Well, there was no wood chipper.
But you betcha that the explosive finale of FX’s Fargo limited series wasn’t lacking in spewed blood, comeuppance, and the kind of understated intensity that’s made the risky adaptation of the Coen Brothers film classic at once menacing and suspenseful, pulpy and fun, and—in turn—cable’s must-watch drama of this past spring.
The high-octane finale featured retribution, surprising acts of heroism, expected deaths in unexpected fashions, and even a snowmobile chase scene. (WARNING: Stop reading here if you have not seen Tuesday night’s Fargo finale. SPOILERS lie ahead.)
We get what appears to be a climax about halfway through the episode when Billy Bob Thornton’s hitman Lorne Malvo and Martin Freeman’s in-over-his-head insurance salesman turned prime suspect Lester Nygaard finally reunite. Whether you considered them heroes, villains, antiheroes, protagonists, or antagonists depended on the episode and, frankly, your mood. Regardless, that their reunion ended so unexpectedly was satisfying given how atypical the season-long cat-and-mouse chase between the two characters was—they started out strangers, became complicit partners in crime, and, eventually, enemies in their own right. At the end of the adrenaline-packed scene, they both end up getting away.
In the end, though, they both meet their fate. Malvo is gunned down by Colin Hanks’ Gus Grimly, who comes out of the shadows both literally (he’s hiding out in Malvo’s sanctuary) and figuratively (he finally musters the courage that’s eluded him all season) to commit the deed. And Lester, finally realizing that all his lies and cover-ups are too great in number to maintain, makes a run for the Canadian border on a snowmobile. When the thin ice he’s riding on cracks and swallows him up, it’s a poetic fate.
But while we may be trained for the heroes to catch the villains, our indefatigable Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is nowhere to be seen when the criminals meet their demise, despite having doggedly pursued the duo for the entire season and, by the laws of cinematic convention, was owed a satisfying conclusion for her efforts. Instead, she’s merely given the last scene of the season, nuzzling on the couch next to Gus and her stepdaughter to watch Deal or No Deal. Her final line: “I’m gonna be chief.”
To find out the reasoning behind the season’s epic conclusion, we called up creator-writer Noah Hawley, the crazed genius who took on the challenge of adapting Fargo for the TV screen and churning out 10 near-perfect episodes of true-crime story. And, with FX still coy on whether there will be a season two of Fargo and what that would entail (almost everybody’s dead!), we pressed him for as much info as we could on the future of the show.
I just finished the finale a few minutes ago. We have a lot to talk about.
Just finished!? Did you take a walk around the block or was it not that moving for you?
I went upstairs and stared out the window for a little while.
So I need to start picking your brain about this immediately. First things first: why did you decide that it would be Gus who takes out Malvo instead of Molly, who I always thought would get the satisfaction of the deed?
Really, it wasn’t something that I settled on until very late in the process, after we had basically broken most of the season. I was resistant to Gus at first, because—in that I was telling a true crime story that wasn’t true—I wanted to steer clear of anything that felt like the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey, things falling in where they should.
But there were two things. One was the fact that the endgame was set up so clearly for the audience as Lester vs. Malvo that I felt like the Gus reveal would be a surprise, and that maybe we’d forget that he even went into that cabin, because of all the events that had occurred since you had last been there with him.
I totally forgot he was there until he shot Malvo.
[Laughs] Yeah, and so you have that stomach-dropping moment that’s so satisfying as a viewer. And the other is that I really did think that we owed it to him to finish this examination of his cowardice, which I had never made a moral judgment about. I mean, obviously he knew that he wasn’t just up to the task. It wasn’t that he was afraid to take on life’s harder challenges. Like he said, he didn’t want his daughter to go to another funeral. So I think that was really worth doing.
The other thing I liked about it was that there was a flipside, which is that if it’s Malvo’s sole motivation in life to see if he could push civilized people to become animals then he succeeded with Gus over all of this time. In the end, he turned Gus into someone that Gus never wanted to be. So it’s also a victory for Malvo.
What was it like to write the final showdown between Lester and Malvo, compared to that first meeting they had at the hospital in the first episode? What was it like writing that bookend?
What was really fun—the huge benefit of telling a complete story that you’ve broken from the very beginning is, when you go back and look at that first episode, the bear trap is hanging on the wall in the garage. And every time we’re in there you’re seeing it. We may set up that M249 SAW rifle—“The Piglet”—early on so the audience thinks that’s going to go off at a certain point. But they’re focused on the wrong part of the room. I like this idea, too, that of course there’s this “can the student surpass the master?” dynamic to it. But the fact that it’s laid in as a trap, and a trap for animals, and Malvo carries that civilization vs. the wilderness theme that we have, I like that it’s really dramatic and there’s this comedic element to it. The gun misfires and he gets his nose broken again, so he’s right back to the beginning.
Why end with the chase scene with Lester and have him fall through the ice at the end instead of giving Molly the gratification of catching him and getting answers? Or, really, giving us the gratification of seeing him get caught?
That goes back to the original movie. Bill Macy’s character, we have that sort-of afterword where he’s arrested in the motel. Again, because it’s meant to be a true story, he’s in a different jurisdiction so [Frances McDormand’s character] is not there. Because it’s not her jurisdiction. So he gets arrested in an almost feral moment. This guy has been refusing to admit defeat all along, and I wanted to echo that to the degree that Lester realizes that there’s no covering this. So he makes a break for the Canadian border and is caught by the border patrol. So he runs off for freedom and is done in by his own cleverness. Then Molly gets the call, which is more how it would be in real life than the version where she snaps the cuffs on at the end. So it might not be satisfying dramatically, in that we’re so trained that the hero catches the villain in the end. But I think there’s an emotional satisfaction to it because of where they end up as a family.
Tell me about the last scene, with them watching TV together as a family. The last line is Molly’s: “I get to be chief.” This is a writerly show. Why write that to be the last line?
The last scene of the movie is so iconic and sublime. You know, as we got closer to the end and ready to do it, the scrutiny intensifies and the conversations with the network happen. I did have a phone call with [FX President] John Landgraf, where he said, “Look, I think the scene on paper is good. I’m not sure if it’s great. Is it the right ending?” I said to let me shoot it and cut it together and show him, and if it’s not—because it wasn’t the last scene we shot—then we’d do something else.
Then I went to set, because we were getting ready to shoot it, and I basically hijacked the production and said, “Look, I want to film the phone call from outside, and then we’ll do the rest as a one-shot.” Because there’s such a power in that, in the simplicity of following her. They sit on the couch together and you stay in that tree shot, and it’s just simple. In some ways, it’s the scariest thing. We didn’t shoot any coverage—that’s all that we had. But I also had a secret weapon, which Mr. Landgraf didn’t know about, but I knew that was the one place that I was going to use the original Carter Burwell theme and tie the series into the movie. There was something about just the simplicity of the moment with the family, and the fact that Deal or No Deal is on TV, and just the way that all the emotion of it is underplayed in the simple shot. And combined with that music, for me, I think made it a hugely satisfying end to the story.
So what would the second season of Fargo look like, if there was going to be one, now that this crime is solved?
If there was one it would be a completely new story. I like the idea that somewhere there’s a big book called The History of True Crime in the Midwest, and the movie was a chapter of it and Season One of it and if we did a Season Two it would be a different chapter. When you close the big book at the end, you’re going to have a sense of the interconnections and everything’s going to make sense when it’s looked at in the big picture. It would be like my original assignment: Can I create a 10-hour movie that makes you feel both the movie and the first season?