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[This story contains spoilers for the fourth-season finale of FX’s Fargo.]
Fargo featured more than 20 main characters over the course of its fourth season, but it saved its most surprising player for last.
In the final moments of the season four finale, called “Storia Americana,” a familiar face reenters the picture: Mike Milligan, the season two heavyweight played memorably by Bokeem Woodbine. The breakout figure from the show’s alien-fueled sophomore run, Woodbine’s Milligan stands revealed at the end of season four as the adult version of Satchel Cannon (Rodney L. Jones III), the son of Chris Rock’s Loy Cannon.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Fargo boss Noah Hawley cites the desire to explore the Mike Milligan character’s background as the origin point for the entirety of season four. From that one creative impulse, dozens of new characters came forward — including Loy Cannon, who, like so many others in the main cast, meets his maker before the final curtain. Cannon dies right in front of Satchel, bleeding out on his front porch after being stabbed by fugitive Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge). The experience of watching his father die clearly impacts Satchel enough to go on and become the man eventually known as Mike Milligan, portrayed by Woodbine in a solemn flash-forward at the very end of the season, quiet and contemplative in the back of a car as he retraces his own history.
Have we now seen the last of Mike Milligan, or is that ending simply a new beginning? Ahead, Hawley speaks with THR about coming up with the reveal, how there was originally much more to Bokeem Woodbine’s return on the page (and even on the cutting room floor) than made the final cut, what the future of the series looks like beyond season four and much more.
When did you arrive on this idea to explore Mike Milligan’s origin this season?
On some level, that was the original idea [for season four]. What explains that character? When I started thinking about him in hindsight as this iconoclastic Black man living in a white world, who doesn’t seem to fit in either place … I started to think, where does a guy like this come from? On some level, this whole [season] came out of that question: the idea of these two families trading their sons, the idea that he doesn’t look like a Milligan, so the name must be a chosen one and not a given one necessarily … so the idea of a Black man raised by an Irish American who himself was raised by a Jewish family and then an Italian family. That sounded like the history of America. That became it.
What I really like about what happened to the story was it became the catalyst for a much larger story in which Satchel was just a small part. I didn’t spend 10 hours trying to explain how Satchel became Mike Milligan. I told a much larger story about his father and all these other characters in which a lot of bodies fall, and in the end, you see that it’s the story of Satchel and Ethelrida [E’myri Crutchfield], a story about this next generation. That’s what this whole thing was really about.
Did you play around with other versions of the final scene with Bokeem Woodbine?
There were other versions. There was a version where after Loy’s death, we jumped forward in time to the ’90s, and we see Bokeem now as part of this corporate engine, the Kansas City mafia. When we last saw him [in season two], we left him in an office with a typewriter. It was going to be this idea that he prospered in that business on some level, but now that we understood his past, we would understand that he was “passing” in order to do it.
The truth is, we filmed a version of that. It didn’t work, as far as I felt. I felt that 30 minutes into the finale, to jump into a whole new story where you were going to have to watch multiple scenes … it didn’t feel like a satisfying ending. It started a whole other story, actually. I wondered if we needed to reshoot things. We talked about doing an L.A. reshoot with new scenes written. Then I sat down with the editor. Originally, Ethelrida’s history report was earlier in the episode; we moved it to the end, and it segued into the credits, into this 1970s style of an ending. It just felt so much more evocative. You saw everything you needed to see. You felt the tragedy of this character. You were reminded that you loved this character. Ultimately, the answer was not more words. The answer was cinema.
Which is a surprise, since Milligan is such a verbal character.
I had a monologue for him to end the episode that would have been a classic. And yet, at that point in the story, having watched 10 and a half hours … having gone through this roller-coaster in the last 30 minutes of Loy being at the bottom, then the top, then the bottom again, and then he’s feeling like maybe at least now he gets his family back, and then he’s killed … it felt like the audience needed time to process that. If you then say, “No, don’t process it; look, the boy grew up!” It felt like whiplash. I always try to be aware of when I’m being clever. It’s like Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club, when Pitt is like, “How’s that working out for you, being clever?” Clever is not art. Clever is just clever.
Milligan was a breakout character in season two, and is clearly a character who stuck with you enough to inspire what became season four. Given the ending, and given that you wrote more with Milligan that we didn’t see, do you think we’ve seen the last of him, or do you envision him returning in a future season?
I don’t know. Season two was the Alison Tolman origin story, too, and it didn’t yield a season three that was about her. So I don’t know. Bokeem is a dream come true as a storyteller. I directed his first scene in season two and he showed up with that voice and that affect, and we had never talked about it. It was one of those transcendent moments: “What is this?” The writing was there, but the affect was really a profound innovation. It’s not my plan to return to him, as much as there’s gravitational pull to it on some level.
