'Fargo' showrunner Noah Hawley on doppelgängers, Carrie Coon and the series' future

AUSTIN, Texas — Noah Hawley has the type of workload that puts nearly everyone else to shame. He's the showrunner for two dramas on FX: Fargo, an anthology series based on the Coen brothers' 1996 cult film, and Legion, the network's first foray into Marvel's seemingly endless wealth of superheroes. He's also adapting his latest novel, Before the Fall, into a feature film and turning Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle into another limited series for FX.

So between all that — and, presumably, finding time to sleep and see his family — you can forgive Hawley for not providing a definitive answer to whether Fargo will have a fourth season. That's been the subject of some internet chatter, with premature calls that season three is our last so-called "true story" set in the Midwest's criminal underbelly.

But even if Hawley never returns to the Fargo universe, he's left his imprint with three strikingly original seasons of television. Season three has inspired perhaps the most tepid critical response of any Fargo tale (to be fair, the first two seasons set a very high bar), but this current run of episodes still contains some of the most evocative images we've seen from the entire series. Episode eight sees Nikki Swango, Mr. Wrench — yes, season one's Mr. Wrench! — and Yuri Gurka enter a mystical bowling alley. It's occupied by Ray Wise, in his second appearance of the season, holding a kitten, reciting Hebrew and evoking The Big Lebowski, another Coen brothers classic. The sequence encapsulates the show's allure: surreal, eccentric and sometimes familiar. If there are really are just two remaining episodes of Fargo, Hawley's ending the anthology series on a high note.

In an interview with Mic at the ATX Television Festival, Hawley discussed choosing Fargo's time period for season three, if and when we see another season, as well as Legion and actress Aubrey Plaza's terrifying performance on that high-concept show. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

(Editor's note: Spoilers for Fargo ahead.)

Mic: The third season of Fargo takes place in the immediate aftermath — or in the waning moments — of the Great Recession, which plays into Emmit taking this shady, desperate deal with V.M. Varga. What piqued your interest in telling a Fargo story in this time period?

Noah Hawley: Well, because it says it’s a true story, my feeling is that we can never set it in the year we’re in, or last year. It feels like enough time needs to have passed, where now the book has been written. The true-crime story — finally, every fact has come to light and now we know, right? It feels like five years is usually a good length of time.

After doing 1979, I didn’t want to turn the show into a period vehicle. So I sort of arbitrarily picked 2010, originally, but then the more I thought about it — with Emmit and how it complicated his life — we had set the first season in 2006 and 2007, which was right before the crash. A time of the bubble. Literally, the bubble of optimism and how the reality of [Lorne Malvo] coming into town had an impact on them, 'cause they were unsuspecting. It felt like to jump the recession and come on the other side of it was an interesting way to go.

And also, doesn’t it, on some level, feel like we’ve kind of forgotten? There’s this thing with Emmit where he took this money and now he’s in the black again, and it’s almost like, well, that never happened. Varga is kind of the reminder, that — no, times were desperate and you were desperate, and don’t forget. Otherwise, you’ll just do it again.

Carrie Coon is having a 2017 to remember, as the simultaneous star of Fargo and The Leftovers, which just wrapped up its final season. What did you see in Carrie that made her an ideal fit for police chief Gloria Burgle?

NH: I feel like she’s an optimist, as a performer. I always feel like when I’m watching her that she’s struggling with good faith to try to make the best of things. And the danger obviously on a show like The Leftovers is the grief consumes the performance, and it becomes this maudlin melodrama. But with her, I always felt like she still kept a sense of humor, and the same thing in Gone Girl, which were the two things that I’d seen her in.

I felt like, with Gloria, she’s a very different character than Marge Gunderson or Molly Solverson, or [Lou Solverson], even, this sort of cop archetype. Both Frances McDormand and Allison Tolman’s characters, they were living in a world where everything made sense, where they believed in the basic decency of people and they were proven right most of the time, and then they stumbled upon this case that turned everything upside down.

Gloria is a woman who has already had the rug pulled out from under her. Her husband left her for another man, and she’s struggling to understand this domestic reality. Her job is changing, because she’s both chief of police and not chief of police. Because she’s being absorbed, and her stepfather is murdered. So she’s starting out already at odds with the universe, and I feel like a big part of her journey is she’s going to force reality to be something she understands. It’s not just about solving the case, it’s about getting into this fight with a world she doesn’t understand and trying to win it.

Here's Ewan McGregor, and also, Ewan McGregorFX Networks

Fargo is just one show right now that’s teasing the notion of doppelgängers. The Leftovers did it, and the new Twin Peaks is doing it with Agent Cooper. Even on the big screen, Alien: Covenant had two Michael Fassbenders. What’s fascinating to you as a creator about doppelgängers?

NH: With [Ewan McGregor], it was really because I have an allergy to heroes and villains, with a capital H and a capital V. You have these two brothers who were at odds, clearly one of them is the underdog. One of them won life and the other lost, and I think if you cast two different actors then it’s very easy to decide that you hate Emmit and you love Ray.

