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‘Fargo’ Was Getting a Little Stale — So It Shook Up the Formula

Of course, that’s easier when you can dial Carrie Coon’s number

(FX)
(FX)

Critics, including this one, have had some complaints about the third season of FX’s Fargo. Despite some gorgeous filmmaking, the storytelling of the first couple of episodes felt a little repetitive; despite some tremendous acting, the show’s reset-and-reshuffle structure felt a little rote. An anthology structure ensures each season of Fargo features a new story and cast, but in the same setting and basic roles. This round, the novelty-sameness balance has been ever-so-slightly off.

Formally innovative and oddly touching, “The Law of Non-Contradiction” answers those complaints with refreshing vigor. That makes it the best and most promising installment of Fargo’s third volume so far — and an ideal model for how the show can move forward from its current stasis. Not coincidentally, it’s also a showcase for the apparently limitless talents of Carrie Coon, following her tech-averse police chief to California as she flees the unstoppable march of modernity. Noah Hawley, it seems, has learned a lesson from The Leftovers’ Damon Lindelof, whose show aired its own Coon-centric episode just two weeks ago: When you want a standout episode, point a camera at your MVP. Especially when that MVP is Carrie Coon.

Coon specializes in outwardly stoic characters with a storm roiling just beneath their surface, communicating both the calm they project to those around them as well as the damage they keep tightly under wraps (though not as tightly as they think). On The Leftovers, Nora Durst is a no-nonsense government agent buckling under the pressure of unimaginable loss; on Fargo, Gloria is a no-nonsense police officer distressed that time is so rapidly passing her by. And in “The Law of Non-Contradiction,” Coon’s gifts are on full display.

But the episode does far more than simply go deep on Gloria, the Eden Valley police chief drawn into this season’s central Stussy family feud by a case of mistaken identity. (A very high Scoot McNairy robbed and murdered the wrong Emmit Stussy: not the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, but rather an ornery octogenarian — and the stepdad of Coon’s cop.) The episode yanks Fargo out of its comfort zone, quite literally: This is the first Fargo installment to spend an extended period of time outside of the Midwest — so extended, in fact, that the famous title card (“Out of respect for the dead …”) temporarily swaps out “Minnesota” for “Los Angeles.” Gloria’s learned that her cranky father figure used to be a science fiction writer named Thaddeus Mobley who spent some time in Hollywood, and under the paper-thin guise of an official investigation, she jets out to learn more.

The most pressing question facing Fargo from year to year is what gives the show its identity, tying each season back to the Coen brothers film and the seasons to each other. “The Law of Non-Contradiction,” asks a different, thrilling question: What does Fargo look like when you tear it away from the region that defines everything from its sound to its aesthetic?

“Non-Contradiction” proves that you can take Fargo out of Minnesota, but you can’t take the meditation on small-minded human failings out of Fargo. Even when you swap out Fargo’s signature white-and-gray color scheme for L.A.’s seediest orange-and-pink, there are plenty of common factors between the locales. Greed and scamming are universal; back in the ’70s, we see in a flashback, Thaddeus was bilked out of his substantial book advance by a “producer” (Coen brothers stalwart Fred Melamed!) preying on his desires for fame, sex, and lots of cocaine. The modernist diner where Gloria interviews a starlet-turned-waitress is a far cry from Season 2’s Waffle Hut, but the venality and schemes gone awry stay consistent. Director John Cameron, who worked on the original Fargo as well as The Big Lebowski and The Ladykillers, can’t resist the opportunity for some neat contrasts: The Midwestern expanses Gloria barrels down in her police cruiser are replaced by L.A. gridlock.

The adventurous quality of “Non-Contradiction” extends to visual flair as well as location. Interspersed throughout the episode are animated illustrations of one of Mobley’s novels, narrated by Gloria in voice-over. The story of an immortal android named Minksy is accompanied by stick figures, simple lines, and fantastical backgrounds. The poignant futurism feels like a direct homage to World of Tomorrow, the Oscar-nominated short film by acclaimed animator Don Hertzfeldt where a small child visits the distant future. Stylistic pivots like this aren’t unheard of, and they can sometimes feel gimmicky. (Remember Mr. Robot’s sudden Alf interlude in the middle of Season 2?) In Fargo’s case, though, the detour recaptures the sense of play and surprise that’s been noticeably dialed down this season. Fargo has always had a broad and omnivorous range of filmmaking influences, but few would have guessed Hertzfeldt would eventually number among them. His indirect appearance is the sort of joy we hope for from a show that strives to be a blood-soaked fairy tale.

“Non-Contradiction” is a character piece through and through; all its tricks and revelations add up to Gloria coming to terms with her impending obsolescence. Gloria’s already being marginalized by Shea Wigham’s hardass boss — and, crucially, East Coast transplant — back home, so she plunges into an environment even more hostile to her old-fashioned sense of regional character. There, she finds the quirky Midwestern name she took some measure of pride in came from nothing more dignified than a stamp on a motel toilet seat. Gloria worries about losing her identity. “Non-Contradiction” suggests her identity wasn’t built on a strong foundation to begin with.

“Non-Contradiction” is Fargo at its best: delightfully strange, relentlessly boundary-pushing, and resisting its tendency toward coldness by investing in characters’ feelings as well as their eccentricities. You can’t make a show out of one-off adventures that leave 90 percent of the cast offscreen, so it’s hard to characterize it as a turning point. But “Non-Contradiction” is an ideal for Fargo to strive toward, and an answer to its burgeoning midperiod problems.