FARGO, Season 3, Ep. 3: “The Law of Non-Contradiction”

Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle. (PHOTO: Chris Large/FX)

The FX series “Fargo” takes viewers on a “true crime” adventure through the snow-swept landscape of Minnesota. Based on the Coen Brothers Academy Award winning film “Fargo,” each season of the TV series explores a new story cast from the themes of innocence lost, human failings, and the redemptive power of goodness.

Northern Minnesota author Aaron J. Brown reviews each episode of “Fargo” with an eye for unique details from the place where the show is set.

Now, for this week’s review. I rate the details from INTERESTING  (bad), to COULD BE WORSE (not so good) to PRETTY GOOD (not so bad), and OH, YA! (real good then).

Beware the spoilers.

The Principle of Non-Contradiction

(Original air date: May 3, 2017)

This third episode of Fargo’s third season was unlike any “Fargo” episode we’ve seen before. “The Principle of Non-Contradiction” focuses primarily on one character, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coons), and her quest to understand a dead man she thought she knew. Nearly all the action takes place in California.

In death, Gloria’s murdered ex-step-father Ennis Stussy reveals himself to be a 1970s science fiction writer named Thaddeus Mobley. Gloria travels to Los Angeles to find out what happened to young Thaddeus, and why he fled to Minnesota under an assumed name. She’s investigating the murder, but mostly she just needs to know.

As she flies out West, Gloria reads from Mobley’s award-winning novel “The Planet Wyh.” This sets up a series of animated vignettes from the Planet Wyh story that serve as thematic kickers throughout the episode. She reads about a robot named Minsky, left on Earth ages ago after his handler dies in a spaceship crash. He must wander the planet forever.

On the flight, she meets a man who travels constantly for work who feels much the same way. All this human progress, he remarks on the packed airplane, and *this* is how we travel.

We see that Gloria’s cheap hotel is the same one where Thaddeus stayed in 1975, but I was reminded of other hotels. The layout seemed evocative of the hotel from the “Massacre at Sioux Falls” from Fargo, Season 2. It also reminded me of the hotel from “No Country for Old Men,” another Coen Brothers movie about a law enforcer pondering the meaning of life.

Gloria finds a surrealist sort of world in L.A. There’s a Santa Claus convention in town. The place is packed with seedy St. Nicks, one of which steals her luggage. In reporting the crime, she meets an L.A. police officer who proves himself to be a real cad. Exploring the Writer’s Guild archives, she finds evidence of Thaddeus’s past. She interviews a waitress who was once a beautiful actress. She meets an elderly producer in a nursing home who uses a voice box to speak. In a roundabout way, they tell her what happened.

Thaddeus? For all the fanfare, his story was rather simple. A naive young sci-fi writer wins an award for his novel. A Hollywood producer promises to turn it into a movie if he writes the screenplay. The producer’s sultry young girlfriend seduces the rube, Thaddeus, a teetotaler suddenly introduced to alcohol and cocaine. The producer and girlfriend convince him to “invest” his next book advance into the movie.

Of course, there is no movie. It’s a con, and Thaddeus is the mark. Thaddeus beats the producer within an inch of his life. In considering his act, he vomits into the bright yellow hotel toilet. The bowl is inscribed with the name of the manufacturer: Dennis Stussy. The “D” has been mostly eroded by filth and scrub brushes. As Thaddeus flees the scene of the crime we learn he took his new name from a toilet, retaining only his newfound alcoholism as he escaped to Eden Valley.

Ennis Stussy died from a case of mistaken identity. But his identity came from a toilet thousands of miles away from Eden Valley, Minnesota. What on Earth could that mean?

Returning the animated shorts from “The Planet Wyh.” In his travels, Minsky observes the emergence of life from the primordial stew, the rise and fall of civilizations, technology and humans themselves. He doesn’t know what it all means. Minsky only repeats his operative phrase: “I can help.”

In the end, as the Earth falls to alien attack, a ship from his home world rescues Minsky. The beings recognize his life’s work — collecting data — as vitally important to the understanding of life. He’s now the oldest being in the known universe. But it’s time to switch himself off.

The final act hearkens a strange box in Gloria’s hotel room. It’s a device that switches itself off as soon as you switch it on. We see that box make the trip back to Minnesota with her. Will it help her find meaning? Or is it just another set of data, part of a story that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere in particular?

So what do we get out of this episode?

Finally, something resembling a defining theme. As we opined last week, the theme is indeed related to technology. New technology, new ideas, new civilizations change the world. Yet, something underneath remains more important. Call it purpose. Call it goodness. Call it your soul. This essence endures through it all, if we tend it. If we help others and never give up. And yet, what does it all mean in the end? That’s as unclear for the robot Minsky as it is for Gloria Burgle. Perhaps they are one in the same?