But by casting the same actor, they’re fundamentally the same person underneath. The family resemblance is real, and that — as we’ve seen now — knowing what I knew, which was that Ray was not going to make it past episode six, Emmit is also the underdog in his story, because Varga comes in. I need you not to vilify Emmit, to the point where you’re not interested in him as a protagonist anymore.

For all those reasons, I felt like it was really important that Ewan play both these roles. I don’t know why anyone else is doing it, but that was why I did it.

This season takes a brief detour to Los Angeles — the first time we’re really removed from the Midwest and Minnesota niceness. That same episode even has a few animated sequences, another Fargo first. Why the experimentation?

NH: There’s no reason to repeat yourself. There’s already a wiggly, organizing principle of Fargo. There are some archetypes that you just have to have. There’s a crime committed, usually on a moral spectrum there’s some pure good and there’s some pure evil and there’s someone in the middle who’s trying to decide which way to go.

So those elements are always going to become familiar over time. But I have no interest in repeating myself. A lot of times [the experimentation] is because it seems funny to me. Like, we’re two hours in and suddenly we’re in Los Angeles trying to solve a crime that we know can’t be solved there. The whole episode is an exercise in futility, right? Because we as the audience know it was random. But she goes to L.A. and we are forced to sit through this hour that we know can’t lead to anything, and yet if we do our job right as a storyteller, they’ll come a moment, two-thirds of the way through the episode, where you’ll think, "Oh, she might just solve it."

Because there is a story there, right? He did get involved in this thing, and somebody did get murdered and he did leave town, and you think, "I think she’s solving it." And you go, "Wait, she can’t possibly solve it!" I like that idea of managing expectations of the audience and taking them on a journey that they’re not prepared for and they don’t expect.

Yes, Ray Wise was in L.A., too! Chris Large/FX Networks

FX chief John Landgraf has talked about Fargo season three possibly being the last season of Fargo, which led to a few panicked stories about the show preemptively ending after this year. But he was basically saying that it would depend on if you have another great idea for another season. Does the creative process for potential Fargo seasons change, now that you’re also working on Legion?

NH: Well, there are only so many hours in the day, certainly. These last 18 months have been — it’s been a bear, for sure. It would be one thing if my goal was to create relatively unoriginal programming, where it’s like, "Oh, they’ll solve a crime." But certainly these two shows and the demand that I have and the network have — that they’d be original and the quality level is as high as we can make it — it makes it difficult.

Every marathon has to end at some point, or at least you should only run one at a time. The way it was always lined up was that it was an anthology — it was a limited series, or it was an anthology. So either we were going to do one, or we were going to keep going and it was going to be different every time. Right away, going into season two, the question was: "Is there going to be a season two?" Because, of course, we won every award that you could literally win, so we certainly could’ve mic-dropped and walked away at that moment, and we’d certainly better have a damn good reason not to do that. So the idea for season two was to expand the scope and all the things that went into it.

But I pitched them an idea and they liked it, and I developed it. But it was 15 months between seasons, and now it was 18 months between seasons two and three. I don’t have a fourth season in my head at this exact moment, but I also know that if and when I call John Landgraf and say, "I got it," we’ll start moving in that direction. Whether that’s tomorrow or three years from now or whatever it is. I do know that I have a second season of Legion racing toward me, and I need to focus on that because the bar is pretty high there as well.

I wanted to talk about Legion real quick. I loved the first season, but most of all, I was blown away by Aubrey Plaza as Lenny/Devil With Yellow Eyes. She's terrifying.

NH: It was her idea to have armpit hair in that last hour. It was my favorite thing in the whole season.

That was quite an addition. I understand the role was initially written for a middle-aged man, so I was wondering what Plaza did to convince you she’d be a great fit as this villain.

NH: I’d met her and as we moved into the casting phase on Legion. I had written: "David’s in the hospital and he’s got this sidekick named Lenny, and Lenny ends up in the wall." Other than the fact that it was conceived for a man, there was no defining reason that it had to be a man. As I was starting to realize where the role would go and what I needed from that person, she just really — I couldn’t get her out of my head as an option for that.

I raised that to FX and they really liked the idea. Then I had to convince Aubrey that the role was big enough and also — what the fuck is the role? 'Cause the character dies within the first hour. "Am I ghost? What am I?" Trying to explain to her what it was and what it meant. It’s a pretty wackadoodle show on some level.

I think it really suited her as an actress because she is a very spontaneous performer, and I think she really loved the idea that from week to week, from scene to scene, all she was going to play was that scene. None of the rest of it mattered, you know what I mean? So I think it was very liberating for her not to feel like she had to play the emotional truth of this. It was like, sometimes you’re a monster and sometimes you’re actually Lenny. I think she had a really wild ride, and we’ll see if we can keep it going.

I will personally campaign for Aubrey Plaza's Emmy this year Michelle Faye/FX Networks

The third season of Fargo airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX.

Mic has ongoing Fargo coverage. Follow our main Fargo hub here.