A Familiar Voice Welcomes ‘Fargo’ Back to Minnesota

A review of tonight’s Fargo coming up just as soon as I use a three-syllable word for a one-syllable problem…

“Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin.” –The narrator

Last week’s “The Law of Non-Contradiction” gave a jumpstart to a sluggish, formulaic season by abandoning the formula, and Minnesota altogether, for Gloria Burgle to go on a strange, sad trip to the City of Angels. With “The Narrow Escape Problem,” we’re back to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, back to the Stussy brothers, and back to some very familiar elements from seasons past, particularly with Gloria, Moe, and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval) mirroring the Molly/Bill/Gus dynamic from the first year.

But if those elements (plus the bridge strategy episode titles) are the same as we got in the season’s first two weeks, the execution and energy are at a much higher level. “The Law of Non-Contradiction” was a pleasant surprise, but also so widely outside the show’s jurisdiction and structure that it wasn’t a great barometer for the creative health of the season — unless it was going to be the first big departure of many. “The Narrow Escape Problem” is of a piece not only with what we got in earlier episodes, but earlier seasons, and the fact that it was as much fun as it was is a more reassuring sign that the introductory episodes just had to do a bit more throat-clearing than usual, and Fargo as a whole is in good shape.

There’s a greater sense of playfulness to the hour, with the return of Billy Bob Thornton to play the narrator from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, turning the famous introduction about which instrument represents which character into a fun referendum on this year’s players. Of course Emmit and Ray are, respectively, the bird and the duck, the flightless waterfowl forever envious of the one who can fly, the bird at least curious about what the duck’s life is like. Of course Varga is the wolf, an unpredictable threat to all, and of course Nikki Swango is the cat, slinking around the edges and causing trouble without getting any herself. Matching Gloria up with Peter confirms her position as the hero of our tale, as well as the one most likely to snare the wolf. And if Sy and Yuri aren’t a perfect grandfather and hunter, respectively — Sy has no relationship with Gloria yet, and Yuri’s not hunting Varga — those parts of the orchestra sure evoke their emotional positions in this story.

The device isn’t really telling us what we don’t already know about the characters, but the arrival of the orchestra — and the return of Lorne Malvo’s voice in a more benign role — makes it feel less like the show is trudging through the same moves it’s danced twice before and more like it’s ready to spin and soar with abandon again. Hearing Thornton tell us that he’ll begin right before the Fargo theme plays is the most excited I’ve been to hear that bit of music in quite some time.

And the use of Prokofiev adds to the Russian invasion theme that’s been prevalent all season, and that feels disturbingly timely given all the news in the last week of Russian interference in Western elections(*), as well as fitting into the question of stories being told. It’s not just Hawley picking out a record he listened to a lot in his youth; it fits this particular tale, and the way it’s unfolding.

(*) The season is being produced very close to airing (filming only wrapped last week), and while that’s mostly a headache for a show with this so many moving pieces and artistic aspirations, it also allows the episodes to feel more current than previous years did, and not just because Gloria is again annoyed when a representative of law-enforcement shows more interest in Facebook than in face-to-face interaction.

Beyond that, “The Narrow Escape Problem” begins to make some smart and necessary tweaks to this year’s characters and how they interact. Varga is a pleasure to watch, but he has previously come across as so omnipotent as to grow tiresome after a while. (Mike Milligan, from whom he’s obviously descended, got foiled from time to time.) That he’s a secret bulimic not only helps to explain the sorry state of his teeth, but (along with the fact that he lives and works in the trailer truck that so vexes Sy) makes him seem more vulnerable, more human, and more interesting as a piece of the story, even if he’s archetypally the wolf now. And where both Stussys were frustrating to watch when they were mostly passive travelers through their respective corners of the show — Emmit the baffled victim of Varga’s invading horde, Ray getting wound up by Nikki (without whom he likely never would have thought to force Maurice to steal the stamp) — here they begin playing active roles, even if they’re both self-destructive ones.

Emmit being seduced by Varga’s talk of joining the One Percent in a world protected from the other 99 doesn’t make him more sympathetic, but it makes him more complicated, rather than the clown who inexplicably wouldn’t call the cops as this man took over his company and life. And Ray’s various decisions here — stealing an extra 10 grand while impersonating Emmit(*), resigning his position rather than accepting the out his boss was trying to give him, getting drunk rather than showing up for the important sponsorship dinner with Nikki and Burt Lurdsman — are none too bright, but they’re also ones he’s making more on his own. As his disappointed colleagues note, he’s been manipulated by Nikki, but he’s also digging the hole deeper even when she’s not around.

(*) Ray posing as his brother also briefly solved the matter of Ewan McGregor’s shaky Minnesota accent, since Ray-as-Emmit was meant to sound broader than either Stussy on his own: Ray trying too hard.

Again, the overall dynamic between Gloria, Moe, and Winnie — a St. Cloud beat cop who stumbles into the murder investigation while looking into Sy’s stupid hit-and-run stunt from a few episodes ago — evokes the police triad from the first season (minus — so far, anyway — any hint of romance between Gloria and Winnie), but Winnie’s arrival gives a jolt of energy to the whole thing. Gloria is meant to be less classically “Minnesota nice” than either Molly, Lou, or Marge Gunderson — she’s jaded by the divorce and the loss of rank, and more sarcastic than any of the show’s prior heroes (even if she came across as a Pollyanna compared to the folks she met in LA) — and Winnie in turn is nice in an almost overpowering way: never shaken from her cheerful state, but also never shaken from the job she’s doing, which starts out as minor paperwork and quickly reveals itself to be something much bigger and more dangerous. She’s smart enough to see it, and Gloria is, too. Just as the Fargo theme pops up at the perfect moment in Thornton’s narration, so does the sound of Gloria’s kettle(*) boiling as both cops come to the realization that they’re working the same case, and it’s more complicated than either thought, was delightful, and helped to compensate for some bumpiness like Moe being a cartoon idiot. (The first season successfully walked a line where Bill was an impediment to Molly’s investigation while also being fundamentally well-meaning; will Moe have a redemptive moment like Bill with his Sudanese foster son?)

(*) As opposed to the kettle drum, which represents the hunter/Yuri.

All these animals are still wandering through the metaphorical woods, and we could be in for some more hours where it feels like the series is traveling over ground it’s tread before, but after two of the weaker overall episodes of the franchise, we’ve gotten two terrific ones in a row. I’ll take that for now, and wait for the wolf’s next move.

Some other thoughts:

* Hawley has rightly played coy on whether this story will have any direct connection to the events of either previous season, but we get a couple of winks at them here: Millie the new employee at Emmit’s bank has only just moved from Bemidji, which was Molly’s hometown in season one, while Emmit’s cremated dog was named Luverne, the town where much of the action in season two took place.

* Gloria’s technological woes continue, now with automated sinks and soap dispensers ignoring her existence to go with her problems with automatic doors and cell phones. Too bad Minsky’s not around to help.

* Impressive work by the make-up and effects teams on giving us a prolonged look at Maurice’s ruined, empty skull when Gloria comes to visit the morgue. Maybe not the most disgusting moment from the franchise (including the movie), but rare for any Fargo to linger over something that nasty.

* It’s a familiar joke, but I still couldn’t help cackling at Sy making a menacing gesture at Ray, then fumbling his dramatic exit because he couldn’t get the Hummer door to open.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com