, who lets himself into the apartment. He tells Ray he got the stamps for him, but things took a left turn. Oh, and, Maurice was surprised by how old Ray’s brother was, and by how modest his rich guy home was. Which is when Ray realizes Maurice went to the wrong town, the wrong house, killed someone, and brought him back some postage stamps he took from the dead guy’s desk. Ennis Stussy’s desk, of course. A tussle ensues when Ray berates Maurice, and Maurice pulls a gun on him. Mr. LeFay also demands $5,000, lest he squeal about Ray’s plan, and he gives Ray and his lady a day to come up with the dough.
As Maurice leaves, Nikki begins counting and runs around the apartment looking for something. She continues counting, finds a screwdriver, and runs to her window air conditioning unit. When she reaches a certain number, she asks Ray to look outside from her fourth-floor window and see if Maurice has left the building yet. He has, and is standing immediately below the window when she and Ray pry the AC unit loose. Ray gives it one big kick with his bare foot, and it tumbles to the ground — a brilliant but dizzying camera shot shows the drop from the AC unit’s POV — and lands right on Maurice’s head. His body plops to the ground, and his head becomes a large red splotch on the sidewalk.
* Ray’s notepad paper says “Things To Do Today” at the top and features a silhouette of two people having sex, not in the missionary position, underneath it. So, you betcha that it can — and will? — be tied back to him if — when? — it’s found.
* To concoct Ray Stussy’s mullet look, were photos of Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, post-Vietnam, the inspiration?
* Ennis’s Red Owl grocery store is inspired by a real chain of stores that began in Minnesota, and featured the same red owl logo.
* TV tunes: Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’s “Moanin’,” playing during the montage of Ray’s urine sample collecting; “Crazy on You” by Heart, playing during the Swango/Stussy drive home after Emmit’s anniversary soiree; “Prisencolinensinanciusol” by Adriano Celentano, playing during the Swango/Stussy entrance into the bridge tournament; and master of Tuvan throat singing Radik Tyulyush’s “Oskus Urug,” playing while Gloria is searching Ennis’s house after she finds him dead in the kitchen.
* Just a guess, but this Ehrmantraut fellow may be a nod to Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). Better Call Saul co-creator Peter Gould told Yahoo TV in an interview earlier this month that he met Fargo creator Noah Hawley recently, and Hawley had a pitch that proved he’s quite the Saul fan. “I said, ‘What’s the pitch?’ He said, ‘My pitch is [Jimmy] never becomes Saul Goodman,’” Gould told us. Seems Hawley, like the rest of us, clearly isn’t ready to bid adieu to Jimmy McGill.
* Favorite quote of the episode: “Happy birthday, or whatever,” says Ennis to his step-grandson as he pushes a gift box across the table to him.
Fargo airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
Read more from Yahoo TV:
‘Fargo’: A Freezing Hot New Mystery
‘Fargo’ Season 3: How Ewan McGregor Transformed Into Two Very Different Brothers
‘Fargo’ Season 3 Preview: Bridge, Brothers, and Ewan McGregor in Spanx