Every so often, Fargo drops a reference to a character, location or plot-point from the Coen brothers-based source material – a satchel full of Carl Showalter's loot here, a namedropping of Stan Grossman there. But more than anything, what the TV show's taken from the film are its ideas. Each season has followed the interconnected lives of three main types: a sweet-natured, capable cop; a weaselly businessman who deals with the wrong people; and a darkly powerful nemesis with a well-articulated philosophy of amorality. This is life in and around icy Minnesota, according to every Fargo iteration. Every so often, the same game of soul-shaking violence and redemptive justice starts anew, with more or less the same players. Only the names have been changed.
This week's episode – "The Narrow Escape Problem" – pokes fun at that pattern. Yes, that's Season One star Billy Bob Thornton narrating the opening "disclaimer," quoting directly from Peter and the Wolf while the current season's characters are re-introduced, one-by-one, as the instrumental (literally) figures from Sergei Prokofiev's story. Emmit Stussy is "the Bird"; Ray is "the Duck," Sy takes the part of "the Grandfather"; Varga is, of course, "the Wolf"; and his hired foreign muscle is "the Shotgun." As in the children's symphony, each of these folks has a melody – a series of notes that play over and over when they reappear. Whenever they're on the screen, we know what we're going to hear.
But focus too much attention to the tune, and you might overlook the instrument. Gloria Burgle – the "Peter" in this analogy – spends her first scene getting griped at by her new boss, Sheriff Moe Dammick, who complains that she's stubborn, uppity and always "using three-syllable words for a one-syllable problem." To him, she's just like all the cocky enlisted men he commanded as an officer serving in Fallujah, who disobeyed his orders and ended up dead. Because Moe thinks he knows who his predecessor is, he grossly underestimates what she can do.
In fact, there seems to be an epidemic of presumption going on in Fargo this year. That would explain why Emmit never seems worried about Ray's ex-con girlfriend Nikki, even as she keeps outsmarting him. "He's, honestly, a loser, so what else could she be?" he insists, not long after the comely ex-con has engineered a bank scam that has Ray disguising himself as his sibling then withdrawing $10,000 and the contents of a safety deposit box. Our hapless hero doesn't find the rare stamp he's still looking for, but he does discover that you can get a lot done just by channeling the pushy-as-hell alpha Stussy. "I'll find a bank maybe puts the customer first!" Ray-as-Emmit (Raymmit?) snaps at a reluctant bank manager, who immediately gives the imposter what he wants.
Later, back in the car, when Nikki complains that he didn't take more money, Ray shrugs her off: "See, that's the criminal mentality." Even though he just stole 10 grand, he's no crook. But when he gets back to work at the parole office, Ray learns that his bosses have been tipped off about his romance with a client. He confesses he intends to marry Nikki, apparently believing that'll get him off the hook. There's no "true love" clause in his contract, however.
As always, his inability to plan more than a day or two ahead proves to be a handicap. He's fired, with cause (and could probably use some of that cash he didn't take right about now). One of the themes of this Fargo season is that no matter your class, and no matter how sharp your intellect, the universe gives us all plenty of chances ... to be a bonehead.
Consider Emmit, yet again. In this episode's key scene, Varga shows up at the Stusssys' Eden Prairie estate and makes himself at home, even as master of the house sputters, "A step too far is what this is!" He still doesn't seem to grasp this predator's power, or to understand that the moment the Parking Lot King of Minnesota put himself on an international criminal syndicate's radar, his life as he knew it was over.
Creator Noah Hawley may not have realized this when he was mapping out these episodes, but he's come up with the perfect villain for our times in Varga. An agent of the kleptocrats – with ties to Vladimir Putin and an innate understanding of how "fake news" and shameless bullying works – this year's adversary is practically a living embodiment of everything terrifying that's happening in the world circa 2017. He even speaks the language of our more authoritarian leaders, arguing that we live in "the age of the refugee," and that the best we can do is lay low and take care of ourselves, before the inevitable revolution comes.
Here's the thing about this jagged-toothed embodiment of corporate-Darwinian evil, though: In order to stay invisible, he doesn't enjoy any of his accumulated wealth. He dresses like a schlub. He travels like a salesman. Because of some combination of paranoia and psychosis, he vomits up all the enormous meals he eats. (Hence the teeth.) Anyone looking for comfort in this show's depiction of our new ruling class should know that this particular representative seems pretty miserable.
And neither Varga nor the Stussys have fully accounted for Gloria, nor are they aware that she has a new ally. "The Narrow Escape Problem" introduces Winnie Lopez (played by Olivia Sandoval), a St. Cloud beat cop who commiserates with ex-Chief Burgle and shares her own investigation info regarding Sy's hit-and-run on Ray's Corvette. She also speaks frankly (and cheefully) about her sex life with her husband. ("We used to spice it up but now it's the shortest distance between two points!") Like Gloria, she's gung-ho to crack cases and bring in bad guys.
The Vargas and Emmits of the world think they've evolved beyond getting tripped up by the Glorias and Winnies, with their predictable methods of clue-gathering and dogged interviewing. But there's another word for the melodies these characters play. They're called "hooks" – and when set just right, they can be pretty sharp.
Previously: Motel California