How Noah Hawley takes on big issues in ‘Fargo’

by Admin
How Noah Hawley takes on big issues in 'Fargo'

By his own count, writer-director Noah Hawley has generated 51 hours of off-kilter TV drama inspired by the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie “Fargo.” An astute wordsmith who writes novels in between TV shows, the Austin, Texas-based creator and showrunner excels in telling faux true-crime stories from the heartland populated with dead bodies, homespun wit and morally conflicted characters. Since its launch in 2014, “Fargo,” the series, has earned 55 Emmy nominations and six wins.

For “Fargo’s” fifth season on FX, Hawley and his team meted out their usual allotment of black-humored touches, including an eye-patched lawyer named Danish Graves (Dave Foley), puppets, a “Home Alone”-like sequence involving flamethrowing oven cleaner, body-switching slapstick at the hospital and a villain who rises naked from a hot tub to ask visiting police officers, “Does it bother you if I’m discussing matters of state in moist repose?”

The show also hit somber notes in tracking the hero’s journey of Minnesota housewife Dot Lyons (Juno Temple) as she fights to be free of her brutally misogynistic ex-husband, North Dakota Sheriff Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm).

Hawley recently returned from Thailand, where he’s overseeing production of a new “Alien” series based on the sci-fi film franchise. Speaking via Zoom from a Beverly Hills hotel room, Hawley explains how he built this year’s “Fargo” saga around themes of domestic abuse, debt and biscuit batter.

Season 5 takes place in 2019, making it your most contemporary “Fargo” story to date. What did you have on your mind while writing in 2022?

The story landed in a moment in which we were moving backward in the fight for women’s rights and the presidency we had endured and all of that, so [I wanted] to create Dot as this character who just didn’t put up with it. There’s a Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote that goes, “We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re just asking to take your boots off our necks.” I think people have responded to the show because Dot was not a victim. She was resourceful, creative, she made breakfast for her kid, but she was just like, “No, you’re not going to treat me that way.”

Did the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” movie inform the way you developed Dot Lyon?

In Joel and Ethan’s “Fargo,” a woman’s husband sends two men to kidnap her. You’ve got Bill Macy, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s characters, all fully realized, they all had names, and my memory of Bill Macy’s wife is: The Wife. She’s whisking, then there’s a bag over her head and then she’s dead. And I thought, what if we told a story from her point of view?

Juno Temple as Dorothy “Dot” Lyon and Jon Hamm as Sheriff Roy Tillman.

(Michelle Faye / FX)

Dot’s whisking biscuit batter at the end of Episode 1, pretending to her husband and daughter that everything’s fine after she Maced a police officer at a PTA meeting gone wild, burned a man’s face with a homemade flamethrower and survived a bloody shootout. Still, she’s trying hard to be “Minnesota nice.”

The Coens coined the “Minnesota nice” phrase as this idea of a polite society where it’s: Keep smiling, keep smiling, keep smiling, and then somebody’s dead, right? But in 2022, I looked around, and I was like: “I think people [have] stopped smiling.” We’re in this situation 1718713065 where the basically decent people that we have been championing on this show are suddenly following the school president to the parking lot and threatening to kill them. But decent people still exist and the sense of civility — how are we going to get back to that from where we’ve ended up? That’s really what the show wrestles with.

Sheriff Roy Tillman regards Dot as his property and has no respect for the rule of law even though he’s running for reelection. Did you want to embed Season 5 with a political subtext?

On the script level it was a little more overt, but then I found myself in the editing room going, “I don’t need Roy Tillman to say that stuff.” I think we get it just from who he is and what he represents. Look, I live in Austin, Texas. I want to tell stories for everybody, so my hope is that “Fargo” can be watched across the political spectrum. I’m not trying to be political, but I do think there’s a conversation about civics that we could all have.

The battle between Dot Lyon and Sheriff Roy Tillman is investigated by Indira (Richa Moorjani), the local deputy who’s saddled with debt. Why was it important to incorporate debt as a Season 5 theme?

Because I feel like it’s something that everyone has and no one talks about. It’s such a crushing element in so many people’s lives. The ugly side of the American Dream is that we pass moral judgment on people for not being rich.

Speaking of rich people, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Dot’s imperious mother-in-law, the millionaire debt collection mogul Lorraine. Her speech and demeanor is so stylized it almost feels like she parachuted into “Fargo” from a completely different show.

Lorraine’s a self-made woman. It’s not specified in the script but I think she comes from rural Illinois or something and she’s created this affect, this mid-Atlantic accent as a way of classing herself up. Jennifer and I talked about this, and we talked about [the late conservative talk show pundit] William F. Buckley, the withering disdain he had, his way of talking down his nose at people, his erudition. Jennifer took that to heart.

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Dot’s imperious motherinlaw, the millionaire debtcollection mogul Lorraine. She forgives the debt of three men so they’ll change their names to Roy Tillman. They all show up at a campaign debate and humiliate the real Roy Tillman. How did you come up with that dirty trick?

Honestly, that idea came out of Russia. They do the craziest s— over there. I saw a story where, in order to beat the opposition party leader in this town, they got two guys to change their names to his name so when people go to vote, they only have a 30% chance of voting for the right one.

You’re kidding!

Not only is it a real thing, someone in the U.S. just did that in a congressional race; they had people change their names. [With “Fargo’] I thought for this self-important man to show up at a debate and then become a laughingstock — it felt like justice.

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