Somebody needs to stop the window blind from swinging. The crew filming Fargo on the soundstages of the Calgary Film Centre has been rehearsing a complicated camera maneuver, and they’re ready for Ewan McGregor—who’s playing dual roles in the anthology series’ third season—to take his mark. But that bothersome vertical blind threatens to sully the meticulously arranged sequence. It’s made stationary once more, and then… action.
Which one of the quarreling Stussy brothers is McGregor playing? Sorry, we have to keep that under wraps. What are the circumstances of the scene? Even if we knew, FX has asked us not to describe it. An air of mystery hangs over the latest installment of Noah Hawley’s Coen-saluting crime drama, but The A.V. Club was among several outlets invited to the show’s Alberta home base to get a sneak peek at some of its secrets. This is a true story. The events depicted took place in and around Calgary in 2017. At the request of the production—and out of respect for the viewer—all specific plot points have been omitted. The rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
It’s the story of two brothers
At the center of season three is the rivalry between Emmit and Ray Stussy. Although both are played by the same actor, they’re not twins: Emmit is slightly older than Ray, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Time and fortune have been kinder to the elder Stussy, the toothsome “Parking Lot King Of Minnesota” to his brother’s balding, rough-around-the-edges parole officer. “He’s got a hard life,” McGregor says of Ray. “He works in a job where he watches men pissing in cups all day long.” The brothers’ split traces back to an incident from their adolescence, to which Ray pegs his lowly state. There are plenty of greens in Ray’s color palette to reflect his envy of Emmit’s success, but he’s by no means the villain of the piece—or even of this particular relationship.
“Everyone likes Ray more on set,” McGregor says. “Emmit’s less sympathetic.” Season three spirals out from this overgrown sibling rivalry, a Shakespearean setup underlined by the fact that each is cajoled and encouraged by, in McGregor’s words, “a Lady Macbeth.” For Emmit, that’s his right-hand man and surrogate brother Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg); for Ray, it’s the brilliant and alluring parolee he shouldn’t be dating, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
“A background girl” and “the unnoticeable man”
You can make the Stussys out in a crowd; same for Nikki. (“She breaks the traditional Fargo character,” assistant art director Marie Massolin says. “I remember at the beginning Noah saying that Nikki was the only Fargo character that got to be really, really hot—so she’s got a groovy style to her.”) But season three’s two other leads have a tendency to blend in. Eden Valley police chief Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) is what set decorator Darlene Lewis describes as “a background girl.” “Everything’s fairly beige and grays and fairly safe and calm,” she says, standing on the set that serves as Gloria’s headquarters. “And she doesn’t stand out at all, but she quietly makes her way through.”
“The nice thing about the world of Fargo is that because we’re dealing in the ‘Minnesota nice,’ there is a kind of emotional restraint, and these are people who are not perhaps fully expressed,” Coon says of her character. “One of the wonderful lessons that Noah has given Gloria in this season is she has to fight through those limitations and learn to express herself.” That’s increasingly difficult in the show’s version of 2010, where communication technology is evolving rapidly, leaving Gloria feeling like she’s been left behind. (Speaking of possible overlap between her Fargo and The Leftovers personas, Coon jokes, “I suppose I’ve become the ‘it’ girl for grief and loss.”)
The villainous V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), meanwhile, lives a camouflaged existence on purpose. “Noah and I had a lot of conversations about it, and he had this Will Loman idea. The everyman, ‘unnoticable man,’” says costumer designer Carol Case. “I didn’t really want him to be slick in any way,” Hawley says in a phone call a few weeks after the set visit. “I thought what was more interesting was if he was slightly invisible: wore a $200 suit, flew coach. The kind of person you would never look at twice.” Hawley mentions that there’s no template for a character like Varga, and Thewlis himself has chosen to give the character and the season a sort of need-to-know treatment. “I’ve asked Noah not to know everything that’s going on,” the Big Lebowski alum says. “Usually in a film, you do. You want to know why we’re doing what we’re doing. But I thought it would be fun in this not to know. So the rest as it unfolds is as much for me as, hopefully, when you’re watching it, going, ‘I can’t wait to see what happens next.’” Apparently it paid off: Thewlis teases a midseason reveal for Varga that caught him off guard. “I didn’t know at the start, but it was okay. It didn’t mean I should’ve played anything differently—but a detail to this character that Noah just lays on after the event that’s now a major part of him.”
“The truth is what we say it is.”
Like the two previous seasons of Fargo, this year’s episodes begin with a disclaimer based on the little white lie that kicks off its Coen brothers inspiration: “This is a true story.” But to a greater extent than the seasons that came before, season three digs into that claim—and the concept of truth itself.
“The overlay [Hawley] put on it is, ‘the truth is what you say it is,’” says Warren Littlefield, the former president of NBC Entertainment who serves as an executive producer on Fargo. And while Littlefield contends that Fargo will never take place during the year in which it airs (“the truth behind a story needs a little bit of time to fully evolve, and to be seen, and understand”), he did draw parallels between the thematic underpinnings of Fargo’s 2010 and the post-truth climate of our 2017. “When we started developing these characters and these stories, that was interesting,” he says. “It became, in the last number of months, far more interesting and relevant.” McGregor, too, reads some current events into season three, likening charismatic-but-cutthroat real estate developer Emmit to President Donald Trump. And Sy isn’t merely a manipulator on the level of Lady Macbeth—McGregor also called the character Steve Bannon to Emmit’s 45th president of the United States.
“Why competitive bridge?”
All biographical information on Nikki Swango makes one thing clear: She has “an abiding passion for competitive bridge.” A complicated trick-taking card game most closely associated with older relatives, bridge is more than just a quirky feather in Nikki’s—and by extension, Ray’s—cap. “I really wanted to have something positive and aspirational in front of them,” Hawley says. “Bridge itself is not poker. It’s a retro game. There’s lots of interesting bric-a-brac to it in terms of the circuit and the bidding cards, and the way it’s all lined up is very visual. It’s a really complex game that has 58 million octillion deals, I think. People use quantum-mechanics language to talk about the probabilities, and it has a lot of great language around it, some of which is in the pilot: the Murray Appelbaum discovery play and the backwards finesse.”
But it also meant that McGregor and Winstead would need to learn the fundamentals before getting in front of the camera, so they took lessons from an instructor in Los Angeles. “People spend their life trying to perfect bridge,” McGregor says. “And we tried to do it in two one-hour lessons.” More informative was the bridge tournament they sat in on after arriving in Calgary. “It was so much more difficult than I think we had imagined, so going to see the tournament and seeing how people behave and interact with one another was something that we thought, ‘Okay, we can at least act this,’” Winstead says. “We don’t actually have to know how all the numbers and stuff are adding up.”
After all that, who does Winstead think is the better bridge player? “Oh, god. I think we both are terrible.”
The snow was better this year
Weather conditions for the first season of Fargo were notoriously frosty. In season two, the production had to import its snow. This year, the weather was more cooperative, suiting season three’s Chistmastime setting.
“It’s a character,” Littlefield says of the winter precipitation. “We examine characters who are physically and emotionally wrapped up. And it’s Noah’s task to unbundle, to slice through all of that protective clothing—and in a way where characters don’t naturally say what they feel, find out what are they feeling. Look at how they’re going to act, but they won’t put that out front. So that’s part of the mystery: How do we get inside who that character is being portrayed as.”
“We’ll be visited by a character from season one.”
And Littlefield left it at that. To which Ed Blumquist and the crew down at the season-two butcher shop say: