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Series creator Noah Hawley likes to refer to Fargo—his FX crime-drama-comedy which takes inspiration from the Coen brothers' 1996 film as well as others in their oeuvre—as an experiment. From season 2 onward, the show has used the film as less of a blueprint and more of a thematic framework to unpack big ideas about morality, greed and most of all, America.
The show's fourth season proved to be the most challenging experiment, for both Hawley and his collaborators and the audience. A premiere initially set for spring 2020 was delayed when COVID-19 impacted and only roughly 80% of filming was complete. When it finally premiered in September, it was met with mixed reviews. Some critics found Hawley's message blunter than usual, and his indulgences—an unwieldy ensemble, larger-than-life characters that border on the cartoonish (whither Gaetano Fadda, a villain so expressive he seems plucked from a Charlie Chaplin film), troll-y casting (Jason Schwartzman as a mob boss, even one who's supposed to be something of a joke, is a lot to ask)—unchecked. To say nothing of the pace, which some viewers wondered was the result of editing incomplete episodes thanks to the virus restrictions.
For me, most of it worked. Hawley's 1950-set tale of warring Kansas crime syndicates may have been more gangster-ish than previous seasons but it doesn't lack for ambition. And with Chris Rock as Loy Cannon, the weary king of Kansas City's African-American outfit, Hawley poses nuanced (if not always subtle) questions about race in America, generational trauma and the cycles of violence, questions he hasn't pondered so potently since season 2. It's in that season where Bokeem Woodbine turned in an Emmy-worthy performance as the loquacious mob hitman Mike Milligan. When that surname popped up in the premiere, eagle-eyed fans immediately wondered if this season, set almost thirty years before the events of the second, might not be a stealth origin story for one of the show's most beloved characters. Tonight's finale, “Storia Americana,” finally answered that question but there's plenty more to the episode and all that came before it. Hawley hopped on the phone with GQ earlier this week to break down his latest experiment.
The season’s finally over, after a delayed start and reshoots. How does it feel?
I feel a great sense of relief because there was a few months where it wasn't clear when, or if we could get it done. But we did manage to go back to Chicago in late August and get 13 more days of photography and to finish it. I don't see, when I watch it, any compromises that were made. I think the last two hours are as grand a statement as we could have made even had we not had that break in production. I think everyone came back determined to finish and to make something great.
You said ‘a grand statement.’ This season, more than the previous three, really did feel as if you had this grand idea that you wanted to unpack. Now that it’s over, what were you trying to say specifically?
Well, I don't know that it's a statement, per se, as much as it is joining a conversation. For me, Fargo has always been the story of America. One of the things that I think you can say about Joel and Ethan's movie is that it is a quintessentially American film and that the characters in it are so unique and the exploration of this idea of basic decency in the face of greed and violence—there's something very American to that struggle. And so, certainly every year for me has been about expanding that conversation about America, and this year, the focus of it moved on some level to this idea of, "Well, what is an American? And who gets to be an American? And who gets to decide?" And what do people do when they come to a country that then makes it very difficult for them to assimilate into the larger country? How do you feed your children? How do you gain respect, and how do you make sure your children have a better life? And for most people, that process does not involve crime, but this is a crime story by definition. And so some people have to create an alternate economy in order to prosper.
And I think it was Alan Sepinwall who pointed out that the surnames of these warring families together read as “cannon fodder.”
Yeah. That was not deliberate. I can't remember which name I had first, but that's what we call another happy accident or subconscious genius.
Whether it's intentional or not, it lends to that thesis of them being pitted against each other, even though they both face discrimination.
We did this panel at the NAACP, and President Johnson of the panel, he talked about race as a social construct. And if you think about that idea of race as a social construct, then you have to think, "Well, what is the point of it? Why would you create that dynamic if not to try to create a division, and what is the point of that division, if not to distract people from real access to power and the understanding of who's profiting off of that division?
So it does seem like you have these two groups in the show: the first and second generation Italian immigrants, and then you have the sons and daughters of slaves who have come up from the South looking for a new beginning and this collision between these two groups, both of whom just want the same thing. And yet they've been told—the way that people are told in this country—that if I win, it means you have to lose. And so they set out to determine winners and losers.
The finale definitely determines a winner and loser. The premiere, when Josto is turned away at the hospital, as drawing the families as being on something like equal footing, but the finale has that big display of force from Ebal with the Italians mercilessly putting Loy's whole organization in perspective as big fish small pond.
