The brightest spots in the Hamm sabbatical came when he flexed his comedy muscles (proof that God does indeed give with both hands sometimes), fully reveling in Tina Fey silliness on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or delivering a stellar turn as “Jon Hamm” on Curb Your Enthusiasm. But after awhile, there comes a realization that Jonathan Hamm making you laugh just doesn’t quite hit the same as him going full “Suitcase” mode, filling the screen with immeasurable pain and anguish.
In Hawley’s hands, Fargo offered an opportunity for Hamm to show a different tool in his arsenal altogether. Despite an initial logline that described him as a hard-nosed lawman, Hamm’s Sheriff Roy Tillman is unquestionably the antagonist of this story and certainly one of the least “grey” characters the series has ever presented. He’s a blackhearted bully, an authority figure peddling MAGA ideals and hiding behind the tenets of the law and Christianity to exert his own dominance. Roy is a hypocrite, a crooked cop, a racist, a serial abuser, kidnapper, rapist, and murderer, with pierced nipples. He’s probably the most vile character Hamm has ever portrayed to date. And it’s been a thrill to watch.
Sure we’ve seen Hamm go bad before, but his roguish bank robber in Baby Driver may as well be a Saturday-morning cartoon villain compared to Roy. The former part still found Hamm deploying a bit of the classic Jon Hamm Charm Offensive; Roy is unrepentant and ugly in his convictions.
“An amazing thing about Mad Men is how many seasons we watched about a guy who really wasn’t a good guy. And yet, we were fascinated by him and we followed him,” Hawley told me in regards to casting Hamm seemingly against type. “One of the great things about Jon is that he can play both sides of that moral spectrum.” It’s true, setting aside Don’s uh, complicated views on fidelity, he couldn’t always be counted on to do the right moral thing, even outside of his marriage. (Just ask Salvatore Romano.) Don Draper was a dickhead—but Roy Tillman was chilling, the kind of character who can be thwarted only temporarily, in ways that just heighten the tension of how he’ll lash out next.
It’s a role that calls first and foremost on Hamm to be imposing, with plenty of scenes similar to that eighth-episode tracking shot where we’re just sitting with Roy, watching his evil mind tick and scheme. The first third of the season is less about showing Roy in action than building up the long shadow he casts. Hamm is more than up to the task—an early season-scene has Roy staring at his ceiling, daydreaming about Nadine almost willing himself into her thoughts before his cigarette smoke gives way to a Hitchcockian dissolve of Nadine in the safety of her home, feeling anything but. And still, this is Fargo, where even the most reprehensible people are casually hilarious—when Jennifer Jason Leigh’s wealthy matriarch assumes Roy is lingering around her house on police outreach business soliciting money for orphans, Hamm nails Roy’s deadpan response, that he’s more of a “‘let the orphans fight each other for sport’ kind of guy.”
With a finale that nailed its ending—including giving Roy Tillman one of the most exacting comeuppances anyone on this series has ever received—the door on Fargo season five is shut, but it feels like the beginning of a second wind for Hamm. Early into Fargo’s run news broke that he’d be starring in his first lead series role since Mad Men ended with AppleTV+’s Your Friends and Neighbors, as a disgraced hedge fund manager who resorts to petty theft to keep his family’s lifestyle afloat until things go awry. It sounds like the kind of Complicated Man role Hamm was born to play; hopefully it’s one that, like Roy, allows him to deploy some new tricks. But until then, Sheriff Roy Tillman just may put him in that Emmys audience as more than a presenter for the first time in years. It’s where he belongs.
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