Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley takes us through the show’s first season

Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley takes us through the show’s first season

On structure and preconceptions

Before FX’s miniseries version of Fargo debuted in April, a tendency to scoff at the show for having the temerity to adapt the classic film was at least somewhat common. But when the series quickly succeeded at capturing the film’s tone while telling its own story, those suspicions quickly turned to critical praise and a loyal viewership. Those plaudits are thanks to the hard work of writer Noah Hawley, whose work prior to this series included a stint as a writer on Bones, before he created The Unusuals and My Generation. Even though those two earlier series were ambitious for network television, they certainly didn’t suggest Hawley might be as proficient at dabbling in the Coen universe as he ultimately proved to be. The A.V. Club spoke with Hawley about the process of adapting the film, how the Midwest is Siberia with family restaurants, and why Molly never got to meet Malvo. Plot details about the entire series, including last night’s finale, are discussed in detail.

The A.V. Club: When you started work on the series, what was your familiarity with small-town Midwestern life?

Noah Hawley: Relatively paltry. I have spent a lot of time in small-town Texas, and it’s an interesting dynamic. The people I know down there have a similar stoicism and wit that’s very dry. I think in an interesting way, my job was not to portray Minnesota as it is in real life. It was to portray the Minnesota that Joel and Ethan portrayed in the movie.

AVC: What did you take from the movie in regards to that?

NH: There were a couple things. I really liked the fact that it was very hard for people to communicate with each other. Jerry Lundegaard, especially, I don’t think he ever finished a sentence. It felt to me like a regional thing, where someone who’s so buttoned up and constrained by polite society, to make a declarative sentence is to risk offending someone, so he was always stopping and starting and sneaking up on his meaning, and that was a really fun way to write. The other thing was, in the Garrison Keillor, Lutheran Minnesota sense, you would never want to presume to tell someone how you’re feeling, nor would you ever risk offending them by asking them how they’re feeling. All of the emotion of the moment has to become subtext, which I also find really interesting. Lastly, that region plays very well into the Coen lack of melodrama, so the minute you remove all those things, you end up with Fargo.

AVC: You knew when you sat down you were going to do this in one season. How did you break out that structure? Did you have a rough idea of where you were going?

NH: It was all very planned. In order to set the show up with FX, I think I had a 20-page pitch document. I walked in with a map of the region, I talked them through a sort of overview of what I thought the movie was and what I thought the Coen brothers’ sensibility was and how I thought it could be translated to TV. But they were looking for a series, and I said, “Well, I don’t think it’s a series.” And I don’t think it’s a series because the movie ends the way it ends, which is Marge going to bed, and she’s seven months pregnant, and Norm got the three-cent stamp, and she’s seen the worst case she’ll ever see, and you know tomorrow’s going to be a normal day. I thought if we did the “continuing adventures of,” it’s going to start to seem disingenuous. I think we like leaving that movie feeling like the reward for this very decent woman in facing this very evil thing is that she gets to go back to her decent life, and that makes us feel better about the world. 

So I had that 20-page pitch document, and I wrote the first episode. Then they asked me for a season overview, which I gave them, which was only a five- or six-page document. Then we got picked up straight to series, and I told them that I’d be willing to write all of them because there was time. There was about six or seven months before we had to start prepping. I said give me four writers in a room, and we’ll break the remaining nine episodes, which is what we did. We broke the whole thing. We knew in very minute detail what every episode was going to be and how everything was going to tie up, and I presented a 115-page outline to the network, and they scheduled a three-hour conversation, which, given my battered-woman experience in broadcast, made me think that they hated every word of it. But really it was just that I’d given them 115 pages, and they wanted to give me the respect to talk about it in detail. I made a few adjustments after that conversation, and then I went off to start writing. I gave them two or three scripts at a time, so I didn’t have to keep stopping and starting, and then we got going.

AVC: The season is so well structured. Almost everything fits, and then the things that don’t fit are intriguing loose ends that are fun to have hanging out there. What were some of the struggles in coming up with that structure? 

NH: At the beginning of every episode, it says, “This is a true story,” which, of course, it’s not. But when you say something’s true, it gives you the leeway to tell a story in a different way. You don’t have to follow that Joseph Campbell hero’s journey. In fact, if you do, it doesn’t feel real. In that first meeting with FX, I said, “What we have to figure out is what is our Mike Yanagita,” who is the guy from high school who calls Marge out of the blue and turns out to be nuts, and you’re like, “Why is this in the movie?” But it’s in the movie, in my opinion, because it’s one of those details where you’re like, “Well, they wouldn’t put it in the movie unless it really happened. It has nothing to do with anything.” So that was the issue for us: On the one hand, what are those digressions, those scenes or moments that could only be in there because they actually happened, because otherwise you wouldn’t put them in the show? 

