FARGO, Season 3, Ep. 4: “The Narrow Escape Problem”

Bridge-playing ex-con Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Eden Valley police officer Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coons) find themselves on opposite sides of the law in Fargo’s third season.

The FX series “Fargo” takes viewers on a “true crime” adventure through the snow-swept landscape of Minnesota. Based on the Coen Brothers Academy Award winning film “Fargo,” each season of the TV series explores a new story cast from the themes of innocence lost, human failings, and the redemptive power of goodness.

Northern Minnesota author Aaron J. Brown reviews each episode of “Fargo” with an eye for unique details from the place where the show is set.

Now, for this week’s review. I rate the details from INTERESTING  (bad), to COULD BE WORSE (not so good) to PRETTY GOOD (not so bad), and OH, YA! (real good then).

Beware the spoilers.

“The Narrow Escape Problem”

(Original air date: May 10, 2017)

Deus ex machina. From the Latin adaptation of the Greek term: “God from the machine.” In common usage, deus ex machina refers to a plot device in which an outside force enters a story to rescue the writer from stagnation or to provide comic relief. Well, Fargo’s third season has given us an update on this theater trope: “Dues ex Winnie Lopez.” Seemingly out of nowhere, a sassy lady cop buddy (Olivia Sandoval) enters Gloria Burgle’s life to help her break open the case of her stepfather’s murder. Winnie casually details her menstrual hygiene, sexual habits and struggles with the patriarchy. And that’s just her FIRST conversation with Gloria (Carrie Coons) in the ladies room. It’s like the show took the Bechdel Test and burned it to the ground. Go Winnie!

But “The Narrow Escape Problem” does more than introduce a compelling new character. “Fargo” adds fuel to its thematic fire. The first minutes of the program use the introduction to the classic Russian symphonic fairy tale  “Peter and the Wolf.” In that piece, each instrument represents a character in the story. In this episode, a narrator introduces the instruments, which visually sync with characters from the show. The bird, represented by a flute, is Emmit Stussy. Ray Stussy is the duck, played by the oboe. The cat, a clarinet, is Nikki. Gloria, our hero, is Peter, played by the strings. And the wolf, of course, is Varga — the french horn. The bulimic french horn.

Varga is bulimic, apparently. So that’s new. But this development, too, is more than it appears. We learn that Varga’s entire raison d’etre is to consume far more than a man needs, leaving nothing behind. Varga (David Thewlis) is the embodiment of 21st Century power, a man who knows that his wealth makes him a target and, thus, fixates on nothing less than domination of the Earth.

In this, Varga ties this story to the present zeitgeist most effectively. First, we have this mysterious wolf’s use of Russian muscle to protect his nondescript “billionaire business.” His greed is so profound that he’s rationalized a whole ideological philosophy around it. “You think you’re rich. You don’t know what rich means.”

Varga uses technology to know his adversaries inside and out, while making himself invisible. In his described “Age of the Refugee,” the refugees become the bad guys and Varga the hero. He warns the “Parking Lot King of Minnesota” Emmit (Ewen McGregor) that they will come for him, too. “Pitchfork peasants with murder in their eyes.” And that argument, as Emmit’s wife subtly switches off Fox News before dinner, seems to land. Emmit is scare of this guy, but he’s also susceptible to his logic.

Almost as an aside, Ray Stussy (also Ewan McGregor) feels the pressure when Gloria questions him about the late Maurice. He shuffles and dodges, just like Lester Nygaard and Jerry Lundergaard in previous “Fargo” stories. Gloria knows something’s up but let’s it be for now. The audience knows that Ray has crossed into desperate territory, willing to impersonate his brother to commit fraud and steal.

Meantime, Ray’s nemesis Sy — brother Emmit’s man — takes extraordinary vengeance on him. He tips off Ray’s bosses that he’s dating Nikki, causing him to lose his job. Then he puts tire boots on Ray’s Corvette, pretty much for spite. The fact that Sy is so fixated on Ray when such a deep threat dwells in the Stussy building becomes an example of the petty fights that occupy modern discourse while the world appears ready to burn.

“Untruth is the weapon the leader uses,” opines Varga. “The truth is whatever he says it is.”

But Gloria, along with her new somewhat annoying pal Winnie, are piecing together the truth as it is.

