Fargo returns Wednesday for its highly anticipated third season, which sees Ewan McGregor playing dual starring roles (EW gave the first episode a rare “A” grade). Below, Fargo‘s Emmy-winning showrunner Noah Hawley takes our burning questions about the new season (no spoilers, of course), offering insight into his unique process for creating an entirely new crime story that features a new set of characters every season — yet somehow feels just like Fargo.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your original idea for this season?
NOAH HAWLEY: It always starts with a kind of scenario. The first year, it was two men sitting in an emergency room, and one was very civilized and the other was the opposite, and that made me go, “Well, who were the guys and what happens next? And the next year was a woman who drives home with a man sticking out of her car and makes dinner for her husband, and you think, “Who’s the guy in the windshield, and what happens next?”
This time I started with an idea fully formed: Two brothers played by same actor [Ewan McGregor] — and that was always part of it for some reason — their dad had died when they were young and left one of them a stamp collection and left the other a car. The one who got the car was older and smarter and realized that cars depreciated in value and got his younger brother to trade. The natural questions were: “Who were these brothers, and what happens next, and who else is in this story?” And you populate the world and look for the complications. So just having a brother-vs.-brother story is not enough. Fargo structurally has got to be done with enough moving parts on a collision course so that you cannot predict which parts are going to collide and when.
What makes this season unique compared to the previous two?
I think it’s very unpredictable. This show is born from that last exchange in the movie when Marge [tells the film’s arrested killer], “Here you are, and it’s a beautiful day, and for what? A little bit of money.” And so Fargo breaks down to the things we do for money, the crimes we’ll commit. Last year, there was the element of the death of the family business and the rise of corporate America. This year, it’s what comes next, the future of money crime, which is what V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) represents — this new kind of financial crime that’s more abstract.
You say it’s unpredictable. There are different kinds of unpredictability when it comes to Fargo. There are characters doing things you might not expect and running into people you don’t expect, or something that’s more far out, like a UFO showing up. Which kind of unpredictable do you mean?
Oh, I probably mean both those things. I think it’s very important on a human level when you got a lot of moving pieces on a collision course that there’s that element of randomness that’s meant to be realistic and lifelike. And there’s the unpredictability of human behavior, like Lester Nygaard [Martin Freeman], who kills his wife in a moment of passion thinking he’s still a good guy inside and then realizing over the course of that first year that he’s not, he’s a very bad person, and that’s very unpredictable. I do think in a Coen brothers world they play with elemental qualities — like Anton Chigurh [Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men] who seems more than human, or the lone biker of the apocalypse from Raising Arizona. I feel like all those elements are available to me, which keeps you guessing and keep you interested.
Stylistically, the first episode seems like — and I’m stealing from Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s comment to me here — that it’s like a combination of the first and second season, with some intimate, modern classic Fargo elements but with a bit of the stylishness of the second.
It doesn’t have the scale of the second season. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of characters. But we’re not asking you to follow a dozen characters from the beginning. It’s a more intimate story that grows naturally. It’s a bigger story in its scope, if not its scale, than season 1. This year feels like it starts simply and gets more complicated.
Season 3 takes place in 2010. What made that year right?
There’s a logic in my brain that if this is a true story, then it can’t be yesterday’s true story, it has to be long enough ago so that this is being told when the book would come out. The investigation is done, and now we can put it into perspective. I was interested in placing this season after the financial collapse since Emmit Stussy [McGregor] is in the real estate business — he’s the parking lot king of Minnesota — and there was a low point where he was over-leveraged and needed to borrow money, and he borrowed from somebody who he shouldn’t have borrowed from, and that becomes a catalyst for the season. So I wanted to have that desperation from the recent past that would explain why he might have taken a risk that now seems crazy when everything seems stable.
The previous two seasons had a strong connective story thread with the Solverson family. Is this more self-contained?
It’s pretty self-contained. Obviously, year 2 was an origin story and prequel to year 1. I did want to separate it and to tell a free-standing story. That said, there are some small elements that might connect to the film to earlier years.
You once teased that one actor from a previous season would show up. Is that still happening?
I wouldn’t look for that right away… but it might be in there somewhere.
Having one actor playing two characters adds a certain amount of production complexity and is a bit of a risk, though it can also help attract a big-name actor. What was the appeal for you?
I don’t know; it was just part of the idea creatively. I think we all accepted there would be some logistical challenges, but the show is not shot in a fantastical way, and the camerawork is very simple. When we’re filming a scene with Ewan in both roles, there’s really only one shot to marry them together. And the brothers aren’t in multiple scenes together in every episode.
What was it like working with Ewan playing two roles?
Ewan committed to gaining weight and shaving his head so we could create a hairpiece for him. I suggested to him it might be better if neither of these characters looks just like him. It takes some of the gimmickries out of it because that way it’s not [as if one character looks like him and the other is] somebody who doesn’t look like him; he’s transformed in both roles, and it’s a testament to his skill as an actor that you never confuse these two for each other. I was just happy that once he was on board, he was on board all the way.
