At the top of “The Narrow Escape Problem,” Fargo’s cast of characters are given new identities. A lone narrator (Billy Bob Thornton, back in a slightly less creepy role as a disembodied voice) lays out the roles and instruments normally prescribed to a performance of Peter and the Wolf. Emmit (Ewan McGregor) is identified as The Bird, and represented by the flute; Ray (Ewan McGregor) as The Duck, by the sounds of the oboe; Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as The Cat, by the clarinet; Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) as the Grandfather, by the bassoon; the grimacing Russians as the hunters, the kettle drums signaling their violent presence; Varga (David Thewlis) as The Wolf, devouring a meal while the French horns provide the soundtrack; and finally our innocent, hopeful Peter, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), the sound of plucky strings welcoming her back to snowy Minnesota after her investigative trip to Los Angeles.
Setting up the episode in this way is, on the one hand, a perfect example of the criticism lobbied at Fargo. It’s a cute device that, in the end, doesn’t actually add much to the episode. Sure, there are the music cues that correspond with each character as the episode rolls on, but there’s little else to latch onto; any comparison to Peter and the Wolf falls by the wayside as the episode settles back into its various plots, exposing the narration as the rather meaningless stylistic choice that it is. On the other hand, giving the characters different titles and roles sets up the episode’s exploration of identity and power. Fargo, as always, gives as much as it takes, its aesthetic choices at once frivolous and packed with meaning.
If the new, temporary names weren’t enough to draw attention to the unstable nature of identity, Ray and Nikki are planning to get into Emmit’s safety deposit box and steal the valuable stamp by having Ray shave and put on a wig in order to look just like his brother. Again, there are moments here that border on being too cute by drawing attention to themselves, but that also serve to underline the show’s interest in understanding how our identities are shaped and reshaped over time. So, the show is winking at its audience by having Ewan McGregor shave so that he can look like his other role, but it’s also diving into Ray’s psyche in a meaningful way. He’s initially hesitant about the job, nearly walking out of the bank empty handed. But then he fully embodies his brother, taking a stand and letting his presence (and wealth) speak for him.
In essence, this is everything Ray has ever wanted. He may not make off with the stamp, and Nikki may chastise him for leaving with only $10,000, but for Ray that’s enough, because for once he got to experience the life he’s always felt he deserved. If not for a cruel twist of fate that saw him snag a Corvette while his brother received a rare stamp, Ray believes his life would have turned out differently. In a way, it’s hope, but it’s a cruel semblance of it. After all, a change in identity didn’t do Thaddeus Mobley much good, and odds are it won’t do this Stussy much good either.
Inherent in the exploration of identity is the search for some kind of truth. Ray wants to know who he is, and he’s at a point where he’s not sure how to define that. He leaves his job as a parole officer to be with Nikki, but he doesn’t make it to their important meeting with a sponsor. Similarly, Emmit is trying to escape the bind his own name has put him in; the Stussy name splashed across a desk that welcomes everyone into the office once allowed for pride, but is now a reminder of corruption. Still, as Yuri (Goran Bogdan) says when speaking of Vladimir Putin, the “untruth” is more important than anything else. If a lie is asserted enough over time—or if Emmit is told he has no choice but to partner with Varga—then that lie becomes truth. Perception is all that matters, in matters of mob control and safety deposit boxes.
As always, Fargo may peddle this notion of the dark side of identity, of the ways people will twist themselves into knots and push their moral boundaries in an attempt to be seen and feel important, but it also provides the counterpoint: Gloria. She’s struggling to be seen and heard herself; automatic door sensors don’t recognize her, bathroom taps can’t tell she’s there, and Chief Moe (Shea Whigham) is more interested in talking about Fallujah and dismissing anything Gloria says than actually backing her up with an investigation.
And yet, Gloria continues to do her job. She tells people to ignore the “Chief” title on her business card not out of any sense of shame, but because she knows that a title doesn’t correspond with the work she’s doing. She may not have the moniker, but she knows she’s the true Chief, the one with her boots on the frozen ground breaking the cases, meeting with a St. Cloud police officer in a bathroom and finally finding the connection between all the Stussys, related or otherwise.
The leads are there. Gloria and Officer Lopez (Olivia Sandoval) are making it happen, even as the forces around them try to tell them they shouldn’t be seen or heard. But they will be. They’ve discovered the Eden Valley/Eden Prairie mix-up, even as Sy plays coy and Chief Moe tries to squash anything resembling police work. Nevertheless, they persist.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.