The Isolation of the Native American, As Told By Fargo

by: Josh Sczykutowicz

One of Fargo’s most captivating characters shines a light on the United States’ ugly relationship with Native Americans…

The acclaimed FX anthology series Fargo is about to finish its second season, and all signs point to it doing so expertly. With some of the most distinctive, creative and lush cinematography on air, remarkable score work and music choices, tight and surprising writing that manages to give the Coen Brothers competition in their own universe, and a cast that is regularly turning in Emmy-level performances, it is undoubtedly one of the best shows, if not the best, on air right now, and is a lock-in for next year’s award season.

But amidst all of this fanfare and accolade, something Fargo has managed to draw attention to in an affecting manner, culminating in the as-of-this-writing most recent episode, Loplop, is the heartless manner in which Native Americans have, historically, been treated here in the states. This ingrained wickedness comes to light through the portrayal of one of Fargo’s least vocal characters, Hanzee, a Native American foot soldier for the Gerhardt crime syndicate played adeptly by Zahn McClamon. Throughout this thrilling season, Hanzee has been in the background, tracking people, hunting animals, sneaking into buildings and hiding in the shadows, always showing up at opportune moments to protect the white men he works for, or to exact their unique brand of justice. With few characters talking to him beyond barking commands, there is almost no dialogue with him, and we’re left to gather what we can through Hanzee’s actions.

Something plenty of fan forums and Facebook comments and tweets have made clear is that when most have spoken to the manner of Hanzee’s particular skill set, they have all naturally attributed it to his ethnicity. “Well, he’s a Native American, so of course he knows how to do these things,” is the general mindset of these talking heads, and with no counter-argument provided by Fargo’s showrunners, this prejudice has been relatively unmitigated until this past episode. In it, Hanzee stops into a bar, simply asking for a glass of water, wherein the bartender promptly spits into it. After calmly allowing this offense to unfold, Hanzee instead asks for a shot of tequila. As he drinks, Hanzee has a series of off-color racial epithets thrown his way, with the tragedy of Wounded Knee used against him, and the notion that Native Americans don’t want to be “American” anymore expressed. He’s told that the bartender maybe doesn’t want to serve someone who doesn’t want to be an American, to which Hanzee asks, “How about a decorated Vietnam vet who served three tours?”

In that moment, his character becomes more fully defined. All of the aptitude he’s displayed on Fargo so far has been skills that, of course, were gained through his combat experiences in Vietnam. But, this sort of prejudice and racism is prevalent in 1979, when Fargo’s second season takes place, as evidenced by every cliché possible being tossed at Hanzee by a group of male patrons as he walks out of the bar after paying and tipping graciously, not once losing his cool, not once retaliating to the bigotry he’d just encountered. We’ve learned previously that Hanzee had served in Vietnam, but in this moment we are fully confronted by that reality. This is who Hanzee is – a man who has been deeply loyal to his country, and deeply loyal to the family who took him in after war – and for the rest of the episode, we see where that loyalty has gotten him.

Hanzee’s mocked with elementary school playground Indian calls and shouts of “chief,” and it’s easy for us, as an audience, to watch period shows, and look at the way in which prejudices were so deeply ingrained into our society and say, “Wow, things were so bad, we have come so far, good thing we’re not like those people anymore.” But how far have we come, really? We still have major football teams named after racial slurs against Native Americans. Alcoholism runs rampant in Native American communities, and no one pays it any mind. And we, as an audience, attribute any stereotypical behavior we might associate with skills found in the Cowboys & Indians movies of old to just this mindset, thinking, “Hanzee naturally knows these things because of his heritage,” when, just like Fargo’s two lead cops, he is simply a war veteran.

In the bar, Hanzee shows a deep level of patience and pacifism, refusing to engage with the insults, and keeping his composure, even if it takes heavy sighs and eye rolls to do so. But even after he’s left, the prejudices follow him again. Outside of the bar, there is a small sign designating that the location of the bar is a battleground where Native Americans were hanged by the U.S. government. The site, in strong contrast to the bar that stands upon it, is a place of tragedy. A place meant for solemn reflection and respect. And beneath that sign is a pile of excrement, likely put there by the patrons of that bar, a collection of small-minded white men who are quick to judge and lack the faculties of knowing when they are in the wrong. And here, mocked again, this time visually, he snaps, achieving his breaking point. Is this what every visit to a bar has been like for him, living in this region? Is this how he has always been treated? Did Hanzee end up working with the Gerhardts simply because there was no one else willing to take him in after the war, when, like so many Vietnam vets, he was all but forgotten? We don’t know that, but we can easily fill in the gaps, and as Hanzee takes out a revolver and shoots each man, then the bartender, and then the police who are called in to respond. All because of how isolated he has been made to feel by those who perceive that they are better them him because of the color of their skin. All because a man simply wanted a glass of water.

