Most showrunners have their own particular ways of coming up with storylines or charting full seasons for returning series. For Noah Hawley, the process usually starts with taking a nap. "It's kind of always been like this," he says sheepishly, calling in from a chilly set in Calgary, Alberta. "I mean, what became Fargo started when I lied down one afternoon while I was writing and dreamed about two men, one civilised and one not, meeting in an emergency room. For the second season, same thing – only it was a woman with a man stuck in her car windshield, going home to fix dinner for her husband."
From those two images, the 49-year-old writer-director has managed to turn Fargo – the anthology series that borrows the name of the Coen brothers' beloved 1996 movie – from something that screamed "small-screen cash-in" into a critically acclaimed, rabidly consumed hit show. Hawley's riff on both the original film (hapless everyman, hired killers, dogged female police officer) and the filmmaker siblings' skewed sensibility could have turned a sacred text into a spoof or, worse, a stock procedural – CSI: Brainerd. Instead, its story of a Midwestern businessman paying a psychopath to murder his wife was pure true-crime bliss. Even better, the show's second season, which rewound to the late Seventies (and featured Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Jean Smart giving career-high performances) was as close to a near-perfect season of TV as you get. Fargo wasn't a fluke. The bar had now been set insanely high.
So Hawley might have subliminally known he had to double up. When the series returns for a third season on April 19th, viewers will meet Emmit Stussy, the 2010 Parking Lot King of Minnesota ("because everyone's got to park!" Hawley exclaims, laughing), and his balding, potbellied parole-officer brother Ray – both played by a nearly unrecognisable Ewan McGregor. "During postproduction last season," Hawley explains, "I fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon, and I saw this image of two brothers, both played by the same actor. They were arguing over a stamp. I woke up thinking: Okay … what happens next?"
What happens is a decades-old grudge goes nuclear. Emmit, you see, convinced Ray to trade a stamp collection for his Corvette – and in the process, Ray gave away a small fortune, thanks to a rare postage mark worth a mint. The one brother has been bitter ever since, and now he wants to get the collection's rarest stamp back. If it means hiring a Lebowski-like thief to steal it from Emmit, so be it. Naturally, things go wrong. Very wrong.
"I've had dual parts in movies before," McGregor admits, mentioning his double turns as clones in the 2005 Michael Bay thriller The Island and playing both Jesus and Satan in the 2015 biblical indie Last Days in the Desert. "But this was unique – normally, you have one person sitting across from you, he says the lines and you switch. This time, there were two different actors, with two different body shapes, talking in two different voices. I don't know why they don't do it like that all the time. After I watched the first episode, I made a comment about Ray ... and someone had to remind me that, you know, I'd played him." Whenever he'd come on set as the beta-male Stussy, his costars tended to go into nurturing mode. "You watch Ewan go into the makeup room," says Mary Elisabeth Winstead, who plays his parolee-girlfriend with the Coen-tastic name Nikki Swango, "and two hours later, you see this doe-eyed guy with a neck waddle and a receding hairline come out, and you go, 'Awwww. He's so pathetic and lovable!' Then after lunch, he'll walk up to you as Emmit and you think, 'I can't have a conversation with this man. Get me the hell out of here.'"
And playing scenes against yourself, the Scottish actor admits, is a cake-walk compared to mastering a Minnesota-Nice accent. "It's the fucking hardest accent I've ever done – and I've done a Dutch accent!" McGregor says. "Sometimes, I'd do it and it sounded like a bad Irish accent. Other times, I just feel like I'm talking like" – he suddenly switches to a voice that might diplomatically be described as "drunk Swedish-chef muppet" – "'I-EM-A TAL-king in a Weirdy-Ferdy Voice!' Oh my god, what the fuck am I doing?" Did he ever feel like he eventually nailed it? "I should be getting closer," he jokes, "right after we film the last episode."
Along with duelling McGregors, the new season trots a new batch of small-town schlubs and bungling crooks, the occasional Coen-philic Easter egg and, as with last season's UFOs, the promise of some "out-there" stuff per Hawley. Gloria Burgle, this season's resident folksy female law-enforcement officer (played by The Leftovers' Carrie Coon), finds herself entangled in one of those corpse-strewn type situations, which leads back the Stussys. There's also cutthroat bridge competitions; an air-conditioner used as a murder weapon; an odd parable involving the East German secret police; a used sanitary napkin that doubles as a warning; and what one character calls the "unfathomable pinheadery" that's characterised this American-irony crime series from the start. "It's a silly fight over a stamp and a car," Coon says, "but it's like a Greek tragedy. It's biblical. And it's funny."
Which means that it's still Fargo, a world that Hawley sums up as "good people living in the middle of the country make bad decisions and get in over their head." And though the new season's production is still underway – there's three more episodes left to shoot when we talk, and McGregor describes massive conspiracy-theory email chains among the cast and crew guessing how it will end – Hawley says he's creatively buzzing, capping off a year in which he published a bestselling suspense novel (Before the Fall) and spearheaded a singularly lysergic superhero show (Legion). "I doubt that he ever sleeps with the amount of ideas that he has rumbling around in his head," Winstead says.
Still, the showrunner says that "It was always my plan this season to really take apart Fargo's opening statement: 'This is a true story,'" he says. "And though the season takes place in 2010, I suddenly found myself writing in a climate where we're talking about 'alternative facts' and 'fake news.'" Hawley promises, however, that he's not making protest art. "The goal is make something about how people relate. Fargo is always a tragedy that comes from people's inability to communicate." Meanwhile, he's got to get back to set and finish filming. There are still miles to go before he naps. Those nice Midwesterners aren't going to kill each other on their own.