The other aspect of it was our heroes, Molly and Gus, for lack of a better description of them. In a traditional TV show or movie, your hero is always where the action is. But in real life, at the end of the movie Fargo, when Bill Macy is arrested, Marge is nowhere to be found because it’s a different jurisdiction, and she wouldn’t be there. I took that to heart. So some of the issues were, okay, Gus is going to arrest Malvo in episode four, and he’s going to call Molly and tell her to come, but of course, she doesn’t get to go because her boss goes. What you want is the scene of Molly and Malvo, but you’re not getting it. Then, of course, Molly has to be doing something just as interesting in her story because you can’t not tell a story about her. Or in episode six, Gus and Molly are just driving around having coffee while Malvo is setting up Don Chumph and paying that off, and Stavros is burying the money. It’s not until the very end that those storylines intersect with Gus and Molly’s storyline. So those were the challenges, really—how to make something very plotted out feel slightly random.

AVC: Turning to Molly, it seems like there’s a lot of unstated discussion here about how people don’t really take her or her ideas seriously because she’s a woman. How much were you conscious of critiquing that?

NH: That wasn’t really a motive for me. I think with Bill, it was less about who Molly is and more about who Bill is. Maybe at first you think he’s a kind of comic foil, but over the 10 episodes, you realize that he is actually hard-wired. Bill is a really decent guy who doesn’t want to live in a world where his friend from high school could be capable of murder, and he goes to herculean lengths to deny that. That causes a lot of trouble for Molly, who of course is just trying to investigate the case. My hope in the end is that you have a lot more sympathy for Bill than you ever thought you would, and you realize that he’s just not cut out for this job or this world. So he wasn’t up against Molly because she was a woman. Nor do I really feel like Key and Peele… I mean there’s that moment I guess in law enforcement when they see a last name, they assume it’s a man. But that didn’t really play much into it for me.

AVC: One thing that comes up a lot is the idea of preconceived notions, like Bill not being able to think of Lester as a murderer because he knew him in high school. Where did you draw that from?

NH: It’s our biggest obstacle, really. They say, famously, no one believes what they see. They see what they believe. I think a big part of how Malvo operated was to figure out who people were and what made them tick and what their weaknesses are, which has a lot to do with their preconceptions. Figuring out that Stavros, that there was a secret there that had to do with money and something to do with God and just playing on that was a way that he could really undermine that. Then I think for Gus, he had this preconception that when he arrested Malvo, Malvo was going to follow the rules and be a criminal and be interviewed and either break or ask for a lawyer. He never in a million years expected him to game the system and was really shocked and kind of offended by the fact that this guy, who of course is this terrible murderer, could also be a liar. That was really interesting to me.

AVC: We never do get that scene where Molly confronts or even talks to Malvo. She sees him once in the blizzard, and then she sees him as a corpse. Why did you make that decision?

NH: I don’t know. It was sort of funny to me, I guess. It’s a maddening thing, but to whatever degree, she says in episode 10, “A man like that, may be not even a man.” Malvo remains a sort of elemental force and a representation of evil or savagery as her dad put it. I guess I felt like there was something real lifelike about that, that she would chase this ghost for 10 episodes and then the only time she would see him is after he was dead. The movie did that moment so well with Peter Stormare and Marge—“Here you are, and it’s a beautiful day.” I’m sure if I’d done the scene I would have had something to add to it, but it just seemed like the white whale that she’s been chasing. She just didn’t end up catching him.

AVC: There are places where you quote the movie very directly, sometimes even in dialogue, and there are places where you skew away from it. What made the difference in your approach?

NH: There’s an interesting dynamic when people have expectations, which is that, as a storyteller, you can either steer into those expectations or you can use them against them. I feel like I did some of both. I think there is that moment in the hospital room when Molly says, “And here you are, and you have a dad somewhere I bet.” It’s the same sort of moment, and that feels like a moment that any decent small-town cop is going to get to with any hardened criminal, which is a basic lack of understanding why a person would do something like that and how a person could do something like that. 

