TV Recap: Fargo Season 3, Episode 3: "The Law of Non-Contradiction"
In a major departure from what we’re used to seeing on Fargo, this week’s episode titled “The Law of Non-Contradiction” moves away from flurry North Dakota to sunny Los Angeles, as policewoman Gloria Burgle attempts to find some answers about her stepfather’s shady history. While her journey doesn’t yield any answers to the mystery behind who killed him, she obtains a greater sense of the man he used to be, which few ever got a glimpse of.
It’s easy to pick out nods to other Coen Brothers films in each episode of Fargo, and here the most evident basis appears to come from their 1991 dramedy Barton Fink, starring John Turturro and John Goodman. The film, about a New York playwright whisked off to Hollywood to work for a major film studio in the 1940s has direct connotations with the flashbacks in this episode. As he is the recipient of a major science-fiction writing award, young Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann), who will later be known as Ennis Stussy, gets conned by Hollywood producer Howard Zimmerman (Fred Melamed, another Coen regular) and actress Vivian Lord (Francesca Eastwood) who seek the means to have one of his stories turned into a screenplay.
Period differences aside, both this episode and Barton Fink center around a writer that’s taken advantage of by the Hollywood machine and succumbs to the dog eat dog reality of its construction. We even get an idyllic scene set on a sunny beach where the protagonist looks onto the horizon at the end of the episode, a direct reference to Fink for sure. Gloria is the one seen lying on the beach in that scene, as it’s her character that dominates the narrative in this episode. In the past two episodes of this season she has been the least developed character, and given that she is also the closest thing to a morally upstanding personality against all the unsavory types in this season’s ensemble, it only makes sense that she get a whole episode to herself.
Flying into Los Angeles (where her seat passenger is none other than Ray Wise, giving anecdotes about the divorced life), Gloria checks into a cheap motel holding a Santa convention, upon which she is thrown into a situation where her luggage is stolen by a man in a Claus costume. She’s assisted by local cop Oscar Hunt (Rob McElhenney from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) who asks her out that evening. Inside her motel room, there’s an odd plastic hand toy left in the closet, which adds to the creepiness of the situation.
Gloria is able to track down Vivian (Frances Fisher, in an interesting bit of a mother playing the elder version of her daughter’s character), now working in a diner as a waitress. She claims to have no memory of that period in her life, attributing it to drug use. Following up with Howard (Roger V. Burton), now living in an elderly rest home, forced to use an electrolarynx to speak, recalls Thaddeus as being someone only destined to be a failure, and that he never heard from him in the 35 years that have passed.
She meets up with Oscar that evening, who drones on about why everyone needs to be on Facebook. It’s another great instance of solidifying the contemporary angle of this season, and feels like a riff on the Mike Yanagita scene from Fargo. This whole episode, built around Gloria’s search to both seek closure from a family member and pursue leads in this case, is like a hour-long version of watching Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson take a sojurn from the main action in the Coen’s film that gives this series its basis. A complete 180 from the wintery environment we’re used to, it’s aesthetically and structurally opposed to what we’re used to, but feels so comforting at the same time.
Even weirder than the change of scenery is the various animated segments of Gloria reading Mobley’s novel ‘The Planet Wyh’, about a helper robot who survives for countless eons and viewing the rise and fall of countless generations. Like a cross between A.I.: Artificial Intelligence but done in a style that feels like a clear rip-off of Don Hertzfeldt’s animations (mainly World of Tomorrow), the segments help to form a sense of Thaddeus’s conscience and his state of mind at the time of his supposed big break. The robot in the story, named Minksey, can only utter the phrase “I can help!”, though after its master dies unexpectedly, he wanders the planet, seeing life, civilizations, infrastructure come into being and wither away, and eventually becoming damaged itself but pursuing onward with no purpose in mind. Eventually uncovered by supreme lifeforms that explain that, after millions of years, Minksey is the last living remnant of a bygone time. They explain that it can power down, which it does with little to no hesitation. While not containing Hertzfeldt’s level of visionary wit, it’s clear that the robot represents Thaddeus’s inner passivity, to let others walk over him and being unable to stand up for himself, as seen by his relationship between Howard and Vivian.
We eventually realize that the motel Gloria is staying in is the same one where Thaddeus remained during his time in Hollywood, where he slowly but surely comes to realize that he’s being played. Entering Vivian’s pad and finding Howard there as her company, the truth comes out and Thaddeus realizes that the two planned to take advantage of his naivete from the very start. While Howard beckons the guy to take what’s happened as an important life lesson, Thaddeus lashes out and brutally strikes him repeatedly, thus causing the accident which had put Howard in medical care. We then find out this is the story being told by the older Vivian to Gloria, back in the diner from before. Vivian’s denial of the past through her earlier conversation obviously holds a deep longing of regret within. The name ‘Dennis Stussy and Sons’ (with the ‘D’ slightly worn out) is imprinted on the toilet in Gloria’s bathroom, and it’s there that she locates the final piece of the puzzle falls into her lap unexpectedly.
Upon returning, a major development in the case occurs directly after Ennis/Thaddeus’s wake, where fingerprints from the crime scene left by Maurice le Fay are uncovered by the police - putting Gloria one degree closer to Ray and Nikki’s scheme.
Next week’s episode is a return to the regular format with familiar characters and locale, but here we have a compelling character-based detour that shows how structurally diverse a show like Fargo can be. Gloria can close the chapter on her stepfather’s secret past, and the script does this in a way that which subverts the typical formula. While this season has been criticized by some for being more of the same from before, “The Law of Non-Contradiction” is a great example that Fargo has boundless capabilities in terms of the stories it wishes to tell, and how to tell them.