On the one hand, it’s kind of incredible that Noah Hawley and his collaborators have found five television seasons’ worth of ways to riff and elaborate on Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo. It’s a textbook open-and-shut kind of affair, a story about Midwestern criminals and what they would do for “a little bit of money.”
Hawley, however, has found that to be the grim magic of Fargo: There is, in fact, an endless amount of things all kinds of people will do for a little bit of money, and with the original film as his guiding light, the acclaimed/writer director has spun story after darkly comic story about everyday folks who get in over the heads when a sufficiently large amount of cash enters the picture.
Recently, Hawley — who is currently getting back to production on his forthcoming Alien series — spoke with Polygon about his return to Fargo, and why he keeps finding things to say about the Coen Brothers’ film. Namely, how it led him to examine debt, and wives, and societal expectations about both.
Polygon: What’s the idea that made you want to come back to Fargo?
Noah Hawley: I wanted to go back to basics on some level, go back to the movie. It’s good to touch base there every once in a while to remind yourself what the original idea was and how it functioned. And I just found myself with that image of a woman on the sofa knitting and a guy in a ski mask comes up on the porch and and it’s a kidnapping. And of course, because it’s the Coen Brothers you know, you know who exactly what those guys are, it’s not a mystery.
What I always loved about Fargo is that it’s not a it’s not a whodunnit or a mystery. I found myself with the image of the woman lingering because, you know, there’s a sort of epic kidnapping sequence and then the bag goes over her head and then that’s sort of it for her. And so it’d be interesting to think about restaging that moment, but making it her story and making an entire story out of it. It’s a little bit of a game of telephone with the movie. You know, someone says: A husband has two guys kidnap his wife and you go OK, I’ll go tell a story about that, and you go tell a story about it and we’ll see what your story is compared to mine.
I like that telephone metaphor, it really gets at how the show echoes the movie in ways big and small in this and every season.
You’re watching something you’ve seen before, but something completely different happens and then suddenly the movie that you love is now a different movie. I’m sure there are people who are like, I liked that movie just fine. Do you really need to do that? But there was something interesting to this idea.
Because Jerry Lundegaard [William H. Macy in the movie], he’s a character and he talks about his wife and really, no one uses her name. They just used the word “wife.” And so I thought it was an interesting way to sort of crack open what that word means in our society — making her the hero and then exploring through Richa Moorjani’s character, and her marriage. There’s a scene later in the season where her husband tells her, he wants a wife, and she’s like, “I am your wife.” And he says, “No, a wife likes to cook and clean for me.” Unpacking that idea, within the season, I just felt like there was a lot there. It was just a rich vein.
Women trapped by and navigating gender roles is pretty fundamental to the movie and the DNA of your show, but you’re centering it in a big way here.
What I found starting in season 2 — season 1, it was sort of one-to-one between Allison Tolman and Frances McDormand. But because in season 2, the cop wasn’t female, suddenly, the female identity of Fargo was split up between Kirsten Dunst and Jean Smart, and Cristin Milioti. A similar thing happened here between Juno Temple, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Richa Moorjani. We’re really able to explore the female side of the story, a story in which you know, Jon Hamm’s character exerts a sort of alpha male territoriality and dominance. He tries to dominate the story, and Dot [Temple] won’t let him do it. And Jennifer Jason Leigh won’t let him do it. Richa won’t let him do it. So this one very powerful man comes up against these three very powerful women and, you know, who’s gonna win?
Men being dopes is also a crucial part of Fargo, isn’t it?
Yeah, I mean, look: There’s nothing intelligent about cruelty. You get these characters like Jon Hamm’s — you know, the truly violent men. They always think that you can be a smarty pants all you want, but I’m going to beat you up. That the physical power is the real power. But the thing with violence is that violence is the death of thought. When things become violent, it means people have stopped being rational.
Fargo remains appealing to me because the core risk in the show is simply staying decent — which is challenging, because evil in the show, as the movie, is very casual; almost an accident, right?
Yeah, it has to feel relatable. It’s the challenge of the tone, right? If the moment is not grounded, and real, it’s just a farce. And then it doesn’t matter. It might be entertaining, but it’s never going to connect with you emotionally in the way I think the show does at its best.
What the tone allows you to do by introducing these basically decent people who are probably in over their heads, is you worry about them, because you like them, and they’re funny, but their hearts are in the right place.
Yeah and the show strives to strike a relevant chord to where we’re at now. What makes Fargo good for talking about our current moment?
It’s always about America at its heart, but specifically about the impact of money, the things that people do for money. This year, I really wanted to look at debt and the power it has over people, and the morality of debt. The idea that if you owe money to a large institution, there’s something wrong with you. That until you pay it back, you’re weak for having needed it. And there’s a suspicion that if you don’t pay it back, you’re immoral.
Jennifer’s character, she understands that the real power comes from money. Roy [Jon Hamm’s character] thinks that the real power comes from physical dominance, and violence. What he doesn’t realize is, when you look at the history of the world, the people who are great at physical violence end up working for the rich people. It’s not the other way around. But she also doesn’t have the ability to dominate the way that he does. So she has to be smarter.
What’s great about the show is that, because I’m able to jump around [in time], we’re able to really look at this American experiment of ours from different points of view. We’re struggling right now with some core concepts, and I’m rooting for us. I think we’re all gonna have to get a little more decent and a little less selfish if we’re gonna, if we’re gonna survive.
Fargo premieres on FX and Hulu Tuesday, Nov. 21.