Home Lifestyle After Five Seasons of ‘Fargo,’ Noah Hawley Is Still Rooting for America

After Five Seasons of ‘Fargo,’ Noah Hawley Is Still Rooting for America

After Five Seasons of ‘Fargo,’ Noah Hawley Is Still Rooting for America


This interview includes spoilers for the fifth season of “Fargo.”

When Noah Hawley debuted the FX series “Fargo” a decade ago, it wasn’t yet clear that instead of simply telling a longer version of the 1996 Oscar-winning film by Joel and Ethan Coen, he was going to spin the brothers’ entire oeuvre into a thread that examines modern American life while also reconfiguring a few other cultural touchstones. With the fifth season’s conclusion on Tuesday, Hawley has doubled down on “Wizard of Oz” references, turned Rush and Britney Spears songs into anthems of toxic masculinity, and used Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and John Hughes’s “Home Alone” as plot devices.

The canvas is still a 10-episode arc, and the paints are, as usual, a large cast of marquee stars and scene-stealing character actors. But this time around, Hawley has used the Coens’ original tale — a woman (Juno Temple) being kidnapped in a plot orchestrated by her husband — as a lens on patriarchy, domestic abuse and the very American trait of being in debt. The season also has 16th-century sin-eating practices; Jon Hamm as a misogynistic Constitutional sheriff with nipple rings; and Dave Foley as an eye-patched lawyer for one of the biggest donors to the Federalist Society, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

“The feedback I kept getting from FX about the scripts was that this was our funniest season,” Hawley said last week in a telephone interview. “Then, of course, when you put it up on its feet, it’s the story of a woman who’s abducted with domestic violence undertones.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

This season of “Fargo” felt much darker than the others, which are already dark. Did you feel that while you were writing it?

If you’re doing it right, it feels real. Then it’s about navigating the zone so that you can have the Coen brothers’ absurdity but also be telling a serious dramatic story. In terms of being the darkest one — for you, is that because of the intimate partner violence not really being something you can joke about? Or is it more pessimistic about people?

I think a little bit of both. Ole Munch and his back story. Jon Hamm’s character and his treatment of his entire family. The puppet show was extremely disturbing. It’s all a little different than watching Jesse Plemons grind Kieran Culkin into hamburger meat in Season 2, which was gross but still had some humor to it.

The challenge of the show is that it has a tone of voice, and the question is how to tell the story in that tone of voice. Juno’s character is so resourceful — she never quits, and she keeps her positivity until it’s literally impossible to do that. That lasts about an episode, and then she’s back to escaping and making her own luck. My hope was that that counters the darkness, that she was so light in her spirit.

The puppet show was a way to tell a very difficult story the way you would to a child. The director of that episode wanted the puppets to look more like the characters, he wanted to puppet them from below, he wanted the mouths to move, and I thought the more realistic it is, the worse it’s going to be. We’re telling you this very difficult story, but we’re trying to do it in the gentlest way possible. The fact that in the middle of a multimillion-dollar production we’re doing a 10-minute puppet show, there’s some humor to that. My hope was that we were approaching this problem in a creative way that ultimately did not feel abusive to the audience. As the son of a mother who wrote nonfiction books about incest and domestic violence, I think it’s important that we tell these stories and honor the struggle that women go through in a way that doesn’t shy away from it, but also doesn’t feel gratuitous.

It reminded me of “Punch and Judy,” which was a kind of crude domestic violence as entertainment.

That first puppet show that Dot walks in on is “Punch and Judy”-style. Obviously in that moment, there’s nothing funny about it; the sounds of violence are not puppet-on-puppet, they’re person-on-person, and you see flashes of the hospital photos from when she was abused. But yes, it is a way of also looking and going, “Why did anyone ever think this was funny?” There are a lot of needle drops in the show including “Hey Joe,” which is the song of a man who is going to kill this woman; it’s a domestic violence song. The inclusion of these things is also a way to kind of shine a light on things that we just sort of take for granted as part of our culture.

What drew you to “The Nightmare Before Christmas”?

