Fargo’s fourth episode opens with Billy Bob Thornton reading Peter and the Wolf, a symphonic fairy tale told primarily through musical expression and voice-over narration. With Gloria as the heroic Peter and Varga as the villainous Wolf, the allegory between the two becomes the very basis of Fargo’s conflict (and it’s more than just cop and criminal). The story of Peter and the Wolf tells the story of a boy, alone in his grandfather’s forest clearing, fending off a wolf invading his peaceful homestead. In the unassuming town of Fargo, Minnesota, a similar menace looms. Although the nature of the crime isn’t yet divulged, we know the Wolf in this story (represented as the mysterious V.M. Varga) is a lot more than just a few petty crooks lurking about.
The irony of Fargo rests on the show’s tradition of declaring itself a true story, while the opening of The Narrow Escape Problem assumes Fargo is a fable.
Appropriately, the plot begins with Ray Stussy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Disguising himself as his twin brother Emmit, Ray puts on a black toupee and shaves off his handlebar mustache. Entering Emmit’s bank, Ray is able to fool the bank’s manager into believing he’s Emmit without even saying a word. The odd relationship here seems to be between truth and fiction. Not being able to tell the difference will be Ray’s downfall.
As Varga appropriates Emmit’s work space and the twin brothers’ feud becomes increasingly pettier (with dignity becoming the biggest stake), further conflict ensues with the appearance of a new cop (yet another backwaters yokel), who begins to look into Maurice LeFay’s supposed “accident.” The episode’s most predictable story sees Gloria running into Ray Stussy and, noting how the parole officer and her stepfather share the same surname, notices how both men are tied to Maurice LeFay. Somehow, Gloria isn’t able to put two and two together, resulting in a disappointingly stock eureka moment in the episode’s most shameless misuse of a cliffhanger.
However, Fargo’s fourth episode still boasts a multitude of original and unpredictable story directions. In a remarkable soliloquy near the episode’s end, David Thewlis (who is only getting creepier with each episode) finally reveals to Emmit exactly what he wants, while also eerily holding back a lot of information (“Mongrel hordes descending, and what are you doing to insulate yourself and your family?”). The nature of his and Emmit’s relationship isn’t fully divulged, but we know now that it isn’t simply about hedonistic pursuits. Michael Stuhlbarg again nails it as Sy, a ticking time bomb of unsuppressed feelings. He is the show’s id, and a remarkably effective contrast to the emphasis on manners and politesse in the rest of the series.
The ill-fated romance of the lovelorn Ray Stussy seems to be the most interesting, as he is confronted by his superiors about his troubling sexual relationship with his parolee Nikki. Fargo doesn’t reveal Nikki’s true nature, only steadily implying it, leaving it to the audience to either to approve of his romantic passion, which is the only genuine thing about his character, or reject it as a delusion.
Ultimately, The Narrow Escape Problem doesn’t give its characters any breathing room as the previous episode did (allowing for richer storytelling), but writer Monica Beletsky capably turns an episode of precursory information, story preparation, and foreshadow into effective dramatic storytelling. Fargo seems to struggle in finding a meaningful connection between the numerous plot threads that comprise the third season, but the fourth episode easily demonstrates each thread’s individual strength in characterization, depth and emotion.