'Fargo': How FX's Sprawling Fourth Season Came to Life

Fargo Year 4 - Chris Rock - H Publicity 2020
Courtesy of FX

Chris Rock in 'Fargo'

[This story contains spoilers for the fourth season premiere of FX's Fargo.]

Long before the sprawling introduction of multiple new criminal families to FX's greater Fargo universe, there was one new player on the board: Chris Rock.

Starring in the fourth season of the Emmy-winning crime anthology as shot-caller Loy Cannon, Rock was the first person signed on to the latest round of midwest crime — and this was before a single word was written by Noah Hawley, the man who has helmed all three previous Fargo installments, taking on the title and overall tone from the Coen Brothers' original Fargo film.

In a two-part interview with The Hollywood Reporter's TV's Top 5 podcast, Hawley cited his instinct to collaborate with Rock dating back as far as work on his feature film directorial debut, Lucy in the Sky. According to Hawley, he had a central plot point in mind before even approaching the writing phase: the same premise sketched out in the sprawling opening scene of season four, in which viewers are acquainted with the "true" story of a brewing war between two crime syndicates.

"It was a period piece in the 1950s," says Hawley, speaking to the first story strokes that came to mind. "You have these two criminal organizations who each traded their youngest son to the other as an insurance policy. I started thinking about the collision between the southern Europeans who had come over in the first half of the 20th century, and the African-Americans who were moving up from the south, and the mainstream economy wasn't available to either of those groups. So they had to create an alternate economy: crime. Not only [does it allow us] to talk about immigration and assimilation, but when you're traded into another family, how do you survive that? What do you sacrifice of your identity in order to become that?"

"There's a lot of history I needed to deliver before the story starts," he adds, explaining why the first season four outing begins with such a sprawling amount of history. "I looked at [the Coen Brothers film] Raising Arizona, which is one of the great examples of an opening segment, in which you get all of this information with a lot of personality and style that really defines the tone of voice for the movie. I thought it was an interesting idea, turning back story into entertainment. My lead character is a 16-year-old girl [named Ethelrida, played by Emyri Crutchfield] in Kansas City, Missouri, and she can talk about her history report; she can walk you both through who she is and what her family dynamics are, while also going through the history of true crime in Kansas City."

Of course, history is a central player in season four. It marks the second time Fargo has spun a yarn set several decades ago, following season two's alien-tinged 1970s setting.

"You're dealing with the social and political realities of the time," Hawley says, speaking to how the period piece component impacts different Fargo seasons. "In 1950, there were still signs up that say: 'No coloreds, no Italians.' That has to become part of the story, and that becomes interesting if you're making a true story, or calling it a true story, to deal with the truthiness of it. Nothing gets in the way of your crime story plot — except the real world does get in the way. You could have a character driving to an important plot point in your show, and he gets pulled over and sent to jail and we never see him again. We played around with a lot of those ideas: how do the realities of 1950 collide with our crime story in a way that takes it in unexpected directions?"

Speaking of collisions, expect a whole lot of those as season four progresses — no surprise, seeing as the vast cast includes far more than just Chris Rock's Loy Cannon. Also on the board: Jack Huston and Timothy Olyphant as law enforcement officers Odis Weff and Dick "Deafy" Wickware respectively; a pair of fugitives named Swanee Capps (Amber Midthunder) and Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge); not to mention Jason Schwartzman as prematurely blooming crime boss Josto Fadda, and his larger-than-life brother Gaetano Fadda. Even with all of those names on the board, it's barely scratching the surface of the massive Fargo cast — potentially daunting to some viewers, but effectively the draw for Hawley.

"The whole season feels like more than I could chew on some level, because it's enormous in scale and character-wise," he says of the scope. "But it also felt like if we were going to do a fourth one of these, the size of it should be what's compelling about it. Especially since season three was much smaller and more intimate, with six characters in it. With this, it's a period crime epic. It felt interesting."

Clocking in at ten episodes, Fargo marks one of the first scripted dramas to complete production during the COVID-19 pandemic; filming recently wrapped on the finale, after a production shutdown in March left the completion of season four up in the air. On the few advantages the production break provided, Hawley says: "It was good to live with this material, the interconnected stories of 21 main characters, and to realize that the middle episodes were all too long and there was an opportunity to create an extra hour taking from five, six and seven that would strengthen the whole season, because now you have four very tight episodes instead of three episodes that would have lost your interest in some moments of the story that were critical."

Making sure to maintain interest is of paramount importance to Hawley himself, who has taken longer and longer to produce Fargo between each season — to the point that it's never completely clear if there will even be another season of Fargo, at least until Hawley finds the right idea. So, is season four the end of the line?

"This will be 40 hours of Fargo, which is 38 more hours than the Coens ever made," says Hawley. "There's so much volume out there. Unless you want to get paid, I don't want to make something unless you think it can be the best. I wouldn't have made this unless I thought it could be the best season of Fargo we ever made. If I have that feeling again? I'll come back."

Listen to the full interview with Hawley on TV's Top 5.