Behind the Scenes

‘Fargo’ Season 2: The Making of a Perfect Show

The FX miniseries was an unlikely creative masterpiece. Could lightning strike twice? We traveled to its Season 2 set to find out. The verdict: Consider us electrocuted.

10.12.15 5:00 AM ET

A massacre at the Waffle Hut, you say? Oh, you betcha.

The casualties are splayed everywhere and the killer is unknown—and on the loose. It’s a ghastly scene, what with the blood pooling so close to the cheeseburgers, and two mild-mannered cops toeing around it with their flashlights, making note of the carnage.

It’s Ted Danson sporting, at age 67, his very first beard and Patrick Wilson, one of the most attractive “Everymen” film and TV has encountered, sporting an impressive Minne-sow-tah accent. Wilson’s character is inviting Danson’s over for dinner. Danson’s is making fun of Wilson’s wife’s cooking.

Welcome to the world of Fargo, where wisecracks about soufflés rise next to still-bleeding dead bodies.

Danson and Wilson are leading the cast of FX’s highly anticipated second season of the anthology series, inspired by the classic 1996 film by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. “Cut!” is called and the two part ways on the Calgary ranch that is doubling for the shocking crime scene in the Midwest town. “Isn’t that a good white beard?” Wilson smiles, teasing his TV-icon co-star from a distance. “He’s fantastic. They all are.”

Ted Danson as Hank Larsson.

Mathias Clamer/FX

“They” in this case are Kirsten Dunst, Jean Smart, Brad Garrett, Cristin Milioti, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons, and Jeffrey Donovan, an unfathomably all-star cast, all of whom chomped at the bit to sign on to the second season of Fargo after the once-thought-to-be doomed first season of the show became the critical toast of 2014, a ratings hit for FX, and a veritable magnet for television’s biggest awards, taking home a slew of Emmys, Golden Globes, and even a Peabody.

That the talented ensemble is gathered in frigid Canada to shoot the series at all is a bit of a holy miracle, especially considering the risk that the show’s co-creator and writer Noah Hawley incurred. “You don’t want to be the guy who ruined the Coen brothers,” he told me last year. “It’s like kicking the pope.”

But after what he accomplished in Season 1, Hawley’s found himself in the opposite of circumstances: Now all of Hollywood has lined up to kiss his ring.

It’s as such that I found myself on a pilgrimage of sorts, traveling to the set of Fargo’s second season to speak with Hawley and his new cast to discover just how the series not only managed to defy expectations and reinvent a veritable cinematic masterpiece as an award-winning TV show, but do it all over again—the wild, hypnotizing second season premieres on FX Monday night and is excellent.

(Full disclosure: FX covered the travel expenses to the show’s set, a common practice in television and perhaps the only thing conventional about this singularly original series.)

What we discovered is a stroke of creative anarchy that, in hindsight, maybe shouldn’t have surprised us at all. Fargo has taken the rules of television and, well, basically thrown them into the woodchipper.

***

Cristin Milioti as Betsey Solverson.

Mathias Clamer/FX

Leading into last season’s series premiere of Fargo the general mood, at best, was curiosity at the gall of this project. At worst, fans of the film and the Coens were affronted. “Oh, they were skeptical,” says Hawley. “But skeptical for a good reason. What a crazy thing to do, to make a show inspired by a movie with none of the characters or the plot of that movie carrying over.”

But it turns out there’s actually something to that whole idea of the mad genius. Sometimes the craziest ideas yield the best results, which was certainly the case with Fargo.

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Hawley shrewdly set out to do something far more inventive—and ultimately far more challenging—than simply remake Fargo for TV, which most assumed he was trying to do. Instead of copying the film directly, an act that might have bordered on sacrilege, he channeled it.

The film’s “true crime” story, set in a frozen small town in the winter of 1987 and centered on the very pregnant police chief who worked to solve it, was replaced with a new story, this one taking place in 2006 with new bad guys and new heroes. The show’s tone, however, remained so pitch-perfect to the Coens’ original that the mood of the beloved Fargo universe was as unmistakable in this inventive new series as the don’t-yah-know Midwest accents that brought its characters to quirky life.

There was the insurance salesman played by Martin Freeman and an enigmatic villain sneeringly played by Billy Bob Thornton. Newcomer Allison Tolman was a pseudo-stand in for Frances McDormand as the noble, tougher-than-she-looks cop Molly Solverson. Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, and Keith Carradine all stopped by.

The characters, the plot—they were like elements collected from the universe of the 1996 film and then shifted slightly to the left. But still menacing, still suspenseful, and still punctuated with hilarious satire and pulpy violence.

