Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, production designer Warren Alan Young and composer Jeff Russo tell DQ about reuniting for the fourth season of the FX anthology and explain how the new story chimes with contemporary events.
More than three years since its last season, Fargo is back. The eagerly anticipated fourth instalment of FX’s award-winning crime anthology, based the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, has had to overcome production setbacks as Covid-19 took hold around the world, with filming on its final two episodes being completed just two weeks before its premiere in the US this Sunday.
After taking a break from the series to complete three seasons of another FX drama, the X-Men-inspired Legion, Fargo creator and showrunner Noah Hawley has shifted the action to 1950s Kansas City, Missouri, in the throes of the Jim Crow era. It’s here we meet two criminal syndicates each fighting for a piece of the American dream.
To cement their uneasy truce, Loy Cannon (Chris Rock), the head of the African American crime family, trades his youngest son, Satchel (Rodney Jones), to his enemy Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno), the head of the Italian mafia. In return, Donatello surrenders his youngest son, Zero (Jameson Braccioforte), to Loy.
But when Donatello dies, the tenuous truce is threatened. Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman) takes up his father’s mantle, but his efforts to stabilise the organisation are undermined by his brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito), who has joined the family after building a reputation for ruthlessness in Italy. Patrick ‘Rabbi’ Milligan (Ben Whishaw), who once betrayed his own family to serve the Italians, watches carefully to ensure his survival.
Loy tests the Faddas for weakness, deploying his most trusted advisor, Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman), and his top lieutenants to do his bidding. But to Loy’s dismay, his oldest son, Lemuel Cannon (Matthew Elam), wants no part of the family business.
Meanwhile, intertwined in this story of immigration, assimilation and power are Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), the precocious 16-year-old daughter of an interracial couple who own a mortuary; US Marshal Dick ‘Deafy’ Wickware (Timothy Olyphant), a Mormon lawman; Detective Odis Weff (Jack Huston), the Kansas City cop known for his compulsive tics; and Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), a nurse who cannot abide others’ suffering.
Through 11 episodes, Hawley serves up a season of television that echoes the style and tone of previous instalments but provides a completely new story, beginning with an absorbing and utterly compelling opening 20-minute prologue that sets up the rivalry between the Cannons and Faddas.
“As a storyteller, this Fargo state of mind is really unique,” Hawley tells DQ about returning to the series. “To be able to mix elements of the crime genre with a sort of Americana, combined with some more philosophical elements and humour, it really is a unique animal, which is a funny thing to say about something that’s never the same twice.
“But that’s what’s fascinating to me about it and why the distance [since season three] is helpful. By the time I’m filming our 1950 American crime epic set in the Jim Crow era, it’s been so long since I did the season three with David Thewlis and Ewan McGregor, and even longer since season two.
“I always reach a point in the middle of filming where I think, ‘Well, Fargo has always been this. It’s never been anything else.’ There’s this funny evolution that happens where it feels like this is the ultimate Fargo, which is a nice feeling because obviously you wouldn’t want to get halfway through and go, ‘Oh, it was better before.’”
Season four does have some connection to the existing Fargo world, however. Viewers paying close attention to the 1979-set season two will remember Bokeem Woodbine’s character, henchman Mike Milligan, and references to the Kansas City mafia he had grown up with.
“This Mike Milligan character was such an iconoclast. I started to think, ‘How does that guy become that guy?’ And on some level, I created a story that would explain how that guy became that guy,” Hawley explains. “The thing about Mike Milligan is he didn’t fit into any world in 1979. He didn’t fit into the white world and he didn’t fit into the black world. That was really interesting to me.
“Then the other thing that pushed it over the edge was Fargo is always a story about the things people do for money. This seemed like a look at America and the original sins of American capital, which was the exploitation of free and cheap labour – slavery and immigration – and this idea of what it means to be an American and who’s allowed in and who’s on the outside.”
In previous seasons, the cops of Fargo have always been the good guys. But Hawley flips that idea on its head this season in a move that certainly chimes with the national conversation being had in America following the death of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide and international protests against police brutality and the treatment of black people by law enforcement.
“It was early on in the process when I realised I wanted to tell a story primarily around black Americans and immigrants,” the showrunner says. “In every year until now, the all-good character has been played by a cop. But that is not the experience of all Americans. It felt interesting to say, ‘Well, what if we moved that all-good moral pole away from the cops and put it somewhere else?’ And then we can have a surrogate cop, someone else who fills that role on some level. That allows us to have those dynamics, but then also allows us to tell stories about the police that don’t require them to be good.”
It’s an important part of the story that has become only more timely considering Fargo was due to premiere in April but was held back due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Production designer Warren Alan Young, himself an African American, believes the decision to postpone the launch will have a huge impact on how the season is received, “because in the US and many other places, we’re in a time of reckoning and social unrest, which a lot of our story this season is really connected to,” he says.
“It’s about the differences between the haves and the have-nots, particularly the relationships between police and the African-American community. Fargo definitely touches on that this year. Noah decided there had been enough good cops in Fargo and there were these other stories that impacted many people who look like me, who don’t necessarily have the same sorts of relationships and interactions with police in this country.
