In a seedy Hollywood motel room, Minnesota cop Gloria Burgle looks behind a curtain and finds a box, with a unlabeled switch on the top. She flicks it on. A light turns green, and the lid opens just slightly. A robotic hand comes out, moves the switch to the off position, then retreats as the light turns red. This is all the device does.
This week's Fargo episode, blessed with the superb title "The Law of Non-Contradiction," is all about unpacking what this box means. A mere three weeks into its third season, the show flees the frozen north for a surprise vacation in sunny California, where Eden Valley's recently demoted police chief arrives to find out more about her recently murdered stepfather Ennis Stussy. What follows is a wondrous, moody hour of television, bordering on despairing, with only a little of the comedic quirkiness that is this drama's stock-in-trade. It's the rare prestige TV episode that might've been even better if it had run even longer – if only because director John Cameron and credited writers Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi barely have a chance to introduce all their characters before Gloria is on a flight home. Almost as soon as this Fargo installment gets switched on, it turns itself off.
On the surface at least, ex-Chief Burgle finds less in Los Angeles than she'd hoped. Back in Minnesota and sorting through her stepfather's secret cache, she learned that 35 years ago, he wrote award-winning science-fiction novels under the name Thaddeus Mobley, and that her underground-celebrity relative may have had a relationship with long-forgotten 1970s starlet Vivian Lord. Burgle heads west and stays in his former room at the Hollywood Premiere Motel (which is annoyingly overrun with Santa Claus conventioneers – a nice touch); after her suitcase is stolen, she meets an unhelpful, horny LAPD officer named Oscar Hunt (played by It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-creator Rob McElhenney). Over the course of a few days, the fish-outta-water cop mostly confirms what she already knew, with the exception of one big piece of information: Thaddeus worked on a movie adaptation of his novel The Planet Wyh for sleazy producer Howard Zimmerman, whom he then clubbed nearly to death after he learned he was being conned.
By pure chance – from stooping down in the motel bathroom – Gloria also finds out where "Ennis" got his new name. He took it from a manufacturer's stamp on the toilet in Room 203. "Stussy & Sons," it says. (Could one of those "sons" be the philatelist father of Ray and Emmit?)
Through the power of flashbacks, we get more of the nuances in Mr. Mobley's story. We see how he was once a writer on the rise, full of ideas and optimism, and how his infatuation with the starlet – and with her cocaine – led him to get suckered by the smooth-talking Zimmerman. The would-be Spielberg poured a lot of his own money into a movie that was never going to happen; he then had to change his identity and hit the road after beating up his boss. As for Ms. Lord, she sobered up, left the business and is now making her living waiting tables at one of those generic City of Angels' coffee shops. She tells Gloria that the Seventies were "nothing but a dream. Even though Vivian knows she was a bad person, Thaddeus "wasn't so good either."
The whole journey – both to L.A. and into the past – is a sad one. But is it necessary? Given the way Fargo seasons tend to go, it's likely that one or more elements from this California detour will be relevant later. For now, it has no apparent bearing on the murder, which Gloria learns on returning to Eden Valley was committed by Maurice. So what's the point?
For one thing, it's a chance to see some terrific actors, delivering sharp dialogue in a very different voice than this show's usual "Minnesota nice." The baby-faced Thomas Randall Mann is instantly sympathetic as young Thaddeus, while Francesca Eastwood and her mother Frances Fisher present Vivian's before/after versions, a dual portrait of Hollywood decadence. The comic relief, meanwhile, comes from McElhenney, whose cocky, dunderheaded Officer Hunt boasts that he has 352 Facebook friends, most of whom he doesn't even know. (When Gloria meets him at a bar, he hollers to the bartender, "Can I get two beers?" He then turns to his date and, with perfect douchebag timing, asks, "You want two beers?")
The hour's also packed with Coen brothers references, from the presence of Coens' regular Fred Melamed as the Nixon-era Zimmerman to mentions of Arby's (Fargo), a "swingin' dick" (No Country for Old Men), and a "dingus" (The Hudsucker Proxy). And we get not one but two strong Barton Fink nods: Gloria dings a desk-bell that won't stop ringing; she later sits in the sand and stares at the ocean, a dead ringer for that Tinseltown satire's land-of-the-dream-factory postcard.
There are other influences at work here too, including David Lynch – both in the Mullholland Dr.-style journey through Hollywood bleakness and in two brief appearances by Twin Peaks' Ray Wise as exhausted business traveler Paul Marrane. (Prediction: If any minor character recurs from this episode, it'll be Marrane.) There are also several animated interludes done by Archer's Floyd County Productions, done in the childlike-scribble style of World of Tomorrow genius Don Hertzfeldt and that recount the plot of The Planet Wyh – about a robot who witnesses over two million years of human civilizations rising and falling, all the time chirping "I can help!" but accomplishing nothing.
It's in the story of that ineffectual robot – as well as the machine that turns itself off, and the author who retreats from life – that "The Law of Non-Contradiction" finds its purpose. While interviewing the older Zimmerman (played by Roger V. Burton), Gloria hears the old scam-artist say that what we do and who we meet during our time on Earth is meaningless: "We're all just particles, colliding." But our heroine has a different take. Everyone to her is "somethin' to somebody."
In the last scene of the episode, Burgle's back on the case in Minnesota, and in the final shot, we see that she's brought the self-defeating box with her. Mobley's Planet Wyh robot – and the late ex-writer himself – may have seen the worst of humanity and then shut down. But Gloria's making sure that at least one useless automaton is going to see justice being done.
Previously: O Brother, Where Art Thou?