You’ve never seen the side of Jon Hamm that he conjured as the villainous Sheriff Roy Tillman on Fargo in the season’s eighth episode two weeks ago.
For three uninterrupted minutes the camera lingers on Tillman, stewing in defeat—an emotion he clearly hasn’t experienced in decades. Hamm doesn’t speak at all, but he doesn’t need to—his entire thought process plays out across that expressive, all-American visage that took him all the way to the Emmys. We can see Tillman concluding in real time what will make him feel better, where to channel his frustration. Then he gets out of his car, and the camera stays with him, tracking but never widening from a close-up as he walks, with determination, toward the shack where he’s chained up Nadine, the runaway ex-wife he’s just recaptured after 10 years. He is going to assault her. The implication is immediately clear and yet the take is punishingly long, ratcheting up the dread. Ignore the bemusing, unwise choice to score it with a Gothic, Jordan Peele-trailer-esque cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” and focus on Hamm’s face, resolute and chilling in its conviction.
The fifth season of Fargo, which concluded its 10-episode run this week, has been billed as something of a return to form for Noah Hawley’s FX anthology series, which has struggled to garner much in the way of unanimous critical acclaim since year 2. The reports are true: Your Fargo rankings may vary, but the latest story is one of the series’ finest, the most concise and consistently entertaining tale Hawley has presented in years. It’s at once evocative of the 1996 Coen Brothers classic from which the show draws inspiration while feeling like a fresh remix of the film’s idiosyncratic themes, flourishes, humor and violence.
But more importantly: it’s also a comeback of sorts for Jon Hamm, the season’s co-lead (opposite Juno Temple as his aforementioned wife Nadine), who delivered one of his most thrilling performances in years.
Hamm, of course, hadn’t, technically, disappeared. But since Don Draper meditated his way to harmonious corporate synergy in Mad Men’s 2015 series finale, the roles that followed have been fun but not terribly exciting, at least when measured against portraying one of television’s most iconic characters.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon for TV actors to find the role of a lifetime only to drift to projects of varying quality after. Hamm himself has poked fun at it, with an AppleTV+ spot where he clicks around the streaming service’s original programming, lamenting all the roles that could’ve and didn’t go to him instead. And it isn’t as if Hamm’s agent has been slacking. But the thrill of seeing him show up in, say, Top Gun: Maverick is slightly dulled by the fact that he’s just playing the stuffy authoritative figure Tom Cruise will inevitably make a fool out of by the end of Act 2. This is a guy who effortlessly exuded a classic archetpye of American cool—put him in a jet, dammit!
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.
Originally Appeared on GQ