You also have a female police chief as a lead character. Were you wary about doing that again after the movie and season 1, since it’s become a bit of a Fargo trope and you’re always striving to tell a different story?
There needed to be a justification for it. That said, because of Frances McDormand as Marge in the film, Fargo should have a strong female identity to it. If you have a police officer who is your lead who is female, that can cover a lot of it. Certainly, in our first year, Allison Tolman was a front-and-center lead of the show. Last year, I didn’t have [a female police officer], and it allowed me to create a strong female identity through multiple characters. This time we have Carrie Coon, and we have another female officer who comes in during the season. Allison was in no way Marge, but she was a variation on the theme of “Minnesota nice” and the more simple worldview and how the world was supposed to operate, etc. Carrie is playing somebody who is getting divorced. She was the chief of police, but now she’s getting absorbed into the county so she’s not sure what she is anymore. She’s a mom to a 12-year-old boy, and she’s trying to navigate that as well. As a result, she’s a more taciturn and prickly female police character than we’ve had, a little more closed off — which isn’t to say there isn’t a layer of “Minnesota nice,” but she’s harder to get close to. I was trying to create a modern woman and somebody who is not a fan of technology and the oversharing on Facebook. She’s facing more complex issues than the woman of the previous seasons and the movie.
That this season tackles technology is something a couple of the actors have mentioned.
Hopefully, it’s subtle to some degree. I’m not opposed to technology. Since these stories are always about people in danger, the idea of “Minnesota nice” as I’ve defined it is a kind of strategy created by people who lived in real isolation on a frozen island for much of the year. So this overly friendly way of interaction is a direct byproduct of trying to create a community. But what happens when that community is replaced by an online community where you can have 300 friends on Facebook versus 10 actual friends in person?I don’t necessarily have a point of view about it, I just wanted to think about it. Gloria is a little technophobic because she doesn’t see how it’s making things better. So yeah, there’s some of that in there, and the crimes have a more technical aspect, as modern crime tends to have. I wanted to bring the story into the modern era. In season 1 there were cell phones, but it still felt like a small-town story. In this one, I wanted to engage in the modern world — not to necessarily comment on it, but to make it more realistic.
I wanted to compliment you on your awesome character names. Nikki Swango, V.M. Varga, Gloria Burgle… they’re like something out of J.K. Rowling. What’s your process for coming up with them?
It just has to feel right. You want them to be distinctive and stand out, but you don’t want them to be like Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace character names where there’s such a heightened-ness to the name that it’s hard to see them as a real person. A lot of times, it has to do with vowel sounds, how if feels in your mouth when you say that name. Carrie’s boss is Moe Dammik because that’s how my 4-year-old son curses. He says, “Dammik!”
Speaking of Swango, you’re adding competitive bridge as an element this year, which isn’t something you often see in movies or TV; it’s not a game that’s so common that the audience can follow along while watching like they can with poker or blackjack.
Yeah, I’m bringing postage stamps and bridge back. To the degree there’s any nod to The Big Lebowski in this season, I like the idea that bridge, like bowling, is an out-of-time, forgotten game with archaic rules and leagues. It’s also a game played by people around the country. It’s not sophisticated culturally, but it is very common. The more I looked into it, the more I realized it’s a hugely strategic game with [635,013,559,600] possible deals, and [players] use probability matrixes the way they do in quantum mechanics. It’s a hugely complicated game. And I wanted Ray and Nikki to have something positive they were working toward as a goal, and I liked that Nikki was the strategist and he’s a strong support player, but he’s not the brains of the operation. So it allows her to be a strategist the way a chess player is a strategist — which will come in handy for her later on.
And what do you want to tell us about our mysterious villain, Mr. Varga?
He’s sort of an invisible man. He does not look like a master criminal and presents himself as middle management in a larger organization. He exists like Malvo [Billy Bob Thornton in season 1] or Anton; there’s a part of him that seems larger than life or elemental, like a character like this has always been around, appealing to men’s greed and driving them to madness. It’s a very grounded and human story, but there are elements of fable to it as well. He’s a character out of Faust on some level. He worms his way in by suggesting he’s one thing and then turns out to be something greater. He comes in appealing to Emmit’s inherent greed. He’s a chaos agent on that level. So you start out with this war between two brothers, and then you add in this much more dangerous criminal element, and you realize these brothers are putting themselves in great danger by putting themselves into this petty skirmish.
Final thoughts to tease up our readers for the new season?
Everyone you see is going to have a very satisfying journey. I didn’t design it to be more comedic, but there’s a lot of humor in this season. And then, of course, at a certain moment it gets darker, and all those people who made you laugh you start to worry about.