The third season of FX’s Fargo is bookended by one-on-one inquisitions. In Noah Hawley’s Emmy-nominated first episode “The Law of Vacant Places”—which he directed—a man in 1988 East Berlin is getting the third degree from Colonel Horst Lagerfeld (Sylvester Groth) who firmly believes that the accused is Yuri Gurka, a 20-year old Ukraine murderer who recently strangled his girlfriend Helga to death. But the man in question says he’s Jakob Ungerleider, a German citizen who is much older than 20, and happily married. It seems as though the state is mistaking Jakob for Yuri, since the former is living at the latter’s address which the murderer vacated some months ago.
“This is a problem, you understand?” Lagerfeld tells the accused. “Because for you to be right, the state would have to be wrong.”
While Hawley’s Fargo has continually been esteemed as a riveting crime noir series, the show with the “This Is a True Story” disclaimer took on a whole other meaning during Donald Trump’s U.S. presidency of alternative facts, which has been dodging an alleged Russian hack of the November election, one welcomed by Trump himself during his run. Every presidency yields a specific type of commercial art—raunchy comedies like Porky’s and war hero action movies like Rambo were popular during the Ronald Reagan years, Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog presaged Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky affair, but during the first year of Trump’s reign, Orwellian-inspired dramas like Fargo have become de rigueur.
“I think the whole Trump thing is on everyone’s minds no matter where you are,” says Carrie Coon, the Emmy-nominated actress who plays Eden Valley police chief Gloria Burgle. Gloria wages a battle of the sexes against a new commanding, dolt male officer as the police force is reorganized. “Most conversations I’ve had since November, if they go longer than 15 minutes, the subject of Trump is apt to be broached. It’s why shows like Fargo and artists like Noah are filtering what’s happening and putting that to work in the art they’re making; they’re creating opportunities for us to express some of these frustrations and confusions. Fargo always deals with this idea of truth—and I really think Noah leaned into that for obvious reasons this season.”
Similar to the onset of Episode 1, we find ourselves in the last scene of the last episode in another tête-à-tête, this one with a hue of sweet justice as Burgle, now a Homeland Security officer, finally collars this season’s nemesis V.M. Varga (David Thewlis, also Emmy-nominated for Best Supporting Actor) who has extorted every penny out of Minnesota parking czar Emmit Stussy (portrayed by Ewan McGregor who was recognized by the Emmys this year for his double duty as rich and poor twin brothers, the latter being Ray). Burgle is slapping Varga with money laundering and six counts of conspiracy to commit murder. And while we want nothing more than to see Varga get his comeuppance for all the mental torture he’s brought upon Emmit and his late brother’s girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the irony, in this twisted era of state justice is that we know that Varga never specifically killed any of the good guys. But Hawley intentionally leaves us with a cliffhanger as the camera slowly zooms in on the clock: Burgle tells Varga he’s headed to Rikers Island while the mastermind asserts that one of her superiors will enter the room and set him free, a complete abuse of justice.
Hawley concocted this open ending prior to Trump winning the election, and he shared this with Thewlis during their first meeting in London. Typically Fargo has happy endings: Marge gets in bed with her husband in the 1996 movie, Molly (Allison Tolman) becomes police chief at the end of Season 1, and Patrick Wilson’s Lou Solverson takes his daughter (the younger Molly) fishing. But for Hawley, the cliffhanger took on a greater meaning during Trump’s America in that we’re “living in a complicated moment in time. If I present you with a choice, you have to decide how that door is going to open and if it’s going to end well. It still has a happy ending if you’re an optimist. It just becomes a more active process. It’s an allegory to the conversation we’re having at this moment. How will we treat each other? Is it American carnage?”
Further expounding about the cliffhanger, Coon brings up her first big movie role: “When Gone Girl came out, people were so upset about the ending. [Author] Gillian Flynn’s response was ‘Oh, so you want justice? Look around, where do you see justice?’ I thought that was a smart answer to those questions. There’s a lot of bad guys who are winning and we would do well to be vigilant. I think that’s smart. It’s like frogs boiling in a pot of water; that feels like the crucible we’re in right now.”
The final scene was literally the last scene shot, and its production spanned from afternoon to evening. No alternate endings were filmed per Coon and Thewlis: the finale was exactly as Hawley pitched it to them. There were two drafts of the final scene which was set at JFK airport. “The first was more cynical and the rewrite felt more balanced with Gloria coming out on top,” says Coon. “Or it would be easy to feel nothing but despair. Really, that scene was the sum of the whole season: alternative facts versus the truth. If we lose sight of what the truth is, how can we have a rational argument? How can we create rules if we don’t agree on where the moral compass is pointing?”
Both actors felt enormous pressure since it was the sequence that capped off the entire season. “I didn’t want to blow it and have people say ‘Oh, those were two mediocre performances, a disappointing denouement,’” says Thewlis. “We wanted a really f*cking great rush scene to cap the whole thing off. I thought because we’re doing TV, it’s going to be quick, but it was no quicker than a film. Fargo doesn’t get to look the way it does unless it’s lit and shot over a certain number of days.”
“I caught myself looking at him as an artist trying to learn, instead of an actor in a scene,” says Coon about acting opposite Thewlis.
“Ever since I saw (Mike Leigh’s) Naked, I wanted to work with David,” says McGregor who learned of Thewlis’ attachment after joining the series. “I remember walking out of a cinema in London feeling so powerful I wanted to start a fight.” McGregor took on the daunting task of playing brothers having been inspired by “one of my acting heroes Alec Guinness.” The late British actor played eight roles in the 1949 crime comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. “Noah says he had a dream about what the third season would be, with the same actor playing both brothers,” says McGregor.
“There is a lot of discussion of truth,” he explains, referring to the way in which both Emmit and Ray are victims of alternative facts: Varga’s duplicitous financial maneuvers knock Emmit’s parking empire off kilter while Ray gets the short-end of the stick in the family inheritance after his brother lays claim to a valuable stamp collection, the genesis of his wealth.
And then if there was ever an allegory to today, Emmit “the uber rich guy gets away with murder,” exclaims McGregor. “It’s like the presidency; every week, we’re waiting for the axe to fall, for this truth to come tumbling to, and it doesn’t.”
Hawley killed off Ray first instead of Emmit for various reasons, dramatic upset being prime. “Ray’s death is unexpected and Noah always looks for the unexpected,” says McGregor.
“There’s always a character [in Fargo] like William H. Macy’s character who is presented with the choice to do right or wrong,” explains Hawley, “and the idea was to find a way to root for the richer brother, the overdog.”
“Emmit, you feel until the very last episode, is punished by surviving, and he has to live with the guilt of what he’s done,” says McGregor.
In these trying Trump times, we could certainly use more Fargo, but we’ll have to wait a while. It appeared Hawley was stepping away from the series for good at last June’s ATX TV festival; however, the creator later clarified that he simply has a full upcoming dance card over the next couple of years with Legion Season 2, and two film directing gigs on the horizon: Reese Withersoon’s female astronaut title Pale Blue Dot at Fox Searchlight and an adaptation of Hawley’s novel Before the Fall at Sony.
“I don’t think we’d continue to get the volume of the nominations if we just went out and rushed [Season 4]. We’re rewarded for taking our time and continue to take time.
“Please don’t tell people this is the end,” Hawley urges. “Right now, I just can’t point to [a start] date on the calendar.”