[WARNING: The following contains spoilers from Fargo's episode "Eating the Blame." If you haven't seen it yet, may you be plagued with doubts until you do.]
Well, Fargo finally did it. On Tuesday's episode, the FX series went beyond mere homages and confirmed that it not only shares the same DNA as the 1996 hit film of the same name, but in fact lives in the same universe.
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In a pivotal crossover scene, a younger version of Stavros Milos (played by Oliver Platt in the series' present day) desperately needs a lucky break, and his literal prayers are answered. See how in the clip below:
Fans of the Coen Brothers film will realize the origins of Stavros' windfall: the ill-gotten gains that Steve Buscemi's character Carl buried in the snow for later retrieval. Of course, a rendezvous with an axe and woodchipper waylaid Carl, leaving the cash sitting there for Stavros to find.
Series boss Noah Hawley didn't conceive of the crossover until after he wrote the first episode, in which drifter Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) left sad sack Lester (Martin Freeman) behind in Bemidji, Minn. "When I came up with Stavros Milos, who is a very blustery Coen autocrat, and that there was a blackmail scheme [where] Malvo would come in to figure out who was blackmailing him," Hawley tells TVGuide.com, "the idea just came to me that there was a secret there and that the secret was that he had found the money. I think that was always something that was really compelling about the movie to me, the idea of that money left there to be discovered one day."
Fast-forward to 2006, when the series takes place, and Stavros is the head of a supermarket empire and the target of said blackmail scheme, which Malvo has now taken over. As seen in "Eating the Blame," Malvo is using Stavros' faith against him by faking some aspects of the 10 biblical plagues. "It was the lowest moment in his life, and he prayed to God to help him and made a promise to God: 'If you help me now, I will devote my life to your name.' And then of course, he didn't keep his promise. So the idea of the money became an emotional character story line," Hawley explains.
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Check out what else Hawley has to say about that scene, Malvo's recent toilet power move(ment) and more:
The money crossover scene wasn't just for fun, it has a bearing on how Stavros can be manipulated by Malvo.
Noah Hawley: Yes, it wasn't just a gimmicky Easter egg. It was the key to Stavros, and Malvo is all into figuring out what the key is to unlocking people that he meets. It was also a really great opportunity four episodes in, just at the audience has really settled into the idea, "You know, the show really has nothing to do with the movie and it exists in its own right," to actually go, "You know, wait a minute, it is connected to the movie in a way you didn't expect or see coming." My hope is that suddenly the show grows in size.
You know what this means? That Marge (Frances McDormand's character in the film) is somewhere in Brainerd. Do you imagine what happened to those people?
Hawley: I imagine that Jerry Lundegaard went off to prison and that Marge had a baby and continued to be the chief of police in Brainerd. I liked the idea that those characters are out there somewhere in the universe of the movie and our show. I'm a fiction writer, a novelist as well, and the great thing about reading a book is you're forcing the reader to do half the work.... I like the idea that there's something you're not showing that the audience is filling in. I think that creates a real universe for the audience that they can live in between episodes and after the show is over.
Thus, fan fiction is born.
Hawley: [Laughs] Exactly. A show or a movie that offers that to the audience, it really continues to live in their minds, which of course is where you want to be.
Ha, so some fans will be like, "Wait, you're telling me Frances McDormand isn't coming back?"
Hawley: Oh yeah. I don't have any plans right now to bring her back, but you know, I like the idea that that character is out there and that the audience has the excitement and anticipation in their hearts that she might come back. I don't rule anything out.
How long did production have to look to find the right kind of fence for that scene? Was it also a process to find a duplicate for the ice scraper?
Hawley: The Coens filmed the movie in Minnesota. We weren't able to shoot the show in Minnesota, we shot it in Calgary, but we went frame by frame. We had stills of each frame, the angles they shot from. We tried to re-create it as close to the movie as possible. We had to match the fence. We looked for an area without a fence and then we put in our own fence. We also had to match the ice scraper. We found the right one but it had a different blade. I think the one that they used in the movie was clear, and we had white one. So we had to have it made specifically. We worked really hard to match those things. But of course we had so much more snow than they had in the movie. In the movie, he pulls over to the side of the road and he walks down, you see him, he goes down into the culvert on the side of the road to climb up to the fence. There was a 6-foot-deep culvert where we were, but it was just full of snow. But I don't think that the audience will hold that against us.
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What was it like to see that scene come to life?