You're talking about a war between two groups. And the one thing that neither of them could have known for sure is one of those groups would be white one day. The Italians weren't considered white in that moment, but that moment was coming, and there was an access to power and a national organization that allowed them to win on that level. And it's a complex map of endings. Which is tragedy, a happy ending, is how I described Fargo. And so the question is who gets the tragedy, and who gets the happy ending. That process of figuring out, "What happens to Ethelrida, what happens to Josto, and what happens to Loy?" Those were all really hard fought conversations. What you find is that in the end, the house always wins. And my friend once described working on Wall Street by saying he has this twenty year-old microwave, and the only thing that ever wears out on them are these old rubber ball bearings that hold the plate up. And he said, "I realized on Wall Street that that's what the people were. We're the ball-bearings." And there's something frightening to that idea, which is that the business of making money never suffers. It's only the people who work in that business who suffer. And so, on some level, these are the casualties of the American struggle.
Was telling this story at this time, especially with a deep bench of black characters, something you had always wanted to do or was it more inspired by recent events in the country?
I mean, unfortunately the recent events that we're talking about have always been recent events in the country. The initial motivation in looking at this story was in thinking about how Fargo always comes back to, “And here you are, and it's a beautiful day, and for what? A little bit of money?” In season two, we looked at the death of the family business and the rise of corporate America. And season three, we looked at the post-corporate, offshore, billionaire class. And this year, it was about going to the origins of the original sins of American capital, which was the exploitation of free and cheap labor. And you can't have that conversation without talking about race.
Even today, we have half the country saying, "Only count the real votes by the real Americans." So this conversation that was just as appropriate in 1950 as it is today, I think we would all love for talk to be replaced with action so that we don't have to keep having this conversation.
We have to talk about Mike Milligan and the whole season two connection. Most fans connected the dots in the premiere, but I feel like that almost gave the arc more weight as the season continued, because there was a tension to see how that transformation would come about.
I think there was a lot of talk around FX about trying to keep it a secret, and I just never thought it was a secret. I mean, when you have a central character named Milligan, it doesn't seem like you're really fooling anyone, and you're talking about the trading of sons. So [a twist] was never my goal, but I think if you look back at our second year, which was the Molly Solverson origin story, that's not how you think of that season. You don't think like, "Oh, that explained how Alison Toleman became that person that she was." And yet, on some level, everything that happened in that year to her parents and her grandfather all informed her path in life. And it's the same thing here. You can't look at this year without seeing how Satchel became Mike Milligan, but the story is also about so much more, the way that all of our lives are interwoven throughout history. And yet, you can't tell history by just telling your story or my story.
That post credit scene with Bokeem is such a nice button, it did make me wonder if you didn't arrive at this season wanting to connect it to Mike. Or were you writing this story and then figured out that you could weave it all together?
No, it was baked in. Part of it is, what comes from an idle thought, which is we left Mike Milligan in the state of limbo. By definition, his story wasn't finished. And so every once in a while, you have this thought about, "Well, where did that guy come from?”
This may be getting too in the weeds, but in that post-credit scene, especially since there's only one Kitchen brother, are we supposed to take that as taking place after the events of season two?
No. I think that the footage that we pulled was simply footage from season two. But one of the things I like about the show is that you can watch it in any order. You can watch season three and then season one and then two, and you can even think about, "Well, what moment in season two was it that Mike Milligan was on the road, thinking about his younger self?" Was it when he was on his way to confront Patrick Wilson at the typewriter store? Or was it after he had shot up the Gerhardt farm? I think that creates an interesting dynamic for the audience of placing. What's exciting about long form television is that you don't have to paint a literal picture, but you introduce these elements and then the audience can assemble them as they choose.
Keeping with season two, the recurring family ghost kind of felt like this season's UFO.
In the black and white episode, if you remember, there were a lot of historical markers, which you find as you drive around the country, the sense that the places that we live have a history of their own to them. And that in many of those places, blood was spilt. There was a similar element here, the fact that our pasts haunt us and the things that we've done and the things that were done to us, especially if they're not acknowledged and or resolved. I mean, post traumatic stress comes from the inability to exorcise the trauma. And this was a more metaphysical way of exploring that idea, which was that we are all haunted by the sins of our fathers and their fathers and their fathers. And that haunting here was a literal one.
