‘Fargo’ Season 2 Premiere Postmortem: Noah Hawley On the Reboot, Ronald Reagan and UFOs

Courtesy of FX

Now that FX has unveiled the second season premiere of anthology drama “Fargo,” you may have a few questions. (Like, what’s up with the Ronald Reagan references? And, was that really a UFO?)

Variety spoke with showrunner Noah Hawley about the new season and asked about Reagan, the UFO, his stylistic choices (dig that split screen) and killing off Kieran Culkin in the first hour — among other topics.

After all the acclaim that Season One received, you stuck by the decision to start fresh in Season Two. What do you see as the differences and similarities between the seasons?
It’s a much bigger year — story-wise, character-wise, the setting and time period and thematically — it’s much more of an American epic. The first year was a more contained, intimate story. The ambition here, what it took to pull it off, was a lot greater, and yet it still has to be about people you care about. It might not feel exactly like the first year, but the test for me is, “When the credits are rolling at the end of hour 10, do you have that same feeling?” Decency versus evil. There’s a moral simplicity on some level. My feeling was always, “It’s the best of America versus the worst of America, and, yes, we have problems, but look who’s solving them.” The tortured anti-hero paradigm is draining on a certain level. I think it’s nice to see good people trying to solve tough problems.

The premiere opens on the set of a Ronald Reagan western, and he continues to pop up in other ways. What’s the significance of bringing Reagan into the story?
One of the things I’m proudest of in this year is that the time period is not just a backdrop against which we shoot a crime story. It was this moment in history when America was at its lowest point, post-Vietnam and post-Watergate. You had all this radical activity and this expectation in the mid ‘70s where all the disenfranchised people thought they were about to get a seat at the table — the Native American movement with Wounded Knee recently, the Black Panther movement, second wave feminism. How do you turn that into a crime story? That was interesting to me.

The American narrative had become completely complex. Look at Watergate as an example; it was a story where everything was subverted. The good guy was the bad guy. There were conspiracies inside of conspiracies. It was literally this moment in history where you felt like, “I can’t trust anything or anybody.” Then along came Ronald Reagan, who said, “It’s not that complicated. We’re Americans. We just need to go back to the ‘50s.” And everyone thought, “Oh that feels good. I like that, I’m tired of this.” That idea of Reagan in the wings, about to step into the story, became a sort of framing device for this year. We were given this gift of a president who had also been a movie star and existed in the culture in two ways.

And it’s been reported Reagan will actually be a character in the season (played by Bruce Campbell). How big will that role be?
He appears in an episode on a Whistle Stop tour, testing the waters pre-campaign. Patrick Wilson’s character is assigned to his protection detail. He’s a character in the season and has a role in one hour. You’ll see he’s actually everywhere. There’s a specter of him that hangs over things. On some levels that message is the same message that our characters want, to get back to a simpler time. This is an America where even in small town Minnesota everyone is worried that the soldiers came back from Vietnam and they brought the war home with them. Even in “No Country for Old Men,” which takes place in 1980, Tommy Lee Jones says “crime these days, you just can’t take its measure.” There’s a sense that these old school lawmen don’t understand the world they’re living in today. That was a theme we definitely played into as well.

We see that in the premiere when Lou (Patrick Wilson) and Hank (Ted Danson) walk into the diner.
They’ve both been to war. They’ve seen (that kind of violence), but they haven’t seen it here. We set it up in the first year where Keith Carradine (who played an older Lou) talks about “savagery pure and simple” and this is the first glimpse of it. Our lawmen this year are in a more heroic mode. Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks) last year made a choice that branded him a coward that he had to overcome. This year you have Patrick Wilson, the only man in America who can wear a maroon uniform for 10 hours and still be dreamy, and Ted Danson, who is like America’s hero. This idea that they’re standing there and saying “this far and no farther” is really compelling.

What’s up with the UFO?
For me it ties into the narrative that in the ’70s everything became like “black is white, the sky is the ground.” That’s the mindset. Obviously UFOs were huge in the ’70s. What do they say in “A Serious Man”? “Accept the mystery.” It’s not in there accidentally, let’s put it that way. We’ll see what it adds up to.

The Coens used a UFO in “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
There was some permission I felt on some level that they had addressed that issue. The ’50s and the ’70s are sort of similar in that they’re both times of major paranoia in America. That seemed interesting to me.

