Fargo’s fourth season is stuffed with bloodthirsty gangsters, crooked cops, fugitive lovers, and a serial-killing nurse. At the center of that vortex stands a biracial family who is entirely pure of heart: a Black mother (Anji White), a white father (Andrew Bird), and their sharp-eyed daughter, Ethelrida (Emyri Crutchfield), who are a nexus point between many of these outlaws and outsiders. Despite those unlucky entanglements, the family itself is very Norman Rockwell—a wholesome touchstone, although the Missouri law banning their relationship wouldn’t be lifted until the late 1960s.
Season four of Fargo leans into the grim irony of America’s melting pot, telling a sprawling story of those who take the heat but aren’t welcome to share the feast.
Rival gang leaders played by Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman trade sons in order to maintain a fragile peace. Escaped cons and lovers Karen Aldridge and Kelsey Asbille are chaos agents disrupting the status quo with trigger-happy raids. Jessie Buckley is Oraetta Mayflower, a chipper Angel of Death, while Ben Whishaw is broken Rabbi Milligan, a previously traded son who only wants to protect the new kid in his mob family’s care.
There are also at least a dozen other major characters inhabiting the story, which debuts Sunday. Showrunner Noah Hawley provided Vanity Fair some insight into to the season ahead:
Vanity Fair: You’ve said that a visual, an image, or a scenario, that comes to you generally serves as the seed for each season. What was that visual for season four?
Noah Hawley: The first idea was literally the trading of sons. It was the two crime families where the boss trades their youngest son to the other family as an insurance policy to keep the peace. I had that image and I thought, What’s the history? What got them to this place? And then what happens to those children?
How did you decide on a time setting?
I really started to bear down on it as a 1950 story about the collision of what has been described as two great migrations: the Italian Americans from Italy to America, and African Americans moving to northern cities.
A very American story, in other words.
We don’t have to talk about assimilation as an abstract idea, because you literally have this Italian kid who’s being asked to join Chris Rock’s family and this Black kid who’s being asked to join this Italian family [led by Jason Schwartzman]. What is their experience and how do they fit in? And how did these families treat them? Because if you really want to understand in this season who is moral and who is not, look at their relationship to a child.
I find the names so interesting. Doctor Senator, I think, was my favorite character this season, and I love Glynn Turman as an actor. Can you zero in on how his character took shape?
Well, it was important that Chris have a consigliere of his own. And Doctor Senator, despite his name, is a lawyer. Part of this story is kind of reminding people that there are certain avenues that were not open to everybody in America. We tell a story about his experience in the war, of being sent to [help in] the Nuremberg trials, and that story tells you that he can’t trust the white world because they’re not telling him the truth. And so he made this choice to be in this other world and to take from society what they would not give him. But he is a very genteel, dignified gentleman.
Then you have Ben Whishaw’s Rabbi Milligan, a man who was traded as a boy and has survived the turnover of mob power from Jewish control to Irish, and now Italian.
As I said, if you want to know if someone’s moral or not, look at their relationship to a child. So even Chris Rock, who most people would call the hero of the show—he traded his son. And he did it for power, so he’s not 100% a moral guy. Ben Whishaw’s character, himself as a child, was traded not once but twice, and betrayed his own family for the Italians. And then has basically been treated terribly by the Italians ever since.
He’s given the job of watching Chris’s son, and they live in the attic. The Italians really have not embraced this kid. And Ben Whishaw is really the only male character in the entire show whose only concern is for a child. I think that’s what makes him so heroic, is because all he cares about is trying to keep this kid from following in his footsteps and being thrown away.
There are a number of speeches this season about what it means to exist on the margins of America, and the stories Americans tell themselves—the false mythologies we embrace. That seems fairly relevant right now, as we head into an election and face a lot of social unrest.
On some level, it’s a long-overdue conversation that we’re finally having. On another level, we’ve been having this conversation for hundreds of years about race and immigration in America. So there’s no time this show could have come out where it wouldn’t have felt timely. It just feels acutely timely now. I remember sitting down with Chris Rock early on and talking about one of the things that I always felt about the Coen brothers’ humor was the sort of Kafkaesque quality to it.
There’s something, the irony of it. When you remove humor from irony, it becomes violence. I’ll give you an example that’s relevant to this season. When you create a country which talks about equality and justice, and then doesn’t offer equality and justice to everyone, but still says that it does, what you have is irony without humor.
What’s an example of that?
If you’re told that in order to live in America, you have to be an American—but you can’t be an American if you’re an immigrant, or you’re Black, or whatever the description is from whoever is deciding what is an American—now you’ve created a house with no doors, and you’re telling people to get inside. And that is the setup to a joke with no punch line. You know what I mean? It’s where the joke is on you.
You have that as your foundation, and you’ve layered all of these colorful figures in around it. You have Jessie Buckley’s predatory nurse, you have Timothy Olyphant’s folksy U.S. marshal. Jack Huston’s character, the obsessive-compulsive local cop. Do you recall how each came to be?
You start to think, on a very basic level, what do I need? And I had decided very early on that I didn’t want this all-good cop, because if you’re talking about outsiders to the American experience, that’s not most people’s experience of law enforcement. But then I thought, Well, somebody has to serve that role [of protagonist], and on some level, that role feels also tied into a kind of detective quality. And I had this Rear Window thought about Ethelrida, about this girl living across the street from this nurse, who I had the sense was going to play a pivotal role in the larger story.
The Coens tend to have a pure character as a contrast to the morally questionable characters in their films, like Marge Gunderson in the movie version of Fargo.
That became a way to go: Okay, Ethelrida is Marge. And that’s interesting because we haven’t done that before. But I also do need cops because it’s a crime story, but now they’re free of the burden of being moral.
Tell us about the immoral law enforcers.
I had this image of Jack Huston’s character in World War II. He has OCD, and the OCD made him very good at clearing land mines because he has the checklist and he does it unfailingly every time. But of course, OCD is also anxiety, and now that he’s back, that anxiety is overwhelming him. And then as the outlaws came in, escaping from jail, you of course need a U.S. marshal to come and track them down. And that led to Tim Olyphant’s character, who’s a Mormon. And the thought was, well, you can’t tell the story of America without religion.
They’re another group of outsiders, frankly. Mormons were not welcome in traditional America, which is why they settled in Salt Lake.
And it was the first purely American religion. It was invented in America, so that was interesting. And then of course what I find compelling about those two guys is they’re both somewhat good and somewhat bad.
Because it’s Tim Olyphant and he’s played basically nothing but U.S. marshals, he brings this persona to it as this very just person. And yet [his character] is also kind of racist. And Jack Huston, even though he’s corrupt, [his character’s] not racist. And so on some level, you’re like, well, so which one of these guys is better?
I hope not. I mean, these people need to be people, and the degree to which they convey themes or have identities that are fit into an allegory I think, that’s a secondary idea. On some level, parables and allegories are attractive to me overall, because I think that’s how we learn. That’s what a sermon is on some level.
I guess when I see a character with a name like Mayflower, Oraetta Mayflower, I’m like, okay, well, there’s some symbolism there.
Yeah. It’s not accidental. For me, Oraetta, is representative of a certain kind of American madness. To be an American is to pretend. You say you’re one thing, but you pretend to be another. There’s a certain madness from saying everyone’s created equal and then putting a boot on somebody. There’s a certain madness that comes from being told that the only obstacle an American faces in reaching the top is their own work ethic, and then not being able to reach the top, because that of course isn’t true. So yes, you go, what is that character’s name? And Mayflower has a nice ring to it…. You can’t get whiter than the Mayflower.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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