I felt like the second season of Fargo was tailor made for me. My dissertation is about Native American actors in the 30s and 40s, and this season opened with an incredible scene about a Native American actor waiting for Ronald Reagan on a 1940s film set. I lived in Kansas City for a while and developed an interest in the history of the Kansas City mafia, and the KC mob played a major part in this season. Growing up I was fascinated/obsessed with UFOs, and this season used UFO’s as a spiritual and metanarrative device. And, as a Native American, it gave me one of my all-time favorite Native American characters on TV.
Hanzee Dent (played by Zahn McClarnon and if you enjoyed him in Fargo check him out in Sterlin Harjo’s Mekko; he’s terrifying in that film) was the breakout character from the second season of Fargo. He starts off the series in the margins as the Gerhardt mob family’s talented and trusted fixer, but becomes a more significant character as the series progresses and the final third of the season details his own impressive, bloody rise to power. One of the common misperceptions about calls for diversity in media is that marginalized groups want only positive portrayals. That’s not the case, and Hanzee demonstrates that you can make a well-rounded Native American villain. Here are 5 things that Fargo did to make Hanzee a compelling character that most non-Native produced films/TV shows usually don’t do with when it comes to portraying Native characters:
- He has a backstory– It’s important that Hanzee have an air of mystery about him; for suspense, to relate to a central moral question of the series, and to fit into a specific Coen brothers archetype. Because of this it would have been easy to have told us nothing about him. Thankfully, he is given a backstory, one that is historically accurate for a Native American of his age living in the 1970s. We know he attended a boarding school (where he was fond of magic), that he left home only to have to survive on the street as a kid, and that he was a highly-decorated soldier in Vietnam where he took on some of the most intense and dangerous missions as a “tunnel rat.” Think about another Native American character in a movie or TV show. Now try and remember their backstory–they probably didn’t have one. In a lot of media, Native Americans are often viewed less as characters and more of a setting or part of an environment. A backstory adds depth and complexity, and especially important for a good antagonist, sympathy. Without a backstory, Hanzee could have been been a very different, very problematic character. He commits many acts of violence, and without a backstory these could have been associated with his Indianess calling to mind many racist assumptions about violence and blood from early western melodramas. Interestingly, the backstory doesn’t take away from his mystery at all (see #4), rather it provides us with a set of potential motives. Related: Hanzee is given a specific tribe and speaks his native tongue.
- Action is focalized through him- Hanzee’s story isn’t told from the viewpoint of another (white) character; in fact, he is one of the characters with which the audience shares their point-of-view. This places him on equal footing with the other major characters in the narrative, and also in terms of the audience’s access to them. This is significant because it doesn’t assume that an audience will not care about a Native character’s point of view, or that there is something fundamentally so different about a Native American character that makes an audience unable to relate to them.
- He navigates race in complex ways- A mistake that some well-intentioned writers make with minority characters is that they make a character only about their race; where once again the characters are only there to serve the purpose of a plot or theme rather than to be fully human. While other characters occasionally refer to Hanzee as “the Indian,” this feels more like an historically correct way they would refer to him, and all of his dealings with other characters are not only about his being Native. That doesn’t mean that background is less important, but rather that it’s not the sole reason he’s in a given scene; just as the Gerhardt’s German heritage is important, but not their sole reason for being in the story. Hanzee deals with racism and he recognizes the historic weight of what happened to his people but that is not all he is and he has different approaches to his identity depending on the situation in which he finds himself. Sometimes he uses peoples’ assumptions about him to his advantage, and other times he is more proactive (read: violent) in dealing with racism. This demonstrates, as is the case in real life, that navigating Anglo-American society as a Native American is a complex process that depends a lot on context and relationships.
- He has agency- One of the surprising things I’ve noticed as I’ve watched a lot of older westerns is that I had always assumed that the bad guys were the Indians. But that’s actually not often exactly the case. Instead, it’s something far more racist: more commonly, Native characters are duped into violence by the real villain: some conniving white guy. This trope, mostly found in pre-WW2 westerns, basically assumes that Indians aren’t smart enough to have done anything without white help (in the other cases, the Indians act more like a force of nature; less bent on revenge than animalistic impediment to white progress). While films and TV shows have been more sympathetic over the last few decades, agency is still a problem. Native characters are still really only allowed to act within the limits of how they are able to help the journey of the white protagonist. Hanzee’s character arc, on the other hand, is all about agency. His arc aligns beautifully with Kristen Dunst’s character who is obsessed with self-actualizing; both characters are looking for their place in a society that has, in some way or another, limited their potential. In addition, Hanzee’s actions drive the most important developments in the final act of the season. What he does matters and has consequences throughout the Fargo universe, even for what we saw in season 1.
- He’s complicated- The second-to-last episode of the season is devoted to a mystery: Why did Hanzee do what he did? The answer: we’ll never know (the finale provides us with a hint but its ambiguous). One of the central trends of the current “golden age” of prestige television is ambiguous character motivation. Inspired by European art film protagonists, we are never quite sure why characters like Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White do what they do. Native characters are almost always simplistic; they are given basic wants/needs, and any attempts at providing them with something resembling psychological depth is based off of simplistic desires. That Hanzee is allowed the same psychological ambiguity as the major white figures of prestige TV is a big deal.