'Fargo's Brothers Are In A Tug-Of-War Over A Mysterious Stamp

by Samantha Atzeni
Chris Large/FX

It seems the Season 3 premiere of Fargo belongs to the philatelists. (That's stamp collectors, for the layperson.) Most billboards and advertisements for the new season feature star Ewan McGregor, and an inherited stamp of unknown value. With Season 3 premiering April 19, the biggest mystery will be how much the stamp is worth on Fargo, and who deserves to keep it.

While the Season 3 promos haven’t been very forthcoming with information, fixating completely on the value of a simple stamp isn’t anything new in the Fargo universe. The ending of the 1996 film leaves the audience with a quiet moment of American domesticity: after Norm is disappointed that his painting will be featured on the three-cent stamp, Marge, two months pregnant, reassures him that he should be proud because “whenever they raise the postage they need the little stamps.”

For Season 3, all fans know at this point is the value of the stamp to brothers Emmit and Ray (both McGregor) as both a literal and figurative symbol of ambition. As the less successful brother, Ray feels he deserves to reap the monetary benefits of this rare stamp. As the more successful brother, Emmit feels he should teach his brother a lesson in working hard for his money. As the brothers engage in sibling rivalry worthy of Cain and Abel, the stamp may continue to keep its own value to itself, allowing the grudges between the two brothers to complicate its actual worth.

Chris Large/FX

Since this shared universe means that everything and everyone in the Fargo universe is connected, it makes sense to revisit the movie's important imagery. Whether the Season 3 stamp is worth three cents or an inheritance, its actual value is irrelevant, except in the eye of the beholder: Marge sees it as useful, but Norm, Ray, and Emmit see it as winning at the American Dream.

Like the film, each season of Fargo explores the darker side of Americana, all set against the backdrop of a small town filled with secrets. Season 1, taking place in 2006, focused on the the powerful influence of darkness, while Season 2, taking place in 1979 as the prequel to Season 1 and the film, explores how easily power can corrupt a person. The new season will take place in 2010 and promises to dig into the dark side of American ambition through the most controversial, yet ordinary, symbol of American innovation: the stamp.

Ewan McGregor is already generating early buzz for his intense portrayal of the two feuding brothers: Emmit is the wealthy businessman, while Ray is the overworked parole officer who needs money to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend Nikki (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

When Emmit refuses to loan his brother the money, Ray plots to steal the stamp from him. By using Ewan McGregor to play both brothers, Fargo draws upon the split imagery of Janus, the god of opportunity: two sides fighting for dominance as they attempt to scale the American Dream. This time, fans are a long way from Marge and Norm's cozy home.

The usefulness of the three-cent stamp and the supposed value of Emmit and Ray's stamp illustrate what Noah Hawley, creator and writer of the series, described in his interview on Fresh Air as "the best of America versus the worst of America." The importance, or lack thereof, of both stamps represent that desperate, materialistic grab at the American Dream and coming up with nothing.

The dark mythos of Fargo relies heavily on the small town and its bitter fruit hidden within the slice of Americana pie. The actions people make surrounding the stamp are valuable by themselves, despite the fact the stamp is an empty, material object. Ray feels selling the stamp will get him the engagement ring he wants, which in turn will get him the girl, and Emmit feels keeping the stamp will teach his brother a lesson. Both characters feel they have the American Dream all figured out, which is always the problem in Fargo.

Whether or not the stamp actually has value will reveal itself in time in Season 3. But it's safe to say there’s a pretty good chance it won’t have a mallard on it, like Norm's three-cent piece of art.