Hawley: Our director for that episode, Randall Einhorn, he was obsessed with getting it just right. He got a real kick out of taking that young couple out and re-creating that discovery. It was really fun to watch for the first time for me, having written it, and to see it come to life. And there's that great match dissolve from the young Stavros to Oliver Platt that tells you everything you need to know about that character.
Can fans of the movie expect more references from the film? Obviously we heard Lester say "unguent," which Peter Stormare's character said in the film. But is that just a Minnesota thing, or is it a reference to the film?
Hawley: It's a direct reference to the film. But yes, there are things in there. What's fun is that the audience is making connections that weren't necessarily played deliberately, but there are a bunch [of references] to Fargo and also to the other films. People have picked up on the White Russian. No one so far that I've seen has mentioned they've seen the woodchipper that we put into one of the first two episodes.
It's true that this is kind of a "Coenville," since there are so many references to the Coen films? I noticed the American Phoenix title for Stavros' book, which seems to be reference to Raising Arizona's Phoenix Farms' king Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson).
Hawley: There's a certain homage to Nathan Arizona. That character is a very Coen creation. That or the Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) — those are blustery autocrats who have a very inflated sense of self.
Malvo also makes that prediction that Gus (Colin Hanks) will say, "You're making a mistake." What are Malvo's feelings toward Gus? This is twice now that he seems to have a strange patience for warning — or maybe instructing — him.
Hawley: He has identified Gus as harmless. He sees him as someone who can never win because he doesn't understand the way the world works, which is: There's predators and there's prey. He certainly could have killed [Gus] that first night and he could have easily killed him when Gus arrested him, but that's not interesting to [Malvo]. It's more interesting for him to say, "I'm sitting in a car with you now, and in the next two hours I know you're going to say, 'You're making a mistake,' because I'm going to be walking out that door." And when he does it, when Gus realizes it, it's a great moment for the audience because you go, "Oh my God, I forgot he said that." Malvo creates these [psychological] symphonies, he has these tapes, and when he listens to these tapes, he's really listening back to the symphonies. As he pushes these people's buttons and plays them like the proverbial violin, those are his trophies.
Speaking of Malvo's sort of twisted side, in Episode 2, he had a bathroom moment.
Hawley: I had four writers to help me break all of the episodes, and then I went off to write them all. We liked this idea that Wally Semenchko (Barry Flatman), this big sort of hockey player tough guy, comes in and he confronts Malvo to show him who's the alpha dog. "What's Malvo going to do in that situation?" We've seen the tough-guy thing. It's not interesting to threaten Semenchko. It was much more interesting if he didn't say a word. And then I had this idea about LBJ. Lyndon Johnson used to do this power move; he would crap while he was talking to an underling to show them that that's what they meant to him. He had all the power. He was that relaxed. So it's a power move. Malvo doesn't have to say anything and he picks up the book, and he basically just dismisses the guy. He just totally outclasses the guy in a kind of demented way.
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What was it like shooting that?
Hawley: We'd spent the morning and the two days previous filming all of Lester's house, where Vern is killed, and the basement, when he kills his wife, for two and a half days of murder and violence. And we ended that last day with the bathroom scene. It was great, it was really fun. Billy did Bad Santa; he knows how to do darkly funny like nobody else. The key was just to get him into position without exposing himself to the camera, if you know what I mean. It was just masterful.
When is Lester's injured hand going to blow? It's so painful to look at.
Hawley: Well, it gets worse, that's all I'll say. In that pilot episode, that scene between Lester and Malvo is a literal infection that takes place as the civilized man and the uncivilized man meet. What impact will that infection have on Lester? We've seen in the second episode that he's just trying to get away with what he did. In the third and fourth episodes, you start to see him get a little better at it and take a little more control. It goes hand in hand with literally his hand swelling and becoming grotesque.
If we were to do a drinking game with all the Coen references, how drunk would we get?
Hawley: [Laughs] Well, it depends on who you are, but I think you probably would be very drunk. My hope is that what we've created feels so much like their work that it's really open to interpretation as to what a Coen reference is. Is Stavros Milos a Coen reference? He's not specifically a character from their universe, but he fills that space. I guess it depends on how drunk you want to be. Let me know if you come up with one. I'll play it.
Have you caught the other Coen references in the series? Which crossovers would you like to see?
Fargo airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX. Watch the beginning of Malvo's blackmail scheme against Stavros here.
Fargo footage courtesy of FX Networks.