It’s a family favorite in my house. It’s a Christmas movie and a Halloween movie, but it also sort of struggles with morality on some level. A specific choice is always better. I spend a lot of my time in dialogue with movies that I loved: “Fargo” and now “Alien.” [Hawley’s “Alien” series for FX is in production.] I think there’s something interesting to repurposing something familiar into something new.

Our culture broadly has this interest in retelling stories differently — for example, it was just announced that “Purple Rain” is being turned into a musical. As a storyteller, do you ever think that means we’ve run out of things to say?

No. Families get together and they tell stories. How many times have you talked about that summer where dad drove the car into the lake, or whatever? There’s something reassuring to revisiting stories, the kind of ancient storytelling tradition of the campfire: “Tell me that story again.” There’s a nostalgia factor; “Purple Rain” is something from the ’80s that is so meaningful to so many people. I think when people are in these moments where they’re looking for meaning, they go to something inherently meaningful to them versus something new.

Ole Munch was a new kind of character for “Fargo,” though as an apparently ageless man from 16th-century Wales, “new” isn’t the first concept he brings to mind. How much of his inflection and behavior was in the script, and how much came from the actor who plays him, Sam Spruell?

The idea from a dialogue point of view was, he was a man who sold his soul, so he basically surrendered the sense of I or me. He never refers to himself as I or me; it’s always “a man.” He is a sort of elemental figure and an ancient character who can’t seem to die. As he says in the last episode, “I didn’t speak to anyone for a century.” So what we talked about was that he had to relearn how to speak, so he has this unplaceable accent. Sam was a profoundly good partner in taking on this role and really trying to build this character from scratch. The joy that he manifests in the final image of the season, the profundity of actual forgiveness and redemption, it’s very moving to me every time I watch it because that idea of forgiveness is so profound. At a certain point, we’re all going to have to admit that we hurt each other and we’re going to have to zero the ledger, to use a debt metaphor, and start anew.

In the ninth episode, Lorraine talks on the phone with someone she refers to as “Bill,” complaining that she can’t have someone killed. I assumed that was supposed to be William P. Barr, the former attorney general?

Yeah, she’s the biggest donor to the Federalist Society. One of the things that I was attempting in this season was basically not to tell a story about the poles of American life. All of the characters could be Republicans on some level. Dot and Wayne [David Rysdahl] might not be Trump voters, but they would vote for Romney. They’re sort of socially conservative. Lorraine is the Koch brothers billionaire class. Then Roy, obviously, is the sort of new alt-right, “Tiger King,” American Republican. I wanted to have the conversation within that sort of social dynamic, versus Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative. All these people are satellites of the same planet, and yet they don’t seem to be speaking the same language.

I read an interview before this season started in which you said your interest in this world had been reinvigorated. Is that still the case?

I told FX that I thought this would be the last one, but I got halfway through and I just thought, Who am I kidding? It’s such a unique state of mind to tell a story. Under the auspices of telling a crime story, I can make something that champions decency, is also a sort of philosophical document, has as much suspense as you want. It wrestles with morality, and it can be extremely funny if you do it right. There aren’t a lot of other things that could carry that tone of voice and also allow me to honestly explore America and what it means to be an American — which is a subject that just gets more and more interesting, doesn’t it? I’m rooting for America. If I can tell these stories in which basically decent people prevail over the forces of cynicism and corruption, I’d be remiss if I if I didn’t tell as many of those as I could.

And you’re probably the first person who could make Jon Hamm seem completely repulsive.

He did that himself. He and I talked about that very early on: “This is the character that you’re going to have to dive into, and he’s not this Bible-thumping sheriff caricature of old.” He’s the nipple ring, Tiger King, sex trunk, abusive, moralizing — it’s such a strange psychology to be that narcissistic. He says early on to Munch, if a man is good, if his heart is in the right place, in his mind he cannot do wrong. And under that belief, he does so many awful things without ever admitting to himself or others that there’s anything wrong with them.

This is a guy who can who can shoot another man in the neck in the man’s own living room because the man beats his wife, which is something that he himself does. Then he can calmly explain how he’s going to get away with it while making the wife complicit in the lie. To create your own reality like that, it was a challenge that Jon really got inside of, and I think that evidence of his success is on the screen.


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