This review contains spoilers.
3.3 The Law Of Non-Contradiction
Erstwhile on Fargo, the writers signalled their intention to eschew the expectations of a (broadly) realistic period crime saga by introducing a flying saucer at a critical point in the story. Bold move. Even bolder to leave the spinning spacecraft as something that only existed on the very fringe of the narrative, a potentially colossal event that was used as little more than ornament. It was equally audacious, and perhaps even more effective, to devote several sections of this week’s episode to a series of sweet natured animated sequences featuring the philosophical quest of a good natured android named Minsky. The character was the product of the once-fertile brain of Thaddeus Mobley but the device was the handiwork of showrunner Noah Hawley and this week’s screenwriting team of Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi.
The team provided The Law Of Non-Contradiction with a sense of quiet audacity from the get-go. Although Gloria’s presence increased over the first two episodes, the season has primarily been about the Stussy brothers and their attendant difficulties. Abandoning those plotlines, however temporarily, takes some guts, particularly when we are still in the establishing phase of the narrative. We don’t yet know the extent of Varga’s game, or the full implications of the Stussy brothers’ conflicts. Nikki Swango remains an enigma. For the most part, these essential questions have been put on hold, and yet, taking a break from them for a week worked very well indeed.
The diversion was partly structural and partly presentational. Let’s examine the structure first. At this stage of the story, the death of Ennis Stussy appears utterly peripheral to the narrative. He was murdered merely through the misfortune of mistaken identity; had Maurice LeFay kept his wits about him, the old man would still be sitting in his chair muttering irascibly about wanting another beer. His previous life, as naive SF writer Mobley would appear to bear even more slightly on the core story. Still, here we are, spending an entire tenth of the season’s running time engaged in Gloria’s personal quest for answers.
The quest is a personal one, as Moe Dammik’s increasingly annoyed off-screen presence attests. Indeed, it is very personal. Gloria travelled to Los Angeles on her own dime at a critical point in both her professional and personal lives in order to carry out an investigation that appears to be motivated by little more than curiosity. As she freely acknowledges, Ennis was not a blood relative, he was barely even her stepfather. He was a difficult and unlikeable old man (in contrast to the earnest youth that he had once been) and, despite regularly eating with him, she barely knew him while he was alive. These are narrow foundations on which to base a cross-country search for answers to a mystery that stretches back decades.
Nevertheless, such hazy motivations were the perfect launchpad for the trippy excursion that followed. Here, the effect was achieved through presentation. The appearance of Paul Maranne on the plane set the tone for the episode. Maranne, played by the wonderful Ray Wise, with his uncanny mix of the avuncular and the sinister, flowed with liquid ease into a random, unbidden conversation that essayed the evolution of life on earth. Maranne’s disquisition mirrored the story-within-a-story of Android Minsky and his 2.8 million year surf through civilisations. What may seem an odd leap on paper worked brilliantly on screen, chiefly because of the entire episode’s strange, dream-like quality.
The oneiric effect was achieved partly through the use of voiceovers. Minsky’s human companion was voiced by Ewan McGregor (in his native accent) while the alien interrogator was portrayed by David Thewlis (likewise), giving the viewer a sense of reality torn out of joint. With Carrie Coon’s voicework operating as both story narrator and as a familiar device that reflected Gloria’s reading of The Planet Wyh, the overall effect was to blur the distinction between the two modes and marks a clever and extremely effective use of screen techniques.
Further events, among them the Santa Claus convention, the appalling wannabe Lothario cop, the ‘coincidental’ reappearance of Maranne at the bar, all served to intensify the uncanny tone of the episode. At times it felt as though the drama was being played out not in an LA Christmastime but on the fragile terrain of Gloria’s psyche. In this, the creative decisions were well served by Coon, a performer of economy who offered a still presence at the heart of the oddness, like a sleeping dreamer.
Whatever the oddness of the form, Gloria was there to uncover the truth about her stepfather’s past, but Ennis/Thaddeus’ backstory only served to heightened the feeling of unease even further. Thaddeus’ story was a squalid little tragedy that broke the lives of each of its three principals. His betrayal at the hands of Howard Zimmerman and Vivian Lord was a straightforward scam that was telegraphed early on, but it was still fascinating to watch it play out. Again, this is a question of style. The 1970s were portrayed with great visual flair, from the fashions to the multiple shades of brown that seemed to occlude the screen. The return of the split screen device, last seen in the previous season, was another reminder of the confidence and style in presentation that Fargo does so well.
This may have been a diversionary episode and it remains to be seen just what all of this means for the arc of this season (the ‘Dennis Stussy’ stamp on the motel toilet seems an obvious clue), but the extended reach backwards in time has further deepened the mythos of Fargo as a whole and gave us a rewarding insight into the season’s most sympathetic and engaging character. Motivation mining is a challenge for any creative team but to do so in the form of a woozy waking dream was very bold indeed. Once again, it worked.