There’s this great Ron Rosenbaum book called Explaining Hitler, which is all about the different theories of how Hitler became Hitler and why Hitler was Hitler. One of the things that he explores at the end is this idea that to explain is to excuse and that trying to understand a monster’s act is, in and of itself, monstrous. I think for really good-hearted people, that idea of putting yourself in the shoes of a monster to figure out why they acted that way, that’s a really frightening idea. So that was a question of steering into it. Then we did our year jump and Molly is revealed to be pregnant, and at that moment, the audience goes, wait a minute, now it really is the movie. Now they have this set of expectations, which, of course, in episode 10 when Gus tells her to stay put, and she just can’t, and she gets her keys and goes to the car and drives toward Lester, we are now expecting a certain event to happen. Therefore, when that doesn’t happen, there’s an unpredictable nature of what’s going to happen, and you’re coming into it with an assumption. I find that moment when you can surprise people… Those are the moments that are the most satisfying, when you didn’t see something coming but something happens that is really profound and interesting and exciting.

AVC: You’ve mentioned that this story is about the best of what humans are capable of versus the worst of what they’re capable of. How did you see that playing out within the framework of this story?

NH: Not to make another World War II reference, but that was how I’d talk about it: You had a very different America back in that day and age, and you had this real evil arise in the world. I like to think that Americans put down their plowshares and they picked up their guns and they went off to fight. They did it so that when they came back, they could put the guns down and pick up the plowshares again, and it plays into the end of the movie, as I said before. Marge is going back to her life as normal. So we’ve been trained now, in the modern age of television, that our cops have to become these haunted demon hunters who take on all the world’s pain and evil so that we don’t have to, and that’s not what this is. This is about someone with some common sense and some good values facing down real evil and then going back to their life. That’s the element that I wanted to play with. In playing with Gus and exploring his cowardice, which I never saw as a negative, just that he has this fear, and it’s fear for himself physically but also fear that his daughter is going to end up with no one. I felt like exploring that really humanized him. I think that’s a great quality as well.

AVC: Malvo is a really fascinating character, but in the finale, he’s sort of revealed to be just a man instead of this almost supernatural force. How did you build that character out from the notion of being this terrible murderer into this very specific take on that archetype?

NH: I was really attracted to not doing your standard, garden-variety sociopath or psychopathic killer. He’s not a serial killer. He has a much different motivation, which I found really interesting. He just has this fascination with taking a civilized person and turning them into an animal. How far can you push people? And what was great about that is it made him a very anarchic figure, one who was just as interested to see if he could get a kid to urinate in his boss’ gas tank as he was to see if he could get away with blackmailing a guy for a million dollars. He would never pass up an opportunity to mess with somebody, which I think makes him a very fun character. The flip side of that is when you take a character like that and you put him in an environment like this, into polite society where Lester would tie himself up in knots not to incriminate the guy who broke his nose, the violence he does to the social contract is almost as bad as the real violence that he does.

AVC: Lester is also a fascinating take on what evil can look like, but he is someone that you almost invite the audience to sympathize and empathize with. Where in that spectrum were you hoping people would fall on him?

NH: I think we judge Lester differently from Malvo, because Malvo is obviously a scorpion. But when we meet Lester, he’s wearing human clothes. I think we set these expectations for him. We meet him, and he seems like this hen-pecked guy, and he seems out of his league and outmatched, and he snaps, literally, and kills his wife and is sort of panicked. But he does try to frame Malvo for it, which is the first indication we have that there’s more of a strategy at work here. In the next couple of episodes, we see him just scrambling to get away with it. He’s scrambling to avoid the cops, and then suddenly these other two guys come to town and he’s got to get away from them. It’s not really until episode six when he’s in the hospital and he escapes and plants the gun that we realize that maybe just getting away with it isn’t enough for him. And that moment where Malvo says, “Your problem is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t.” There was a moment of infection, really, where Malvo infected Lester with this idea, and it really took hold in him. By the end, he’s evolved into someone who believes that the ends completely justify the means.

AVC: Especially with the Lester story, you play around with the tropes of the cable antihero drama. What’s your relationship with those shows, and how consciously were you playing off of those tropes, particularly when inserting them into the world of Fargo, the film?

