While the first two episodes of Fargo’s second season have been strong in their own way, they’ve also come worryingly close to being overly familiar. Creator Noah Hawley has mentioned before that each season will boast a similar narrative outline and character types. In other words, the cops and murders aren’t going away anytime soon. On the one hand, that allows the show to play to its strengths; Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) is quickly proving herself to be the lone rational, clearheaded cop, much like Lou and Molly Solverson before her. On the other hand, as each season passes, the series has to work harder to make its storytelling feel distinctive and compelling as the luster begins to fade. The relatively small, still-important problems in those first two episodes aren’t a symptom of Fargo getting worse, but rather of Fargo staying exactly the same.
“The Law of Non-Contradiction” is the first episode of the season that brings its own unique hook to the story. It’s the first sense we get that this season has its own voice, along with its own moral and narrative trajectory. Fargo accomplishes this by narrowing its focus. Emmit and Ray (Ewan McGregor) are nowhere to be found, V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) doesn’t get to snarl once in this episode, and there’s nary a bloody tampon in sight. In fact, “The Law of Non-Contradiction” is relatively straightforward, focusing solely on Gloria’s investigation into the past of Ennis/Thaddeus—well, as straightforward as an episode that features a heavy dose of animation can be. This is still Fargo, after all.
The cold open that begins tonight’s episode tracks the downfall of Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann), who in 1975 is a young, passionate, promising sci-fi writer coming off a win at the Golden Planet Awards for his book The Planet Wyh. Perhaps naïve, perhaps just excited by the possibilities of fame, Thaddeus gets wrapped up in a deal with a Hollywood producer named Howard Zimmerman (Fred Melamed). He promises to get Thaddeus’ book made into a movie, and he brings in bombshell actress Vivian Lord (played by Frances Fisher in the series’ 2010 timeline, and by Fisher’s real-life daughter, Francesca Eastwood, in the 1975 timeline) to sweeten the deal and make Thaddeus feel comfortable.
The movie never gets made, and Thaddeus realizes that Howard and Vivian have played him. They’ve put his book advance money up their noses and left him with nothing. He’s been chewed up and spit out by this city and business, and all that’s left is to beat Howard Zimmerman to death, change his name—inspired by the name of a company that makes toilets—and move to Minnesota to wait for a death caused by a misunderstanding based on a name taken from a company that makes toilets. It’s a downfall narrative punctuated by bits and pieces of an animated version of The Planet Wyh, which itself underscores the idea that evil seems to follow us wherever we go. Android Minski “lives” for 2.38 million years and pretty much only sees destruction and violence. It’s everywhere, an inescapable reality that even an aspiring, innocent, cream soda-drinking writer eventually has to reckon with.
“The Law of Non-Contradiction” scores points for digging into Thaddeus’ past so early in the season, shifting the narrative focus in a way that feels exciting and fresh, but the real reward comes in the way the show contrasts him with Gloria. Where Thaddeus gets devoured by Hollywood, Gloria ends up thriving. Gloria’s introduction to Hollywood isn’t all that different from Thaddeus’—she looks out of place in the city, like Santa Claus hanging out by a motel pool on a sunny day—but unlike Thaddeus, her journey is one of self-assurance and discovery. Where Thaddeus comes up against a blood thirsty producer and an actress more than willing to fleece him, Gloria deals with Los Angeles traffic and a police officer who wants to make fun of her accent, write off her investigation as silly, and then vulgarly spell out that he wants to get laid.
These threats feed into the idea of Thaddeus and Gloria bringing their innocence and optimism to a city filled with cynicism and exploitation. When Gloria visits a dying Howard Zimmerman in a care facility, he muses on the meaninglessness of existence and the connections we make in our lives. He says none of it matters. It’s a telling statement in its projection of values: He believes none of this matters because he’s never cared for anything before. Gloria doesn’t share that perspective. She believes in human decency and the small things we can do to make life more meaningful, even for a lonely old man like Thaddeus/Ennis. “He was somebody to someone,” she says when her son asks why she’s even bothering to look so deeply into his life, and that about sums it up. Where Howard Zimmerman saw a nobody, just a faceless person he could exploit, Gloria sees a human being killed for no reason and deserving of justice.
There’s an optimism in this sentiment that’s rather beautiful. It would be easy enough for “The Law of Non-Contradiction” to just tell the story of Thaddeus reaching his breaking point; the way “normal” people are pushed to violent acts is one of the show’s consistent themes. And yet, the episode is much more hopeful. Coon’s performance, full of vulnerability and nuance, drives this point home; when she says that her stolen bag wasn’t filled with valuables but “mostly flannel,” it’s a great punch line, not to mention a sign of her confidence. Officer Hunt’s gross advances, or his disbelief at her not using Facebook, or his dismissal of the importance of her case, never once throws her off, because she’s sure of herself. She knows she’s doing the right thing, and she won’t stray from that path. “We may just solve this yet,” she says at the end of the episode, a moment of hope after a trip that did everything it could to breed hopelessness.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.