“The Law Of Non-Contradiction” is, at least with the context we have available to us, a narrative cul-de-sac. Gloria travels to Hollywood to try and learn more about Ennis’s past life as science fiction writer Thaddeus Mobley. What she finds sheds no light whatsoever on who murdered Ennis and why he was killed. The closest she gets to an answer is a coincidence, and the only real break she gets in the case (Maurice’s fingerprints) happens while she’s out of town. Barring further developments, it’s a closed loop.

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And yet this is maybe my favorite episode of the show to date. It lacks the emotional power of events from previous seasons, but in its place achieves a sustained, knife’s edge sort of curiosity, a high-wire act that keeps threatening to tip over into utter meaninglessness without quite doing so. Once again, we’re riffing on the Coen brothers, but instead of the small town noir that is the series usual stock in trade, this has more of a Man Who Wasn’t There vibe (which was admittedly also noir, but of a more existential variety). I notice at least two clear references to Barton Fink, and Thaddeus’s backstory—a writer who was seduced by the romance of film—fits in with that neatly enough, but having an outsider to view events means the end result is considerably less gloomy.

It’s a bit simpler too, as once again, Gloria is the shining light of sanity and comfort in a cruel, if sunny, world. If there’s any one clear indication of the gap in intent between the Coens and this TV “homage” to their work, it’s that for all its complexities, the show is far more comfortable providing us with easy to digest answers. Barton Fink never quite figures out why his life is in ruin, and the sole comfort of Billy Bob Thornton’s hair-cutting fool in Man is the possibility that there may be a sense to everything that’s just beyond his grasp; and really, the closest thing to a moral through all these films (in addition to “crime never ever pays”) is that any pretense at the pursuit of truth is doomed from the start.

Frances McDormand’s character in the movie Fargo is the clear antecedent for Gloria (and every other comfortingly level-headed police officer we’ve seen on the show), but something about going back to that well as often as the series has makes all this a little too pat. It runs the risk of becoming a series of paper dolls being slotted into new outfits without much variation at the source. Already, we can see who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are, and that clear distinction allows a distance that something like Barton Fink never allowed for.

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Still, if Fargo the series sometimes feels like a Reader’s Digest abridged version of great cinema, flirting with complexities without ever entirely being willing to commit, episodes like tonight’s entry at least demonstrate a willingness to experiment and make use of the leeway that familiarity can provide. Because this is a weird hour (and change) of TV, full of characters we most likely won’t ever see again, animated sequences about the futility of… something, and Ray Wise dropping in occasionally to offer tidbits about divorce. It’s indulgent in a way that would be infuriating on a show with a more driving narrative, but this has always been a series eager to embrace the occasional flirtation with the random. Hawley’s argument that “based on a true story” means he can jam any weird shit in he likes is a stretch, but something like this, that manages to be unsettled and curious and still build to a surprisingly effective conclusion, earns the detour.

So: Gloria flies out, has a chat with Ray Wise on the airplane, and gets her luggage stolen while she’s checking into her hotel. This is the same motel that Thaddeus stayed in while he was working on a screenplay adaptation of his award-winning novel The Planet Wyh (apologies for getting the name wrong earlier) for producer/con-man Howard Zimmerman. Gloria knows this thanks to some previous investigation work, and it’s important to note for the only useful piece of information she gets the entire time she’s in California: the stamp on the toilet bowl (“Dennis Stussy & Sons,” only the D is nearly gone so it reads “Ennis”) which gave Thaddeus a new name at a moment he desperately needed one, and put him in the firing line decades later.

It takes a while to get to that reveal; until then, Gloria does a lot of wandering around asking questions of people who don’t really want to tell her anything. She tracks down Vivan Lord, the woman whose photo she found in Thaddeus’s secret box. Vivian’s a waitress now, clean and sober, but in the time of Thaddeus (which we see in handful of murky, coke-fueled flashbacks), she was an actress using her looks to seduce idiots into paying for drugs. Howard’s in a rest home (or a hospital), dying slow. Neither seem particularly interested in helping Gloria out.

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Nor does the cop she meets, played by Rob McElhenney as a slightly more competent version of his character from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. He ignores her repeated requests for assistance on her investigation, though he does try to add her on Facebook (which she isn’t on). There’s some bland critique here about the shallowness of the Internet Era, but the cop is such an egregious (if honest) putz that it registers more as yet another irritation at having to leave home. Or else an acknowledgement that technology doesn’t make people less foolish so much as it gives us more complicated tools to be foolish with.

At various points “Law” tips it hand towards its underlying theme. The older Zimmerman gives Gloria a speech about “quantum,” and how he thought for a long time that human life was defined by the collisions we made with other people’s lives; how we found meaning in the interactions that shape our experience. Now, though, he just thinks that’s just bullshit. Whether or not he’s right is up to the viewer, but while I’m not sure “quantum” really enters into it, the episode does make an interesting case for how the accumulation of events can offer substance even if those events never yield any deeper meaning. Or else it’s a reminder that, if the collisions are what matter, we should make sure to check our aim first.

There are animated segments as well, a Don Hertzfeldt-esque cartoon based on Planet Wyh about a robot left to wander a planet after his master dies in a UFO crash. The master tells little Minsky to send a message back home to tell everyone that there was meaning in the journey despite his death, but despite Minsky’s efforts, the robot spends over 2 million years wandering the planet, watching civilizations rise and fall, before someone from away finally shows up and tells him he can power down. Which he does, using a switch that happens to look a lot like the odd hand-in-the-box toy that Gloria finds in her motel room. (I don’t think Thaddeus left the box there, but I could’ve missed something.) The robot’s only line—”I can help!”—may be a comment on the essential futility of observation. Or the whole thing may just be a gimmick because hell, why not.

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The animated bits are a fine curiosity, though they lack Hertzfeldt’s brilliance. In a way, that fits in with the hodgepodge that is the rest of the episode, the mix of odd moments and dangling scenes that added to something I found satisfying, even with all my criticism. Thaddeus’s story is a bit shallow on the details: he gets conned into signing most of his book advance over to Howard and Vivian, and when he finds out, he beats Howard nearly to death with his cane and decides to leave town in a hurry, changing his name to the one he saw on the toilet. It’s a sordid, sad little story that doesn’t have the dimension of true tragedy, but that’s entirely the point, I think.

What holds all this together, for me, is Gloria finding out where Ennis got his name. It’s like a shaggy dog story, a format the Coens have been hitting hard the past decade or two; a tale that wanders and bumps into itself before finally stumbling onto an answer, albeit one that fails to justify the effort it took to find. Ennis’s past isn’t why he got killed, but there is a chain of events that brought him to that house in the midwest, a series of decisions that both put him into Gloria’s life and also made him the inadvertent target of someone looking for someone else. There’s something oddly moving about that, although for the life of me I can’t pin down why. Maybe that’s why I appreciated this episode so much. It wanders, and eventually finds its way back home, but it’s maybe the closest the series has yet come to actually capturing more than just quirk and crime: that all tragedies are just farce if you step back far enough, but that doesn’t make them any less tragic. Or less funny.

Stray observations

  • The two Barton Fink moments I noticed: Gloria ringing that bell (and the clerk at the Writers Guild of America stilling the vibration); and Gloria sitting on the beach, watching the tide come in.
  • In a nice touch, the screenplay Thaddeus writers is retitled The Planet Why.
  • The new chief is still pissed at Gloria, although she doesn’t seem too worried about it.
  • “It’s just a story. None of this has anything to do with—okay.” -Gloria
  • “Probably we should have a milkshake, maybe some curly fries, ponder our future moves.” -Gloria

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