When the 1975 version of producer Howard Zimmerman puts Thaddeus in a headlock to explain how the world works, he tells him “Everybody’s got a role to play. Yours is to cough up the cheddar and then screw.” It’s a haunting line, fatalistic and cruel, yet relatable to nature of human greed.

However, Gloria’s line to the waitress sticks with me the most. In extracting the details of the fall of Thaddeus Mobley from the actress/waitress Viv Ward, she realizes how little it relates to her murder investigation. “It’s just a story,” she says, trailing off with “None of this has anything to do …”

The phone rings from back home. A set of fingerprints was found. The episode ends with Gloria on the trail of the flattened Maurice, which will inevitably lead her to Ray and Nikki. Thus, the story goes on.

Episode Grade: PRETTY GOOD. Meaningful, certainly important to the season’s arc, but automatic downgrade for not being set in Minnesota. I’m still waiting for the emotional catch with these characters. The scummy producer Zimmerman’s theory about people just being particles that bump into each other seems far too apt. I can’t shake the sound of his robotic voice, chiming off the meaningless of it all with a tinny cadence that seems to come from another planet.

Notes on the Minnesota details:

Set in California, all of the Minnesota details in “The Law of Non-Contradiction” come from the way Gloria interacts with the foreign environment of Hollywood. As such, there isn’t much to add here.

When the salty Santa steals Gloria’s bag, the cop asks if there were any valuables in the bag. “Not really,” she says. “Mostly flannel.”  Funny, though who needs flannel in SoCal? PRETTY GOOD

The cop, Officer Hunt, openly mocks Gloria’s Minnesota accent, but she doesn’t even notice until the second or third time. She just continues interacting with the sarcasm as though it were real. That’s another Minnesota trait. Gloria orders a “Diet Pop,” or more accurately a ‘Die-at Pap” at the bar. Only then does she realize that Hunt’s been mocking her. “I don’t sound like that, do I?” OH YA!

But unfortunately for Officer Hunt, the only thing Gloria’s certain about in this episode is that he’s not getting laid tonight. OH YA, FER’ SURE.

Where does everyone want to go eat after Gloria gets home? Arby’s, of course. It’s a meat and potatoes kind of place, seemingly designed to be eaten, and spoken, by Minnesotans. It’s also a great place to contemplate the meaninglessness of life. OH YA!


Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “The Principle of Restricted Space

Next Episode: “The Narrow Escape Problem


  1. Pat Schoenfelder says

    I think that the essence of this episode is that we are being given the author’s message. Humans, like Minsky, wander the world searching for meaning, companionship, and usefulness, but mostly finding chaos and cycles of destruction, and are switched off at the end, regardless of what they have accomplished.

    The major contrast in this episode is Gloria versus LA. Gloria is honest, and like Minsky she thinks she can help. Everyone in LA is phony and to some extent exploitative. Gloria is one more heroine out of the “Fargo” canon, a quiet and intelligent woman who has tried to live a life as a small town cop, a mother, a step-daughter, and probably before as a wife and daughter, always as the woman who helps. Like Minsky, she is an implacable force who I expect to see keep moving relentlessly until she corrects the record and finds the truth, if getting a little battered in the process.

    Does this mean that Gloria will end up getting fired in the end, instead of having her nightmare boss get killed? That would be a switch from Noah Hawley’s usual morality play, but maybe he will switch it up.

    The episode also allows Carrie Coon (who in real life is just 36) to get out of her parka, and to show Gloria as a woman who is still attractive, both to the seasoned traveler who is her seat mate on the flight out and to the younger cop on the prowl.

    It also gives the show runners a chance to play a bit. They use veteran actors we all recognize and play with LA in both the 1970’s and in 2010. It made me wonder if they wanted to create references to the Coen masterpiece “The Big Lebowski,” with seedy Hollywood settings at the motel, the bar, and the diner that could have come out of that movie, with the eccentric “Santa Claus” convention, the theft of the suitcase full of flannel, the con man/producer and the “bad” girl, and the parody setting and behavior at the “Writers’ Guild,” which of course all the writers belong to, and which Gloria gets to mock with an honest Minnesotan observation. David Thewlis, Varga in this series, comes out of “Lebowski,” where he played the giggling Knox Harrington, the supposed art patron who was a parody of an Andy Warhol hanger on.

    But if referencing “Lebowski” was their goal, they get at best a “could be worse,” since they missed most of the flavor.

    Gloria, as the only trace of Minnesota, definitely gets at least an “oh ya,” in that she emerges as by far the best human being in LA, and gets to deliver all the best lines.

    Loved the box toy. Oh ya! — even if it obviously came off some set designer’s toy shelf.

