There’s narration in “The Narrow Escape Problem”—read by none other than Billy Bob Thornton, unless I’m mistaken. The words are cribbed from the beginning of Peter And The Wolf, a “symphonic fairy tale for children” about a young boy named Peter, a wolf, a duck, a bird, a cat, and a grumpy grandfather. Each character in the story is represented by a musical instrument, and, at least according to this episode, each of the leading figures in this season of Fargo corresponds to one of those characters. I made a special effort to write down each association for the purposes of this review. For the curious, I’ve got them listed in the stray observations below, although none of the connections are all that surprising. (The best joke is probably having Emmit and Ray be “bird” and “duck” respectively.)

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It’s a cute bit, and another effort in the show’s long history of using cute bits to add flavor and texture to a, if not straightforward, then at least generally familiar story. But I’m not convinced it adds much more than that; it’s very much a style-over-substance conceit, and while I’d argue that Fargo often embraces the former while shrugging off the latter, in the past there’s been enough honest emotion bubbling under the surface to give the cuteness some real bite. Here, not so much. Last week’s episode worked well in large part because it was an outlier, a semi-random piece of ephemera anchored by Carrie Coon’s brilliant, low-key response to an increasingly absurd world.

This week, though, it’s back to the hodgepodge of plots that will presumably make up the rest of the season until everything comes crashing together and no questions are answered. The Stussy feud gets more brutal, as Ray commits fraud, larceny, and desecration of cremains in a clumsy effort to get back the stamp he’s convinced is his; Emmit, with Sy as his proxy, replies in kind. Emmit is also still dealing with Varga, who reveals himself to be a determined and resourceful nemesis/business partner. Meanwhile, Gloria digs deeper into Ennis’ murder despite the wishes of her new chief to the contrary, and gets a break in the case from an unlikely (if irritatingly chipper) source.

All of which is fine, really. Ray and Emmit have to keep pushing at each other for things to turn horrible, and in order for the eventual chaos to work, each escalation needs to have its own logic, however clumsy or idiotic that logic is. Both of this week’s developments fit that criteria. Ray dressing up as his brother is a nice piece of business that gives Ewan McGregor a chance to show off his acting chops, and Sy delivering on his threat and sending the parole office photos of Ray and Nikki together is an appropriate response. Even better, Sy’s actions get Ray fired, which leaves the black sheep of the family just that much more desperate, and that much more willing to do something stupid.

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It’s just, there’s not a lot of excitement to watching these events, however well-structured they may be, play out. So far at least this is material better suited to a movie, where the slow-burn tension would build to a bonfire much faster. While getting Ray fired is certainly a big move, nothing about this conflict has been surprising, apart from Maurice’s stupid, horrible mistake in the first episode (and, okay, Nikki’s creativity when it comes to home invasion). Neither Ray nor Emmit have much depth as individuals—they aren’t badly written, but they aren’t so interesting in and of themselves that we care about what happens to them apart from the novelty of their situation. As a result, too much of this plays like the boring stuff you need to get through to get to what actually matters, which isn’t a great look for a one-season story that’s nearly halfway over.

Really, pretty much everyone involved in the season is behaving more or less like you’d expect. Gloria is steadfast and sane, Nikki is clever and ambitious and is possibly using sex to get what she wants(*gasp*), and Varga is threatening, creepy, and almost supernaturally competent. There are touches that make them more than simply archetypes, because this is a well-made show. Gloria’s sanity hides a certain level of frustration, which comes through in occasional pained looks and exasperated comments. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Nikki like, wiles aside, she might have some legitimate feeling for Ray—which would keep her from being a one-note femme fatale. And Varga is impressively gross, David Thewlis’ leering performance helping to differentiate him from the show’s earlier villains.

“The Narrow Escape Problem” also introduces a new character, an apparently boundary-free traffic cop named Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval). Her conversation with Gloria in the parole-office bathroom adds some decent comedy to the situation, and the scene where she tries to get some answers out of Sy, while he freaks out about Yuria and Meemo sitting in the next room, is the tensest the hour really gets. The fact that she drives over to Gloria’s house after finding out about the Stussy coincidence is a neat way to get the former chief some much-needed info, and I suspect she will continue to be important (and increasingly at risk) in future entries.

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Hell, mabe the Peter And The Wolf nod has more meaning than I realize. The episode’s score certainly uses the opening narration as a reference point, which is clever. But, as I suspect I will go on saying for a long time to come, cleverness only gets you so far. Apart from mild curiosity (how bad will this get, is there some deeper intention I’m missing, will most of these people end up dead, and so on), and the pleasure one takes in the various novelties on display, there’s not a hugely compelling reason for this to exist. It’s fine, more or less, but “fine” for a show that managed to surpass expectations two seasons in a row isn’t a great fit.

Still, those little touches mentioned above are enough to stop this from being completely disposable. And I have some faith that things will get more interesting as they go. It would be easy enough to chalk this up as another entry in a long line of “unclothed emperor” prestige shows (series that mimic the trappings of quality drama without having anything to say beyond a desire to impress), but there’s something here that keeps bringing me back. Like the odd detour we took last week. Or how automatic devices don’t seem to recognize Gloria, which could be a comment on the way her job has been essentially erased from existence. The acting is good, the story is competent, the music is choice. I guess the question is, is that all there is?

Stray observations

  • “Buck, if I wanted an opinion from an asshole, I’d ask my own.” McGregor does a decent job selling the “Ray as Emmit” scene. I think the bad wig helps.
  • The new chief is easily my least favorite character of the season. Just a condescending, perpetually angry asshole.
  • Winnie visits Sy because she’s trying to track down the driver of the humvee who hit a waitress’ car—which Sy did while he was bashing up Ray’s Corvette. It’s a good complication, and yet another ounce of pressure on the situation to make everyone’s life that much worse.
  • Another stealth theme this season: menstruation, apparently.
  • “You’re living in the age of the refugee, my friend.” Varga’s speech about the mobs coming for Emmit is one of the few times so far his manipulation has felt forced. Emmit is clearly buying it, perhaps because his own brother has made him feel more than a little threatened, but it’s still an odd speech. Which may mean it has some further significance?
  • Emmit is the bird (represented by the flute), Ray is the duck (oboe), Nikki is the cat (clarinet), Sy is the grandfather (bassoon), the blast of the hunter’s shotgun is Yuria (kettle drum), Varga is the wolf (French horn), and Gloria is Peter (strings). It’s not a precise matchup—Yuria as the hunter’s shotgun is an odd choice—but if this ends up following the plot of the original story, Varga will “eat” Ray, and Gloria will use Emmit to lure Varga out into the open, where she’ll rope a noose around his neck. I suspect things won’t go that way, though.

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