NH: I’ve always been attracted to ensembles and having a lot of moving pieces and putting them together in an intricate way. I feel like the Coens have a similar interest, so there seemed to be a like-mindedness there that worked for me. When you’re making a 10-hour movie versus a two-hour movie, you need more pieces. You need more story. We needed Wrench and Numbers to come to town to put the squeeze on Lester to put him into motion, and we needed them to ultimately collide with Malvo. My original thought was that Wrench and Numbers would send Malvo back to Bemidji to confront Lester since Lester gave him up, but that didn’t end up being the way the story unfolded. Instead we did the year jump and the Vegas turn. 

I think when you’re telling a non-fiction story that’s actually fictional, all the clichés and tropes are there to avoid, really, and the minute you create something unpredictable, people will put down their tablet or their phone or whatever else they’re doing. Because audiences are so smart these days that they take one look at a character, and they’re like, “Well, he’s going to die, and they’re going to sleep together.” When that stuff doesn’t happen, people really sit up and pay attention.

AVC: In the early going especially, there was a lot of concern that Malvo and Lester were going to keep getting away with things and never be punished. How far were you thinking you could push that?

NH: I don’t know that I thought about it in those terms. Someone asked me yesterday about whether I had entertained the idea of ending this season more darkly, and it had never really occurred to me, because I was hired to adapt this movie, and the movie ends the way that it ends. So I always had a sense that good would triumph over evil, but at that same time, I didn’t want the audience to know that was going to happen. There was a moment after episode six where the feedback was that the show had gotten so dark and really twisted, and we’re worried now that no light will ever shine through again. And, of course, you have to reach that moment in order for good triumphing to have real meaning. You have to get to that darkest place. Again, it’s about understanding how what you write is going to impact people and using that to your advantage.

AVC: There are a lot of characters that are mirrors for each other, that really balance each other within the structure. How did you work with that in terms of building out how this world operated, or with how they reflected off characters from the film?

NH: It’s interesting. FX said, “We want to do a series of the movie, we’re wondering if it can be done without Marge,” by which they meant any of the characters from the movie, by which they meant, “Can you make us a Coen brothers movie?” It was a really fascinating challenge, and I sort of saw it as someone shows you a painting of a city and they want you to recreate the painting without using any of the buildings. So the challenge becomes how to create something that makes you feel the same thing you felt when you watched the movie, and some of that had to do with familiarity. We start with an insurance salesman instead of a car salesman, and he seems like a similar kind of guy, hen-pecked by his wife and bullied. But now you have a set of expectations for what his journey is going to be, which turned out not to be Jerry’s journey at all. 

I also knew that if I introduced Molly as the chief of police, everyone would make this direct comparison. Allison [Tolman] is amazing, but Frances McDormand won an Oscar, and that performance is so iconic. So I cheated, and I created the Vern character. I gave him a pregnant wife, so the audience would say, “Oh, I see what he’s doing. He switched it, and now he’s got a pregnant wife.” Then, of course, I snuck Molly in through the side door as a sidekick character. You don’t think she’s going to be the hero of your show, and then Vern gets killed, and Molly steps up. Hopefully since you haven’t made that direct comparison to Marge, you’re going to give Allison the benefit of the doubt and let her be who she is.

AVC: You did some nice stuff in playing Gus and Lou off each other as similar figures, and that explains so much about Molly’s relationship with both. How did you come to that notion?

NH: I like the mirroring there as well, of the single father and his daughter. I think story-wise, it made that moment when Gus shows up to say, “I let Malvo go,” and Molly says “Why?” and then Greta steps up and says “Do you have a dollar for the vending machine?” and Molly instantly recognizes why he would do that. I did it for that moment, but it also worked overall. She’s going to have a soft spot in her heart for a single dad, I think, and so obviously a good and decent guy, as is Lou, but I like those parallels. Originally, I think at the end of episode seven when Lou was driving Molly home from the hospital, we had another scene which was Gus driving Greta home, and we just sort of paralleled those two moments. That didn’t end up making the cut, but I like that that dynamic is there. I like that these two half families come together to make a whole family.

AVC: Some of the characters, like Stavros and Wrench, leave the story almost before it seems their story is up. Was that also part of trying to keep the feeling of a non-fiction fiction story?

NH: That hospital scene with Malvo and Wrench was one of the only things I added that wasn’t in the outline. I did it partly because I just liked Russell [Harvard] so much. I thought his presence was so good. I liked the idea that Malvo had some respect there, and those guys got closer to him than anyone else, and that’s really interesting to him. There’s not a lot of surprises in his life anymore. But I also knew that by giving Russell that handcuff key, people were going to expect him to be out there for the last two episodes and play some kind of role in the end game, which is never a bad thing, to set some expectations and really create this tension where the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Stavros, we filmed a scene that was supposed to be in episode seven, but it just didn’t end up feeling necessary. It never felt like it pushed Stavros’ story forward. It felt ultimately like it slowed the episode down, so we took it out.

