Analyzing The Music Of ‘Fargo’: Emmit’s Faustian Bargain

Cultural Critic
06.08.17

FX

With the possible exception of the great bluesman Robert Johnson, no figure is more associated with Satanic bargaining for an eternal soul than Faust. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of re-tellings of the Faust legend in the past 500 years, going back to Germany in the 16th century. Faust has appeared in novels, short stories, plays, operas, rock operas, films, and TV shows. Faust has been particularly inspirational for composers, including luminaries as varied as Wagner, Liszt, Mahler, Stravinsky, Zappa, Randy Newman, and Radiohead. In Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise, one of my favorite Faustian offshoots, the film’s titular songwriter attempts to mount his own version of Faust, before he is transformed into a monster. But even after the Phantom is doomed and disgraced, his Faust song cycle still goes on to great success. The moral of this story: No matter the century, context, or cultural group, Faust still sells.

Perhaps inevitably given this season’s themes of sin and retribution, Faust has also been integrated into Fargo. The most notable music in this week’s episode derives from Charles Gounod’s enduring 19th century opera, originally staged in Paris in 1859. Excerpts from Gounod’s Faust appear toward the beginning of the episode, when Emmit wakes in his house, and toward the end, when he’s carried to bed. The story of a man who have gave up everything he had to get anything he ever wanted is now Emmit’s waking nightmare, with Varga acting as a devilish constant in his life.

For the most part, the Faust story has stayed the same over the centuries: An elderly scholar, dissatisfied with his boring life, makes a deal with the devil in which he hands over his soul in exchange for youth, vitality, and an exciting romance with a young woman.

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