Fargo concluded its third — and what may be its final — season tonight. I reviewed the finale here, and I have an interview with creator Noah Hawley about that final scene, the bowling alley, whether future seasons — if there are any — might take place in warmer weather, and more, all coming up just as soon as I eat my Popsicle…
The previous two seasons have ended with a fair amount of closure on what happens to everyone. This one at least leaves ambiguous who will come through the door and what that means for Varga. Why did you decide to go that particular route?
Some of it is in what you just said, which is that there’s a certain way that the first two years have ended that’s consistent, and I think you never want to take it for granted that it has to end the same way. I always joke that Fargo is a tragedy with a happy ending. But that ending in this case is up to you. It could be a happy ending if you’re an optimist, and it could be a darker ending if you’re a pessimist. There’s a degree to which I wanted to engage the audience in that question of does it end well or does it end poorly, and if you think it ends poorly, then maybe you’ll think about why you think it ends poorly. There’s a degree to which I feel like it’s okay to engage the audience actively in the story.
But do you feel that, in making so much of the season be about how the world doesn’t make sense anymore and rules don’t apply, maybe you’ve primed the audience to expect Varga’s version to come through the door?
Well, he’s winning so far on some levels and we see in that moment after Emmit has learned that he is free to go, that it appears that Varga has power over reality itself, so he’s not even willing to say his name out loud. I think there’s a degree to which Varga has proven to be the mastermind that he believes he is, but I also think that we’ve underlined that to some degree with Nikki and this woman from Podunk, No Place who almost got him, that there’s a sense of, “No, he’s mortal. We saw him sweat.” And Gloria is not to be underestimated, and she could win. I think it was very important in sculpting that last scene that after he says “Goodbye,” she looks for a moment like he won and then the smile comes back where she thinks “No, no, I’m going to get him.” You know, that if you’re presenting the audience with a choice, they have to really feel like both things are possible.
You’ve talked in the past about the disclaimer that comes with the movie, “This is a true story” and always when you do it, the “true” is the first word that fades away before all of the others. A lot of what Varga does this year is invent stories that he insists are true despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. How important was the idea of truth to this season, in particular, as compared to the other two?
Well I always knew that I was lying to the audience, by saying it was a true story when it wasn’t true, but that was never what it was about. But this year that was really what it was about, looking at that sentence — “This is a true story” — and even those two words, side by side — “true” and “story” — and what that could possibly mean. Could that ever be a factual statement? Because truth is subjective on some level and you get into the whole argument of objective truth and subjective truth. But yeah, it was about truth and belief and power, even to the end, when Varga said about this fake story about the Stussy serial killer that’s proven in a court of law and he confessed and there’s evidence, then he might as well argue with reality itself. But there’s violence to that, and I wanted to explore the mental violence that these crimes have on people and the fact that when you shatter people’s sense of what’s true and what’s real, it’s really violent to their sense of self and their sense of the world and their sense of safety. For Sy to come home and start crying and his wife says “What’s wrong?” And he says “The world is wrong, it looks like my world, but everything is different.” We see the violence of that, which is no shots had to be fired.
Mr. Wrench winds up as the only character to have appeared in all three seasons. How did you decide that you wanted him in this story, and to introduce him relatively late and still play as important a role as he did?
It was important to me, after our second year had been a literal prequel to the first year, to tell a story that really stood on it’s own two feet and did it for long enough where maybe in the audience you thought, “Well, it’s just it’s own thing and I’m just going to go for the ride.” I didn’t want it to become this “Fargo universe” thing where it’s sort of incestuous and everything is touched by everything else, because then it begins to feel little like magic realism. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief.
But I did feel like late in the season, if we could find a random and truthful way to bring in a character — I either have Molly or Gus or Mr. Wrench surviving, so it would have to be one of the three of them. I didn’t really want to bring another cop in, and bringing Gus back — I mean a random run-in with a postman is not necessarily that interesting, but it did feel, knowing where Nikki’s story was going as we sat her down on a prison bus and she happened to be next to a proven criminal who’s been arrested before, that could happen. Then of course within three minutes, the bus is flipped and now they’re literally chained together. That seems really interesting to me and also emotionally, the fact that Nikki’s at her lowest point and we’ve just killed Ray and maybe the audience is thinking “Oh, shit, is she out of the show now too? Is she off to jail and we’re moving on,” and the sad piano and everything’s going in slow motion and then she sits down and the beat kicks and we see him and hopefully it’s a huge uplifting moment of recognition and realization that we’re just getting started.
You just said you didn’t really want magic realism, and yet you have Nikki and Mr. Wrench saved by what could certainly be interpreted as the Wandering Jew in a bowling alley that may or may not be a bowling alley.
