[This interview contains spoilers from the season three finale of FX’s Fargo.]
So what do you think, Fargo fans?
Was malevolent V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) correct that he was on the verge of being freed from a DHS holding facility by somebody with more power than plucky agent Gloria Burgle could resist?
Or was Gloria (Carrie Coon) right that, after years of trying to get answers about Varga and solve an assortment of murders and financial crimes, she finally was about to get something resembling delayed justice?
The third season ended Wednesday with a ticking clock, an increasingly dark interrogation room and an enigmatic smile from Gloria.
The finale also saw several key Fargo characters meet unpleasant ends, some through vengeance and some through tragic happenstance. That’s just the Fargo way.
One week after sitting down with Fargo creator Noah Hawley on the show’s panel at the ATX TV Festival in Austin, The Hollywood Reporter discussed the topsy-turvy season that has been at times dark and violent and political and, in other moments, emotional and touching and rather beautiful.
In this third season postmortem, Hawley discusses Gloria’s smile, Varga’s almost supernatural evil and some fun little character and production design details that viewers may not have noticed. He also talked about the emotion of Gloria and Winnie’s hug in the penultimate episode and gave the latest non-committal update on a possible fourth season.
I’m interested in this as a season of interrogation rooms, starting with the East German scene and ending in the DHS facilities. Was the bookending structure always on your mind?
Yeah, I knew very early on that the season was gonna end in that room and it was gonna end with us looking at a clock and the door and it was gonna end with the audience having to make a choice as to whether they believed this was gonna end well or badly. Then, as it came time to design that final room, we did design that final interview room to have the exact same dimensions as the opening room. Obviously it’s a very different room, but there was a sense, an echo, that we were looking for.
How much fun is it for you to do things like that, where you know that the audience may not have any awareness, if they don’t read exit interviews, of this thing that you’ve done, but you still being always aware of having done it?
It’s very important. I think that’s my job, is to tell this story in three dimensions. It’s not just to write a script, but to be a filmmaker and to work with great partners. We talk a lot, before production and then around each episode, about the ideas and the themes and the meaning and color palette and what it represents, down to what the spaces are like. Nobody probably noticed, but if you go back to the Stussy Lots Limited offices, outside of everybody’s door, there are these two yellow lines on the floor that look like parking place. It’s the sort of jokey thing where you can imagine them going, “Oh it’s funny! This is my parking space office and this is your parking space office” and nobody probably notices, but it’s there, for me, because I think that’s my job is to put it into the show so that it’s part of the story.
How does that extend into things that we may not necessarily even experience, something like character names for supporting characters? Nobody directly calls DJ Qualls’ character Golem, for example. I don’t remember if Ray Wise is ever fully called Paul Marrane. But if you look in the credits or whatever, it becomes something that opens up a whole other layer that maybe wasn’t there before.
In both of those cases, the name was in the script in a scene or a part of a scene that got cut. There was a moment in that seventh hour, a phone call between Meemo and Varga, where Varga says, “Send the Golem,” but ultimately I felt like I didn’t want to see behind the scenes. I wanted to be surprised when the guy shows up. And Paul Marrane, I think he introduced himself on the airplane, it was just part of a scene. But yeah, those character names are meaningful, but also I’m not saying that every single thing in the show is meaningful. I don’t want people do be doing this exhaustive search for every single image.
Where’s the limit to how much of a puzzle box you want people to think of this as?
Exactly. I don’t want to make people crazy, certainly.
Did the finale script have an adjective that was attached to Gloria’s smile at the end?
No and obviously you do a ton of takes of every moment in every scene, and we went through a lot of footage to find that particular smile, but I did think it was very important, because they’re having this mental battle about “Is the future gonna be rosy or dark?” that it had to end for her, even though he so compellingly appears to have power over reality itself, where at the end she’s like, “No, I’m gonna win.” And then it’s up to the audience to decide whether Gloria’s gonna win or not.
The five-year time jump takes us basically to the present, right?
Um … yeah, I guess it does. I didn’t do the math. I just wrote “Five Years Later.”
It takes us to the here-and-now and given our current political climate and the season’s general dark tone about truth and unfettered Capitalism, without answering or spelling anything out, do you think there’s cause in this moment for the hope that Gloria has, or do you take a more cynical approach?
Look, I’m an optimist. One of the things I love about the storytelling in this world, and it’s what Joel and Ethan did in the movie, is if you think about the movie and not the horror of it and the senselessness of this poor woman being killed, her husband having her kidnapped for money, all this stuff doesn’t make any sense, but at the end of the movie they’re gonna have a baby and he got the three-cent stamp and tomorrow’s gonna be a normal day. We can really be overwhelmed by how complicated the universe seems, but what Gloria says on the trunk of the car to her son, basically it’s our version of “We’ve gotta stick together.” There’s a simple answer and that’s, “Treat people well and listen and respect,” all the stuff we teach our kids, right? That’s really as simple as I can be. I like that at the end of the day, there’s a very simple morality to a very complicated moral universe.
