Howard Zimmerman, a conman and supposed movie producer, at one point in the episode of Fargo titled “The Law of Non-Contradiction” explains life through the lens of quantum physics. He says we’re nothing but particles floating through space and that the only times we ever feel really alive are when we have special connections with people that we meet. Synapses fire. Something happens. It’s the only thing that shakes us out of the illusion of life and we fully experience it.
That’s how I felt watching this episode. I’m not sure if season 3 of Fargo will be my favorite—it’s far too early to tell so far—but it’s certainly my favorite episode of the series so far. In a somewhat bold move for modern television, it doesn’t follow in a serialized context. Overall, it ties into the narrative of the season, but it’s also a standalone episode, like one you might see on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It has a story and it tells it totally. This episode, in more ways than one, plays tribute to the Coen brothers film Barton Fink, with the bell that rings endlessly and with the image on the beach, silhouetted, watching the waves break.
Ex-Police Chief Gloria Bungle, now just a police officer under new management, is investigating the death of her stepfather who appears to have a secret life no one had known about. Her investigation has led her to LA, a total departure from the snowy landscapes of the Midwest. It seems he used to be a science fiction writer, one with a promising career, but abandoned it, changed his name, assumed a new identity and never looked back. But why?
Ennis Stussy, the murdered stepfather, had once been Thaddeus Mobley. He arrived in Los Angeles to accept an award for his writing and was swept into a con by Howard Zimmerman, a man who calls himself a bigtime Hollywood producer, and he wants Thaddeus to write his next movie. Thaddeus exhausts his book advance money, finds himself broke financially, heartbroken emotionally and fixing for his next source of cocaine. He’s broken. When Howard tells him that, look, he got conned, but at least nothing’s completely fucked, he can learn a lesson and move on from this, he explodes violently and attacks Zimmerman with a cane and leaves him vocally crippled, forced to speak through an electronic ventilator.
Gloria soon realizes that her stepfather’s past life has nothing to do with his murder. It was just a story, like the ones he used to tell.
But since we, the viewing audience, are omnipotent, we can see it’s not just some dead-end lead that went nowhere. It may not have solved the case, or provided insight into the identity of the killer, but it makes a profound statement on life itself. It appears we can never really escape our pasts or who we really are. Thaddeus became Ennis and even left clues in the forms of books hidden in his house for someone to find, although probably subconsciously. His stepdaughter found those hidden clues, followed standard police protocol of following up with leads, and discovered the whole truth. It wasn’t the truth that she wanted, but everything ties in somehow. Everything winds up in the same place… everything winds up like the atoms and molecules that comprise us, synapses firing when we make connections, feeling really alive, like when Gloria meets a man on the plane and meets him again at a bar—coincidence, or fate? Or something in between? Do we just look for meaning where no meaning exists? The law of noncontradiction of the title states that two contradictory thoughts, coincidence or fate, cannot both be true at the same time, that they’re mutually exclusive.
Thaddeus’s story of the robot wandering millions of years and watching the end of civilizations, the rebirth of civilizations and the violent history of mankind ends much the same way… an end with a switch to power off, that looks suspiciously similar to the device Gloria finds in her hotel room. She flicks a switch on, and a robotic hand comes from the box and switches it back off. Switch on, switch off. Together forever for eternity, like dancing atoms and molecules that search for meaning wherever it can be found.