Fargo returns from Los Angeles with a sense of showmanship, opening with a lovely riff on Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Billy Bob Thornton. The sequence leads to the immediate question: Who are the wolves of Fargo this season? “The Narrow Escape Problem” is comprised mostly of scenes of predator and prey sitting across from each other, one person in a position of power and the other trying to wriggle their way out: Ray and Gloria, Ray and his bosses, Sy and Winnie, Gloria and the new chief, Ray and his boss, and Emmit and V.M. In each of the scenes, there’s a sense of the hunt, a character pressuring another, and even the thrill of a “narrow escape.”
“Each character in this tale will be represented by a different character in the orchestra,” says Thornton, who played Lorne Malvo in Fargo’s first season. Emmit (Ewan McGregor) will be the bird, played by the flute; Ray (McGregor again) will be the duck, played by the oboe; and so on. Of course, Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) will be the cat. And Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) will be Peter, represented by the strings. We also learn in this opening montage that V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) has bulimia, and Ray and Nikki are in the middle of a scheme.
After Ray shaves his mustache and puts on a wig, it’s time for a little Parent Trap action. Disguised as Emmit, Ray goes to the bank with the safe-deposit-box information that Nikki found in the Stussy house, but he doesn’t have a key. Nikki reminds him that the most powerful man in the room is the richest man, so when the bank manager says they’ll have to wait and order a new key for the box, Ray plays his cards. He threatens to close all of Emmit’s accounts. The ruse works and he even walks out with $10,000 — although it’s telling that Nikki accuses him of not thinking big enough and taking more. What was in the box? A beloved pet’s cremains, and Emmit’s abuse of them could be the final straw for his brother.
Meanwhile, Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Emmit are talking about selling the company, which raises some practical questions about the specifics of their situation. As some have noted in the comments, why don’t these two just go to the cops? Does Varga have something else on them? Or perhaps they’re just worried they’ll lose their business and get thrown off a parking garage? Also, how could they sell the company right when they’re being pulled into something sticky? Wouldn’t any sale take a look at the books and question the influx of money? If prospective buyers did a tour of the office, wouldn’t they see the hit men in the other room? Of course, the answer to all of these questions could be the same: Emmit and Sy just aren’t that bright.
The season’s brightest character is the one being forced to listen to her confrontational new boss, incoming Chief Moe Dammick (Shea Whigham). He’s still a jerk, arguing that the Maurice LeFay case is closed and accusing Gloria of “using three-syllable words.” He claims she’s overcomplicating things, which is funny given how incredibly simple this season’s narrative has been so far. Gloria says she wants to spend a few more days on this one. It’s not like there’s anything pressing for her attention.
Like the “cosmic justice” that Moe claims killed Maurice, Gloria finally gets a partner in crime in the wonderful Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval). They meet in the bathroom after she asks for a tampon, and then offers up a whole lot of personal information, including the fact that she’s trying to have kids and her husband “pops” more quickly in certain sexual positions but she thinks you should look each other in the eyes when you’re making babies. It’s a funny scene, but one line stuck with me: “Now it’s about the shortest distance between two points.” This show is so often about people finding the longest.
Gloria gets closer to the truth by visiting the St. Cloud Parole Board office, for which Maurice had a business card in his belongings. She’s shocked to see that Maurice’s parole office is named Ray Stussy. “Truly, what are the odds?” Ray is nervous; it’s first of several scenes this week of nervous conversation. Why would Maurice be all the way out there like he was looking for something particular? Ray’s answer is not convincing: “He liked his reefer.”
Ray goes from that uncomfortable meeting to another one with his boss. They have pictures of him with Nikki socially, which is against the law. Ray’s boss is a gross man, referring to Nikki as “cattle” and talking about her “poontang.” It’s always interesting when the person claiming moral superiority is a gross pig. He threatens to revoke Nikki’s parole, but agrees to accept Ray’s resignation instead. On his way out, Ray sees Sy in the parking lot, who points at him and, with a bit of a struggle, gets back in his car.
Almost as if Ray passes off his awkward meeting curse, Sy comes back to the office to find Winnie in the lobby, with Yuri (Goran Bogdan) and Meemo (Andy Yu) lurking nearby. He’s immediately flustered. She’s investigating the parking lot incident from the second episode: Ray isn’t pressing charges, but the waitress needs a police report for her insurance. Winnie wants Sy to look and see who was driving the company car, but Sy can’t concentrate. He probably suspects that Yuri and Meemo threw Irv from the garage. What might they do to an actual police officer?
As Ray drinks instead of meeting Nikki and their new competitive bridge investor, Emmit has a visitor. V.M. shows up at his front door, just in time for dinner. After some chitchat over a meal, they retire to Emmit’s office, where V.M. tells him that he’s going to sign some papers to make them partners. Emmit wants to call Sy, but V.M. plays to his ego. So much of this season (and this show) is about the male ego.
V.M. goes on a rant about wealth inequality designed to show Emmit two things. One, Emmit is going to move beyond his concept of rich to a new level of financial comfort, the kind in which you hide your opulence instead of showing it off. Two, Emmit is in the frying pan and there’s nowhere else to go but the fire. Emmit learns how much V.M. has invaded his life, hacking his emails and tapping his phone calls. He has no choice other than to stick with V.M., who has increased his credit by $25 million. Perhaps most important, he asks if Ray is going to be a problem. V.M. and his team have a way of dealing with problems.
With that, Peter and the Wolf returns. Grandfather was angry because Peter risked his life going into the meadow, just as Gloria could let the Maurice-Ennis case stop — and has been encouraged to do so — but she’s going back out into that investigative meadow. And she’s bringing Winnie with her. Her new “partner” comes over and she’s put something together. How could three Stussys be involved with the law in a matter of days? They’re not afraid of the wolves.
• The final music cue in a relatively song-less episode (aside from Peter) is “You Don’t Know” by Galactic.
• Is anyone frustrated by the slow burn? Last season gave us an onslaught of plot twists and characters within the first four episodes, but hardly anything has happened since that air conditioner fell on Maurice. It feels like Noah Hawley is purposefully working a more deliberate opening act, but I’m hoping for a shocking turn of events next week to really start the fire.
• Having said that, I could watch these vibrant characters and this show’s strong visual language sans quick plotting and still be pretty satisfied. I just wonder how long viewers will stick with the slower pace.