So do you feel like that moral universe was more complicated or dark or cynical this season because of the more modern timeframe from the first two seasons? Or did it feel of a piece with the first two seasons in your mind?
One of the things that I was interested in exploring here was the mental violence that comes from having your world [upended]. Gloria is a good example. She was in what she thought was a happy marriage with a job as the chief of police and then suddenly her husband has left her and she’s not chief of police anymore and her stepfather is killed randomly and there’s this sense to which the rug’s been pulled out from under her and that sense of fracturing your reality, that reality isn’t what you thought it was, is a kind of violence. Sy feels it too when he goes home and his wife asks, “What’s wrong?” and he says, “The world. It looks my world, but everything is different.” There are examples of that the whole way through, even down to the fact that Emmit is released from prison because Varga creates an alternate reality about what happened to the story that we’ve all watched. Gloria says to her son, “There’s a violence to knowing the world’s not what you thought.” I feel like that’s something I really wanted to explore.
When it comes to being the showrunner and doling out consequences within the Fargo universe, do you think of yourself as being a moral God or a “Sometimes bad things happen to good people” God? Or, put a different way, was there a point at which Nikki’s quest for vengeance was in the right and is there a point at which she clearly takes it to far?
I think that we were exploring the limits of human justice. Like I said, a guy goes to jail for killing four people who he didn’t kill, while a guy who does kill somebody goes free. So it’s the limits of human justice and then the idea of cosmic justice, which is why we end up in a bowling alley with Ray Wise. But then just when you think, “Well, God is great and God’s justice will prevail,” random life kicks in and there’s a car that drives by and it happens to be a police car and then suddenly as Nikki is getting ready to punish the wicked, this random thing happens to her. I guess my goal is not to have a point of view as much as it’s to make you think about the questions and the themes.
And I have a good sense of why Nikki can’t let get of what Emmit did, but why do you think Mr. Wrench can’t let go?
Well, I mean, he probably fell in love with her a little bit, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you? The last time we saw Mr. Wrench [in the present], his partner had been killed and it was clear that that was meaningful to him. I firmly believe that if Malvo had lived, he would have seen Mr. Wrench again. I do feel like there’s a degree to which he fell in with Nikki and then, at the end of it, Nikki showed him she was an honorable person. He kept all the money and she just wanted justice and she never got that justice. So I think that to the degree that he had any kind of code, he was coming. One way or another.
All season long I’ve been looking at Varga as the dybbuk from the start of A Serious Man, this supernatural force that you really shouldn’t let in the house. I was curious if that reference was in your mind as well, taking Varga as something primal, rather than just an awful, gross man?
Yeah, I think that’s always an element. It’s not just the dybbuk, it’s also Anton Chigurh, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse and the sense that some of these characters that Joel and Ethan have created are elemental and that, whether or not literally, some version of them has always been blowing through the American landscape. I felt the same with Lorne Malvo, who said, “I haven’t had a piece of pie like that since the Garden of Eden” and there’s part of me that thinks maybe he’s not joking. I think with Varga, there’s a certain Faustian dynamic to it where if Greed is one of the 7 Deadly Sins, there’s always gonna be a Varga, there’s always gonna be a man who says, “Why have some when you could have it all?” As long as there’s Greed, you’re gonna have Gluttony.
I talked with Keith Gordon about the penultimate episode and he said there was a lot of discussion about the length of the Gloria/Winnie hug. From your perspective, how much sentiment did you feel like you had earned for that particular scene? How much emotion did you think it was OK to give the audience in that key moment?
It’s an interesting question, because there are a lot of places that I could have put music in that scene and I think the obvious place would have been with the hug, right? They hug and the music comes in and that makes it more emotional. But if you score that moment, then you’ve chosen your moment and for me, it was always the moment where she became real, where she reached under the sink and the water came on. That’s the moment. So the hug, if you look at it visually, we stayed in our widest shot. It wasn’t my goal to say, “There’s melodrama here.” It was to say, “Oh, they’re hugging. Let’s keep a respectful distance and let her have her privacy and her moment.” We went close for their separation and then she goes into the bathroom and she’s feeling better and it’s at that moment where the music comes in and the music, rather than be sad, is a very joyful music and I think that that is the optimism, right? You could focus on how broken this woman feels or you could focus on how simple it is for her to feel healed again, which is just that another human being cares about her and takes the time to help her. I think that’s the optimistic note to end on. We can solve our problems if you work together, I guess.
And I know when we talked a week ago in Austin and you said you had no season four ideas in your head and so there were no plans yet. But I’ve gotta ask… Any stirrings in the last six days?
(Laughs) There’s like an Idea Watch that’s going on. No, I’m required to think about this other show of mine [FX’s ] right now, so I’m entirely in this fantastical landscape. I remain optimistic that there’ll be another Fargo idea. I just don’t know that it’s gonna be in the next day, week, month. It’s hard to know. But I’m glad you care!