Let’s just say this was a damn near-perfect episode of Fargo. (Yes, even with the animation. But more on that later.)
Our trusty heroine Gloria has forsaken her duties in frosty Eden Valley for sunnier skies and summery Santas. This season’s third episode plays like a sunny noir, with Gloria in Los Angeles as the intrepid gumshoe on the case of the disappearing Thaddeus Mobley and the Planet Wyh.
The episode opens at the 1975 Golden Planet Awards, where apparently the dress code is disco prom meets old-school comic convention. There, a young Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann) has just won an ultra-phallic-looking sci-fi award for his book, The Planet Wyh.
When we meet him, Thaddeus is an earnest young man who says “Hold the phone” without a hint of irony and drinks cream soda because he’s not really into booze. He’s also the kind of guy who’s susceptible to even the most obvious of cons. After the ceremony, a producer named Howard Zimmerman sidles up to Thaddeus at the bar with enough confidence to make you almost forget his claw-like, salt-and-pepper combover and slimy demeanor.
Zimmerman suggests Thaddeus bring his work to the big screen, and what’d’ya know, Zimmerman would like to help facilitate it. The producer enlists young starlet Vivian Lord (Francesca Eastwood) — the very actress whose autographed headshot was found in that mysterious box in Eden Valley — for some screen tests and shows them to Thaddeus, who’s smitten even before he realizes she’s there in the flesh, too. Thaddeus is so distracted by the aloof actress that he falls for one of the oldest tricks in the book: The fake phone call from a movie star. Zimmerman conspicuously chats with “Warren Heavy-on-the-Air-Quotes Beatty” and ends up conning Thaddeus into offering some of his book advance to try to get the film off the ground.
So starts a glorious ‘70s split-screen montage that shows poor Thaddeus frittering away at least $9,500 for a coke-addled producer and his equally coked-out ingenue. Clean-shaven Thaddeus has given way to his inner pornstache-sporting writer who does bumps in the middle of the night to power through his overdue screenplay. He’s fallen deep into the Hollywood hole and head-over-heels for Vivian. But when he finds out that she and Zimmerman have been playing him for a fool, he beats the shit out of Zimmerman, spares the deceptive redhead, and splits town faster than you can say “Aw, jeez.”
With so few lines (but lots of batting the lashes on her otherworldly eyes), Eastwood manages to chew the scenery with such abandon, it’s a treat to watch Vivian lure Thaddeus over to the dark side. (“It makes the sex ah-mazing,” Vivian purrs when proffering Thaddeus a nail full of coke.) An even better treat? When we meet Vivian years later in 2010, working at a diner when Gloria tracks her down. See, present-day Viv is played, flawlessly, by Francis Fischer — a.k.a. Eastwood’s real-life mother. Fargo’s trick casting game is on point this season, with Ewan McGregor facing off against himself and the Fisher-Eastwood duo, this clever, creative approach has been a treat.
Speaking of present day 2010, Gloria’s road to tracking down the story behind her late step-father’s former identity turns out to be a little bumpy.
On the plane to Los Angeles, Gloria dives into The Planet Wyh, a book about a childlike android whose astronaut companion (definitely McGregor in his THIRD role on the show) has passed away. The robot, Unit MNSKY, wanders through space and time, chirping, “I can help!” like the most cheerful broken record to spin ‘round the sun a few million times. (Note: The little light atop MNSKY's head looks suspiciously similar to the mysterious hotel room box Gloria has gotten hold of, blinking switching from green to red.) Eventually the little robot is picked up by more advanced extraterrestrials, who power him down.
