‘Fargo’ creator Noah Hawley talks season 1

“Fargo” concluded its first (and possibly only) season last night. I reviewed the finale here, and I spoke with the show’s creator, Noah Hawley, about some of the big developments in the finale, and the possibility of future “Fargo” adventures, coming up just as soon as I go into space despite being afraid of spiders…

Before we get to the Q&A, I should note that having just moderated two different panels with Hawley at the ATX Television Festival (including one right after a screening of last week’s episode, which you can hear the audio of at the end of the latest Nerdist Writers Panel podcast), I tried to avoid asking him a bunch of repeat questions. I think the only ground we trod over again was on the question of a sequel season, but here’s what I can recall from other notable bits of discussion:

* Mr. Wrench was inspired in part by Hawley living near the Texas School for the Deaf when he was living in Austin working on ABC’s “My Generation.”

* For Malvo, he was inspired by both other Coen brothers villains (which he talks about again below), but also the basic idea of chaos coming to a relatively civilized place. He liked that a place like Minnesota was settled despite its incredibly hostile winter environment, and how people have simply figured out how to deal with the threat of nature over the centuries; Malvo was supposed to represent a more primal threat that the likes of Molly and Bill are not prepared for.

* He loved the fake “true story” structure of the original film, and felt it gave him license for strange detours and monologues and parables and whatnot, and also to do the big time jump in episode 8. “Sometimes, cases just go cold,” he said. He felt the deviations from the basic plot added a lot of color to the story, while also maintaining the illusion of this as being based on something that really happened, even though he wholly invented it.

* He didn’t ask for the Coen brothers’ permission before tying the plot of the film and show together with Stavros Milos finding the satchel Carl buried in the snow. “Better to ask forgiveness later than permission,” he said. In general, he’s heard very little from the Coens, which he takes as a good sign.

* Again, we’ll get more into the idea of possible future seasons below, but he said he loved that the ending of the movie suggests that Marge’s life goes back to normal after the Lundegaard case, and that it’s only interesting if this is the only case of its kind she deals with in her career, rather than her becoming a magnet for violence and bizarre criminality. So he’d be inclined to make any sequel season involve a new set of characters; when I jokingly asked if he might just spin off a different Coen brothers movie like “The Big Lebowski,” he said he had a lot of ideas for the universe of “Ladykillers.” (Apparently, this is a running gag with him; when Fienberg asked him a similar question on the set in Calgary, Hawley said he wanted to do “A Serious Man: The Series.”)

On to the interview…

Were you able to map this whole story out in advance, or was it made up as you went along through the season?

Noah Hawley: In order to get the job to do it, basically, I had a 20 page pitch document, which had a lot of big picture stuff and overview stuff, and a general sense. Very specific on the pilot, but a general overview. After we had planned to go to series, they asked me for a series document, which I gave them, which laid out some of the bigger story arcs. That was around February of last year, and it became clear that there was no way to shoot until it snowed, which was going to be a whole 10 months. I suggested I could write the remaining nine episodes, which everybody liked. I said, “Give me four writers in a room for 12 weeks, and we’ll break all nine episodes, and give you an outline, and I’ll go off and start writing, and I’ll probably give you 2 or 3 episodes at a time.” And that’s what I did. So I got into a room with four writers, and we broke the whole season in very minute detail. I gave the network a 115-page outline, and sat down with Mr. Landgraf and everyone, and had a three hour discussion about it, and then I went off and started writing.

So then everything that happened in this finale was roughly planned out last year?

Noah Hawley: It was all there. Nothing changed dramatically. There were a few things that were tweaked, a couple of things I added, but the overall structure of what we’d broken, and the scenes as laid out were the scenes that I wrote.

Let’s talk about the decision to have Gus execute Malvo. Obviously, he needs a certain amount of redemption for his earlier cowardice at the traffic stop, but this is a serious thing he does here, and that other people seem somewhat okay with. Why did you make the decision to have him do that, and to not have Molly and the other cops too troubled by it?

