‘Fargo’ Season 3, Episode 3: “The Law of Non-Contradiction”

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At one point during “The Law of Non-Contradiction,” Gloria (Carrie Coon) finds a small novelty toy box whose only function, when turned on, is to turn itself off. This box is known as a “useless machine,” and its design was intended as a philosophical joke by its inventor, Marvin Minsky. The name Minsky, of course, is also the name of the cartoon robot from Thaddeus Mobley’s The Planet Wyh, who observes the meaninglessness of life over the course of his millennia-long galactic odyssey.

This connection is not in itself pointless, especially considering the way Minsky’s story ends with him switching himself off, but the rest of the episode could perhaps be seen as such. Even Howard Zimmerman, played by the ubiquitous Fred Melamed, monologues at Gloria about quantum physics and how he “used to think it meant something.” When we consider this all in the broader context of what’s actually happening in the episode, that Gloria has traveled across the country to investigate what we know is a complete dead-end, all of the pointlessness instead starts to seem rather purposeful. But not in a way that strongly impacts the actual plot of the third installment of Fargo.

On its own, the episode is a perfectly Coen-esque short story, with a woman learning more about the sad life of a man she sort of cared about. Thaddeus Mobley did not turn out to be a saint, but rather a naive author who succeeded at a young age and thus fell prey to those more knowledgeable about the industry. When he needs to escape, he takes his new name from the one printed on the toilet bowl. There are echoes of Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, and the Hollywood Premiere Hotel Gloria stays in looks exactly like the one from No Country for Old Men. But when considered in the light of this installment of Fargo in its entirety, little was accomplished to further the plot besides the revelation of Ennis Stussy’s origin.

The discussion surrounding the episode in its immediate aftermath appears to be that this was a divisive entry in the series. On one hand, it shows that many of the staples of Fargo, from the quirky dialogue to the random intrusions in the narrative, like the Santa Claus who steals Gloria’s luggage, remain intact even when the show isn’t set in its titular location. It also gave Carrie Coon something to do for once, which was an enormous relief, considering that Gloria’s story has previously been overshadowed by the Stussy siblings. Her quirky awkwardness makes her distinct from the Solversons of previous seasons, and fleshes her out beyond being the kind-of chief who seems largely ignored by technology.

But on the other hand, that lack of contribution to the plot is a bit troubling in a season with only ten hours to tell its tale. The recurring themes in the episode overtly acknowledge its own random and “meaningless” nature, after all. Was a geographic digression to gain a better perspective of Ennis Stussy and glean a little character development for Gloria worth it?

Personally, my answer would be yes, although if you had asked me right when the episode concluded, I might have told you this was the first “bad” episode of Fargo. Contemplation changed that answer, especially considering how important the Mike Yanagita scene (from the original movie) is to Noah Hawley. That scene itself does little more than provide a colorful, meandering interlude in Marge Gunderson’s story, even if it does cause her to realize Jerry Lundegaard is not what he seems. This was an entire episode with that premise, and if that scene didn’t work for you in the movie, then this probably didn’t work for you as an episode. It says less about the story than it does about the universe of Fargo as a whole.

Other random notes:

-Being that it doesn’t feature Ray Stussy or Nikki Swango, it’s appropriate that this is the only episode of the season without a title referencing bridge.

-Everybody at the diner is on their smartphone except for Gloria; you could say the only android in her life seems to be Minsky. Nonetheless, the theme of Gloria vs. technology, and the distraction of technology in general, definitely continued in this episode. (Remember Ray and Nikki in the bathtub together, both consumed with whatever they were looking at on their phones?) Considering that the previous seasons managed to avoid technology almost entirely, it is starting to seem like Hawley has an aversion to it. After all, portraying phones and social media as worthless distractions isn’t very nuanced, and that’s pretty shortsighted for a show as profound as this one. I hope it strives to show the role of technology from different angles and does something more interesting with this theme than beat us over the head with “SMARTPHONE BAD.”

-The lack of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who’s the high point of the season thus far), Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg, and David Thewlis was made up for with a colorful list of guest stars. We got Fred Melamed, Thomas Mann, Ray Wise, and Rob McElhenney. Hopefully more It’s Always Sunny cast members end up on this show, because the two who’ve appeared so far (McElhenney here, and Glenn Howerton in the first season) fit this universe beautifully. Frances Fisher and her daughter, Francesca Eastwood, who I wasn’t familiar with before this episode, also appeared, playing the same character in different decades.

-The actual winner of the Hugo Award in 1975 was The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. Mobley would have to be a hell of an author to have beaten Le Guin for an award given to one of the most influential sci-fi novels ever written.

What did you guys think?

Joseph Rejent
Joe is secretly a space lizard who's been controlling your minds with fluoride for like, decades. Just don't ask if you should call him "Joe, Joseph, or Joey" because he'll probably say something awkward like, "uhh... both?" And then everyone will be uncomfortable.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with your take on this episode, Joe. The connection you made between it and that short scene in the film between Marge and Mike is an astute observation. I never would have put that together, but it’s spot-on. The one thing I’d add to your analysis is in regard to how technology is portrayed. It seemed to me, and I could be misinterpreting this, that the animated sequences throughout the episode, which you touched on briefly regarding their connection to the Minsky device, delivered a very subtle and poignant metaphor. If you recall, the robot (Minsky) never really interacts with his surroundings other than as a passive observer, despite constantly expressing his will to “help”. If you interpret the robot as a metaphor for both modern technology and its effect on mankind, I believe those sequences amount to a more nuanced take on the subject than the less subtle examples you listed above. That’s my two cents. Like I said, I could be wrong.

    • Matt, I think that is absolutely brilliant analysis and I wish I thought of it myself! I don’t know that it allays my concerns, entirely, but you’re right. Considered in that context, there is a good deal more nuance there than I initially gave it credit for.

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