How did COVID impact the way you paced the story? I read that you maybe had to go back in the editing bay and reverse-engineer some episodes together. Obviously you always ended up where you wanted to go, but did that affect a little bit of the journey in the middle?
There were two things that happened. In hindsight, we got lucky that we got as much done as we did, because we shot all the way through the black and white episode. And then coming back to those last two hours, there was always a sense of a time jump. So we got lucky because, you may have noticed that Rodney, the actor who played Satchel, he grew a lot in the last six months. Right? And if we had shut down and the next scene was supposed to be tomorrow and he was a foot taller, that would have been problematic for us. On the other hand, what the break allowed me to do was something that in TV you don't normally get to do, which is to spend time editorially with the material to really live with it.
I had blocked those first two hours, and then six months later, I was able to watch them again without having seen them in a while and to cut five minutes out of each of the first two hours. Because at that point I could see, "We can make this a tighter hour and not sacrifice anything." But the other thing that I noticed in watching was the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours were all really long. And I think television went through a phase where we were very excited that we didn't have to make things that were 42.5 minutes anymore, but there is such a thing as too long. Right? And the other element that we had is we're in the middle of the story that does have twenty-one main characters, and in episodes, you can resolve one storyline and then you're at forty-eight minutes, and now you're introducing a whole other character, and it's too late. People don't want to switch. They feel done.
So there was no negative thing pushing me toward expanding to an extra hour. It was my storyteller brain doing the math and going, "Okay, well, if I move this here and that there and break things up, not only are the hours going to feel more urgent, but we can move the storyline around so that you can spend the entire opening of episode eight with Jason and take him from this dinner with his father-in-law to the scene with Jessie Buckley to the ride in the car. And then he walks into the JDC, and his brother is there." And the audience remembers, "Oh right. They let him out at the end of the last hour." There was a way to reconstruct these things on film in a way they weren't in the script that I think made this season better.
You really had fun with the casting this season. Timothy Olyphant, we always want to see that guy in that lawman position, but this might've been the least endearing iteration he’s ever played.
I mean, he played a marshal on Mandalorian for God's sake, I called him after I saw it. The tension for me was between the persona that he carries normally, and this left of center version of that. He's always the lawman on the side of justice. But then you realize, "Oh, this guy's kind of racist, actually." And it causes you to question that John Wayne thing, where you're like, "Well, actually, in the light of day, this isn't looking so great to me." And it also created tension with Jack Huston's character, who was clearly a corrupt cop and so morally bankrupt, and yet also clearly not a racist, right? So then you're in the scene with those two like, "Well, which one of these two guys is more moral than the other guy?" Plus I knew Tim would have so much fun with those lines and the carrot sticks.
I saw some say that this season felt the least like Fargo, if that makes sense, and that it was a more straightforward crime story than the other seasons. What do you say to that?
Well, I say that this show is an experiment and that that is probably true for those viewers to feel that way. For me, the very first moment where I auditioned for this job, I said to FX, "Why is the movie called Fargo? It takes place in Minnesota," except that the word ‘Fargo’ is evocative of a type of place. And after the movie, it's also evocative of a type of story, a true crime story that isn't a true, where truth is stranger than fiction. And so what Fargo really is, is a state of mind. It's a tone of voice. It's a type of story.
And the challenge is, you can look at the first year and go, "Well, this is Fargo," right? It's more one-to-one. And then the second season you'd be like, "Well, can we expand that to be this much bigger, period crime story?" And then the third season went back to a smaller scale. And so I guess you have to ask, "What are the things that make Fargo Fargo, and were those elements present in this story?" And that's just me trusting my instincts for it. And also knowing that after 30 hours that maybe changing things up is not a bad thing. Because for all those people who say, "It doesn't feel like Fargo," there are people who would have said, "It feels like they're repeating themselves," if I had done it the other way.
That's the perfect segue to what's probably your least favorite question: Are you kicking around ideas for a season five yet?
I don't mind the question. I felt bad about the question in previous years when I wasn't, and I didn't have a real answer. This Fargo experiment has been one of the most rewarding, creative experiences of my life, and telling stories in this style...it's a crime story that is not about crime, ultimately, where magic realism is available to me and comedy is available to me. I have not found another type of story that is as expansive. So yeah, I'm kicking around something. I don't know how quickly it would come together, but I do feel like there's still more to say about the America that we live in and the ways in which it pushes people both to be their best selves and to be their worst selves.
Originally Appeared on GQ