‘Fargo’: “The Narrow Escape Problem” Takes Aim at Putin in a Timely Episode

     May 10, 2017


Even if we hadn’t just seen the FBI director fired — one who was in charge of an investigation into ties between the Trump administration and Putin’s administration in Russia — the small monologue that Gurka (Goran Bogdan of The Last Panthers) delivers in the middle of Fargo‘s “The Narrow Escape Problem” would be a bit distressing. Reporting back to the insidious and powerful V.M. Varga, Gurka explains that in Russia, there are two kinds of truth: God’s truth, and truth that’s only true because it comes from the leader. That, as Gurka opines, is the truth that really matters, and it is what has led Putin to rise through the ranks and secure such a muscular grip on his ravaged country.


Image via FX

This was not the only moment where writer Monica Beletsky and director Michael Uppendahl, a crucial creative colleague here and in Legion, let it known that this season’s thematic underbelly was timely. Varga’s speech to Emmit Stussy in his home office, after vomiting up Mrs. Stussy’s pork chops and applesauce, lays out a paranoid reasoning that might have been penned by Charles Koch if it wasn’t so damn elegantly explained and delivered with sly theatrical gusto by the indispensable David Thewlis. Stories about traveling coach and wearing cheap suits to become invisible to the common person, securing bunkers in America and Sweden, and faking one’s own death to throw off the sent picked up by angry poor people are only a minor imaginative jump from the stuff you can read about billionaire doomsday-preppers. It’s no wonder that Emmit buys the whole package, especially after he learns that Varga knows about his stamp and his biblical “rivalry” with his “loser” brother, who was left jobless thanks to the self-righteous acts of Sy in response to Ray’s uproarious robbery from Stussy Lots Ltd.’s bank.

There’s an eerie, underlying fact in Thewlis’ dialogue. When Varga first arrives at Emmit’s doorstep, Emmit tells his new business partner that he doesn’t need the money, that he’s already “rich,” a pronouncement that Varga dismisses outright. When Emmit makes this pronouncement, he gestures as if to say “look at all my expensive shit.” When Varga starts talking about the “horde” of poverty-stricken people, Emmit insists that he’s not one of the ultra-wealthy that would likely meet their end in such an insurrection, to which Varga insinuates that the difference between, say, a longtime Exxon CEO and the “parking lot king of Minnesota” would be negligible. When the revolution comes, the proverbial people with the pitchforks won’t wait to study financial disclosures and go after those who are the most rich. They’ll go after those who look rich, men and women like Emmit who can’t help but show off their modest wealth.


Image via FX

Mind you, the people with pitchforks could just as easily be Chief Gloria Burgle, who has begun to pick up the faint odor of the Stussy family’s involvement in the murders of Maurice LeFay and poor old Ennis Stussy by the end of the episode. Varga might even be slightly envious of Gloria’s ability to not be recognized, if it didn’t come with such constant denigration in the workplace. Much of “The Narrow Escape Problem” involved testing her meddle when it came to a number of “coincidences.” She has both Ray Stussy and her new boss (Shea Whigham) insisting she’s being overly suspicious or outright spiteful when she simply wants to solve the murder case. In Ray’s case, he has a damn good reason, and when she visits him, he does his best to dissuade her. (My favorite delivery of the episode: Carrie Coon saying “They try.”) In the case of the new chief, a hardened veteran, his disgruntlement seems to come from a cynical let-it-all-burn perspective. The only one who seems to be in the same basket as her is a St. Cloud police office, Winnie Lopez, played by Olivia Sandoval, who is investigating Stussy Lots Ltd. over Sy’s car “accident.” The series’ not-so-subtle feminist undercurrents are showing and Beletsky plays them up with grace and ample melancholy.

It’s likely Emmit who will pay the price when Gloria gets close to the Stussy family, whether that is fair or not, and even if she were to get Varga, he is part of a massive engine of greed, fear, and evil. Taking out Billy Bob Thornton‘s Lorne Malvo didn’t stop this machine before and taking out Varga wouldn’t stop it either. No matter how timely the actions and decor of “The Narrow Escape Problem” seem to be, there is an element of universality here, a familiarity with the nefarious, unmerciful power of the capitalistic mindset in the hands of the self-servicing and the self-involved. The nod to the famed Russian children’s tale Peter and the Wolf (and Thorton’s narration) highlights Noah Hawley and his creative team’s attention to mood and atmosphere in storytelling as much as the plot itself but it does something else. The bursts of horns, strings, and stately narration signal what is true of both Fargo and Sergei Prokofiev‘s composition & children’s story: the battle of the good vs. the bad, predator and prey, continues on — even if it’s becoming harder and harder to locate the true villain.