“The story is very important to me this year. It was important to me before we arrived this year, and it’s even become even more important to me personally. I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity given the state of the world right now.”
The Harriet and Strange Angel designer previously worked on seasons one and two of Fargo before answering Hawley’s call in November 2018 and reuniting with the showrunner for the fourth run.
“This is probably the largest television project, in scale, that most of us have worked on. I can’t even think about the number of sets and locations right now,” Young says. “We had 52 characters in the first two episodes that Noah directed, and all those people have to go somewhere. Sometimes those people all show up in the same place and sometimes they don’t. So it’s large. My graphic designer has four different portfolios from this project alone.”
Filming took place on location around Chicago and in the studio, with Fargo taking over six stages. One was dedicated to a single set, the interior of the Jackson Democratic Club that serves as the stage for a large part of the story.
“We scouted Kansas City, where this story takes place, as well as Cleveland and Cincinnati and then Toronto. But ultimately, Chicago ticked the most boxes,” Young says. “And there are so many choices in those areas to shoot the period look here in this great city. We had multiple options for everything that we wanted to do, and rural areas aren’t that far away from the heart of Chicago. You can be in rural Illinois in about 35 minutes, which worked well for us.”
Some sets were built and filmed on before being repurposed as additional sets throughout the shoot. “There’s a hospital structure that we built that was then converted into another hospital, and that then becomes a hotel,” Young reveals. “Hopefully you don’t recognise the common elements there. We were in so many of our sets so frequently but, because there are so many stories being told at the same time, we didn’t spend more time in one set than the other. Every set got its equal share of camera time.”
The Jackson Democratic Club proved to be the trickiest design job, as the set is used in three different time periods when it is under the ownership of different groups.
“There’s a change in look for each of those sets,” Young says. “It’s most significant when the Italians take over in 1934. We go from copper-panelled walls to a more fine stained wood panel wall the Italians would have brought in. It’s like the White House: the address stays the same, it’s just the occupants change from time to time. And when the new occupants come in, they bring their own look and feel to the place. The ceiling pieces are also removable from that set, and that was really instrumental in allowing the changeover [in design] and also in facilitating some of the shots [DOP] Dana Gonzales had in mind.”
Also returning for the fourth run is composer Jeff Russo, who has worked on every season of Fargo so far. Russo began work last summer when Hawley first sent him some scripts, writing some early themes even before he saw any footage from the set.
“My collaboration with Noah on Fargo is unique. We get into the creation of the music and the sound palette of our projects very early on. That is not what most projects are like,” Russo says. “But Fargo’s use of music is a big part of the world-building Noah embarks on. I’m in from the beginning, all the way through to the very end of the process. But we try not to overuse music. We always say never use music until you’ve earned it; never use it to make something happen, but use it as a way to shape what’s happening. We really take care to stick to that ethos.”
Like the visual style and tone of Fargo, each season of the show also differs musically while also maintaining a through line that holds the series together. “There is a sound – it’s very orchestral and I utilise that for our big dramatic moments,” Russo continues. “We definitely like to use music for drama and that’s a hallmark of what we do musically for Fargo. But there are no rules when it comes to what we do with music. Every time Noah calls me, I’ve got to think of something a little different from what we’ve done in the past. It’s a challenge, but it is creatively thrilling.”
The starting point is always the characters. The first thing Russo wrote for season four was a theme for Ethelrida, who serves as the show’s “central consciousness.” Around her are a broad group of characters, each of varying degrees of good and bad, giving the composer a wide musical range in which to work.
“We didn’t want to make it sound like a 1950s score or make it sound like music from the 50s. We utilise songs for that,” Russo says, revealing he uses a lot of clarinet this season as opposed to the English horn in previous outings. “I did listen to some traditional Americana, early 20th century music, just for some reference and to get into that mood. But I try not to listen to anything else. I try to put on blinders and figure out how I am going to create this sound. Early on, I didn’t really think of the Faddas versus the Cannons in terms of the specific themes. I was more concentrated on the feeling that their clash was going to bring.”
Both Young and Russo agree season four is a standout entry in the Fargo universe, as the story explores what it means to be American and to belong, both among the featured families and in America itself.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better time for this project to be seen,” Young says. “It’s often Noah’s hope there are discussions started from the show depending on what the story is touching on. I think we’ll have that this season. It’s purely a reflection of the America we know today and the world.”
“This may be my favourite season,” Russo adds. “Noah’s ability to craft these characters that are so rich and so deep, it’s just so interesting and so thrilling to me. Chris Rock is incredible. He exceeded anything I ever thought it was going to be. I’m just so blown away by his performance and the performance of the entire cast. They’re so spectacular.”
Hawley sums up season four as the “epic” story of a power struggle between two rival criminal organisations that delivers on levels of plot and suspense he compares to The Godfather.
“But it also has our tone of voice and the comedy of it,” he says. “And it’s so deeply about what it means to be American. The best way to understand the future is to look to the past. None of us can understand ourselves until we understand the past. People talk about truth and reconciliation. But you can’t have reconciliation without truth. This story, while fictional, will hopefully provide some context for insight and maybe make people think about subjects in a way they haven’t before, because you’re being told a story, not told an idea.”