In April, Rotten Tomatoes traveled to Alberta, Canada, to visit the set of Fargo’s second season — which was not only a journey to the outskirts of Calgary, but also a step back in time to Luverne, Minnesota, 1979.
As any Fargo fan would expect, touring the season two set was a lesson in details. Every object in every frame is deliberately placed, each physical set is built with specific thematic needs in mind, and all of the details serve the show — and the Coen brothers universe.
Here’s everything we learned from touring the set with producer Kim Todd, and how we made sense of it all by watching this season of Fargo.
There are no accidental choices in the set design of Fargo. Each object that you see on the screen is carefully chosen and placed by the set decorators to add depth and texture to the story — and to find those objects, the crew sources a number of items (housewares, tchotchkes, needlepoint, afghans, toys, electronics) from eBay, Etsy, and local thrift shops with their characters in mind.
“Everyone’s aware, as we go along, of the world Noah [Hawley] has built for us,” explained Todd, who led the press on a tour of the Fargo soundstage, “and he’ll come to [set designer] Darlene Lewis and say, ‘That was a great touch,’ because she’s picked up on a thread and put something in the background.”
To see this theory in practice, one simply has to freeze the frame of pretty much any Fargo homestead and look at the props within. A still of the Solversons’ living room reveals a number of objects that tell us about the family. Toys strewn about the floor let us know that there’s a young child in the home (who we later figure out is season one’s Molly Solverson at four years old), wood paneling and a Sears oil painting above the sofa mark the furnishings of a 1970s middle-class home, and the messiness of the room indicates that the homemaker is not operating at 100 percent, which will come into focus once the viewer realizes that Betsy has a grave illness.
“When you look at a frame, there can be two characters and one ashtray, but you don’t forget the ashtray,” Todd said about the deliberateness of Fargo‘s set decoration. “It was so carefully chosen.”
The sets themselves — not just the objects within — are also carefully conceived in Fargo. A set usually originates from a simple line in the script (for example, “They go to a cabin”) and then the location department searches for an exterior of a structure, which then requires approval from the showrunner, designer, and director. Once an exterior location is confirmed, set designer Warren Young draws up a plan for the interior, which must logically match the outside of the house or building for continuity’s sake (such as, being an appropriate size or lining up the windows) and also augment the drama of the story.
In the Solverson’s house, for example, Molly’s room is adjacent to her parents’, which allows side-by-side narratives to take place within the same frame (not unlike the use of the split-screen device in many of Fargo‘s other scenes), while also being part of a perfectly normal floor plan within a split-level home. By building these two rooms next to each other, we’re able to see the a happy story involving Lou and Molly on the left and a sad vignette with Betsy on the right concurrently. It’s choices like these that allow the set to serve not only a logistical function, but a thematic one as well.
The astute viewer will notice many bold choices throughout the Fargo-verse — from the cinematography, to the music, and right down to the actors’ shoes — and some choices are riskier than others.
For instance, in Peggy’s living room, there is a bright orange carpet under a green sofa. Given how some colors don’t always translate so well through the camera (particularly with the use of filters), the orange shag would have been an awfully big job to fix in post-production if it didn’t work out. But, given Peggy’s personality and her character’s desire to reach for something more, the carpet color was a risk Peggy would have taken to make Ed’s family home her own — and, therefore, one that the set designers had to take too.
“For me,” Todd said of Peggy’s living room, “it’s an example of the strong choices Noah makes about who the characters are, and the rest of us are supposed to make — including the actors — about how to portray them. So, you don’t make the safe choices; you make the choices that are just on the edge.”
When Todd took the press through the Blomquists’ house six months before the season two premiere, little information was known about Peggy’s story arc — though the producer explained that Peggy had dreams of getting out of Luverne, Minnesota, and that she had been hoarding fashion and travel magazines as a result of wanting of something more. The basement, she said, was Peggy’s brain.
By episode eight, when you see Peggy sitting on her basement stairs, surrounded by stacks of magazine and hallucinating that Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) is presumably the mentor from the LifeSpring seminar, you understand exactly what Todd meant during the set tour. The chaos and clutter of Peggy’s brain is clearly delineated in the craziness of the basement — and it also becomes clear that the hoarding seen upstairs in previous episodes is just the tip of Peggy’s crazy iceberg. When the viewer shares Peggy’s unreliable point of view in the basement scene, it is the culmination of a series of clues already laid out by the set design that this is a woman on the brink of a breakdown.
“This was one of the most interesting set-decorating exercises I have ever seen people have to do,” Todd said about the basement. “They had to figure out how to pile magazines this high and not have them fall over, which was one thing. [And then there was] just the level of stuff — and to not make it look like a thrift shop, but to make it look like a specific character’s hoardings of the last 10 years.”
Another important location this season is the Gerhardt homestead, which is both a working North Dakotan farm and also the headquarters for their crime syndicate. The best sets to juxtapose these two facets of the Gerhardt family are the large country kitchen, which looks like it could be the heart of any other farmhouse, and the parlor, where the family conducts business.
Within the parlor, a number of props give texture to the Gerhardts’ past, including photographs of young Hanzee, the Native American child who would grow up to be one of the family’s heavies (Zahn McClarnon), and the eldest Gerhardt, who died in the Korean War. Also visible in the parlor is the Gerhardts’ family logo which very deliberately evokes the Nazi party with its black symbol against a red background. “They wanted to look tough,” Todd said of the flag.
As with season one, animal imagery is everywhere this year, and the Gerhardt parlor is one of the places you’ll see it the most. Hunting and taxidermy usually symbolize predators and prey in the Coen brothers universe and the antlers and skins (not to mention Hanzee’s poor dead rabbit) this season reinforce the theme that the Gerhardts are both aggressors and prey.
Animal imagery isn’t the only motif from the Coen brothers movies that permeate the Fargo TV show. The sets are also designed with the Coens’ love of symmetrical composition in mind.
“Symmetry is something that the Coen brothers often use,” Todd said. “You’ll see a shot of three people on a couch, framed with a window behind [them], and you’ll notice that the sets are built that way too. In all our pursuits to create the series, we’re not copying the Coen brothers’ movies, but we’re mindful of the aesthetic that they created that’s unique to them, and so that balance and symmetry is in our design and in our shooting — the lenses we use and the composition of the frame is always important to us. And, again, that comes from Noah and filters down through all of us who make any decisions that have to do with what goes on onscreen.”
Fargo airs Monday nights on FX at 10 p.m. and stars Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Jeffrey Donovan, Brad Garrett, Zahn McClarnon, Jean Smart, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons, Rachel Keller, and Cristin Milioti. Season two is currently Certified Fresh at 100 percent; read reviews here.