Fargo manages to touch on the deep isolation, stereotyping of and racism towards Native Americans in the U.S. exceptionally well through what is essentially a supporting character. There’s no “What have we learned today” moment on the show. No heavy-handed narration to guide the listener through what has just transpired. And the ghost of Hanzee’s father does not appear in the passenger side of the truck as he flees the scene to recapitulate what has just unfolded like some late-season episode of Dexter. We move on, and so does Hanzee, and at the end of the episode, when it seems he is going to rescue his boss from his captors, Dodd Gerhardt, with all of the information we now know, we are suddenly entirely uncertain about what his intentions truly are.

After all we have seen Hanzee suffer through, at the hands of Dodd Gerhardt and society, knowing that the small taste of racism we saw him endure is something he has been experiencing his whole life, his entire motivation for existence has now changed from what the show’s writers made us think before, and this new perspective is absolutely brilliant. Hanzee asks Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst) who has been helping keep Dodd captive, if she can cut hair. Perplexed at first, Peggy says yes, and in that moment Hanzee executes his former boss, Dodd Gerhardt. When he does, it comes as no surprise. In that moment, Hanzee could have done anything, and any path taken would have fit the narrative of the show, would have fit the characters present. It’s genius. No act could surprise the viewer by this point, and yet every act will surprise.

When Hanzee sits down to have his hair cut the camera lingers for a beautiful moment trapped in time, the scissors are opened, his fine, black hair threaded through the blade. The light glints off of the strands. Peggy asks if he is sure, and Hanzee replies with words that carry the weight of the world, “I’m tired of this life.” More is said about Hanzee’s character in that moment than anything anyone has said to him in any scene of any episode prior. He is tired of the violence. He is tired of the racism haunting him. He is tired of his identity as a Native American and he is tired of the weight he carries. It is heartbreaking. There are a multitude of explanations out there regarding the significance of long hair in Native American culture, and historically, to cut it is a symbol of spiritual defeat, of loss of power. In the biblical story of Samson, which Dodd Gerhardt mentioned before in the series, a man gains his power from his hair, only to lose it all once it is cut by a woman. Hanzee is now allowing Peggy to cut his hair and the connections drawn between the two characters is poignant, giving the viewer the space to draw the lines between the the dots.

Unfortunately for Hanzee, things do not go as planned. Before even one lock can be trimmed, State Trooper Lou Solverson and Sheriff Hank Larsson inch towards the cabin and Hanzee is forced to flee, firing his weapon repeatedly as he vanishes into the shadows. Prior to his departure, the camera directs our attention to the moment Hanzee’s black hair slips thoughts the scissors, avoiding being cut as the stainless steel closes upon itself. As tired as he may be with his existence, the writers of Fargo suggest to us that Hanzee is not intended to escape this life.

Fargo has many outstanding things going for it. It is rife with well-developed characters portrayed by talented actors. It is awash with symbolism, pointed visual cues, and penetrating commentary on the human condition. But among the many stunning attributes that makes Fargo such an achievement, the one that struck me the most, by far, is that of the plight of Hanzee, and the silent isolation he faces, and what it says about the way our society treats Native Americans. We still hardly talk about it as a nation; there is no national dialogue to be found. Fargo’s claim that it is based on true events may be false, a stylistic flourish carried over from the original film, but the story of Hanzee, and the racism he faces, and the growing anger inside of him, surely must be based on tragic fact.

How many Hanzee’s have ever existed? How many Hanzee’s have entered that bar, and never made it out? And how does his character speak to the running theme this season of lost veterans, men who served in war only to come back to the quiet, cold world they risked their lives fighting for? What’s this say about the way our country has treated Native Americans over the years, and treated veterans over the years? Fargo offers all of this to us, and yet never once explicitly states it. It’s a level of masterful storytelling, character building and subtlety that undoubtedly has contributed to its success, and it deserves every ounce of it.

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