AVC: Why did you decide to have Budge and Pepper enter so relatively late?

NH: Obviously, Wrench and Numbers’ story plays out in six or seven episodes, and then you’re heading into your end game. It did feel like we needed another element, especially with the year jump that we knew we were going to do and the fact that Bill had basically written Molly off and that whole investigation was dead. The idea of bringing someone who had the power to open it back up again and legitimize her was really attractive. Then knowing we wanted to do this Fargo syndicate massacre and putting the FBI agents outside seemed funny to me, and then the limbo that those guys get dispatched to where they’re sort of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern existence… It wasn’t a huge story, but I liked that they were out there. I feel like we came up with a very organic way to bring all those pieces together.

AVC: The story really started out in that first episode with these four core characters, and then it expanded so far. Then it contracts again in the finale to be about those four. How did you get back to that place where it was really just about Molly and Malvo and Lester and Gus?

NH: You mean other than killing everybody else?

AVC: [Laughs.] Yes, other than that. You drag everybody back to Bemidji, which is not necessarily what you’d expect.

NH: When the network asked for a series document after I wrote the first episode I had season one as a circle. It’s about bringing Malvo back where he started, so that was always my end game. I would imagine the audience assumes as they’re watching the first episode that this whole season is going to be about Lester and Malvo and Malvo staying in town and whatever happens with it and the idea that, in our great American highway system, he’s just blowing through, moving on to something else. I like the idea that the story spreads like pollen on the wind, but at a certain moment, something draws Malvo back. The one thing he didn’t really expect was that Lester would have changed as much as he did.

AVC: Why isn’t Gus in trouble for shooting Malvo?

NH: I think in that small-town sense, it has this thing, when a dog goes rabid there’s no mistaking it for a normal dog. Everyone knows, whether or not Malvo was armed, it was an act of self-defense. There was a manhunt for this guy, and he was a lethal character, and I think Gus is married to the police department, so no one was really going to bust his balls about it.

AVC: How did the image of the wolf occur to you?

NH: We have a lot of animal imagery throughout the season. We did drop fish from the sky, after all. There was a moment where I really liked the way that it came out, which is Malvo is injured and he’s on the sofa. He looks out the window, and he sees the wolf, and he realizes that he’s not the predator anymore. He’s the prey now. At that moment, Gus steps out of the shadows, and there’s a smile on Malvo’s face. I feel like Joel and Ethan have described this region as Siberia with family restaurants, and that image is so compelling to me, of the fact that these people could be living in a wilderness where you could freeze to death in a parking lot, and they go from mall to home and they think they’re living in the civilized world and they’re not at all. Malvo was a representation of that, of what happens when a civilized man puts on his mukluks and goes out into the wilderness. Lester was the civilized man, and Malvo was what he brings back.

AVC: Thinking back over the season, what are some of your favorite moments?

NH: I have to say, I loved the parable sequence that we shot. That was really one of those “why is this in here?” things. That story and the theme of it, how much is enough, how much of yourself do you give, is really central to Molly and Gus’ journey, and I loved the Serious Man non-sequitur-ness of it. I loved how it came out. 

The blizzard episode was a bear. There’s no doubt about it. I don’t know that I’d ever do a blizzard episode again, but I think it came out really beautiful. I was able, by some miracle, to put this cast together where I personally feel like there isn’t a false note. There isn’t a scene that I’m not happy to watch over and over again, which is rare. But we set out to make a film, cinematically, and I feel like we pulled that off.

AVC: Are you hoping to work on another iteration of this, or are you feeling comfortable with this being the only version?

NH: I do feel comfortable with it. I would drop the microphone right now and live off this the rest of my days, I feel like. That said, I do really like telling stories in this tone, in this region. Ultimately it becomes about the fact that I have a network and studio that I’m working with who really believe that my idea of what the best I can do is, is the best. I can’t tell you the joy there is in the process of saying that we’re going to drop fish from the sky, or we’re going to do a parable sequence, or we’re going to have this ultraviolence in this scene and then there’s going to be comedy, and everyone is just… They just love it. I feel like I’ve hypnotized everyone, and the effects are going to wear off any minute.

Filed Under: TV, FX, Fargo

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