There are three stories being told in “The Law of Non-Contradiction,” the third and best episode of Fargo‘s third season thus far. The first occurs in the past, where promising, award-winning author Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann) is lured into a scam by an eloquent conman and his sultry female accomplice. The conman, Howard Zimmerman (Fred Melamed), takes his prey in with a great hook: I want to turn your book into a movie. Add cocaine, the physical love and wrongly assumed emotional caring of a beautiful actress named Vivian (Francesca Eastwood), and ambition enough to sink his own funds into the feigned production and you have the recipe for a classical Hollywood downfall, if not one that ends exactly how you might expect.
Mobley, of course, became Ennis Stussy (Scott Hylands), stepfather to erstwhile police chief Gloria Burgle, whose trip out West and discovery of Ennis’ past made up much of the latter two-thirds of this week’s episode. Within an hour of arriving, she has her bag stolen and when she attempts to get some help from the LAPD – in regards to both the stolen luggage and Mobley – she is met with indifference, cynicism, misogyny, and more than a little idiocy, all in the form of Rob McElhenney‘s dim officer. As Noah Hawley sees it, the place remains a corrupting (and corrupted) land ruled over by the worst kind of grifters and self-involved jackanapes. What’s changed is the workmanship, as well as the worth of fame in the age of social media, where pictures of the right ice cream cones, vacation spots, and acquaintances alone can make you a household name of sorts. Zimmerman teases Mobley with fame, women, money, and creative freedom in exchange for his work and financial security. Gloria is offered little more than a potential Facebook friend and the promise of beer.
This is somewhat new terrain for Hawley’s series but much of the emotional weight of “The Law of Non-Contradiction” came from the writer-creator’s more consistent fascination with the sheer impossibility of knowing who someone else is below the surface and their propensity for change or reflection. Zimmerman conned Mobley but he also allowed him to feel confident and in control of his life for a moment, as well as produce writing that. Does this legitimize Mobley beating his head in and sending Zimmerman to live in a home for the rest of his long, bitter life? What does it say about the puppy-eyed Mobley that he was both so easily taken in and capable of such feral violence? If there has been an overall programmatic feeling in how Hawley evens out the moral balance for each character, suggesting a rigid belief in karma, the change of setting here also seemed to diffuse the predictable patterns.
Nowhere was this more apparent than with Gloria’s two interactions with an older Vivian, played now by Frances Fisher in a piercing supporting turn. When they first meet, Gloria’s questions are waved off in the name of a bad memory and a tumultuous past in the dregs of La La Land, but later, she soberly remembers what she did with Zimmerman and Mobley. The first encounter spurred shock and shame, sending Vivian, now a diner waitress, into defensive mode; it’s easier to feign memory loss than to confront one’s darkest moments. Unlike almost everyone else in Hawley’s current universe, Fisher’s character can now comfortably come to terms with a painful truth about herself, namely that she is a bad person. And yet, the fact that she can see this part of herself and has regretted this part of her life suggests that she has at least gained some wisdom from what happened to Mobley, Zimmerman, and dozens of other people that she toyed with in the name of drugs and irresponsibility.
This brings us to the third story – the animated tale of the android that just wants to help. Hawley’s embrace of animation in this sequence shows an even more ambitious and malleable sense of formalism, one that continues on in next week’s episode in a far different capacity. Here, the adaptation of Mobley’s story of an android who lives through rampant destruction of civilizations for innumerable years, only to be asked to shutdown itself in the name of future generations when it finds stability. “I can help,” says the android – it’s its only words – and it’s easy to see the innocent sentient mechanism as a double for Mobley, the young writer who started out just wanting to help people in some small way but was ultimately rendered obsolete, useful only in his databanks for other people. The grief and regret of Mann’s character can be felt in every frame of the animated world, slightly simplified but also more widely felt amongst a remarkable imagined world. Outside of the realm of fiction, however, these bruised emotions are still there, festering, and the environs offer no help. It’s not hard to start believing that shutting down is the best and maybe even sole option.