Noah Hawley talks tonight's motel massacre and that jaw-dropping moment.
Warning: This post contains spoilers about Monday’s ninth episode of Fargo.
Since Fargo‘s first season, showrunner Noah Hawley has been teasing fans with 1979’s fabled “Massacre at Sioux Falls.”
And since the beginning of the current second season, the Emmy-winning series has included vague and mysterious references to UFOs.
Tonight’s episode, “The Castle,” paid off both running story threads, rather spectacularly.
We spoke with writer-producer Hawley about the hugely suspenseful Motor Motel shoot-out that brought together so many of his characters into one deadly confrontation, and then we discussed that jaw-dropping extraterrestrial interruption.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been teasing “The Massacre at Sioux Falls” since season one. How long did you know what you were going to do there, and did you change anything significant along the way?
Noah Hawley: All we knew coming out of our first year was there was a massacre in Sioux Falls. Part of the fun of figuring out the second year was deciding when that was going to happen. We could have started the season with that, it could have been in the middle, or the end. We wanted to do it in an organic way that would bring these characters into collision. Certainly the characters who survived long enough to collide are not the ones you thought would survive, or the ones you thought would be the big players. I don’t think anybody thought Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon) would be the driving force into our endgame, which is very exciting. We were always wondering if we were going to find the right actor [to play Hanzee]; it’s not a role you see a lot on TV, and luckily Zahn walked in the room. He’s just phenomenal in the role. He owns the screen without ever saying that much. We also set up all three parties to collide, but the reality is Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) doesn’t even make it there. Potentially it could be a polarizing hour, even before you even see a UFO. I’m very attracted the idea of unpredictability. If you make your characters real characters and set them in motion, they’re not always going to end up where the audience thinks they’ll end up.
It’s a good point about Milligan because he’s the one character we were told was definitely going to be at the motel last week, and he’s the one character who shows up late to all the action. Then he gets the best line in the episode, when he shows up and sees all the carnage and mayhem: “Okay then…” Has it surprised you that Woodbine, who was perhaps the lowest-profile actor among your major characters going into the season, has received one of the biggest reactions among fans?
I knew from the first day of shooting with him that he was bringing something extraordinary to the role. It was always envisioned being a fun role. I told Bokeem that Mike is the one character who knows what movie he’s in. There’s a little bit of Malvo in him that way. I had hoped the audience would spark to him the way they did. But I would watch dailies and we have so many big names and I would think, “Bokeem is stealing this movie.” Then I would see Rachel Keller playing Simone and then I’m thinking, “Maybe she’s stealing this movie,” or the same with Zahn. Everybody rose to the occasion.
Did you always intend on keeping Milligan around through the finale or did that shift?
I did — for reasons that will become clear when you see the finale. One of the things I’m attracted to is creating empathy for all the characters. You can have Mike Milligan appear to be a playful-but-violent character, and in the seventh hour he has screwed up the whole thing up, and they’re coming to knock him off, and you feel for him. And Hanzee, who in some ways the most impenetrable and Anton Chigurh-like character, then you see what he has to go through just to get a glass of water. Those moments are hopefully unexpected and make it hard to know who to root for, which makes the violence that’s an inevitable part of this brand less entertaining and more challenging for the audience. I don’t think violence should ever be fun.
What can you tell us about the cold open with the book of true crime?
It was always my idea to open that hour with a book, The Big Book of True Crime in the Midwest. I always had conceptual idea that there was a big book of true crime, and each of these Fargo stories was a chapter. I can’t say everything I do is 100 percent successful, but it felt like the book was a fun framing device, the idea that a show, even in the ninth hour, is trying to tell a story in the most interesting way, and get the audience to ask these questions.
And that narrator somebody we know?
Yeah, it’s Martin Freeman. There you go.
With Hanzee, it’s so interesting that this impervious, cold, murderous character who’s been lurking in the background for so long, all of a sudden in that bar scene we find ourselves rooting for him to go First Blood on these people. But tonight a couple times you have the narrator talking about Hanzee’s motivation, and I couldn’t tell if you had a tough time figuring out why he’s doing this in the writers room and just decided to shine a spotlight on that creative problem, or whether you wanted to deliberately keep his motivation vague.
At certain point in the editorial process it did feel like those questions [needed to be] asked. Was him killing Dodd premeditated? When did he decide to turn on the rest of the family? Anton Chigurh was easier to understand, because he was after the money. This is a little more complicated because it requires Hanzee to bite the hand that feeds him.
One of my favorite things in the episode was when Floyd (Jean Smart) was talking on the phone to Hanzee and you see on the wall next to her all the height progress marks of her kids.
Oh thank you. That was something that occurred to me while prepping to shoot this hour. If you go back and look in episode 5, we had to add that in as a visual effect because it wasn’t there when we [originally shot the fifth episode]. We’re not a melodramatic show but the real emotion of what she’s lost has to be accounted for, and that seemed like an elegant way of saying they all grew up, they’re all dying. They were all children once, and this is how it ends.