This year? They’re all gone.

It’s a new time period—1979—and an almost entirely new cast of characters. Almost. Wilson’s character, Lou Solverson, is the same character that Carradine played as an older man in Season 1. His daughter, Molly, who was played by Tolman last year, returns, too—but this time as a 4-year-old girl instead of an intrepid police officer. (“Allison really wanted to play herself as a 4-year-old,” producer Kim Todd says, laughing. Instead, a child actress was brought in.)

There were allusions in Season 1, when Carradine played the weathered, retired Lou Solverson, to a big, bad thing that happened back in 1979 when he was still a young trooper. Season 2 shows us what happened: what happened that was so notorious, what happened to Molly’s mother (played by Crisitin Milioti here), and what happened to make Lou the hardened figure we met last year.

“You draw two people sitting in a room, and that’s your story,” Hawley says. “Then you think, ‘What’s outside that room?’ And you draw the rest of the building, and you draw the rest of the city. On some level, this year is about fleshing out that world.”

That includes not just a deeper dive into the Solversons’ past, but an introduction to Peggy Blomquist, a small-town hairdresser with big city dreams played by Kirsten Dunst, and her butcher husband, Ed, played by Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad veteran Jesse Plemons. There’s a mobster family led by Jean Smart, the matriarch, and Jeffrey Donovan, her eldest son, as well as some Kansas City gangsters whom they go to war with, headed by Brad Garrett.

Most crucial, however, is the new time period. Season 1’s 2006 setting telegraphed a boom time for America, “where everything was good and small-town life was good,” Hawley says—at least until Billy Bob Thornton and a gun charged into it.

Rachel Keller as Simone.

Mathias Clamer/FX

“This year, it’s different,” he says. “It’s 1979. The world could not be more fractured and complicated and desperate.” The Vietnam War was ending. Culture was clashing. “The feeling of a country in turmoil is inherent in the story and the question for our characters is: How do we get to 2006? How do we take this country that’s in turmoil and turn it into this safe community that we find, again, in 1987, when the movie is set?”

And so with a hapless bang outside the Waffle Hut—we won’t go into more details than that—the beautician and the butcher, the mobsters and the gangsters, and the quiet family of cops all become intertwined. It’s so… Fargo.

“Right away!” Danson laughs. “A massacre at a Waffle Hut is really kind of funny.”

Twisted? Yes. Macabre. Definitely. But funny? Turns out you can take Fargo out of the hands of the Coen brothers, but you can’t take the Coen brothers out of Fargo. Comedy meets tragedy. Humor meets violence. Outlandish meets the real world. It’s the Coen brothers’ tone, and it’s back.

“The savagery is being dealt with by these earnest, innocent, decent people who are just not fully equipped for the hell that’s going to descend on their heads,” Danson says. “So that’s fun to play as well. How does this innocent and ill-equipped, earnest person come out on top?”

As Danson speaks, the said Waffle Hut is looming behind him, a makeshift set sticking out like a hilarious sore thumb amidst the tranquil and otherwise pristine rolling hills of rural Calgary. Its garishness among the serenity is almost poetic, a jarring interruption in the picturesque vista that echoes the jolt to quiet small-town life that the themes of Season 2 explore.

The brilliance is in how the show, which has already seen such a thing explored not just in its previous season, but also in a film that came out two decades earlier, goes about doing it.

“This is about innocents losing their innocence,” Danson says. “You can’t do that more than once. Once hell descends on you, you’re a little bit more wary the next time, so you couldn’t have the same group of people going through another, ‘Oh my god, look what’s coming…’ season. But to have a completely new story and a new time frame to do this in I think is really smart.”

***

Across Calgary, far from the ranch and the spilt blood at the Waffle Hut, on a makeshift soundstage where multiple sets have been erected to represent the interior homes of the show’s characters, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Jeffrey Donovan are ensnarled in some very spoiler-y things involving some rope, a hostage, and oblivious dinnertime preparations.  

This is the first foray into television for Dunst, who, were it not for ’70s-style feathered hair and some unsightly brown corduroy bell-bottoms, would be instantly recognizable as the star of films like Bring It On, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Spider-Man.

She’s having a ball—positing that she’s picked up enough hairstyling chops while shooting to maybe try it out on a real person—and says she thinks of in-over-her-head Peggy “as a Scooby Doo character sometimes.”

