Analyzing The Music Of ‘Fargo’: A Difficult Conclusion To A Difficult Season

Cultural Critic
06.22.17

FX

I’ll admit it: This has been a difficult season at times for a guy who decided to write about the music in Fargo. But hasn’t everything about season three been a little difficult?

I’m not saying that this season was bad — on the contrary, I think it was a frequently fascinating season that was a much bigger departure from the Fargo norm than many critics initially recognized. I just mean that Year Three … was difficult. It’s like the experimental record that every band makes after putting out two or three successful albums. So much of Fargo this season, including last night’s finale, seemed intent on not delivering the goods, or at least not conforming to a traditional definition of the “the goods.” And that inevitably extended to the use of music, which in past seasons has added swing and sensual pleasure to the storytelling. There just wasn’t much use for either swing or sensuality this season.

While watching last night’s season finale, I kept thinking about the “War Pigs” sequence from season two’s finale. Fargo-heads will recall that the episode opens with a massive shootout at a South Dakota hotel. The mad henchman Hanzee is hunting down Lou and Peggy while Black Sabbath soundtracks the apocalypse, which unfolds like a Brian De Palma horror show on multiple split-screens. If any scene convinced me to write a column about the music on Fargo, it was this sequence. It remains one of my favorite sequences from any TV show in recent years — with so much style, menace, and fun on display, how could anyone resist this melding of doom metal and cinematic technique?

Season three had loads of style and menace, but it wasn’t all that much fun — at least not from a musical perspective. Again, this isn’t a criticism, because it was clearly intentional, and the lack of music was undeniably effective.

As I’ve noted in previous recaps, the dominant form of music this season was folk and choral music derived from Russia and Eastern Europe, which served a two-fold purpose: It expressed the weirdly timely fear of a foreign “other,” represented by Varga and his men, invading middle America, and it guaranteed that the music would be unfamiliar (and therefore discomforting) to most viewers. Contrast that with the classic rock and soul songs from season two, when even relative obscurities like Billy Thorpe’s “Children Of The Sun” gave the show an inviting retro feel. Fargo season three in comparison seemed utterly alien and alienating from a musical perspective.

The thoughtfulness that goes into each episode of Fargo makes me think that a conscious decision was also made to make suffocating silence a defining soundtrack of this season. A common truism with soundtracks among filmmakers is to pick songs that you believe the characters would like. Last season. the colorful soundtrack suited colorful characters like Mike Milligan and Simone Gerhardt, who were shown blasting music while driving around in the car, the best place on Earth to blast music.

In the first episode of season three, Ray and Nikki speed away from Emmit’s party to the sounds of Heart’s “Crazy On You.” Later, we see them enter the bridge tournament with a swagger that’s accentuated by Adriano Celentano’s infectious Italian-pop novelty “Prisencolinensinainciusol.” These are among the most “fun” music cues of the entire season, and they appropriately occur very early on. Ray and Nikki were the two happiest and most vital characters in this season’s cast, and they were never as happy as they were in that first episode, when all they had to worry about was getting better at cards.

What sort of music do the bland and coldly corporate Emmit and Sy like? Can you imagine Varga, a man of vast appetites who must instantly purge himself of food after eating, jamming out to anything? These are miserable people trapped in a miserable situation who are best suited either for garish Russian chorales or the dark void of paranoid quiet.

Fargo steadfastly held to this tone to the very end, withholding pleasure and easy resolutions in favor of a fatalistic view of good and evil locked in an unsatisfying stalemate. If you were cheering for Nikki to get vengeance, sorry, but no. If you hoped Emmit would get away and put his life together, sorry, but no. If you wanted to see Gloria definitively nab Varga, sorry, but no. Instead of Black Sabbath, Fargo revived “Appassionata” from Beethoven’s personal and, yes, difficult Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, a beautiful coda to a bruised season.

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