Her abrupt line in the car, “I miss them all,” was heartbreaking despite her sins.
I always think of Clive Owen’s last line in The Bourne Identity: “Look at what they make you give.” In this case, it’s nobody’s fault but their own. It’s the problem with the desire for conquest. None of those people ever get to grow old.
Fans have been expecting Ted Danson’s likable and sweet Sheriff Hank to die tragically from pretty much the moment he stepped on screen. He was surprisingly looking pretty clear-eyed in that last scene despite his gunshot wound. Is he out of the woods or should we be worried about him?
He’s not dead yet. And look, if Jon Snow could be alive, I wouldn’t rule anything out. The only reason to kill him would be if it’s important to the story. We’re not cruel people. I do feel like it’s unreasonable to expect in a world between the good and the-opposite-of-the-good that there aren’t going to be causalities. We’ll see.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You finally paid off the UFO teases with, yes, a massive hovering UFO. What are you prepared to tell us about this?
Noah Hawley: I haven’t prepared anything. There are going to be people who will smack the TV and go, “Come on!” and that’s a great reaction. Everybody is entitled to their reaction. I like to say that everything in there is because it actually happened in the world of our “true story,” and in this case there was a UFO. I haven’t seen or heard any of the responses yet, so I’d be responding to phantoms.
In addition to Fargo being “based on a true story,” can you say what was your inspiration for including the UFO in the first place?
The Coen Bros. sometimes put something in because it’s funny, but that doesn’t mean it’s meant to be comic. … There’s a couple things that felt right about it. One is that it plays very well into the conspiracy-minded 1979 era where it’s post-Watergate, you had Close Encounters and Star Wars. There was a Minnesota UFO encounter [in 1979] involving a state trooper. It was certainly in the air at the time. Alternately in the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There they had a [running UFO thread]; certainly it was more ’50s inspired, but it was part of the cinematic language of their movie. So it felt like it worked for the time period and worked for the filmmakers, and is a way of saying “accept the mystery” — which is a staple of the Coen Bros. philosophy in their films. And I thought it was funny. But obviously it affects the story in a very real way. It’s not just a background element.
I’m just picturing you in the writers room at some point going: “You know what? I’m going to put a UFO in this season, and just see if I can pull that off.” Because I know you like to challenge yourself and see how far you can push it, and you had to think that if you could creatively pull it off, it would be pretty impressive.
An executive from MGM came to take us all to lunch before the season and they said, “Can you tell us anything about this season?” and I said, “Yeah, we’re going to make three fictional Ronald Reagan movies and there’s a UFO.” There was a long beat and they said, “So can you tell us anything about this season?” Nobody expected Fargo to be about any of those things in the second year. Ultimately what I think is exciting about a fake true crime story is that in actual history there’s a lot that we understand and there’s a lot of it we’ll never understand. The Zapruder film captured the JFK assassination, and we still don’t know what happened. It’s not just that truth is stranger than fiction, it’s that what we call truth is a small part of the historic picture. There are so many elements that usually get weeded out of the story so you can have a simpler narrative.
What was FX’s reaction?
Nobody said, “Don’t do it.” Look, there was a lot of conversation as we were prepping to shoot. “Can we see some pre-visualization? What’s really going on with the UFO? Is it really a UFO or is it a weather balloon?” So going into that, they find that balloon in the second hour. There were some people [at the network] who wanted the UFO to be shot in a way so that it could have actually been a balloon. My feeling was always, “No, it’s a UFO. It is what it is.” We put a lot of references to it, maybe too many references. But it pays off, obviously.
I was impressed that in the moments leading up to that, you managed to generate so much suspense over the fate of the only character that we know is going to survive, Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson; a character that was also in the first season set in 2006). I worried about him, and then this happened. Then afterward you have Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) with that great dismissive line. It’s almost like you don’t know how to feel and need to process it.
At the end of the day, Peggy’s line sums it up — “It’s just a flying saucer Ed, we need to go.” I like your “I don’t know, I need to think about it” reaction. So much storytelling, especially on television, is a spoon-fed experience with clarity of all things. You’re going to have to see the end of the story and look back at it and ask how you feel about the deus ex machina of a UFO saving Lou Sovlerson’s life and what would happen if it hadn’t. I think those elements in a story are really exciting because we’re so unused to having them. We usually separate our genres more neatly. To suddenly have a genre element come into a dramatic story is exciting.
What do you want to say about next week’s finale?
I really don’t want to give anything away. We have Peggy out there, Hanzee in pursuit, and Lou after them. And how are we going to wrap it up, and what’s the takeaway going to be? I feel like last year we ended very strongly; we had a complete arc for the characters, and it ended in a neat way. We can’t repeat ourselves, but I’d like to be somebody who’s good at ending things. I see Fargo as a tragedy with a happy ending, and those elements have to be there. And just because that the story is over doesn’t mean these characters aren’t still going on. My hope is that at the end of the 10 hours you’ll want to go back and watch it again.
Check out Kevin Sullivan’s recap of the episode here.