(laughs) Well, I should clarify that I’m not against magical realism within a larger realistic story, but I guess my concern is if you start with magical realism, then you’re basically saying the story isn’t realistic on a mundane level, so I think the way to give the magic realism the most impact is to have it come in the middle of an otherwise grounded story. i.e., a UFO might arrive during a gun battle outside a motel and you’re saying that it’s a true story, and so it creates this tension between what you know. You start to think “Well, are they saying that UFOs are real and I’m supposed to believe this actually happened? Are we saying that there was a literal UFO or are we saying that there was a literal bowling alley in the woods?” I remember a conversation with Damon Lindelof when I was making my first show, The Unusuals, and I was trying to live up to the name of the show by having some cases that were unusual and the network kept pulling me back. Damon explained to me that very early in the run of Lost, he had these constant bouts with the network and they had that one episode where we learn that John Locke was in a wheelchair, and it was important to the network that they understand that there was a rational explanation for it, which was that the reason he was in that wheelchair could’ve been psychological.
I think there’s a degree to which you also want to be able to say, “Well, in a heightened moment, wandering through the woods, exhausted, dehydrated, it’s possible that they had an experience or dreamt an experience, or that it didn’t literally happen, there’s certainly another answer for it.” But I was also really interested in exploring the idea of cosmic justice because we were clearly going to see the limitations of human justice.
When you came up with the device of Billy Bob doing the Peter and the Wolf narration, was there a part of you thinking, “Well, now we have to follow the story to the conclusion and Ray has to suffer the fate of the duck, Nikki the cat,” etc? Obviously, it doesn’t go down exactly like that.
No, no, it falls apart metaphorically with Grandpa and the bird and the wolf and the hunters. No, I didn’t feel beholden to Peter and the Wolf. I did think that it was a great way coming in our fourth episode, after we’ve been gone from most our characters for an hour to reintroduce everyone and to set the table really quickly, but also I love that idea of each character has a musical theme and it’s something that is actually literally true when working with a composer that Gloria has a theme and Nikki has a theme. I’m a big believer that we’re telling a 10-hour movie, which has to have a flow and a beginning, middle and end to it, but it’s made up of these individual hours and each one of those hours should have it’s own structural intricacies and ideas. So yeah, it just turned out to be a sort of perfect way back in.
You’ve talked recently about whether you might do a fourth season and how hard it is to come up with ideas each year. Having done that third episode in LA, and it being received as well as it was, has that made you consider the idea that if you do another year, it might not have to be set entirely or even predominantly in Minnesota?
I haven’t thought about that too much. I mean, I always joke that I’m going to do Fargo: Tuscany, but I do think there’s some degree to which winter and that isolation of the Midwest in winter is character in it, but there’s no physical way to have snow from the beginning of the season to an end, because it takes five months to shoot and our second year was predominately without snow and we wrapped in June.
It’s possible. I think that if I saw any real negativity about this season early on, it was that it’s a little familiar now, like the accents and some of the archetypes, and I guess part of the challenge for me in trying to conceive of 10 more hours of this, is to say, “Well, we don’t want to repeat ourselves and we don’t it to be so familiar and we don’t people to go, ‘Oh yeah, it’s the shtick and it’s funny and then it’s not and then it is again.'” You don’t want to be predictable and you don’t want it to become a thing. I’m always interested in exploring the boundaries of this Fargo story and what it can do and what it can be, and maybe setting it someplace else is one of the ways to do it, but I just don’t know.
Finally, I want to go back to the prologue of the season. Yuri Gurka’s name is given by the East German police officer in that case of mistaken identity, and he’s also the Cossack who’s causing so much trouble here, and who then vanishes into what seems to be the past in Uman after he winds up in the bowling alley with Paul Marrane. Yuri keeps referring to himself as the Cossack of old. Is this meant to be one Yuri Gurka from all these different eras?
Well, he’s pretty young, if that’s the case. At the same time, I don’t know. One of the things that Joel and Ethan Coen do often is to play with some of these more elemental figures, the lone biker of the apocalypse and Anton Chigurh and the Dybbuk in A Serious Man. There is a sense in some of their stories that some of these characters may not be literally mortal or human. Javier Bardem has been interviewed and said he didn’t feel like he was playing a human being when he was playing Anton Chigurh. That’s something that I obviously picked up on when Lorne Malvo says “I haven’t had a piece of pie like that since the Garden of Eden.” Yuri says later, “I knew a Helga once,” and Paul Marrane says, “I have a message from Helga Albrecht and the Rabbi Nachman,” and there is a sense that, yes, it’s literally the same guy. But at the same time, the logical part of your brain goes, “Well, he would need to be in his fifties, so how is that possible? Is he literally a Cossack from the 1700s who never seems to age, or has he just taken on the name or what’s the story there?”
I guess there’s a degree to which I think the not knowing is an interesting dynamic of the story. I’m not saying that the island made John Locke able to walk again, I’m just saying maybe the reason that he needed that wheelchair was psychological, I guess.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com