Is ‘Fargo’ Still ‘Fargo’ If It’s In Los Angeles? You Betcha!

A review of tonight’s Fargo coming up just as soon as there are nine Santas lounging by the pool…

“I used to think it meant something: these collisions, the people we found.” –Howard Zimmerman

In terms of the plot of Fargo season three, “The Law of Non-Contradiction” is a complete waste of time, which we know going in, and which Gloria figures out by the end, lamenting, “It’s just a story. None of this has anything to do with it.” Ennis wasn’t murdered because of what happened during his time as a failed screenwriter and scam victim(*), and the relevant players to the case are all back in Minnesota. But the plot of the season and the story of the season aren’t exactly the same thing, and the episode is hugely valuable as the most entertaining hour of this third season so far, and as important insight into both our chief investigator and the season’s initial murder victim, as well as to the season’s (and series’, for that matter) overall interest in stories and the way they’re told.

(*) Technically, Thaddeus Mobley’s misadventure in the City of Angels did lead to his death: if he hadn’t puked in that particular motel toilet, he’d have chosen a different name to assume while fleeing the aftermath of his assault on Howard Zimmerman, and would still be alive. Though Gloria has to piece together Maurice’s name confusion before she can fully understand that part.

It’s an unusual episode by Fargo standards, focusing on a single character, and taking place almost entirely under the warm California sun. But after the season’s first hours felt a little too familiar from the Solverson years, this was exciting, and fun, and offered a better and more compelling picture of Gloria and Ennis.

Where previous episodes were named after bridge strategies, “The Law of Non-Contradiction” comes from the theory that no two contradictory ideas may exist at the same time. But the episode itself is a contradiction of its own title, showing how this case, and Gloria Burgle’s life in general, can contain contradictory thoughts simultaneously.

Gloria is a police chief who isn’t really a police chief anymore, running a department that no longer quite exists, still technically married to a man who is no longer her husband, investigating the death of a man who hadn’t been her stepfather in decades but still had a paternal (or grandpaternal) presence in her life, was Ennis Stussy but not really Ennis Stussy, and who once wrote the tale of a helper robot that never seemed to get a chance to help anyone, then proved enormously helpful to the entire universe. Even the novelty box that Gloria finds in the back of her motel closet is built to be a contradiction, existing only to turn itself off (with a switch resembling the one that poor Minsky the robot uses to turn itself off after 2.38 million years of service). When Gloria is at her most unmoored during the trip, while stuck on what she didn’t realize was an attempted hookup by Officer Hunt, she runs into Paul, her neighbor from the flight into Los Angeles, and explains the contradictory state of her marriage, if not of her whole life. Paul in turn charms her with the tale of a soldier who goes off to war, first giving his wife a bill of divorce that becomes official if he doesn’t return within 12 months, but then retroactively takes effect from the moment he left, turning the woman into even more of a Schrodinger’s Wife than Gloria: simultaneously married and unmarried, without definitive proof until the box opens up 12 months from now.

Though Gloria is thousands of miles away from home, “The Law of Non-Contradiction” does a nifty job of still feeling like Fargo, both in the sense of the movie itself, and the ways the two previous seasons were influenced by it, and how Noah Hawley has turned the series into an extended tribute to the entire Coen ouevre. There are echoes of The Big Lebowski (LA noir conventions turned on their head), The Hudsucker Proxy (naive young man gets involved in big business where he’s meant to be a dupe), and Barton Fink (“legitimate” writer moves into an LA hotel to try his hand at screenwriting, and things go awry), yet the Coen moment that kept coming to mind was Marge Gunderson having drinks with Mike Yanagita.

