Fargo, FX’s anthology series loosely based on the Coen Brothers movie, returned for its third season tonight, and it’s as Fargo as ever. Vulture caught up with creator Noah Hawley ahead of the premiere to talk the extended Fargo universe and explain why it was crucial for Ewan McGregor to play two characters.
So at this point in the game with season three, do you feel like you know what a Fargo story is? Are there particular elements you feel like you have to have because the audience will be annoyed if you don’t have ’em?
Well, I think the whole goal is to see how far we can expand the definition. Every year’s a new season, and you sort of follow the story where it goes. That said, there are a few rules of thumb I try to stick by. One is that we need enough moving pieces on a collision course that we have an element of randomness. Two, the story, which gives it a sort of realer life feel, I suppose. And it’s always the tension between comedy and tragedy, which means it has to be a tragedy on some level, the things that happen. Those elements loosely sort of keep us on the rails.
And I guess you also have that thing where, and this is also true of the Coen Brothers movies, one person’s tragedy is another person’s comedy and vice versa.
Yeah, it’s true. It is a complicated moral spectrum and tonal spectrum, and that’s what makes it really interesting. Part of the reason I wanted to have these two brothers played by the same actor, because as much as one of them is the underdog and the other one’s the winner, you can’t help but see the family resemblance. Whatever empathy you have for the underdog you probably also carry some of it over to rooting for the older brother at certain moments.
That’s true. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that I didn’t really hate either of these guys.
I think it’s only interesting if you’re rooting for everybody. I feel like people even rooted for Lorne Malvo and he was such a protagonist. People liked him. He made things happen. He was mischievous. And Mike Milligan or Dodd — there was always something compelling about these characters so you couldn’t just write them off into the mustache-twirling environment.
But of course, Satan is usually the most exciting character in any story he appears in.
Well, it’s true, but I think part of what I try to do is create a dynamic where the viewer has to make up their own mind. There’s always gonna be violence and we’re always gonna be headed to violence and we’re sort of trained, certainly by American movies, to root for violence. Yet when we get there, my hope is that it’s never entertainment — that you think you want it, and then it happens and it’s so over the top and awful that you feel a little sick at yourself for wanting it in the first place. So my goal is not to create more entertainment violence, but to do what Joel and Ethan do in the movie. It’s always shocking and it’s sort of a little more graphic than it needs to be, and it’s brief, but it really rocks you back.
When you’re plotting your way through a season of this, how does that process happen? Do you come up with the characters in a basic situation and then you logically ask yourself what would happen next based on who these people are, or do you have an end goal in mind?
Eventually you have an end goal, but at first you just think, “All right, well, there are two brothers and the older one traded the younger one for something when they were kids, and now the younger one feels gypped,” because Emmett, the older brother, turned out to be a very successful man and Ray, the younger brother, turned out to be not a successful man. He thinks part of that is based on his brother tricking him when he was a kid, so now he gets this idea in his head to steal back what he thinks belongs to him, and that starts things in motion, but that’s not an entire story. That’s just a setup really. Then the trick is to come up with complicating factors. So maybe Emmett, the older brother, because of the financial crash and because he’s a land baron in the parking-lot kingdom of Minnesota, he’s borrowed a bunch of money a year ago from someone that it turns out he shouldn’t have borrowed money from, and that guy now wants to be partners … that’s a complicating factor that makes this heavy feud with his brother more dangerous. Then obviously you have to bring law enforcement into it, so you have those moving pieces as well. It does become a nice jigsaw puzzle. I get pitched in the writers room, and a lot of twists that feel like great twists are movie twists. We’re all instinctually rooting for the white hat and the black hat to have a showdown at the end of this thing, but that’s not really how life works out. So the twists need to be a little more random and a little more realistic, I guess, for lack of a better word.
One of the things that has always intrigued me about the Coens, and I feel like you’ve continued it in this show in your own way, is this question of: Is there fate in this universe that you’ve created? Is there a God in this universe? And particularly the characters who’ve suffered horribly for no apparent reason, they actually talk about this stuff, like this weighs heavily on their minds. But the story never answers it. I wondered how you as an author think about that when you’re writing these stories? Is this a universe where you get God, or the gods, stirring a pot or is it all just random numbers?
