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In Season 4, 'Fargo' Tells A Story Of American Crime And Greed In Kansas City

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The hit movie "Fargo" came out almost 25 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FARGO")

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Marge Gunderson) So what's the deal now? Gary says triple homicide.

BRUCE BOHNE: (As Lou) Yeah. It looks pretty bad. Two of them are over here.

MCDORMAND: (As Marge Gunderson) Where is everybody?

BOHNE: (As Lou) Well, it's cold, Margie.

SHAPIRO: Since then, the brand has found new life as an award-winning TV show. "Fargo" is an anthology show where each season has its own story arc and an entirely new cast of characters. The fourth season, out now, is set in Kansas City in the 1950s. It's about rival organized crime families - one Italian, one Black. Comedian Chris Rock plays one of the crime bosses.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")

CHRIS ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) And I know you think part of being an American is standing on my neck. But I see the window signs - no coloreds, no Italians. So we're both in the gutter together, like it or not.

SHAPIRO: The creative mastermind behind all four seasons of the show is Noah Hawley, who joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NOAH HAWLEY: I like the mastermind title. I'm going to put that on a business card.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) This season is a big leap for you. It's set in Kansas City in 1950, which is different from the other stories you've told with "Fargo." So to you, what makes this a "Fargo" story? Like, what do all these plots have in common?

HAWLEY: Well, it's interesting because when I first talked with FX about doing the show, I said, why is the movie called "Fargo?" Because it takes place in Minnesota. And Fargo, of course, is a city in North Dakota.

SHAPIRO: I was born there and lived there until I was 8, so it was a big deal that the whole thing was in Minnesota to my family.

HAWLEY: Right. I'm sure it's a grudge you hold to this day.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Deeply.

HAWLEY: But, you know, the word Fargo is evocative of a place, what Joel and Ethan Coen called Siberia with family restaurants. And...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HAWLEY: But since the movie, it's also evocative of a type of story - right? - a true crime story that isn't true. Every year I try to figure out, OK, well, this is "Fargo," but is this also "Fargo?" Can we do a kind of one-to-one translation in the first year? And then in Season 2, can we tell more of a crime epic set in 1979, or this year, which is a 1950s story about what it means to be an American?

SHAPIRO: In 1950s Kansas City, Black and Italian people both experience different kinds of discrimination. And so as you were trying to answer this question of what it means to be an American, was there something appealing about pitting two groups of underdogs against each other and looking at the - comparing their experiences?

HAWLEY: Well, I had this idea - I don't know where it came from - of these two crime families. And the head of each family was trading his youngest son to the other boss as a kind of insurance policy.

SHAPIRO: That's the premise of the season. And that's where Episode 1 begins.

HAWLEY: Yeah. You raise my kid, I'll raise your kid. And as such, neither of us will step over the line for fear of losing a child. And what was interesting about this to me is that it provided an opportunity to think about assimilation in a way that wasn't abstract. What does it take for this boy, Chris Rock's character's son, to become part of this Italian American family? How do they treat him? How does Chris and his family treat the young Italian American boy who was given to them?

SHAPIRO: Did you set out to explore larger societal issues in this season than you had before? I mean, you kind of talk about where you started with Season 1 and where it progressed to now, but it does feel much bigger and more sweeping. And it's less about everyday people and more about people with power.

HAWLEY: I mean, on some level. Maybe I said the quiet part out loud a bit more this year. You know, for me, you know, I go back to Marge's line in the movie where she says, and here you are. And it's a beautiful day. And for what? A little bit of money?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FARGO")

MCDORMAND: (As Marge Gunderson) There's more to life than a little money, you know? I just don't understand it.

HAWLEY: There's always some part of "Fargo" for me that's a story about the crimes that people commit for money and what money does to our morality. And this time, I guess in thinking about it, I thought, well, if we're going to talk about that role of money in our lives, then maybe we need to go back to the original crimes of capital in America, which were the exploitation of free and cheap labor and slavery and immigration and, you know, this level of exploitation that pits people against each other, fighting for a way to get in to a country that doesn't want them. And that became a way to have this conversation about this alternate economy, which is crime.

SHAPIRO: I think my favorite character is a Minnesota nurse played by the Irish actress Jessie Buckley, who is really having a moment right now. And this character just kind of, like, defines dark comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")

JESSIE BUCKLEY: (As Oraetta Mayflower) I am no goat, Mr. Sneed (ph). Oraetta Mayflower, she is no goat.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Now, nurse...

BUCKLEY: (As Oraetta Mayflower) Call the police if you're so concerned about malfeasance, about medicines removed without dotted I's. Heck, pick up the phone. Tell them to send the paddy wagon. Take this woman away in silver bracelets. Or what about call the newsboys?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Now, hold on. There's no...

BUCKLEY: (As Oraetta Mayflower) This is America, sir, last time I checked, not Soviet Russia, where a man gets rationed a quarter of a potato and has no rights under the law.

SHAPIRO: We should mention she steals drugs and kills her patients (laughter).

HAWLEY: Just that, though.

SHAPIRO: Who hasn't done that? Did you feel like setting this season in Missouri, you had to take one of the characters (laughter) and make her from the upper Midwest?

HAWLEY: It did feel like that accent needed to be represented and that Minnesota nice quality needed to be represented, although we've certainly corrupted it beyond most recognition. But, you know, I thought, you know, Oraetta, for me, represented a certain kind of American madness - right? - where people are something and then deny that they are that thing. This is a woman who kills her patients and denies that she does it. She's an angel of mercy in her mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")

BUCKLEY: (As Oraetta Mayflower) And if we have failed in our devotion to him, then you and I are going straight to the hot place. And Oraetta Mayflower has no intention of sweating out eternity at the end of the devil's pitchfork. Good day, sir.

HAWLEY: You know, there is a certain madness that comes from being a thing and then denying with your last breath that you are that thing.

SHAPIRO: You were, if I'm not mistaken, just a couple weeks away from finishing shooting this season when the pandemic hit and you had to shut everything down. So how did you get it across the finish line?

HAWLEY: Well, we did it very carefully and meticulously and in the end, thankfully, flawlessly.

SHAPIRO: So you, like, shut down for six months, brought everybody back and quarantined them and then did the rest of the filming. Is that what happened?

HAWLEY: Yes, including actors from Italy, actors from Ireland. We had something like a 40-page prospectus on COVID practices that we had to invent and put into place. The people who could come in contact with the actors were a bare minimum because, of course, the actors can't wear masks when they're on set. And you are forced to rethink everything from how are we going to feed people to how are we going to get people from one location to another - you know, all of the challenges we have as ordinary citizens, but then take a production of 150 to 200 people. And we didn't have a single infection, and we got it done.

SHAPIRO: How stressed out were you during those last few weeks?

HAWLEY: (Laughter) You know, I carried some stress.

SHAPIRO: Well, Noah Hawley, as somebody who was born in Fargo and spent the first eight years of his life there, let me just say it's been real nice having you on the show.

HAWLEY: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: "Fargo" is now in its fourth season on FX. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.