SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Storia Americana,” the fourth season finale of “Fargo.”
The Season 4 finale of “Fargo,” which aired Sunday night, was the second of two episodes that were — thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — short four months after the eight preceding episodes were forced to wrap. “Storia Americana” brought to an end the tale of two warring 1950 Kansas City crime families led on one side by Chris Rock’s calculating Loy Cannon and on the other by Jason Schwartzman’s erratic Josto Fadda. Both men, for all their stylistic differences, wind up equally dead in the end. Still living are Loy’s son Satchel (Rodney L. Jones III) — who, it appears, will grow up to be Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), the scene-stealing gangster of “Fargo” Season 2 — and Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (E’myri Crutchfield), a young girl whose family is ensnared in the conflict.
Here, “Fargo” showrunner Noah Hawley speaks with Variety about the significance of those two characters, the unique challenges of Season 4 and what the future holds for the anthology series.
It looked like Rodney L. Jones III, who plays Satchel, grew taller during the break in production. Was it something you noticed? It feels like the story benefits from it.
Well, yes, I noticed. Even though we don’t say that time has passed between Episode 8, the black and white episode, and episode nine, time has clearly passed. It’s no longer winter. But I also felt like that opening montage of the war intimates time passing. But yeah, in July, when it looked like you’re actually going to be able to go back [into production], my first thought was that Rodney might have grown. He’s at that age. So they sent me a picture of him as he looks, and he’s clearly getting older. But I agree that it works. The fact that he left a boy and he came home almost a man is meaningful, cinematically.
In what ways were these two episodes different from what you had originally planned?
They didn’t change substantively in any way. We needed to introduce happy we needed to get to the you know, the tragic ends of Otis and Gaetano and and we needed for Ethelrida to triumph in that ninth hour. And then yeah, in the 10th hour, we had to we had to turn things from bad to good to bad again. But certainly in going through the process of prepping for that additional photography, I went through both scripts and made sure that I was only asking the production to film things that were critical to the episodes.
Under different circumstances, what would you have left on the bone that wasn’t there?
I don’t think there was anything. I had removed, originally, the scenes of Satchel walking home from Episode 9. I thought that was maybe something that we could lose. And FX really argued that we needed it to see Satchel’s journey, to see how he how he becomes Mike Milligan in the end. And I think they were right. It was an abundance of caution on my part to say, “Well, maybe we don’t need that day.” But I don’t really approach things that way. Whatever it is that I cut, which I can’t even remember now, that’s the way it’s meant to be. So I didn’t feel like I missed anything when I watched those hours.
Chris Rock has said that he lost weight and added muscle during the production break. Were there any other changes with the actors that might have raised continuity issues?
There wasn’t a lot, no. Jason Schwartzman was so superstitious that he never shaved the mustache. I think he was pretty adamant that it had to be that mustache, and he didn’t want to shave it and grow another one. I know that that Salvatore [Esposito], who played Gaetano, lost a lot of weight between when when we wrapped and when we came back. But I don’t think you notice.
You’ve said in the past that a big part of this season was telling the origin story of Mike Milligan from Season 2. What, in your mind, happens between Satchel being on the porch and watching his father die and the moment where we meet Mike years later in Season 2?
I feel like when when you are the son of the king and king gets killed, then you are not safe anymore. So my feeling is that that family was not able to stay in that house, that their source of revenue dried up, that they went through some hard times, and that then, ultimately, Satchel did not have a lot of opportunity in his life and had to fall back on the skills he learned from Rabbi. Rabbi said to him, “I don’t want you to be a child soldier like I was.” But on some level, the moment his dad was killed in front of him, he didn’t really have a choice. Then I think he had to change his name, because being a Cannon was not a safe thing to be. So he chose the Milligan name. Then at a certain point, having laundered his identity, he started pulling jobs of some kind and ended up getting in with with the Kansas City mafia, which is ultimately that what Ebal created out of the Fadda family business. So the irony being that he became an employee of the very company that that drove his dad out of business.
The speech that Ebal gives Josto about family business being crazy because families are crazy, is that the seed for the version of the mob that Mike walks into at the end of Season 2 that is functioning almost like a corporate entity?
Yeah, and it’s echoed in Season 2 by Joe Bulo, who at that point is played by Brad Garrett, where he talks to Jean [Smart, who plays Floyd Gerhardt], and he says, “That’s why you can’t have a family business, because one of my guys steps out of line, I break his arm; he speaks out of turn, I cut out his tongue; but what are you gonna do with your sons?” So that is the kind of origin — we see Ebal watching this crazy family psychodrama and formulating this no-family business, hierarchical ideal, and then putting it into into practice.