Noah Hawley: Thank you for noticing it’s a big deal. It is both a hero moment but also morally questionable on some level. For me, the question is, he shoots Malvo when he’s sitting there injured and unarmed. Is it an act of bravery or an act of cowardice? It’s not for me to make that choice, but I do feel like Gus has seen what Malvo is capable of and how he can seem to escape from a locked room, and knows that the only way this will ever end is if Malvo ends. There is a nuclear option that he goes with, which is a choice that I think everyone realizes that this is a man who is responsible for the death of a lot of people, and no one’s going to mourn for him. I went back and forth on whether Gus should be the ultimate arbiter of Malvo’s exit. This being a “true story” is important to me that it unfold in a way that did not feel like the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey, but feel like real life with all its messiness and coincidence, where things don’t add up in a storybook way. So I was resistant early on to this idea that we had set up Gus vs. Malvo so clearly, that I was resistant to the idea that Gus would be responsible. Until we got much closer to breaking that episode, and I realized that what we were setting up was Malvo vs. Lester, and then if we did our jobs right, we’d play out that Malvo vs. Lester bear trap set piece, and then hopefully the audience has forgotten is that Gus is in the cabin until he steps out of the shadows. And then what happens is a surprise. It’s not like you can set up for it. In realizing that, I really did feel like it was the best way to end it.

In terms of who could have been the one to stop Malvo, Molly was certainly an option, but Gus asks her to stand aside for the entire finale. Why did you decide to not have her play much of an active role here?

Noah Hawley: For similar reasons. Obviously, Gus has his motivation that he doesn’t want to go to another funeral and doesn’t want her out there putting herself in danger. Part of the motivation to jump ahead a year was to make her pregnant and give the audience that moment where they thought, “Wait, that is the movie.” But that realization comes with a set of expectations. Whether you think it consciously or not, you assume that the events of the show will play out similarly to the events of the movie. The point of sidelining her was to give her that moment where she’s sitting there on the sidelines and decides she can’t do that, so she picks up her stuff and goes to her car, at which point we’re all very worried that she’s going to walk into a woodchipper moment. And then she doesn’t, but it was a way for me, in terms of telling the whole story and not just Molly’s story, to set up an ending that felt both unpredictable and inevitable.

You talked before about the idea of Malvo as a man who can vanish out of a locked room. As you were writing the series, did you decide at a certain point that you were just going to treat him as a supernatural person, or did you have to say at every scenario, “How could a person actually do this?”

Noah Hawley: I’m a firm believer that when you make a Coen brothers movie, you have to accept the mystery. I had a number of discussions with the folks at MGM who kept asking, “How did he get out of that basement? Don’t we have to show an open window or something?” And I said, “No, I don’t know how he got out of that basement. You just have to accept the mystery.” It was Billy’s idea that Gus shoots him and he appears to be dead and then he sits up with that amazing grimace and smile with the bloody teeth. That was Billy’s desire to do it that way, and I find it so chilling, and for a moment, you ask, “Is this guy really human or what?” And, of course, he is in the end. But there is that elemental figure who runs through the Coens’ work from the lone biker of the apocalypse, to Anton Chigurh to even Peter Stormare. There is always this sense of a wild and elemental force. The Coens, in a lot of their movies, are making horror movies. There is a similar tension, and even morality, this idea that if you transgress, you will be punished, which is very much a horror movie mentality.

One of the things you set up right before the time jump was Malvo letting Mr. Wrench go and inviting him to come after him again if he wants to. That’s something you could have revisited at the end, but you chose not to.

Noah Hawley: That’s another element that’s out there. That scene was one of the only scenes I added after the outline process, in the second draft of episode 8. I did it for a couple of reasons. One was there wasn’t a lot of Malvo in that episode, and the other was that I wasn’t ready to let Mr. Wrench go. I just thought Russell Harvard was so great. He gets let out into the world, and sometimes there are loose ends. If the audience was expecting him to pop up at some time in the last two episodes, and that added an extra sense of tension, I wasn’t averse to that.

There was a lot of debate over the previous episode over what it is that Lester is expecting when he says “Yes” in the elevator. Malvo has asked him this exact question before, phrased that way, and when he didn’t answer “No,” Malvo killed Sam Hess. Does he understand that saying “Yes” will result in the deaths of everyone in that elevator? Or is he still that oblivious to what Malvo is capable of?