She says she was enraptured by the show’s first season, and once Hawley sent her the scripts for the first two episodes of Season 2, she was on board. “I knew wherever Peggy was going was going to be a hell of a lot of fun to play,” she says, even going a step further. “It’s been the best role I’ve ever played.” Then, after nodding assuredly: “It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, too.”

Kirsten Dunst as Peggy.

Mathias Clamer/FX

The rest of the cast has similar stories, though each varies on when they became completely obsessed with the series and Hawley’s vision.

Wilson and Danson both didn’t watch Season 1 until after their scripts were sent to them. After binging it at the prodding of his wife and agent, Wilson was instantaneously sold. “It’s one of those, ‘If you’re ever going to do TV, it doesn’t get much better than this,’” he says.

But when there’s so much doubt surrounding a show’s potential and then its execution proves those doubters wrong, it can be a double-edged sword. There’s a safety net in signing on for Season 2 knowing that the first was so good. But now there’s an added layer of expectation: not just living up to the film, but now the previous year’s accolades, too.

“Oh, all of that is true,” Danson laughs. “But what’s wonderful is that I’m 67 so I don’t really care too much. And it’s so good. You’ll see. It’s so good.”

Taking a smoking break outside his trailer as night falls in Calgary, Plemons, who was flat-out offered the part of Ed without auditioning, is attempting to put his finger on the pulse of what makes the show work. He touches on, absurd as it sounds for a show this violent, its relatability. “I feel like I kind of just grew up with people like this,” he says. “I grew up in a small town in Texas. It’s not Minnesota, but it’s the same sort of values and principles.”

And it’s uncanny, the specificity with which the show captures small-town life—in 1979, to boot.

Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson.

Mathias Clamer/FX

If you’ve ever watched a Coen brothers movie, you know the devil’s in the details. As Todd puts it, “There can be two actors in a scene and one ash tray. But you don’t forget the ash tray.”

Back on the soundstage set, while Plemons and Donovan are off putting the rope to good use, Todd and the show’s set decorator are giving a tour of the wonderfully rural ’70s tsotchkes that are littering the characters’ homes. Many of the items are culled through Etsy or eBay, peppered with some local garage sales.

The Fargo crew has become somewhat beloved by the folks in greater Calgary, where both seasons of the series have primarily been filmed, and have started reaching out to them and offering them period items. One man sent a photo of himself playing dead in front of a vintage truck to pitch it to the Fargo crew.

There’s a similar enthusiasm when it comes to shooting locations. “We were approached by a guy who said, ‘I love the show. I have a farm. If you ever want to bury a guy there, it’s yours,’” Todd laughs.

The laughing is key, Milioti says. Sporting perhaps the most unfortunate ’70s hair and wardrobe of the entire cast, she goes back to the show’s tone, that fine line of dark and light that this stranger with the farm hits on. “You’re laughing at things you know you shouldn’t be laughing at, and that’s very hard to do,” she says. “And it’s just so weird.”

Donovan remembers one particular scene he was shooting a few days prior, one of the bloodier and more intense ones he filmed. “But everyone was laughing in the tent,” he says. “That’s the Coen brothers. Even in the midst of really violent action, there’s humor.”

Yes, that’s the Coen brothers. But this isn’t the Coen brothers. This is Noah Hawley.

Hawley wrote all 10 episodes of the show’s first season, and, on top of doing much of the heavy lifting, is adding “director” to his résumé in Season 2. So is he the greatest student of the Coen brothers that ever existed? A master imitator? A kindred Coen spirit? Or just brilliant in his own right?

“It’s the sort of thinking of ‘Don’t look down,’” he says when asked what it is he’s hitting on that manages to capture the spirit of the Coens so well. “Certainly there’s a line that I walk between homage and imitation,” he says. But more than that, he’s learned a thing or two about sticking to his guns and having faith in a viewing audience.

“I think there’s always the sense on a certain corporate level that to make something have the broadest appeal you need to make it the most generic,” he says. “But my experience is totally opposite.” On the day we’re talking, he’s received proof of just that. He got news that his show had won the Peabody. “I think that’s the most surprising thing, that this very idiosyncratic and hopefully highly creative and risky venture has been something that’s resonated with so many people.”

And what does he make about my sneaking suspicion, that he’s, more simply, The Coens’ Whisperer?

“Look, everybody loves the Coen brothers,” Hawley says. “I haven’t met anyone who’s like, ‘Meh,’ about them. It’s not my goal to imitate them. They are not fans of imitation. It’s my goal to try to tell stories in the same vein. And there’s a fine line between imitation and inspiration.”

And toeing that line is Fargo, which, beyond both those things, is perfection. High praise, but it’s warranted. Oh, you betcha.