It also seems to play into the idea this is a “true story” in a very broad sense.
When I first went in to FX to sell them on the idea that we should do this together, I said, “The first thing we have to figure out is what’s our Mike Yanagita?” (The high school classmate from Marge Gunderson’s past who she meets for a lunch date in the movie “Fargo.”) It’s like, “Why is this in the movie?” For me it’s in there because it’s one of those details where you’re like, “Why would they put it in unless it really happened?” They had to find a way to incorporate it into the story. The question for us was, “What are those moments for us?” There would be those moments where you might get a note like, “Do we need this scene?” That’s the fun of it. I don’t know how people are going to react to every element or every detail but nothing’s there as a gimmick for me. Everything’s there for a reason.

How strong of a connection did you want to build between the two seasons? I feel like you can see some of how Allison Tolman played Molly in Cristin Milioti’s performance as her mother especially.
One of the ways to look at this whole year is that it’s the Molly Solverson origin story. A lot of it is very deliberate. I like the idea that the audience is gonna look at Patrick, Cristin and Ted and they’re gonna go, “Somewhere in all three of these people there’s Allison Tolman.” I have my opinions about what qualities she took from each, but I love that idea that you see her as a little girl surrounded by these people. And it’s obvious that her mother has this natural detective mindset — it’s not “Murder, She Wrote,” but she was raised by a cop and she married a cop, so she thinks about these things. Molly gets certain things from her dad, something from her grandfather — a sort of wry way of looking at the world — and somewhere in there at the end of 10 hours …

The Coens obviously weren’t making movies in the ‘70s, but were there any films from the period that influenced this season?
I watched Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” again. They do these great freezes. At the beginning of the movie Steve McQueen is in prison and you’re hearing those cotton looms, those machines are going, but as you’re moving through the opening credits in the prison they kept freezing the screen but the sound is continuing. That was really interesting. I sent Jeffrey Donovan (who plays Dodd Gerhardt) a photo of Lee Marvin with a watch cap and cigar. We talked through a bunch of stuff. You’ve gotta avoid ’70s cliches as much as possible, but there was definitely an experimental quality to movies then. Experimental film by the ’70s had become much more mainstream after “Bonnie and Clyde” and stuff in the late ’60s when you were seeing bigger movies where people were exploring the medium a lot more.

Did that era inspire the split screens as well?
It’s a very sort of ‘70s thing, but I did it because I had so many more stories in motion in the first half of this season; so many more characters. Sometimes you would only see the Gerhardt family in the first 10 minutes of the show and then you might not see them again in the whole episode. I wanted a way to keep them alive and keep those things going, maybe even in these interstitial segues between one scene and another. You could cycle through, seeing where all your other characters are in that moment. Once you start playing with split screens then it becomes part of the language of the show and it’s interesting to see what else you can do with them. Obviously they’ll work in a phone call, but do you do them in a conversation between two people in the same room? It becomes really interesting once you get into some action. Normally you’d have to cut away from a conversation if there’s something going on at the same time. This way you could see the person who’s talking and the person who’s stalking them, potentially.

Talk about holding off on introducing Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons’ characters Peggy and Ed Blomquist.
Our introduction was scripted to happen much earlier. It felt like there was a lot of really interesting tension to string out their introduction over time. It was scripted to be when Peggy hit Rye, she got out of the car. It felt more powerful to keep that as a mystery and later she can tell the story and you can see it in these flashbacks which then have a very interesting dynamic to them. She can tell her husband, “I panicked,” and you can see her in flashback absolutely not being panicked. It’s a very interesting dichotomy that you get to play. I love the idea that the editing room is the final time you write. You should still be creatively solving problems even at that point. It’s not really until you’re locked that you can call it quits.

And you set Rye up as a main character, only to kill him off by the end of episode one.
The trick with the second season was the story unfolds in a very untraditional way. We start with a false opening of this fake Ronald Reagan movie. Then we go to introduce the character of Rye Gerhardt. The way it’s designed you’re gonna think, “He’s our Lester this year.” Then of course the story turns out to not be about him at all. (Originally the extended Gerhardt family wasn’t in the premiere.) Luckily I had the opportunity to write a couple of extra sequences, to introduce Rye with his brother Dodd, and then to follow Dodd home and meet the whole family and really get a sense of perspective of what was going on. Which also helped to cement the idea that this was a story about these people, which of course it is, but it turns out not to be Rye’s movie.