All those questions are a part of the fabric of the storytelling. It’s not my job to provide answers as much as it is to explore the dynamics that Joel and Ethan have established in their films. I do think there is this sense in their work of larger fates at work, and I like playing with those ideas. Obviously, there’s still some heightened storytelling: a fish falling from sky or the UFO that we used. In some ways, this recipe I’ve stumbled across is a way to use a crime story to explore the meaning of meaningless events and the search that we have for meaning. Cristin Milioti’s character says, “Well, whoever said life was absurd didn’t have a 6-year old girl, y’know?” That’s all well and good, but we’re on this earth to work hard and when it’s over, it’s over. Some of that is about you believe, and it means what you think it means.
You’re on the internet so you’re aware of this sort of thing, but you get a certain type of person who watches a show like this, who is obsessed with the details, who’s obsessed with making it all sort of fit together into a grand, unifying universe or map. It’s like the extended Fargo universe. When you and the writers are coming up with this world, are you worried about continuity in a way that they would be on, say, the Star Trek shows. What sort of care do you take to make all those pieces fit, or do you care about that?
I don’t really track it season to season in that way. Obviously our second year was a prequel in many ways to our first year, so I didn’t want to say, “All right well, Ted Danson plus Patrick Wilson plus Cristin Milioti equals Allison Tolman,” but as far as making sure that I’m connecting in some way between Bob Odenkirk and Nick Offerman or any of the other characters, I don’t really. It’s not like The Simpsons where you have like 150 recognizable characters. At a certain point, I’m just focused on the story I’m telling now.
So you’ve got this story, set in 2010, when season two is 1979, and season one was 2006. If you’ve got a story that’s set in 2010 and it contradicts details from 2006 and somebody points that out to you, or something happens in season four or five, assuming there is one, do you say, “Oh shit, we let that go. How did that happen,” or do you just shrug and go, “Well, it was not high on my list of things to worry about anyway?”
Well the whole thing’s a lie, right? I mean it’s a true story that isn’t true, so if you’re tracking it for the realistic continuity, I think it’s the wrong exercise. That becomes the fun of it on some level, and certainly something I’m exploring in this third season is this opening sentence, “this is a true story,” that started the movie and started every episode of the show. And it’s not a true story. The movie wasn’t true. Neither of the two years are true. I’m making it all up so it’s a very odd thing. Then part of the structural challenges I have are how do you create a story that feels true when it’s not? What are the elements of a story that makes you go, “Oh, yeah, that must’ve really happened?” In the case of the movie, it was including this high-school character who calls her out of the blue and they have a meal together and he tells her this sob story about his wife who died and he’s just so lonely, and it turns out it’s a big lie and this girl has a restraining order against him for stalking her. You think, “Why is this in the movie? It has nothing to do with the story,” except it’s the kind of detail that you would put in if it had really happened. Like, “Well, I didn’t want to put it in, but it really happened so …”
I always have an argument with people about that scene. I think that’s a very necessary scene because that’s the moment where she realizes that she can be lied to.
Yeah, and she has left her safe bubble of her home where everything makes sense. You look at that movie and you look at our first season with Allison Tolman. These are two women who were living in a world where everything made sense, and then the deeper they got into this case, the less things made sense. I contrast that with Carrie Coon’s character this year, who’s starting in a world where things don’t make sense to her. Her husband left her for another man, she’s sharing custody of her child now, her job is in flux because she’s been the chief in a small town but they’re being absorbed by the county so she’s both chief and not chief at the same time, and then her stepfather dies. So she’s very much someone for whom the rug’s already pulled out from under. That is very different than those other two women who were very secure in this sensibility of their room, of their lives.
Have you thought about other areas of the Midwest or other decades you want to explore in a fourth season?
Well, I always joke about the space station Fargo in year 5150, but I don’t know. I think that, obviously, you could go anywhere; you could go back to the 1800s when the land was settled, you could be in the ’40s or ’50s, which is a very Coen Brothers era. But I don’t know yet. I haven’t figured it out. What I like about working at FX is that I don’t have to hit an air date and I can just see what strikes me, because obviously to build one of these ten-hour crime stories that is trying to understand the secrets of the universe, it takes a certain amount of inspiration.
This interview has been edited and condensed.