"Fargo" pulled off two of the coolest character introductions ever tonight. We don't even know their names – and never will – but we know their dynamic. And we like it a lot.
In the opening scene of "Fargo" Episode 2 (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX), titled "The Rooster Prince," we met two heavies – "We're from Fargo" – played by Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard, and they seemed like your typical thuggish henchmen (albeit in some very interesting outfits)… until they started signing to each other. Watch their introduction here:
This isn't the first time American Sign Language (ASL) has been seen on the small screen recently, but it is the first time it's been shown totally out of context. No subtitles and a very obvious discrepancy between what was being signed and what was being said meant that the "Fargo" audience was just as out of the loop as the other characters on the show.
"Adam is not translating what Russell is saying honestly," the show's creator and writer Noah Hawley told Yahoo TV with a laugh. "I forget what the line is, but there's some swordfish… basically he's being very graphic about what Sam Hess was doing when he was killed. I thought that was really interesting: An untrustworthy translator."
"After I'd written the first episode but was thinking about where to go from there, I remember seeing a lot of kids walking around signing to each other," Hawley said, noting that his home in Austin is near a school for the deaf. "It's such a beautiful visual form of communication, and yet it's completely private. If you don't speak sign language, you don't know what they're saying. So it just seemed Coen-esque to have these very sort of lethal characters who have these completely private exchanges in front of other people," Hawley said, referring to the tone of the Coen brothers movie of the same name. "The time that it takes, and the people that are watching these conversations going on... In that very first scene between Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard, the whole dynamic of their relationship comes out."
But their cool introduction began before they were even onscreen, thanks to a change-up in the show's opening music that set the tone. "The first episode had this 40-piece orchestra recording the score, and then the second episode starts with just a drum beat – there's a totally different energy coming into the show with these guys," Hawley noted. "And maybe you think they're just some tough guys coming to town, and when they start signing you realize that you have no idea what to expect. You didn't expect that. That's my hope with much of the storytelling on the show – to be unpredictable, not in a gimmicky way, but to literally do things that you haven't seen before."
In the opening scene with Bruce Gold (Brian Markinson), after some idle chit-chat about libraries, the guys – dubbed Mr. Numbers (Goldberg) and Mr. Wrench (Harvard) in script only, never onscreen – proceeded to use their special form of communication to their advantage, making fun of Bruce's tie and commenting on the way their colleague Hess was found dead.
Not only was the character of Mr. Wrench specifically written for a deaf actor, Hawley had Harvard in mind already. "It was always my hope [that he'd play the part]," Hawley said. "I had seen Russell in 'There Will Be Blood,' and he came in and did it on tape… there's such pathos and power in his performance, I ended up adding him into an extra episode. He's just such a compelling figure onscreen."
Hawley wouldn't share exactly what ended up being signed between the two: "I like that for the first two episodes that you see them, you're in the same position as the other characters. These guys are there, they're creepy, they're mysterious, they're funny, and something's going on that you don't understand… it makes them more unpredictable and dangerous, I think." But he did note that a scene in a later episode, just between the two characters, will include subtitles for the audience.
Goldberg wouldn't shed much more light on their seemingly R-rated exchange except to say this: "Basically the idea is we're sort of having an entirely separate conversation. [Laughs] That's what's going on. The joke is that we're taking the piss out of that guy, Russell talking smack about his tie and stuff like that. And I keep translating pleasantries back to the guy."
Goldberg learned the sign language specifically for this series with help from Harvard and Catherine MacKinnon, who was his ASL coach for the show.
"I can memorize things and absorb things extremely fast, but I'm like a sieve, so if two days go by, I have to reinstate all of it," Goldberg told Yahoo TV. "It's like that with ASL… but while we were shooting, it made communicating with Russell so much easier, and just to watch Catherine and Russell communicate on set from a million miles away, it's this incredibly helpful mode of communication that, really, all of us should know. It's quieter, for one thing, and you can have all these incredible sorts of conversations in a context that you would otherwise not be able to have a conversation."
Talking about his memory jogged something for Goldberg: "Oh, in that scene I do say hooker. You know there's a lot of things around your face, which can get very confusing. So you can get very close to saying 'orgasm' when you mean to say 'mother.' I'm like, 'Why did they do this?' It's not always very logical, but Russell would really help me try to come up with ways to remember. Like, 'Look, your mother needs to have an orgasm in order to have you.' [Laughs.] But you put your thumb in the wrong place and you're having an orgasm and not a mother."
Which makes our own translator's rudimentary account of the scene make sense. When Yahoo TV tried to get a more accurate account of their sign language conversation, this was one note: "He said something about his mom here." And now we know that was almost definitely "orgasm" and not "mom."
"It's pretty funny, and I think it's kind of cool because if you know sign language or you're hearing impaired, you're going to be able to enjoy that on another level," Goldberg said.
"Fargo" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
If you haven't started "Fargo" yet, you can watch the first seven minutes of the premiere episode here: