With True Detective’s second season hitting the skids and American Horror Story: Hotel off to a rocky start, it’s up to Fargo to be the anthology series standard-bearer. With a brand-new cast and midwestern relocation, the stakes are higher than ever for the FX drama, returning for its second season October 12. Showrunner Noah Hawley sat down with Vulture at the Austin Television Festival to talk about the new cast, making a ten-hour film, and why bad things happen to polite people.
Is it bittersweet moving into season two without your amazing original cast?
Obviously there's a ghost in the room, which doesn't intimidate me. What I said to FX early on is, "Look, Joel and Ethan don't ever make the same movie twice, right? So we can't either." From the original pitch, I said, "What made the movie Fargo great was at the end, you knew that tomorrow would be a normal day.” If you keep giving these people these crazy Coen Brothers cases over and over again, you're not going to be able to say this is a true story anymore.
You sort of live and die by your principles. The second year's very different, but we’ve got a phenomenal cast. You can't complain about Patrick Wilson or Kirsten Dunst or Jesse Plemons or Ted Danson or Jeffrey Donovan. I can go on and on. But the only way to exercise the ghost is to just make something great.
It’s really exciting the way you’ve managed to stay within your own universe with the second season of the show.
Well, there's some connection, yeah. If there is a third year, I don't know yet what the connection might be. I like that idea, that it connects in some way, just like the first year it turned out was connected to the movie on some level. I think that's interesting.
What can you tell me about the second season, if anything?
The story takes place in 1979. It's the story of young Lou Solverson, played by Patrick Wilson. It's the massacre of Sioux Falls. Basically the idea is of a young couple, played by Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, who find themselves sort of trapped in the middle of this war between a crime family and a criminal enterprise, with Patrick Wilson as Lou trying to pick up pieces and prevent the worst from happening.
We're centered again in the Midwest?
The story takes place in, well, it's in Fargo. It's in Luverne, Minnesota, which is more southern. We rove more this year. It's a bigger story with more moving pieces.
What’s so great about a lot of the Coen Brothers' movies and about Fargo is that it’s investigating the mind-set of an area of the country that we don't see as much. It's very peculiar, very nice, very secretly sinister.
On one level it's not good versus evil. It's sort of just decency versus evil, which I like. People are just doing their best, you know what I mean? I think Joel Coen once said, "Polite societies are often the most violent." People, they don't know how to bend, they just break. What I loved about the movie with Bill Macy's character is really, if he just could've communicated, none of this would have happened. He was so locked up and unable to really even finish a sentence that people died.
That's the brilliance. You don't want to make a fuss. Though Fargo is clearly an extreme depiction — it’s that idea that horrible things happen because you don't want to upset anyone.
My mind-set was always, “I'm writing the region as it was presented in that movie.” It's not a place where you would ever burden anyone by talking about your feelings or embarrass them by asking about theirs. How do you cope in those moments where things get so turned upside-down? If you could just say, "I feel bad about this," or "I need money," or something, you could have staved all this off.
Often the complications in Fargo are what you would encounter in a lot of basic multi-camera sitcoms. If someone would just tell the truth to the other person, all this could be avoided. Instead, it's always an elaborate workaround, and hilarious (or deadly) complications ensue.
It's a tension between comedy and tragedy. What makes something tragic is that it could've been averted at multiple points. There's an inevitability to that, things going wrong, the slow-motion train wreck, that we have to cut against with a certain amount of unpredictability, I think.
Did the fact that season two was a fresh start mean you were able to look at every season as its own individual unit?
The idea was always going to be that each year is a stand-alone story, which did make it easier on some level. It also requires the network to have the creative imagination to say, "This is also Fargo," you know what I mean?
The first year is very much about these four individuals. It's a much more localized story, similar to the movie. The second year has a lot more moving pieces. It's a lot more about these different family groups and group dynamics, so multiple characters within story lines, and it unfolds at a different pace. The idea still being that at the end you feel the same way that you felt at the end of the other one, but until you see it it's an abstraction.
That idea of family and working within the family units, that's a thematic element in the second season?
Yeah, definitely. Whether it's Lou and his wife, who's played by Cristin Milioti, or the Gerhardts with Jean Smart and Jeffrey Donovan and Angus Sampson, or this Kansas City crime syndicate with Brad Garrett and Bokeem Woodbine. There's all these moving pieces. And how they're pulled by the times, specifically the '70s era and the ruthlessness of it.
What’s great is being able to play in this medium, which really feels like a new medium that you rarely get to explore. This idea of the ten-hour movie or the eight-hour movie for us to define and set the rules for. It's not a two-hour film, so you're able to explore much more on a thematic level and character level and structurally play with it. It's not a TV series, so you don't have recurring characters. You can really make decisive choices every hour. You're building this thing that feels very new to me, where it has to be satisfying to watch on the TV in a one-hour increment and also has to be satisfying to watch five hours at a time.
Do you find that challenge more exciting or intimidating?
It's both. I love making it up as I go along. That's really fun. If you're leading, if you're taking those kinds of risks, you also have to be able to explain to the people who are putting up the money. Like, "Oh, yeah. This is going to work great, and it's going to pay off in this way, and everything." That's the fun of it. That's what makes it a job and not just something you do for fun.