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‘Fargo’ Season 3, Episode 4: “The Narrow Escape Problem”

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“Are you sitting comfortably?” a familiar voice asks at the beginning of “The Narrow Escape Problem.” He gives us a moment to adjust ourselves appropriately. “Good. Then I’ll begin.”

After the voice of Lorne Malvo introduces us to the cast of the episode, each scored by a leitmotif taken from Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, we jump immediately into the Fargo theme, which has been used with less frequency since the first season. But the theme is welcome here, and the dramatic wail of the strings has a surprising lack of discord with the music of Prokofiev.

The use of the themes themselves, however, are much more of a mixed bag when considered in the context of Prokofiev’s original story, despite the strength of the episode overall. To get at why, we must first look at the events of Peter and the Wolf. In the “symphonic fairytale” Peter is a Young Pioneer (more on that later) who leaves the safety of his grandfather’s home to explore a nearby clearing in the forest. There he meets a duck swimming in a pond who argues with a bird, each jealous of the other. The duck, who cannot fly (Prokofiev wasn’t much of a biologist, apparently), is jealous of the bird’s ability to do so, while the bird is jealous of the duck’s ability to swim. At some point, Peter’s cat joins them, and the bird flies into a tree and the duck swims to the middle of the pond to avoid it.

Peter’s grandfather catches him in the clearing, scolds him, and locks him in the house, warning that a wolf could easily kill him if he wanders outside alone. A wolf does end up appearing, and after chasing the various animals, he manages to eat the duck. During this time, Peter escapes and, with the assistance of the bird and cat, captures the wolf. A group of hunters appear, and they lead the captured wolf around as part of a victory parade. Grandfather remains grumpy, and if you listen closely enough, you can hear the duck quacking from inside the belly of the wolf.

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The question this story raises, then, is how much the third installment of Fargo will borrow from it.

Emmit, as the bird, is introduced amidst a fluttering flute that alights rapidly on a jumble of notes as he considers his outfit from a wealth of expensive clothing. He is vain and more concerned with his appearance than his brother is, and the leitmotif suits him perfectly. His role thus far, however, has been more reactionary than most of the other characters. If his trajectory matches his Prokofiev counterpart, then that won’t last the entire season, but up to this point, the show has directed its focus more intently on Ray.

Ray, as the duck, is also appropriately scored. The languorous plodding of the oboe reflects his unfortunate brand of dopiness, and this offsets him perfectly against Nikki Swango and the cat’s spry, staccato clarinet. (Swango is somehow the best scored of everyone, though she’s not given much to do in this episode.) Pairing the duck with the cat is somewhat incongruous, but with the haplessness of Ray’s schemes it works so perfectly that it’s easy to ignore. When he walks into the bank, the oboe accompanies him inside, even though he’s pretending to be the bird. McGregor’s performance is strong here, as well, as he plays Ray playing Emmit. (Think Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black.) There are subtle changes in his posture when he remembers he’s supposed to be acting like Emmit, but there’s enough of Ray in there that he can’t help being nice to Millie on her first day.

The relationship between the brothers, or birds, has such subtle shades of nuance in this episode; each has the opportunity to hurt the other, but fails to exploit it. Ray could have stolen more than the $10,000 that he did, but only took what he felt he was due. Emmit, speaking to Varga at the end, could have sicced Varga on Ray and gotten him out of the way, but chose to describe him as a loser instead. While it’s true that Emmit believes his brother is a loser, the look on McGregor’s face shows a genuine concern that he’s navigating dangerous territory here and could get his brother killed. They may not get along terribly well, but the Stussys do care about each other, make no mistake. Esau and Jacob these two are not, despite what Varga says.

After this, however, the leitmotifs start to wear thematically thin in places. Sy being accompanied by the bassoon is fitting, but matching him with the grandfather is so poorly connected to the source material that it becomes distracting. This is a disservice to the anxious energy Michael Stuhlbarg brings in the role, which is disappointing. He’s so entertaining squirming in his seat while being questioned by Winnie, or when he’s trying to intimidate Ray without breaking eye contact but can’t find the handle of his car door. Even though the music itself fits, the character matchup is a disaster, and that’s a shame for Sy. The exact same problem presents itself with the kettle drums of the hunters, who are not parallels of Yuri Gurka and his tiny sidekick. The hunters in the original story are heroic, while these guys are working for the wolf.

Speaking of wolves, I wrote in an earlier review about the lupine quality of David Thewlis’s V.M. Varga, which was apparently something the Fargo team was indeed going for. The menacing French horns of Peter’s nemesis have accompanied more intimidating villains in the past, but they really work for the peculiar Varga, as well. The oral fixation the directors seem to have with the character pays off here, with the revelation that Varga binges and purges not coming across as terribly surprising, despite the fact that I’ve never seen a villain with this issue before. It has something to do with the constant, lingering shots of the man’s tongue crawling across his disfigured teeth like some disgusting pink beetle. Yet in contrast with his repulsive appearance, he takes notes from Gus Fring when he folds up a towel to kneel on while he pukes. This duality is important later on.

Finally, we have Peter’s soaring string quartet chasing Gloria as she drives down a recently-plowed road on the tail of solving her step-father’s murder. By the end of the episode, Gloria’s encounter with Winnie (who is absolutely profanely delightful) seems to have her primed to figure out what actually happened to Ennis Stussy, but what is truly fascinating here is the relationship her Prokofiev counterpart sets her up for having with Varga, the wolf.

Remember that Peter is a Young Pioneer, or a member of a communist organization for children. He is a “man of the people,” which is in no way coincidental in an episode where Varga speaks of “pitchfork peasants with murder in their eyes” rising against the suffocating power of the One Percent. As he mentions this, there is a quick shot of him seated at a computer, spying on Emmit, under the leery eyes of a Stalin portrait. The constant references to Russia (including the Prokofiev themes themselves) and Soviet communism juxtaposed with Varga’s fear of the people at the bottom rising up leave us with the feeling that Gloria will be the one to take him down. Consider, after all, how when Ray mentions that “they always try to screw ya,” her casual reply is “They try,” before confidently striding along on her way. Varga is right to be afraid.

What did you guys think?

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Joseph Rejent
Joe is secretly a space lizard who's been controlling your minds with fluoride for like, decades. Just don't ask if you should call him "Joe, Joseph, or Joey" because he'll probably say something awkward like, "uhh... both?" And then everyone will be uncomfortable.
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