Analyzing The Music Of ‘Fargo’: The Official Historian On Emmit Stussy

Cultural Critic
06.15.17 3 Comments


Is the penultimate episode of this season’s Fargo the penultimate episode of the entire series? Noah Hawley is fueling speculation that end times for our treasured midwestern TV world might be nigh. If so, let’s analyze the music of Fargo like it’s our second-to-last time!

Song: The Statler Brothers, “The Official Historian On Shirley Jean Berrell”
Scene: Gloria and Winnie share a drink

In his 1981 book Palm Sunday, a collection of short stories and essays, Kurt Vonnegut praises the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers On The Wall,” which he calls “yet another great American poem” by the pop-country act. The song, originally recorded in 1965 and then re-recorded 10 years later, “is not a poem of escape or rebirth,” Vonnegut writes. “It is a poem about the end of a man’s usefulness.” Or, to put it in the words of the Statlers, it’s about a guy “who’s smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo” in lieu of anything else better to do. Years later, a new generation rediscovered “Flowers On The Wall” when Quentin Tarantino used it in Pulp Fiction to score the scene in which Bruce Willis runs over Ving Rhames. The point is that one of country music’s seemingly more wholesome acts has always had a subversive side.

This aspect of the Statler Brothers was exploited yet again in this week’s episode of Fargo, which used the group’s 1978 hit “The Official Historian On Shirley Jean Burrell” to soundtrack Gloria and Winnie’s touching heart-to-heart at their chosen after-work cocktail lounge.

Actually, using “The Official Historian On Shirley Jean Burrell” in this scene seems pretty straightforward. In the song, the narrator talks about how he knows everything about this girl that he’s clearly obsessed with:

I can tell you her favorite song and where she likes to park
And why to this very day she’s scared of the dark
How she got her nickname and that scar behind her knee
If there’s anything you need to know about Shirley just ask me

I know where she’s ticklish and her every little quirk
The funnies she don’t read and her number at work
I know what she stands for and what she won’t allow
The only thing that I don’t know is where she is right now

To be honest, it’s pretty creepy, especially in light of contemporary awareness of the dangers of stalking. But that’s where the Statlers get you: Just like “Flowers On The Wall,” this song sounds like a jaunty, feel-good jam, but at heart it’s depressed and sort of depraved.

The crucial line in the above passage is “The only thing I don’t know is where she is right now.” The guy knows everything about Shirley Jean Berrell, but he doesn’t actually know her. And isn’t that the predicament that Gloria is in right now? She knows all of the facts about the Stussy case, and she nabbed her man in Emmit Stussy. But she doesn’t really know the puppet master, Varga, who is also the person who has engineered the deaths of the other Stussys to distract Gloria’s colleagues. At the moment, the Statlers are summing up Gloria’s feelings of uselessness. But I suspect that her predicament, and Varga’s, will change dramatically next week.

Song: Plamena Mangova, Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op.57, “Appassionata”: III. Allegro Ma Non Troppo
Scene: The police nab the wrong Stussy killer

Eagle-eared Fargo viewers will remember that this piece first appeared at the end of episode six. It comes from one of Beethoven’s most famous and complicated piano sonatas, deriving from a period when the composer was struggling with the loss of his hearing. Scholars consider it to be a particularly personal work, as the piano was Beethoven’s chosen instrument. He was known as a master pianist in his time, and was particularly adept at improvisation, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise given his proclivity as a composer. But if “Appassionata” represents a pinnacle for Beethoven as a piano player, it also signifies an end to an aspect of his artistry that was in the process of degenerating.

A complex and beautiful work that might also signal a grand conclusion — sound familiar? The rumblings from Noah Hawley that Fargo season three might be the show’s last — which to be fair also prefaced the other two seasons — makes the “Appassionata” a little extra melancholy. I won’t go so far to call it significant, since I make enough leaps of faith in this column as it is. But given how strange, confounding, but nevertheless fascinating and ultimately rewarding this season has been, I hope next week’s episode isn’t the end of the line.


Song: Roby Lakatos, “Hora in E Major”
Scene: Another Stussy meets a bloody end in the opening scene

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