What Fargo Season 5 Is Really About

The excellent fifth season of Fargo wants to keep track of what we owe to each other.

"FARGO" -- "The Tragedy of the Commons" -- Year 5, Episode 1 (Airs November 21) Pictured (L-R): Juno Temple as Dorothy “Dot” Lyon, Sienna King as Scotty Lyon.
Photo: Michelle Faye | FX

This article contains spoilers for Fargo season 5 episodes 1 and 2.

Fargo season 5 opens in as immediate fashion as possible. As the curtains rise on episode 1 “The Tragedy of the Commons,” punches are already being thrown. It’s a chaotic, yet familiar scene in the U.S. in which a community meeting at a high school auditorium has devolved into desultory violence.

Our protagonist Dorothy “Dot” Lyon (Ted Lasso‘s Juno Temple) shields her daughter from the melee as adults act a fool at the Fall Festival Planning Committee. Dot is drawn into the fray when her daughter’s math teacher comes barreling down the aisle screaming “No one’s listening to me!” Dot tases him in self defense and is booked at the local police station, kickstarting the real events of the season.

Fargo, both the classic 1996 Coen Brothers film and the FX series inspired by it, has a distinct knack for capturing the surreal intricacies of the Midwest and its genteel, yet flawed citizens. Still, no moment in any iteration of Fargo has better articulated the climate of our modern era quite like the Scandia High School fracas. What is the world right now if not a grown man crying “no one’s listening to me!” while expressing directionless anger? We get it, pal. No one’s listening to us either.

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Fargo season 5 is rightfully being hailed as a return to form for the Noah Hawley-created series after an imperfect fourth season that delved far back (perhaps too far back) into America’s equally imperfect past. Based on this two-episode premiere, it’s not hard to see why season 5 is seen as a welcome new direction for the show. This is as close-to-the-present day as the franchise has ever allowed itself to be.

Since Fargo‘s central gimmick requires some passage of time (“This is a true story. The events depicted took place in [location] in [year]… ), every season begins in the past by definition. But Fargo season 5’s 2019 doesn’t feel too far away at all. The immediacy of the anger is recognizable. As are the politics of Sheriff Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm) whose definition of “constitutional conservative” translates to “whatever I say.” No season of Fargo has ever been more primed to communicate something important about the current political moment. But what exactly does this season want to say, aside from the obvious “everyone’s angry?”

Thankfully, with the SAG-AFTRA strike now concluded, FX was able to host a junket featuring the show’s acting talent, which Den of Geek was kindly invited to. In speaking to Juno Temple (Dot Lyon), Jon Hamm (Sheriff Roy Tillman), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lorraine Lyon), David Rysdahl (Wayne Lyon), Dave Foley (Danish Greaves), Richa Moorjani (Deputy Indira Olmstead), and Sam Spruell (Ole Munch), a certain word kept coming up. We’ll present some quotes from the interviews below and see if you can spot it.

Juno Temple: “[Noah Hawley] discussed more the theme of debt and what debt means.”
Jon Hamm: “I think that with the idea of examining debt and what that does to us as individuals as well as a culture, you have to get into some politics of it as well.”
Richa Moorjani: “What people will do for money has always been a big theme in Fargo. In this season in particular, debt is a huge theme.”
Dave Foley: “Each installment [of Fargo] wrestles with a central moral theme. The moral theme of this one is debt. Indebtedness. The power structures of debt. What it means to be in debt.”
David Rysdahl: “In this season of Fargo … we’re really exploring the concept of debt and trauma and baggage.”

So uh …. did you catch the operative word there? Obviously it’s debt and the concept of indebtedness. The cast members of season 5 frequently brought up the idea of debt, even when not prompted to (as though they knew I was looking for a sturdy theme to tie together my first Fargo season 5 feature, bless them). That speaks to Noah Hawley’s messaging discipline with his actors, sure, but it also reveals just how seriously this season approaches the concept it intends to explore.

While it may not immediately be apparent based on these first two episodes, rest assured that all of Fargo season 5 really is about debt in its many forms. There’s the obvious iteration of debt to begin with – that of financial debt. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character and the matriarch of the powerful Lyon family, came to be a billionaire through operating a predatory debt servicing company, which is something that her kind-hearted son may come to struggle with.

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“I think he feels complicit in it,” Rysdahl says of Wayne Lyon. “He’s got his mother who is extremely wealthy on the backs of other people. Meanwhile [Wayne and Dot] live in a kind of a middle income home. Anytime she gives me money there are a lot of strings attached.”

For this season’s central cop character Indira, that concept of debt is crushingly literal. The well-meaning detective frets over her household financial obligations while her unserious husband Lars (Lukas Gage) pursues a fruitless professional golf career.

“I myself used to be in a lot of debt so I can understand the stress that comes with opening your mail and seeing past due and not even wanting to look at your bank account,” Moorjani says. “It can feel like you’re in this hole that you can never get out of.”

For characters like Dot Lyon and Roy Tillman, however, debt can be a more abstract thing. As the season’s second episode reveals, Dot used to be married to the abusive sheriff before running off for a better life, something that violates Tillman’s very literal understanding of vows and obligation.

“He has a difference sense of who owes what and what it means to be repaid,” Hamm says of Tillman. “It doesn’t necessarily have to do with money. He lives in more of a biblical world where those debts are accrued in a spiritual way.”

Fargo season 5 does indeed have a lot to say about spiritual liability and the concept of sin as a debt. But to go further down that road would represent a major spoiler for episode 3. (Check back with us after that one airs for an article that discusses the event in question). Really, the show has debt covered from every angle and “debt” is the predominant word to keep in mind while watching the season’s remaining eight episodes, with the finale premiering on Jan. 16, 2024.

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Still, this all isn’t to say that this season is merely just various characters saying “debt” to each other in increasingly pitched Midwestern accents. Like any Fargo story worth its salt, this saga presents a rich text for viewers to parse through and interpret as they wish.

For Foley, Fargo is “a modern moral dialectic.” For Temple it’s “an eye-opening way of telling stories about certain parts of America.” For Hamm, it’s “a violent crime story with tremendously comedic elements in it.”

For you, Fargo can be whatever you plainly see it to be. Just be sure to keep an eye on all that accruing debt as well.

New episodes of Fargo season 5 premiere Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX and stream on Hulu the next day.