Requisite spoiler warning: The Fargo finale is full of many wonderful surprises. If you haven’t yet seen it, turn around and come back later. And you might want to read our recap before you do.
FX’s adaptation of Fargo turned out to be a marvel, at once familiar to those who’ve watched and rewatched the original Coen brothers film, yet wholly original. As in the 1996 classic, Tuesday’s extra-long and extra-bloody finale found the bad guys paying for their sins, the decent folks of Bemidji going back to life as usual, and us a little bummed about having to stop playing in the snow. For extra closure, we rang up executive producer Noah Hawley to discuss how he chose to tie up the various threads before heading off to season two, which, like HBO’s True Detective, will focus on an entirely new story and set of characters. We also got the story behind episode seven’s wild, one-shot Malvo massacre and also asked about Bill’s adopted Sudanese son, since that whole thing was the best.
Molly doesn’t get to put down Lorne or Lester. Was that a decision that you went back and forth on?
Every episode starts with a disclaimer: This is a true story. Real life unfolds differently than scripted stories, and I took my cue from the movie Fargo. Jerry Lundegaard (played by William H. Macy) is arrested in the end in a motel by a bunch of state cops or cops from whatever jurisdiction he has fled to. Molly isn’t there [for Lester’s demise] because it’s not her jurisdiction and the reality is there’s an APB out for the guy and whichever cops found him found him. That worked because it felt real, whereas in the sort of John Wayne version it would be John Wayne kicking down the door and getting the bad guy. As much as I want to give the audience the sort of satisfying conclusion that they’re expecting, I also know they’re expecting it because it’s such a cliché at this moment. If I could find an ending that they didn’t see coming but is hugely satisfying on its own, it felt like more of an accomplishment to me.
Some showrunners seem to think their stories can only be “honest” if the hero or someone close to them dies, and since this was a close-ended story, you could have killed off anyone. But Molly, Gus, and their family come out of it alive. What was your thinking in how to end the story?
Haven’t I killed enough people? [Laughs.] I mean, but you didn’t know that’s how it was going to end. There was a real tension to it. I certainly could have killed one of them. But I also think it’s true that I was adapting this movie, and this movie has a very iconic ending to it where all the good people are home safe and sound in the end except for Jerry’s poor wife. The movie ends with Marge, a baby in two months, and Norm getting the three-cent stamp. Life is going to go back to normal. I think that’s a huge element of why the movie’s so powerful. This very decent woman went out and faced a real evil and came home and gets to go back to her small town life. In my mind, there was never a version that wasn’t going to end that way, but that’s not a card I was going to show anyone.
For me, the death of Lester’s second wife, Linda, was the show’s most tragic moment. How low could Lester sink?
It was certainly his snakiest act. But I was also impressed by the audience’s ability to still root for him in a way. This is a guy who put a gun in a child’s backpack, you know? We all should have given up on him in that very moment. But there’s something about characters who make things happen. He took on a sort of Malvo-like quality, and I still get people who consider Malvo the protagonist of the show. There’s something fun about him. He’s an anarchic character. He pushes people. There’s humor to it. It’s seductive.
Lester gets the upper hand on Lorne with the bear trap and Gus ultimately takes him out. Was Lorne getting too cocky in underestimating and condescending to these these small town people he’d been toying with?
He’s basically spent his whole life seeing how far he can push civilized people to act in uncivilized ways, and he recognizes something in Lester when they’re in the elevator in Vegas that he hasn’t seen before and that’s more interesting to him than this scam he’s been running. I do think he underestimates Lester, obviously, who gets the drop on him and turns out to be a better strategist than Malvo. With Gus, the universe, for whatever reason, kept putting Malvo in front of Gus — who in some ways spent the whole time trying to make up for their first interaction. But there, Malvo also wins. Because if his goal is to push civilized people to do something animal, then it works — he pushes Gus to that point where Gus shoots him.
Can you talk about casting Key and Peele’s Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as FBI agents Pepper and Budge? Did you write with them in mind, or did the idea come up later?
