Ask a Showrunner
“The show has always been about the American experience, and there’s still a lot to say about it,” said the creator of the FX crime drama, which wrapped up its fourth season on Sunday night.
Chris Rock in the fourth season of “Fargo,” which ended Sunday night on FX.Credit…FX
- Nov. 30, 2020
When the third season of “Fargo” ended in 2017, the concept of “alternative facts” and “fake news” were clearing the way for what became the Trump presidency’s challenge to reality. The themes the creator Noah Hawley explored in that season seemed oddly prescient, all the way down to Russians and disinformation, but he shrugged it off: “You can never predict the zeitgeist,” he said at the time. “I just managed to land in it.”
Now he’s managed to land in it again. During a pandemic-induced, five-month interruption in filming, Hawley’s theme for Season 4 of “Fargo” — which ended Sunday evening — again collided with current events. This time, a story set in 1950 featured Chris Rock as the head of a Black crime family in Kansas City locked in a battle with Italians — and both groups being demonized by white police and politicians. There are still plenty of Hawley’s trademark Easter eggs — ample references to the show’s previous seasons and the canon of Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the 1996 film that inspired the series. It’s difficult not to draw parallels to this summer’s social upheaval, but Hawley doesn’t see these issues as anything new.
“This show emerged into a country that was having an active and urgent conversation about race,” said Hawley last week. “But it’s also a conversation that we have been having for hundreds of years in this country, about this country. So I’m not sure that if this show premiered in 1986, or 1995, or 2007, that it would have been much different.”
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Spoilers await — and if you didn’t watch the closing credits in Sunday’s finale, make sure to do so.
How difficult was it to return after such a long break?
It presented some challenges. It’s helpful that we had nine hours that the cast could watch and everyone could understand, “oh, that’s the show that we were making” — which you don’t usually have. The crew and the cast, if you’re lucky, they might see the first hour while you’re filming. So in many ways, they were much more informed than they’ve ever been. I know that Jason Schwartzman never shaved that mustache because he was so dedicated.
After George Floyd was killed and protests started this summer, there were a lot of conversations in journalism and entertainment about representation: Who gets to tell whose story? As a white writer, were you at all concerned about how this season’s story would land in that climate?
Everyone has their own American story, their own American experience. My American experience starts on one side of my family with a grandmother who fled from Russia in 1895, as the Cossacks were coming. Everyone arrived here at a certain point, and in a different way. What I knew in exploring the immigration experience and the experience of Black Americans is that, to the degree that those are not my story, that I did want and need as many voices and as much understanding as possible to be able to tell those stories: in the writers’ room and among directors and actors and, you know, as much diversity as possible — an actual diversity of experience and opinion and perspective.
Those conversations were so intense that I wondered if you felt like the story carried more weight?
You used the word “conversation,” and that’s what I’m trying to have. And not everyone says the right thing in a conversation. But what was important to me, to the degree that this show has always been a show about America, was to continue to explore America from all points of view. On a very primal level, the reason that I write is to try to understand the world that I’m living in and to recreate the world in a fictional way, and then look at it and go, “Did I get this right?” That becomes the exploration — and the risk, because there’s a risk that you’re getting it wrong. But we can’t operate from a place of fear in terms of asking the hard questions.
I had a lot of conversations throughout the process with a lot of people that I really respected, who I knew would call me out if I was not being authentic. If it was Chris Rock, writers, directors, or the other actors, if there had been a moment that didn’t feel authentic or felt like it was romanticized, then we would have those conversations. We had an interesting conversation in the writers’ room about Ethelrida [E’myri Crutchfield]. Some of the writers wanted, because she’s a teenage girl, to have her struggle with some moral issues of her own; maybe her aunt offers her a drink, and she takes it because she’s a teenager. There was a fear expressed that I was making her too honorable a character because she was Black. I said, “No, I’m making her that honorable a character because she is the character this year that represents that pure goodness that Marge [Frances McDormand] represented in the movie, or Patrick Wilson represented in Season 2, or Carrie Coon in Season 3: decency.” The struggle that she is going through is a struggle against exterior forces, but she is very comfortable with who she is. She knows that the path that she’s on, one mistake can throw her off it. So we had those conversations and, as in any good writers’ room or any good process, it forces you to justify the choices that you make.
As I said, we can’t live in fear. Writers have to be willing to take those risks and put ourselves out there because the reward is too great. To be able to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes, and to create that empathy in yourself and in others — that is the definition of good writing, I think.
Image “Everyone has their own American story, their own American experience,” said Noah Hawley, center, on the “Fargo” set.Credit…Elizabeth Morris/FX
This season is set in a time and place, postwar America, that was superficially quite optimistic: “We can do anything.” But many of the characters are traumatized, which seems to say that America is actually a vicious place.
I came upon this equation when I was writing Season 3, which is that irony without humor is just violence. Think about the stories of Kafka. But also think about the immigrant experience or the experience of Black people in America. We say it’s the land of the free and the home of the brave, and yet those freedoms are not available to everyone equally. What is that if not ironic? But there’s no humor to it. When you tell someone that they have to be an American to be accepted, but then when they become an American, you say they’re not a real American — it has the setup for a joke, but the joke is on you. It’s not funny.