I don’t know what Season 3 of Fargo might accomplish in the next six episodes, but it’s making a good argument to get off Facebook.

Episode rating: PRETTY GOOD for the clunky plot devices, but getting closer to OH YA! I finally felt like I was watching a story that matters. I am learning that this season goes down smooth if you accept that it’s more of a melodrama than previous seasons. It’s also interesting to note that this is the first season where different writers are taking turns writing episodes. Noah Hawley wrote nearly all of Seasons One and Two. Each episode seems to stand on its own, but that would account for some of the wandering thematic elements in this Season Three story arc.

Notes on the Minnesota details:

The Peter and the Wolf intro brought me right back to my elementary school music class. One day our teacher put the record of “Peter and the Wolf” on during class and it sounded just like the one used during this show. I almost thought it was the same recording until I realized after the first few lines that it was Billy Bob Thornton, another Season One callback, doing the voiceover. But aside from that it was an accurate retelling of a musical story I think many of us here  heard in school while watching snow fall out the window. OH YA!

I’m sure the audience is as sick of Gloria’s new boss Sheriff Moe Dammik (Shea Whigham) as I am. The women leads of “Fargo” are typically cast as being smarter and more noble than the men they interact with. But this season it’s not even close. You just want Varga’s Russian thugs to work this guy over now and get over with.

I would contrast this with Season One. In that storyline, Bob Odenkirk’s chief of police character impeded Alison Tolman’s Molly at times, but in ways that made sense. Though paternalistic, he had an ethos. He meant well, which is the damnedest thing about trying to address social change in Minnesota. Dammik, however, is just a mean bastard who seems like he came back from serving in the military overseas with a chip on his shoulder. Gloria cracks off a good line, though. When Dammik said that all the men who crossed him in Afghanistan came home in bags, she points out, “Well, I’m already home.” PRETTY GOOD

Bodily fluids seem to be a big thing this season. Pissing, bleeding, barfing. All in technicolor! I’m sure there’s a reason. Right? A reason? INTERESTING

Lots of inexplicable Minnesota catchphrases: “Get the man a cream soda for shit’s sake.” “What the shit?” Most of this has to do with the poetic quality of how Minnesotans say “shit” than it does with objective reality. COULD BE WORSE

Olivia Sandoval as Winnie Lopez. (PHOTO: Chris Large/FX)

Winnie Lopez deserves an entire article to herself, but let’s briefly discuss this St. Cloud city cop’s entry on the scene. We meet Winnie from behind the door of a ladies restroom stall as she asks Gloria for a “Putter-inner.” That’s apparently another term for a tampon, though I’d need a ruling on whether Minnesota women actually say this.

One of the broader questions is whether a Winnie-like character would actually exist in Minnesota. I mean, not only does she openly discuss “her time of the month” with a stranger, but she also gushes about the fact that she and her husband are trying to have a baby and hold differing views on their favorite sexual positions. Gloria’s stunned reaction to this surge of personal detail is authentic, no doubt. But does this happen?

I would argue that in the pantheon of Minnesota archetypes, such a figure does exist, rare though she might be. The quiet restraint of “Minnesota Nice” normally prevents people from expressing emotions like fear, hope, and any relevant personal details whatsoever. But having spent a lot of time waiting patiently in public places across Northern Minnesota, I have heard comments like these. Winnie has no control over her self-disclosure. The discomfort she instills in others is a reminder to silence ourselves. For she was born into this role. She is a spirit creature. She walks the Earth. OH, YA!

Next, let’s talk about St. Cloud. It’d be a lot to expect a big national TV show to spend the time necessary to fully understand St. Cloud. It’s a regional center, sure. The show seems to get that. The buildings stand a little tall compared to the real thing. I can live with that. The St. Cloud of “Fargo” is more or less like the fictional version of “Duluth” from Season One. But what the show missed was something that could have been useful to its developing theme of technology and decline.