You’ve talked in the past about “Fargo” coming from your thoughts about what America is, and particularly money in America. It feels like there is something significant notion that is now repeating in the series that a small family business just won’t do. Things have to be bigger in scale and organized and very profit-driven.
Yeah, I mean, it’s not how business used to be. There came a moment, not in the ’50s, but certainly by the ’70s and heading into the greed-is-good ’80s where corporations themselves were not so profit-, shareholder-driven. And then, at some point, they switched what their highest value was, which was generating shareholder value. And at that point, you saw any sense of responsibility to customers or workers go out the window. Any politician will tell you that the backbone of this country is the family business and people are unfortunately losing so many of those family businesses right now. But ultimately, a family business is a humane and human endeavor. And a corporation is neither of those things. In fact, in a corporation, the first thing that you do is create a board of directors and a decision-making hierarchy in which no one person is responsible for any decision — which means that no one person’s morality is driving any decision and it becomes much easier to make decisions that aren’t good for anybody.
In the finale, when Josto and Oraetta are executed, there’s a moment where Jessie Buckley as Oraetta is looking at her warped reflection, and it reminded me of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Season 1. Is there something to these characters that you keep bringing into the series that seem to represent something primal and almost inhuman?
Yeah, I mean, I think that whether it’s Anton Chigurh in “No Country For Old Men” or Peter Stormare in “Fargo” or the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in “Raising Arizona” — and I would include John Goodman in “Barton Fink” in there — there’s always these characters in Coen Brothers movies where you think this is not a human being, this is the kind of elemental force that has always been blowing through the American wilderness; a kind of demonic force. You might kill this body — or the dybbuk in the opening of “A Serious Man” — but there’s something more than human that’s happening here. I find that a really fascinating idea for this series, and especially this season. I don’t know if you noticed, but in the black and white episode, there were a lot of historical markers, combined with the haunting of of Ethelrida’s family. There’s this sense that this country is [driven] by the events of the past, and we forget them at our at our peril. In Season 3, we had our mystical bowling alley, and the story of the Rabbi Nachman and the mass grave. This is our past, and I think it’s important to include it in our stories.
Throughout the four seasons, there have only been maybe three or four characters who are just good and smart. And Ethelrida is that character in this season. How important was that character to the telling of this season’s story?
In the superstructure of “Fargo,” whatever the story, it’s a morality tale. And it is ultimately, the story, as the movie is, about a kind of pure, good character on the one side, and real evil on the opposite side. So whether it’s Allison Tolman or Carrie Coon or Patrick Wilson, or this season Ethelrida, there are these characters who [are] just decent people. We’re not saying they’re saints, but they’re just inherently decent people. And I think it’s critical. You can’t tell these stories without that decency, that core American decency. And the fear ultimately is not that violence will be done from one character to another, I think, but that that decency itself is in danger. We went for a long period, starting with “The Shield,” where a lot of our heroes on TV were these demon-hunting, anti-heroes who had sacrificed whatever goodness was in them to protect us from the real evil that was out there — these sort-of haunted characters. And it’s so exhausting to invest in those characters versus this decency. It’s riskier, because decent people run the risk of not only being injured, but becoming jaded. And that in and of itself is violence.
It didn’t occur to me until you you listed those characters there, but when you did, it did strike me that they all play white cops. This season, that role is a Black teenage girl. Is that intentional? And whether or not it’s intentional, what does it say about about the story you wanted to tell this season and how it differed from the stories you told before?
It was definitely intentional. Two years ago now, this story was coming together for me, and I knew that I wanted it to be a story about the collision of African Americans moving from the South and the end of Southern European immigrants arriving in America. I knew that the story was therefore going to center around the experience of white people. And so when I thought about that moral pillar in the story, I thought, well, I could make it a cop again. But that is not the experience of those two groups, that cops are primarily forces of good. So I started to work toward this idea of a cop surrogate and this “Rear Window” idea of this biracial girl who sees something through her window that turns her into a cop — the mystery to solve the mystery of this nurse — so that she becomes our moral pillar. And that led me then to structure the season as I did as her history report and to make her the protagonist.
Have you given thought yet to whether you want to do another season?
I said for three years that I was done, and then I wasn’t, so I’m not going to say that. I have started to think about it. I don’t think it would be the next thing I do, but I do think there’s a more contemporary story percolating for me. The danger is always that you’re going to stay at the dance a little too long. So I have to put a lot of it in place in my head and really make sure that it’s worthy of joining these 41 hours. I don’t want to try and make another one unless I think, “Oh, we have to make this one. It’s the best one yet.”