That comedic setup to a tragic payoff feels very much to me like what many of Joel and Ethan’s movies have that is unique, and something that I felt very much would translate from that fundamentally Jewish point of view to the experience of people of color and immigrants in this country.
It was a pleasant surprise to see so many “Raising Arizona” references this season. As you’re writing, do you create Coen mile markers for yourself as templates?
It’s like the Talmud, right? You go to the big book of questions: “How has this problem been asked and answered before?” I knew that in setting up this epic season with 21 main characters trying to look at the history of crime in America, that there was a lot of information I was going to have to deliver to the audience very quickly. So I tried to think, how had Joel and Ethan done that? My mind went to “Raising Arizona”: The first 11 minutes of that movie is this amazing narrated montage that tells you everything you know about H.I. McDunnough [Nicolas Cage], and Nathan Arizona and their quintuplets, and it brings you all the way up to the ladder on the roof of the car as they’re driving off to go get them a baby. It’s a comic masterpiece unto itself.
So I settled on this history-report format from Ethelrida, which allowed me both to tell the history of crime in Kansas City and also her history, and introduce all the important characters and ideas in about 24 minutes. Once I had “Raising Arizona” in mind, I thought it would be fun if we did a jailbreak with two women instead of John Goodman and William Forsythe, and rather than being H.I.’s buddies from prison, it’s Ethelrida’s aunt and her paramour. That led me into a story that drove those characters through the rest of the season.
What about Mike Milligan [Bokeem Woodbine] made you want to close the season out with him?
He remains a kind of active conundrum, as this iconoclastic character that didn’t seem to belong anywhere. He’s clearly a Black man in America in 1979. But you don’t get the sense that he really fits into that culture. He clearly doesn’t really fit into the white culture he’s part of, or at least he’s not respected there. And he also has this larger perspective on things. He’s a very thoughtful and erudite speaker who played the game — he went out and did what his boss told him; he won the war and he came home and he wanted his reward, and his reward was a tiny office with an electric typewriter. We left him in limbo, and when I thought about what to do this year, he was still there in that limbo. His story wasn’t done.
I didn’t set out to tell the Mike Milligan origin story per se. It was an element of this larger story in the same way that Season 2 was the Molly Solverson [Allison Tolman] origin story. There was a young girl named Molly Solverson, and she was in a few scenes, but it was mostly the story of her father and her mother. It’s the same here. I think you can get from Satchel, whose story we’ve seen in Season 4, to the Mike Milligan that we see in Season 2, but it’s not the sum total of what the story was.
Jason Schwartzman kept his “Fargo” mustache during the show’s pandemic production shutdown.Credit…Elizabeth Morris/FX
Art Blakey’s “Moanin’” features prominently in the last two seasons, in two different formats. What about that album resonates with you?
Percussion has always been really attractive to me as a sonic element. When it came time in Season 1 to introduce Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers, I asked [the composer] Jeff Russo, I said: “I don’t want music, I just want a beat. That’s their signature.” And it continued from there. In Season 2, we had a drum line, we brought in a marching band to record; Season 3, there was a lot of New Orleans-style music that was very rhythmic. Jazz is such a rhythmic form of music, so in figuring out what to set this season’s opening 24-minute montage to — which in “Raising Arizona” is “Ode to Joy” for banjo and whistling — I went to “Caravan” as a piece of music that you can hear for 24 minutes and not be tired of it. We can reinvent in different ways, and some of it is just percussion.
With “Moanin’,” in the third season I used a song version in the first hour. This season, when we knew we were doing the jazz club and they asked me what piece of music I wanted to use, it occurred to me to use that same thing but to do it from an instrumental point of view. Again, it’s a kind of rhyme with the previous year, but there’s something about that music — it’s kind of the perfect piece.
Are you definitely done with “Fargo”?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve been saying I’m done for three years and I haven’t been, so it feels obnoxious to say it again. The show has always been about the American experience, and there’s still a lot to say about it. That said, I don’t have a timeline and I don’t even really have an idea. But I find myself compelled to come back to this style of storytelling: to tell a crime story, which is also a kind of character study and philosophical document exploration of our American experience. It’s not something I feel like I ever would have been allowed to do without the Coen Brothers’ model in the beginning, and now I can’t think of why I would do it in any other format. The tone of voice is also unique: It’s that Kafka setup to a tragic punchline, with a happy ending. That feels like a magic trick, if you can do it right.
Do you have much interaction with the Coens about the series, or feedback from them?
I do not. I have not spoken to them in a while. In the first two or three years I would make my way to New York and have a breakfast or a quick conversation from time to time. It’s never creative. It’s never about the show, other than they say, “You’re still making that thing?”
If they have something to volunteer, I’d love to hear it. But at the same time, their tacit neglect is — I still get a warm feeling from it. Because they’ve allowed me to do this. This grand experiment in storytelling that has been so fulfilling and enriching for me.