Hawley has frequently cited the Mike Yanagita scene as an important creative touchstone for the show, since its seeming lack of connection to the plot (even if it inspires Marge to reconsider whether Jerry Lundegaard is telling her the truth) helps maintain the “This is a true story” illusion. And if you’re constructing this season as a clean fictional narrative, odds are you don’t devote 10 percent of it to a SoCal interlude that doesn’t feature most of the characters, doesn’t really advance Gloria’s investigation, and — because she rejects Hunt’s crude advances in even blunter fashion than Marge rejects Mike’s clumsier attempt — doesn’t even give her temporary respite from her loneliness. But if you want the audience to get to know one of the main characters, who’s been marginalized to this point by all the emphasis on the Stussy brothers, and you want to also cast new light on both the victim and the larger themes of the season, then by all means take the Minnesota girl out of Minnesota and let her pound some boot leather on the mean streets of Hollywood, along with some extended flashbacks about the corruption of the movie business, and a beautifully tragic series of animated vignettes dramatizing the award-winning novel that turned Thaddeus Mobley into Ennis Stussy.

If anything, “The Law of Non-Contradiction” was so much livelier than the season’s previous two installments that I’m hoping it inspires Hawley to consider whether future seasons even have to be primarily based in the Upper Midwest. There are ways to have a story start there, or arrive there, while still largely taking place elsewhere but still having that Coen/Fargo feel to it. We know that’s true, because we just saw it tonight.

Some other thoughts:

* Though we were without Ewan McGregor and company, the episode more than made up for it with a superb guest cast, including the velvet-voiced Fred Melamed as Howard (the only shame of using him in this flashback role means we won’t get A Serious Man reunion where Howard interacts with Sy Feltz), mother and daughter Frances Fisher and Francesca Eastwood playing Vivian Lord in different eras, Thomas Mann as poor Thaddeus Mobley, Ray Wise as Gloria’s travel companion Paul, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star/co-creator Rob McElhenney as Officer Hunt. (This raises the question of which Sunny castmember should follow McElhenney and Glen Howerton onto Fargo; my impulse was to do all the creators first and kill off Charlie Day in an amusingly macabre way, while Daniel Fienberg, in a discussion we had on this topic, argued for Danny DeVito to be next, because, “He’s like the Fargoiest of actors.”)

* The animated sequences were done by Floyd County, the production company that works on Archer, and on past FX animated series like Unsupervised. Are UFOs now a mandatory element of the TV Fargo? We’ll see.

* Music this week includes “Orisa” by Moncho y Su Wawanko Gitano (Thaddeus meets Howard), “Liar” by Three Dog Night (Howard and Thaddeus watch footage together), “Jingo” by Santana (Howard and Vivian at the bar), “Blue Shadows On The Trail” by Riders in the Sky (Gloria exits the airplane), “Silver Bells” by Gene Autry (Gloria interviews Vivian), and “SilverGold (Instrumental” by T.H. White (Gloria and Officer Hunt at the bar).

* Gloria’s technological invisibility doesn’t come up on the trip, but she does seem impervious to the lure of social media: the only customer at Vivian’s diner not staring at her phone, and shrugging off Officer Hunt’s testimonials about Facebook. Noah Hawley has said that the tension between old-fashioned “Minnesota nice” and the encroachment of social media is a minor element of this season, and I hope the show has something more complicated or profound to say about it down the line. Being from an old-fashioned small town not only doesn’t make one immune from this stuff, but it can often increase the appeal of instantly connecting with the wider world. Maybe not for Gloria, but her son?

* Also on-brand for Carrie Coon: Travel never seems to work out well for her, as Gloria’s suitcase gets stolen by one of Santa’s elves, and recovered without any of its contents. I expected the show to do more with her having to make do without any of the clothes she packed (mostly flannels), but apparently she just went blouse-shopping in between scenes.

* FX food trends: On last week’s The Americans, Paige briefly watches a Whatchamacallit candy bar commercial, and here a Whatchamacallit wrapper is inside Gloria’s largely empty suitcase, while Arby’s was a major part of Baskets this season and is Gloria’s destination with Donny and her son at the episode’s end.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at