There’s always a danger of, “They’re out of ideas.” There was a real excitement to me in doing this as a period piece. We have this loose conceit of [“The History of True Crime in the Mid West,” an in-universe document from which all the Fargo stories stem]. It runs through the series a bit. It’s all connected. Of course, the world is all connected. You look at Al Capone and Bugsy Malone, all these guys … you can find the crossover between all of this. It’s never my instinct [to continue a character’s story]. It was hard for me on Legion, doing a second and third season. “Wait, more stories with the same characters? That just seems weird!” That’s why the second and third seasons almost feel like different shows. So, it’s not my desire to get the band back together. I had enough distance from that second season, and what stuck out to me was him. That got me thinking. We’ll have to see what happens next.
It would be difficult to craft a direct sequel to season four, anyway, given that most of the main cast winds up dead. What was the calculus on crafting such a fatal endgame?
The simplest description of Fargo for me is that it’s a tragedy with a happy ending. Whenever I break these stories — and I had a great group of writers this year — part of the original discussion is drama and tragedy have a different structural identity. With each character, you have to examine, what makes their story tragic? What is it in their story that makes it tragic? Everyone dies; death itself isn’t a tragedy. When you think about how the Fadda brothers had just reunited, and then Gaetano [Salvatore Esposito] trips and shoots himself in the head right at the moment they found each other again — or Odis [Jack Huston] killed by his own OCD, because he just can’t get out of the car — there’s tragedy to all of that. Swanee [Kelsey Asbille Chow] died as she hoped to die, with her gun in her hand, but it’s tragic for the survivor, Zelmare, who thought they would die together.
At the beginning of the season, when we were writing and casting, the network was like, “You have 20-plus main characters. How is that a good idea?” You have to explain, “Well, we have the Ethelrida story; we need characters there. Loy runs a criminal organization; who works for him? We know some of them will live, many will die, and for their deaths to be meaningful, they need to be real characters. Same on the Fadda side.” And because I love characters, I loved the prison break outlaws. I felt like the stakes of the year … we needed to set the table with the first two hours, which can take a little work and time, but my feeling is if people are watching a 10-hour limited series and at this point we have a reputation that people will stick with us for those first two hours. Then things start speeding up. When Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman) dies, it becomes week-in and week-out. What I love about the ninth hour, the black-and-white episode, is two of our main characters die in a tornado. It’s not how these stories usually go. Usually there’s cause and effect, where you can’t kill the characters outside the story, but I feel like it adds to the truthiness.
And how about where you wound up with Loy specifically, killed on his front porch?
There was a dynamic for him, echoed a bit in Odis: power versus safety. His son even tells him you can’t have both more power and more safety. For Loy, I think legitimately as a Black man in America, he thinks the more power he has, the safer he is, when in reality, it’s the inverse: The more power he pushes for, the less safe he and his family become. At this critical moment [near the end of the season], they’re the least safe they will ever be, and once his business has been basically taken away and he’s been made into an employee, he goes home and looks in the window and has a moment where he realizes he’s safe now. This family, all back together; his son is back, when he thought he was dead. He thinks maybe this was winning on some level. The tragedy is this is the moment of his death. On the plus side, what a great moment to have before you die. That becomes the onion of it.
How much are you thinking about the future of Fargo? Is there an idea for a fifth season yet?
I think there is. I don’t think it’s the next thing I’m doing. Right now, I’m trying to finish a book that I’ve owed for two years. I think what’s important about this series for me has been the time off from it. There’s so much that goes into each one thematically and character-wise. It’s all a part of a larger exploration of America and the things we do for money, and the morality of our lives and decent people versus evil. When I finish, I don’t think I have anything left to say about it. And then you go off and you go, “Oh, there’s this whole other thing we haven’t looked at yet.” Of course, ideas don’t make a story. Themes don’t make a story. Only characters make a story. I need that time [off] for me to figure out what I want the show to be “About,” with a capital A. Who is it “About,” and what is that story? It’s a longer process. You can’t assembly-line it.
Any interest in a Fargo season set now, in our present moment?
Because we say “this is a true story,” the conceit has always been that enough time has to have passed from our present moment that the first book could have been written on it. We could have gone from the journalism stage to the history stage. Even if it’s the first step. On some level, [season three] collided with reality in a way I didn’t plan at all. I wanted to tell a story about what truth even means, in which there are these Russian characters and stories … and then we’re filming it and the 2016 election happens, and you start hearing about “alternative facts,” and on some level, I felt like it made the season very hard for audiences to absorb. It felt too close to what they were living in the moment. On some level, if you go back and watch it now or in a couple of years, it’s going to feel like it spoke to something in your past. But it’s very hard to watch something fictional exploring what you’re living in this moment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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