That idea came up while we were shooting episodes three and four. Pepper and Budge are partners, they’re a pair, so you needed actors who felt like an old pair of shoes or an old married couple. I joked with them that when I first met them that Key and Peele is just them auditioning for different types of movies. They didn’t dissuade me from that idea. They were fun to work with, and they loved getting the opportunity. Pepper and Budge are slightly comic characters in a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern kind of way, but there’s drama there. The idea that Deputy Solverson has the answers and she’s like a guru on a mountaintop and they finally find her and they’re sitting at her feet going, “You have to tell us. Who is he?” I mean, they were so great in that moment.
Malvo’s massacre of the crime syndicate Pepper and Budge were keeping tabs on plays out in one long tracking shot of a building’s exterior windows, as Malvo shoots his way through each room. Was that a budgetary decision, or was it really how you wrote it?
Not only was it in the script, the outline I turned in to the network came with a diagram attached. That would have been somewhere back in April or May of last year. I just loved this idea that he would go in — because messing with Malvo is a bad idea — and methodically get rid of the Fargo syndicate. What I liked about the way we shot it is there’s comedy to it, which felt very Coen brothers to me. And while we were shooting, that episode of True Detective aired with their six-minute tracking shot, and I thought it worked great in that episode, and I thought it had so much tension. Ultimately, that’s a more macho version. What we were doing was much more in the spirit of our show, and in order to pull it off, we used a combination of live-action filming and the creation of a CG building that we then could do the camera move on.
Was there ever any intention of checking back in with Stavros (Oliver Platt) or Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard), whom Malvo tells to come find him?
Yeah, there was a scene in episode seven with Stavros and Gus, where Gus went back investigating the company car and finds Stavros throwing copies of his book into the fireplace. It was a really beautiful, kind of haunting scene, and it will be in the DVD extras, but in some ways it didn’t really move the story forward. The way we left Stavros was so iconic and it just didn’t feel like it added enough to the overall story. It also felt like it slowed down that specific episode so we ended up taking it out. And then I liked the idea that Mr. Wrench is out there. If you as a viewer had it in the back of your head that he was going to show up in the last two episodes, I didn’t mind that.
When you think about next season, do you worry about the freshness of the idea being gone? People were skeptical at first but now you’ll have high expectations for any kind of follow-up.
Now they’re gonna see me coming, right? It was such an impossible task to take on in the first place and the only way to do it was to trust my instincts. I had no idea the show would work as well as it did. I just sat in a room with a few writers and we bounced stuff off the wall, and if we really liked something, we put it into the show, and if we didn’t, then we didn’t. So I would do it the same way again. I wouldn’t want to repeat myself, that’s for sure.
But structurally, you’d have to do something different next time. This season had a lot of nods to many Coen brothers movies, as well as specific Fargo archetypes, (the two hitmen, a Marge type, a Jerry type, a similar crime). I’m wondering if you think your approach to another season would have to change.
I like the idea that somewhere out there there’s a big leather-bound book called The History of True Crime in the Midwest and these are all stories in it. There might on the surface be a connection between the stories but maybe once you get deeper you see something. I like that idea.
When we talked about the briefcase that unites this show with the movie, I know you hadn’t yet heard from the Coen brothers. Now that the show is all in the can has that changed?
Well, they’ve got their next movie and I’m sure they’re in pre-production on that. We’re not BFFs calling each other every ten minutes. I think they’re very pleased with how this came out and surprised that it did come out this way. But those guys more than anyone I’ve ever met really have created a bubble for themselves that allows them to do the work that they do. I’m hoping they make 15 more movies, so I don’t want to get in the way of that.
Before you have to jump, I wanted to ask about my favorite moment on the show, which is the story of how Bill and his adopted Sudanese son Tahir found each other. Where did that come from?
We had toyed with the idea of having a sort of lost boy presence, a larger lost boy presence in the season, but there ends up being too much story. But I did want to preserve this because it seems like something the Coen brothers would make up, that all these kids from the Sudan would come and be living in Minnesota, the coldest region in the country. I wanted to play around with that. I liked that it played into the “you just have to accept the mystery” theme the Coens established in A Serious Man that we played with. And it really showed Bill in a different light. He had said to Molly a year earlier, in the same episode, “Sometimes you just go to bed unsatisfied,” and here he is saying to her, “Sometimes things just work out.” There was a change there that played into what was about to happen, which is that out of the blue Lester was going to run into Malvo again and the whole thing was going to come back, and Molly was going to get another chance.