St. Cloud is somewhere and nowhere. It’s the forgotten city of Minnesota. Unlike Duluth, which is a tourist destination, a Minnesotan can live 90 years here and not only never have to go to St. Cloud, but never have to think about it either. I’m not even sure St. Cloud actually exists and I’ve been there at least twice. Part of the reason for this is that, aside from its maddening street layout, it’s a classic American small city. Expanses of parking lots, box stores, strip malls and fast food joints surround a small downtown that no longer fits its original purpose. Thousands dwell here, a neglected people ignored by a changing world. They are, in many ways, emblematic of the hordes Varga describes, those who would knock down the gates and, as Elton John (or as he is known locally “Eltan Jan”) sings: Burn Down the Mission. All it would take is a spark. PRETTY GOOD

See you next week!

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “The Law of Non-Contradiction

Next Episode: “The House of Special Purpose


  1. Pat Schoenfelder says

    I felt that this episode should have been preceded by the note “now back to our regular programming” after last week.

    One big Minnesota mistake this week is the threat to send Nikki to Stillwater. Stillwater is a MEN’S prison, something that Ray and his parole office partners certainly would know. The women’s prison is Shakopee, which handles women of all levels of security. Interesting.

    I definitely agree that Olivia Sandoval (Oh ya!) hits the ground running in a major way. She definitely is not a victim of normal Minnesota reticence in her scenes with Gloria. However, having worked most of my life in jobs where 75% of my co-workers were women from Minnesota, I have to say that in may experience many Minnesota women are way, way less reticent than Minnesota men, especially when there are no or few men around, and that the level of candor Winnie displays about her bodily functions and her reproductive issues is not especially unusual among women when they are away from men, or mostly away from men. I think that is especially true given the impetus that leads to her starting a conversation with Gloria in the first place, which would be a powerful ice breaker.

    You will notice that when she is with Sy Winnie falls back into a more quiet and deferential behavior pattern.

    Varga really comes into his own in this episode. (Oh ya!) Among other things, we discover that he is, despite his accent, almost certainly actually German. Ermantraubt or Ermantraub, the original source of the funding for Emmit’s business in episode one and briefly mentioned in the recounting of Varga’s surveillance this week, is the same last name as the hapless victim of Stasi incompetence in the prequel scene in episode one, and I think that we are going to discover either that Varga actually is that character under a new name or is someone who got to know him in an East German gulag camp. Varga’s abysmal table manners, frantic eating, and his drive to eat so much that he has to throw up afterward are undoubtedly related to being starved in the prison, with the possible addition of damage to his GI tract that makes it impossible for him to keep down his food. His ruined teeth are probably part of that too.

    His general behavior as a “wolf” probably dates back to his experience in the gulag as well. High security prisons are a great place to learn special trades.

    There is a lot more contemporary theme underlying this episode, and probably this season, a theme ripped right out of the front pages of the news. Varga, Emmit, Sy and to some extent Ray and Nikki and Gloria’s boss are the believers in that theme of social Darwinism, with Gloria, with her relationship with Ennis and with others, portraying the opposite idea of communal responsibility and caring.

    We do, however, get a couple of more flashes of the steel in Gloria’s spine at the end of her encounters with her boss and with Ray. Gloria cares, but she is not a pushover. Oh ya!

    As you said, I can hardly wait for Gloria’s boss to meet Varga’s thugs.

    I would give this a pretty good overall, with the definite feeling we are heading toward oh ya.

    • Thanks for this, Pat. I think I like your reviews even better than mine. 🙂
      I share your view that the mistaken identity case from the season opener will connect to Varga or his thugs somehow. There’s something about all those ties to Russia, the Cossack song and the Cossack Yuria. It’s interesting that you bring up the prison experience possibly affecting Varga’s eating disorder. I know a POW from WWII. In an interview a few years ago he talked about how his relationship with food changed after the starvation in the German camp. He couldn’t keep the weight off for many years because he couldn’t suppress the urgency of eating as much as possible when he could. He figured it out, but decades later. So that lines up.

  2. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Thinking last night, I am worried that Winnie is going to get killed. There usually are deaths of innocent and likable characters in Fargo, and Winnie, with some of her impulsiveness coupled with her ability to cut through the issues, is a good candidate.

    I think the combination of the lender Emmit and Sy did business with initially before Varga turned up having the same last name as the Stasi victim and Varga spontaneously producing a perfectly accented “schweinekotlett” to name the pork chops at Emmit’s dinner pretty much seals that deal — another example of the Chekov rule. If a character suddenly starts producing perfect German despite supposedly being English or Aussie, the reason is that he is German.

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