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With FARGO And LEGION, Noah Hawley Creates TV on Another Level

With FARGO And LEGION, Noah Hawley Creates TV on Another Level

Noah Hawley has described his two series, Fargo and Legion, as “completely opposite shows,” and after watching the mind-bending, genre-breaking insanity that was season one of Legion, it might seem obvious as to why. Legion is a vast departure from the snowy, true crime world of Fargo, but while one involves superheroes and astral planes and the other focuses on unlikely Midwestern murderers with humorous accents, Hawley’s distinct visual style and playful use of form and structure make them far more alike than even he might realize. He’s creating a way to do storytelling that’s wholly his own—using the subconscious as well as the conscious—to make some of the best television shows in the process.


It wasn’t that Legion was just unlike any other superhero show we’ve ever seen, it was completely unique compared to anything else on television. It was a surreal exploration of the very serious topics of mental illness and individuals with special abilities, blending reality and memories into one giant and often confusing (in the best way) amalgamation of narrative mystery, where time and dimension were as fluid and unreliable as a glass of water with a hole in it. And it was all done with an aesthetically engaging display of visual storytelling.

We’ve already told you about how Hawley uses color templates on Fargo for major people and places—helping to establish characterization, mood, and theme—and that technique was on clear display in season one of Legion, in a far more obvious manner. With just a few stills you could probably recreate those color templates yourself, from the distinct orange of the mental institution and its patients, to the blue, ice cube astral home of the white-wearing Oliver, to the darkness of Aubrey Plaza’s Shadow King and David’s cluttered mind.

LEGION -- Pictured: (l-r) Rachel Keller as Syd Barrett, Dan Stevens as David Haller. CR: Chris Large/FX

LEGION -- "Chapter 7" – Season 1, Episode 7 (Airs Wednesday, March 22, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Jemaine Clement as Oliver Bird, Bill Irwin as Cary Loudermilk. CR: Michelle Faye/FX

LEGION -- "Chapter 5" – Season 1, Episode 5 (Airs Wednesday, March 8, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Aubrey Plaza as Lenny "Cornflakes" Busker. CR: Michelle Faye/FX

The show was so vibrant, and its lighting and color choices so unambiguous, it was impossible to miss them. But those choices weren’t made just to make Legion look cool, it served the story, partly to give visual clues to confused viewers—about both when and where the story was—but more importantly, to add meaning to the people and events of the story. The look and feel of a scene, or the representation of a character, are meaningful choices. Even if they only work on a subconscious level, they add to the story, like any instrument adds to a song.

Though this method was more obvious on Legion, Hawley consistently utilizes it on Fargo too. Even just by looking at promo pictures and shots from the trailer of the upcoming third season of the show—or hear about the playful comparison video he created to show this season’s connection to Peter and the Wolf—you begin to identify the templates being used and what they might mean beyond their surface intentions. Note the muted flannel, browns, and greens of Carrie Coon’s police chief, and the drab and lifeless tans of David Thewlis’s villain V.M. Varga.

FARGO -- Year 3 -- Pictured: Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle. CR: Chris Large/FX

FARGO -- Pictured: Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX
david-thewlis FARGO -- Pictured: David Thewlis as V.M. Vargas. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Without hearing them speak a word or seeing them do anything, you have a sense of who those people are, and while on opposite sides of the law, there’s already a connection established on the visual. When they do open their mouths and start to engage in the story, all of those elements will coalesce into strong characters, and that in turn makes the story even stronger. It’s a method that is visually engaging, while giving added meaning to what is happening underneath.

Those deliberate actions are on even higher display with Ewan McGregor’s two characters this season, brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy.

FARGO -- Year 3 -- Pictured (l-r): Michael Stuhlbarg as Sy Feltz, Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy. CR: Chris Large/FX


FARGO -- Year 3 -- Pictured: Ewan McGregor as Ray Stussy. CR: Chris Large/FX


Emmit is blues, blacks, grays, and whites, while Ray is more orange, browns, and reds—and because of those distinctions you are subconsciously primed to form opinions on their differences. When you start to also see the color choices for the sets (as we did in real life earlier this year), especially the ones most closely tied to the characters, that reaction then informs your understanding and experience with the story itself.

And Hawley is intimately involved in all of those choices, as every member of the crew told us on the set of Fargo. He knows what he wants, and he works with the various departments to get it right. “Try harder” is the working motto we heard from supervising producer Kim Todd, the idea that everyone should go above and beyond what other series do to create something special.

FARGO -- Pictured: Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

That mentality and the level of commitment Hawley has towards his shows has obviously worked. But—as we all know—every great color and thematic choice in the world would be meaningless without a stellar script to go with it, and that’s another way in which Fargo and Legion are similar, especially when it comes to Hawley’s breaking of the traditional narrative form.

Legion played with time and reality throughout the entire first season, not just bouncing around the timeline but among various dimensions as well, calling into question the trustworthiness of the narrator and making the audience constantly question the validity of what was real, what was imagined, and what existed somewhere between the two. Fargo hasn’t done it to that extreme (how many shows ever have?), but Hawley hasn’t been shy about playing with its structure in order to inform your viewing experience beyond the surface.

LEGION -- "Chapter 6" – Season 1, Episode 6 (Airs Wednesday, March 15, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Dan Stevens as David Haller. CR: Michelle Faye/FX

Season one had a time jump towards the end, after the main story had seemingly wrapped up. Then last season, set decades earlier already, opened on the set of an old (fake) black-and-white Ronald Reagan movie, which didn’t have a thematic pay-off until episode five. In ninth episode of season two, Hawley suddenly had a narrator (season one star Martin Freeman) telling us the story, something he hadn’t done yet. And in the finale, he offered the ever present glimmer of hope for humanity, the one that keeps Fargo from being the bleakest place in the universe, by giving Besty Solverson a flash forward to see that her loved ones would be okay long after her death.

It’s impossible to predict what narrative form or timeline Hawley will use in any given episode, like when the Legion season one finale surprisingly started with a meaningful look at an early season villain. This unusual method of storytelling will be on display at the start of Fargo‘s new season, but it surely won’t be its last. And it will purposefully make you question everything.


Just like putting someone in leather jackets and cowboy boots in the snow, or making it so a mental hospital is a tableau of bright and unusual oranges, those breaks in narrative and form have meaning. Sure it’s entertaining, keeps the show fresh, and the audience on its toes, but it also contributes to the thematic heart of his stories and how you experience them, whether you realize it or not. Hawley might think his two shows are completely different, but he’s wrong—but maybe he knows that, subconsciously speaking.

What similarities do you see between Legion and Fargo? Tell us in the comments below.

Images: FX

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