    This is not a Minnesota based point, but the show had a massive failure of verisimilitude in the mess they made of their references to the science fiction milieu of the mid-70’s. There is no way that the winner of a major award in 1975 would have been published in a pulp format with third rate cover art, and by then the big sci-fi award shows were big business — that rocket is a Hugo Award. The era they are referring to with the pulp format is the period of 1930 to about 1955, when the pulps were the dominant flavor of science fiction. By 1975, science fiction was part of the mainstream of genre fiction — this is the era in the wake of “Dune,” “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and other major novels. “Star Trek” was a already a cult, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Star Wars” were green lit Hollywood deals getting ready to shoot. Top sci fi novels were coming out in hardback or in well designed paperback packages from speciality labels of the major publishing houses, sales were rivaling and exceeding non-genre novels, and the Hugo’s would have been in a large auditorium in a first rate hotel or even in a hall like the DECC. Interesting at best.

    I also thought that Thaddeus Mobley in 1975 was too young to have grown to be Ennis Stussy in just 35 years. Thaddeus, even after his downfall, looks in his mid-twenties, whereas Ennis looked about 75 or 80, although I suppose hard miles from alcohol, loneliness, and cold prairie wind could have done it.

    All in all, I was not too impressed. Gloria got to develop some, Carrie Coon got a bunch of screen time, her boss back in Minnesota got to lay down more evidence that he is the male chauvinist nightmare boss of the year, and as I said I think the parallel experiences of Gloria and Minsky are telling us what the writers want us to think, but otherwise the tired main plot of the con job, the cocaine, and the violent end seem stale and below the level of the show. The show reminds me of a “drop in” episode in a sitcom, where the writers dust off a generic script that could be dropped into any show. Gloria says it: “It’s just a story.”

    Minsky and Gloria keep us above water, but not by a lot.

    The reviewers are disagreeing with me and talking about a new fresh tone in “Fargo,” But for me, could be worse.

    Definitely looking forward to a return to the main plot next week. Didn’t Gloria find a business card from Ray on the scene of the murder of Ennis? The collisions should start to happen, as Ray and Nikki and their efforts to avenge themselves on Emmit and Cy are certain to get sand in the gears of Varga’s efforts to exploit Emmit’s business, putting themselves in danger, as Cy starts pushing Emmit to push back against Varga, and as Gloria works her way toward bringing the whole pack to justice.

  2. Mario Hieb says

    There is a lot going on in this episode.

    1. Greek philosophy…the Law of Non Contradiction (show title) paradox as described by Ray Wise in a story about a woman who is both married and divorced. Wise might also be an homage to the surreal and dark underbelly world of David Lynch. The story also follows the Greek odyssey formula…the hero (Gloria) goes on a journey, the hero has an adventure, the hero goes home.

    2. Existential philosophy…the MNSKY cartoon, Glorias conclusion, the useless Minsky box, etc.

    3. Physics/Natural Philosophy, namely Entropy, or the natural tendency for things to go to hell. Chaos theory…the choice of a new identity from a toilet and the turbulent result.

    This episode may look like a red herring but its really exposition for the next episodes, and a stand alone exploration into the mystery and meaning of life.

  3. S S Heath says

    Thanks for this Fargo review page.

    The diner in L.A. sure looked similar to the opening (and closing) setting of Pulp Fiction

    • I would say the diner is more like the one on L.A. from Rain Man, where Raymond and Charlie ate pancakes.

    • I instantly thought the same thing. Pulp Fiction. Honey Bunny. I’ll execute every last one of ya’.
      Did you ever find out if they are the same?

  4. Ed Campbell says

    MNSKY greatly affected me. I can’t get that robot, and his “I can help” out of my mind

    • Kathy Jean Barnhart says

      I cannot find it but I know that little robot came from another show I watched either on PBS or Nat Geo. An animated show about I think happiness.

  5. Pat Schoenfelder says

    The idea for the device has been around since the 30’s, but the current iteration appears to have been invented by MIT prof Marvin Minsky (Minsky! Oh ya!) It is called a “useless machine” or a “leave me alone box.” It is felt to be an illustration of a philosophical problem in information theory, as noted by Mario Hieb above, who calls it a “Minsky box,” another one of its names. The problem it is felt to illustrate is the question of whether “empty set” communications (communications that convey no information or are empty) are actually communications at all — does the definition of communication require that information be conveyed or is an empty signal a form of communication? And further, does communication have to be received as well as sent to be communication? Discuss in an essay of at least 1500 and no more than 2500 words, for 10% of the semester grade.

    It was manufactured as a toy in the 1060’s.

    The toy was written about by Arthur C. Clarke — another big sci-fi writer from the era that the show highlights — who saw one when he visited MIT. It certainly may have been featured on a discussion of the field of information theory on National Geographic or on one of the PBS science shows.

    It bears a distinct resemblance to “The Thing,” a device that was featured in the Addams family cartoons, movie, and TV show, which was a box with a hand that came out and sometimes grabbed things.

    Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Useless_machine

    As far as the current show, I think it is something of an in joke by the writers and set designers, since the episode itself does no “work,” in that it is not moving the plot forward. As much as you may want to discuss communication theory profundities, in terms of narrative theory this episode is a “useless machine.”

  6. Was Thewlis speaking classical greek and what did he say?

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