Noah Hawley: I don’t think he has any expectation that Malvo’s going to do that. I don’t think he’s thought it through as much. He wants to show Malvo that he’s a man now. Before, he answered by not answering, and he’s not going to do that again. There’s a certain amount of “Whose is bigger?” going on in that moment. Lester’s hubris is what led him to confront Malvo in the first place. My hope is that at the end of episode 8, the audience is wondering how Lester will get out of the room without Malvo seeing him, and then when he comes over in 9, you realize he has this almost pathological need to be recognized as something better than he was, that’s ultimately his undoing.

“Something better than he was,” and yet he’s capable of putting Linda into his parka.

Noah Hawley: Better or worse, it’s semantics.

But you were with me in that theater, listening to the crowd react with increasing dismay as he has her put on that hoodie. Was that the reaction you were hoping for?

Noah Hawley: Look, it’s an interesting dynamic. Part of why people are so horrified and disgusted with Lester is that unlike Malvo, who’s obviously a scorpion, when we meet Lester, he’s wearing human clothes. So we’re judging him against all the Judeo-Christian morality we have, and he fails miserably on all fronts. Part of it is interesting is because this is a man who planted a gun in a child’s backpack. Why we would still hold out any hope for his humanity, that’s a really interesting facet of how we react to stories. There are three parts to that moment. There’s Lester saying he tweaked his back and asking her to go in, then there’s him stopping her, and you think maybe he had second thoughts, but then he gives her his coat, and then he stops her again and tells her to put the hood up. And the audience’s response escalated from a point of disgust, to horror, to a kind of – I can’t even describe what the last sound people made was.

The Sioux Falls case comes up a bunch of times in the series. Is that a story you’re itching to tell at some point? Is that a possibility for a “Fargo” season 2: a period piece centered around a young Lou Solverson?

Noah Hawley: I really liked the idea – and you see it through the season – of a story within a story. Whether it’s the parable sequence, or Molly telling the story of the gloves, or the fox and the rabbit and the cabbage, this idea that we has human beings learn by telling each other stories. It’s why when you’re learning math, you say “Johnny has three apples, and Billy has one apple.” The idea that your story would be full of stories is important. The Sioux Falls idea was introduced in episode 2 as a way for Lou to tell Molly that he was worried about her, but he’s a man of the region and he can’t say, “Molly, I’m worried about you,” so he basically told her a story and let her draw her own conclusion from it. And then over the course of the series, it became a more important idea, I think, that when Lou does come face to face with Malvo, he gets a sense of something he hasn’t seen in a long time. I like to think that there’s some leather-bound book with hand-drawn illustrations that’s the history of true crime in the Midwest, and these are all stories that are taken from it.

(After the interview, I emailed Hawley to ask if he meant to imply that Malvo was the Sioux Falls killer, which had been speculated about. His reply: “Nope.”)

As someone who in the past has written for ongoing series that were designed to continue for years, what was it like to do something this close-ended? Could you have set this up as the ongoing story of Molly Solverson, or would that have just watered it down too much?

Noah Hawley: I think you could have. Obviously, if you have the skill and the actors and you’re telling a story that is free to digress, certainly “Mad Men” has been navigating without a traditional road map for all those years. Some of it works better for some people than others, but there’s still a firm hand guiding it. But at the same time, the fact that this was designed as a close-ended story allowed me to plan it out from beginning to end. The first scene of the first episode is the first step toward the end, and everything that happens is a concrete step in that direction, and I’m able to kill off characters, or make huge dramatic moves like Lester framing his brother for murder. All of that is a step because I know where the end is. It gets a lot harder when you don’t know where you’re going, or you know where you’re going, but you’re not exactly sure how you’ll get there. My fear when I spoke to FX the first time, “I said that if we turn this into a TV series where it’s the continuing adventures of Molly or Marge or whoever, ultimately, it’s going to feel like ‘Picket Fences,’ where it’s just quirky and cute, and no one can ever really change, and small-town decency versus evil, no one’s ever going to believe that there are real stakes.

Whatconversations, if any, have there been about the idea of doing a season 2, given how well this one has been perceived?

Noah Hawley: What’s rewarding to me about working with FX is that while we all know it’s a business, at the same time, I think we all recognize that the response to this season has been so positive because I had the time to really come up with a great story and map it out and write it all. I think we would all be more than happy to take that ride again, as long as we are confident that we can tell a story that’s as good or better. And that’s on me to come up with. I’m going to lay flat for a bit, and recover from this first season whirlwind, and I’m going to think about that, definitely.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com