So, why the animation? Why the robot? The robot seems to be a clear a parallel to Gloria and her journey. (And the animation is handy because we’re seeing Thaddeus Mobley’s novel play out in her head, with her narration. This might give us some insight into the no-nonsense way that Gloria sees the world — and thus readily translates this “make believe” story into this adorable animation when she’s imagining it, rather than some 2001 realness.) The robot, she explains to her seat mate Paul Murrane, “exists to observe and record, his programming not yet complete.” And while she says that makes the robot like a child, it also makes that robot a lot like a mystery-solving police officer: observing people, asking questions, recording answers, and trying to help along the way. (And sometimes getting hurt in the process, as the little robot does when he needs to rest and recharge his batteries, rendering him vulnerable to nefarious outside forces.)
Gloria’s first stop in Los Angeles brings her to the motel that Thaddeus stayed at all those years ago. While checking in at the front desk, her carry-on gets stolen by an elf staying at the joint for a Santa Claus convention. (A bemusing, Coen-sian occurrence.) Gloria calls the theft in to her local counterparts at the police department and Officer Hunt (a delightfully skeezy, bro-y Rob McElhenney) comes to her aid. However, he doesn’t seem like he’s in a rush to retrieve the baggage — or do a lookup of Thaddeus Mobley.
While she’s waiting for intel back from Hunt, Gloria follows the lead she has on Vivian to a diner that looks like it’s straight out of Mad Men (or Twin Peaks, for that matter). Turns out Vivian works at the diner, is 29 years sober, and isn’t too keen on dredging up her past. Ever persistent, Gloria leaves her card with Vivian, who eventually decides to reveal what happened that night Thaddeus went berserk on the duo. Gloria also pays a less fruitful visit to Zimmerman, who’s alive, but just barely. Now disabled and clearly still suffering the aftermath of Thaddeus’s rage, he’s far less cooperative than Vivian.
Eventually, Hunt finds Gloria's bag (half empty) and returns it to her room, with a note about grabbing some beers later. Gloria goes to a bar with Hunt, so focused on her investigation that she's surprised Hunt is hitting on her (though, calling his behavior that is generous). He makes fun of her accent (multiple times!) and is incredulous about her resistance to Facebook. When she randomly runs into her plane buddy Paul Murrane, Hunt gives her an ultimatum. Gloria isn't having any of it and, thankfully, gives Hunt the cold shoulder after he comes back from "dropping the kids off at the pool." (His words, not ours.)
Similar to MNSKY as she may be in some ways, Gloria is hopelessly stuck in a simpler time while people and technology pass her by. From the get-go, she’s been forsaken by her cell phone, automatic doors, and computers. Gloria prefers to use a Telex to call in some favors to folks at other offices and prefers to sit down and have a nice family dinner unfettered by techie doo-dads. She’s noticeably perturbed when she hears Nathan’s gotten an “everyday gift” from his dads (an Xbox), and it’s not just because that was supposed to be a gift from Santa. While others would be content to make a call — or send an email — Gloria looks at home striding up to the Writers Guild of America offices (which, of course, looks like it would be caught in a time warp) and asking for exactly what she wants.
In Los Angeles, Gloria is a little fish in a big pond. And while she's out of her Minnesotan comfort zone, it's safe to say that Gloria is in her element whenever she's on a case. While she'd prefer to be back home eating Arby's with her kid, she's no less dedicated to the responsibilities and civic duties of her job — however unsure of her future employment though she may be. It's great to see Fargo finally give Gloria more screen time and make her the driving force of this entire episode.
The yellow sports car fake-out after the rental car lot was golden.
After Peggy's obsession with running away to be a Hollywood beautician in the second season, it's a brilliant move to dive into 1970's SoCal in all its seedy glory this season... especially compared to the far more demure sets and costumes from disco-era Minnesota.
With a simple, “Is that a typo?” Paul Muranne delivered a better non-pickup line than literally anything Officer Hunt uttered. That said, Ray Wise (Paul Muranne) will never not be at least a little Leland Palmer-esque in these are-you-or-aren't-you-creepy roles. Will we see this frequent flyer again? We're betting yes.
Best line, courtesy of the hapless motel concierge: “Are you here for the Santa Claus convention? ...By the hour then?”
Zero. (Unless you count the animated astronaut.)