The premise of this column is that music plays an important role on Fargo, whether it’s assisting in the storytelling, underlining the show’s themes, or adding to this series’ dazzling aesthetic textures. The most recent episode, “The Narrow Escape Problem,” continues this tradition but in a uniquely self-conscious, almost meta way.
In lieu of songs, Fargo this week utilized the score and narration from Peter And The Wolf, a classic children’s story and one of the most performed orchestral pieces of the last 100 years. Written by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev in 1936, after it was commissioned by Moscow’s Central Children’s Theatre, Peter And The Wolf initially served a dual purpose: First, it was meant to familiarize children with the instruments that make up an orchestra; and second, it functioned as a subtle, relatively benign form of Communist propaganda, glorifying a member of the Young Pioneers (a kind of Russian equivalent to the Boy Scouts that practically all Russian children were required to join until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991) in his triumph over the vagaries of nature.
Over the years, Peter And The Wolf has transcended its Russian roots and become an international childhood touchstone that is continually revived and performed. There are dozens of orchestral versions in circulation, with a wide range of unlikely narrators. The David Bowie version with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1978 is pretty well-known, but there are also recordings starring Alice Cooper, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, Melissa Joan Hart, Jonathan Winters, Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan, Captain Kangaroo, Boris Karloff, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The great jazz organist Jimmy Smith recorded an album that riffed on Peter And The Wolf in 1966, and in 1975 there was a very far-out prog-rock adaptation featuring Brian Eno, Phil Collins, Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, and Bill Bruford of Yes, among other luminaries. There’s even a Weird Al version. I could go on but I think the point has been made: People really like Peter And The Wolf.
In the context of Fargo season three, Peter And The Wolf is the latest example of the show alluding to folk tales from Russia and Eastern Europe. So far, we’ve discussed how Fargo has referenced the common “two brothers” convention from folklore, and used songs that address familial conflict or some other deeply ingrained interpersonal battle. But while previous episodes this season have hinted at allegorical significance, the Peter And The Wolf connection made it rather explicit. The music put a border around the episode and said to the audience, “This is a story.”
The opening narration by Billy Bob Thornton ingeniously casts each of our main characters into corresponding roles from Peter And The Wolf — Gloria as Peter/strings, Varga as the wolf/french horn, Emmit as the bird/flute, Ray as the duck/oboe, Nikki as the cat/clarinet, Sy as the grandfather/bassoon, and Yuri as the shotgun blast/kettle drum.
The plot of the episode itself doesn’t follow the story of Peter And The Wolf all that closely, though there are some intriguing parallels. Prokofiev’s story opens with the bird and the duck bickering in a pond while the cat stalks them at the water’s edge, which isn’t totally dissimilar from the Ray/Emmit/Nicki dynamic, particularly if you’re inclined to suspect that Nikki isn’t 100 percent on the level in her relationship with Ray. And, later in Peter And The Wolf, the grandfather advises Peter to not engage with the wolf, which squares with Sy’s non-confrontational attitude in regard to Varga.
I don’t know how much significance to put on Peter And The Wolf. Is it just another clever aesthetic flourish on a show that has never been able to resist the allure of a clever aesthetic flourish, or does it offer any clues that we can spin forward to speculate on where Fargo is headed? Frankly, I’m having too much fun here to worry about being right, so let’s recklessly speculate.
I think the most fascinating aspect of using Peter And The Wolf is that it positions Gloria and Varga as antagonists, even though at the moment they haven’t yet interacted and don’t even seem aware of each others’ existence. Based on what we’ve seen so far, if Varga is the wolf, then Peter should be Emmit, or possibly Ray. But it’s also clear by the end of “The Narrow Escape Problem” that the investigation into the murder of Ennis Stussy probably won’t last much longer — given the information Gloria has now, she’ll probably be busting down Ray’s door by next week’s episode. At the point, Fargo and Gloria will likely make a pivot away from Ennis and toward … the wolf? (At the end of Peter And The Wolf, after the wolf is caught by Peter, it’s revealed that the wolf ate the duck, which might not bode well for Emmit, especially given Varga’s rather large appetites.) Does anyone else hear the ominous ringing of a french horn? Be careful out there, Gloria.
Song: Galactic feat. Glen David Andrews And The Rebirth Brass Band, “You Don’t Know”
Scene: Closing credits