The new season of the anthology TV series “Fargo” — which is based on the 1996 film set in North Dakota — takes place in 1950 Kansas City, Mo. And it features one very prominent character from Salt Lake City.
Dick “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant) is a straight-laced, decidedly odd U.S. Marshal who’s in town to capture two murderous women who escaped from prison. And he soon finds himself in the middle of a growing dispute between a Black crime family and an Italian American crime family.
Series creator/executive producer/writer Noah Hawley didn’t have to go far to find someone to provide insight into Deafy’s hometown. Co-executive producer/writer Enzo Mileti “had many insights on his upbringing,” Hawley said.
Mileti, who grew up in Park City and attended the University of Utah, makes it clear that “Deafy isn’t meant to represent all Mormons any more than Chris Rock’s character is meant to represent all African Americans or Jason Schwartzman’s character is meant to represent all Italian Americans.”
(Rock stars as crime boss Loy Cannon; Schwartzman as crime boss Josto Fadda.)
“I’m not Mormon, but I did grow up in Utah,” Mileti said. “And, of course, a lot of my friends are Mormons.”
His Italian American father and Guatemalan mother opened a restaurant in Park City in 1973; his father later opened the Zephyr Club in Salt Lake City, operating it from 1982-2003.
And Mileti, whose credits include writer/producer stints on FX’s “Snowfall,” Showtime’s “Black Monday” and DirecTV’s “Kingdom,” refuses to take credit for the Deafy character. “That’s a Noah Hawley creation,” he said, who “just jumps off the page.”
“He’s this straight-arrow lawman played just beautifully by Tim Olyphant, who’s a dream to work with,” Mileti said.
Olyphant is, coincidentally, best known for FX’s long-running “Justified,” in which he starred as a straight-arrow U.S. Marshal. “But I think what made [Deafy] interesting to him was the religious nature of the role,” Hawley said.
Deafy makes an immediate impression when he arrives in Episode 3 of the new season of “Fargo,” which premieres Sunday on FX (7 p.m., DirecTV and Dish; 10 p.m. Comcast). He scolds the Kansas City police chief for cursing, refuses a cup of coffee and explains a bit of Latter-day Saint theology, with his own twist on it.
“I’m a priest of the Mormon Church, and a member of the Quorum of Seventy,” he says.
(Remember, it’s 1950, almost seven decades before the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced he wants everyone to stop referring to church members as Mormons.)
The police chief doesn’t know much about the church, but he does know this: “Last time I checked, there’s still a kill order on the books for all Mormons in the state of Missouri.” No doubt a lot of viewers won’t realize that was true.
“There’s a good reason that our white-hat lawman who’s cracking down on crime in Missouri, of all places, is Mormon,” Mileti said. “That kind of harkens back to the 1830s Missouri and how unkind that state was to Mormon immigrants.”
Including the 1838 order issued by Gov. Lilburn Boggs that “Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state” — which remained in effect until 1976.
“A big part of this season of ‘Fargo’ is about this kind of immigration story — the story of the other,” Mileti said. “Jews, Irish, Italians, Mormons — they weren’t automatically given access to the American dream. They had to fight for it. But in all those cases, they were eventually allowed to kind of assimilate, and were considered white Americans.
“And, of course, that wasn’t the case for African Americans.”
A 1950s gang war
The major conflict in Season 4 is between the two crime families jockeying for position in Kansas City.
“My writing partner, [co-executive producer] Scott [Wilson] is Black, and I’m Guatemalan-Italian — basically white,” Mileti said. “We kind of joked that we were hired because he represented one faction of the gang war and I represented the other.”
There’s an uneasy peace between the two criminal organizations, held in place because Cannon and Fadda have exchanged their young sons to ensure it.
More than once during Season 4, Rock delivers impassioned lines that sound like they were written as a direct response to the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. They weren’t. Season 4 was written — and mostly filmed — while all three were still alive. (Production on “Fargo” had to shut down in March because of the pandemic; the final two episodes were recently shot under strict COVID-19 precautions.)
“When I read the scripts even before all these protests, a year ago, they were pretty powerful then,” Rock said. “So are they more powerful now? Yeah.”
“It’s not like we went back and rewrote anything,” Mileti said. “If you’re writing about racial justice, you’re always going to be right on time.”
If Season 4 was prescient in any way, it’s in one decided shift away from the first three seasons.
“For whatever reason,” Hawley said, the “all-good” characters “have always been the cop” in past seasons. “But, of course, that’s not every American’s experience of cops, and so one of the things I wanted to do with this season was to give us a protagonist detective ... who is not a cop.”
This season, that moral center is 16-year-old Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, (E’myri Crutchfield) a “pure, good-hearted person” who is tangentially tied to what’s happening, and unknowingly gets pulled closer to the center. “It’s always the story of basically decent people who are probably in over their heads,” Hawley said.
Not having a cop as the moral center of “Fargo” not only is a break with the movie and Seasons 1-3, it’s a break with “the history of television,” Mileti said. “The experience that a lot of African Americans had with law enforcement is, to some degree, reflected in this season of ‘Fargo,’ where we’re kind of turning things on their head.”
It’s a through-line in Season 4, but it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative.
“While we’re examining all these heavy themes, it’s still just a fun, entertaining gangster crime story,” Mileti said. “We never wanted to lose sight of that.”
And “Fargo” is funny — between all the mayhem.
Murder, murder everywhere
If you’ve seen any of the first three seasons of “Fargo,” it won’t come as a surprise that a lot of characters in the massive cast die violent, bloody deaths in Season 4.
“Scott and I were kind of joking that once some of these characters start dying off, it gets a little easier to write because you don’t have to service so many storylines,” Mileti said. “We had a lot of fun trying to figure out who makes it and who doesn’t. And how did they meet their maker if they aren’t going to make it?
“We wanted to make sure that if we were going to kill them off, that it resonated emotionally in some kind of way. So it wasn’t just bodies dropping in a gangster story.”
In addition to the rival gangsters, Season 4 is spiced up by an angel-of-death nurse who kills a lot of people. It’s a bit less insane than that sounds, but still pretty crazy.
“Just when you think it’s about these rival gangs vying for power, you throw in this wild card — a serial killer nurse, who really shakes things up,” Mileti said.
The nurse, Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), “kind of unintentionally inserts herself into this gangster drama. And then the interplay between Oraetta and Josto — and Jessie Buckley and Jason Schwartzman’s chemistry together — was so fun to watch. I think that’s one of my favorite parts of this chapter.”
Coming home to Utah
Mileti and Wilson have several other projects in the works, and they’ve signed an overall deal to develop new shows for FX. And Mileti is planning to move back to his home state “pretty soon.”
“My roots are in Utah. My brother is a firefighter in Salt Lake City,” he said.
He’s hoping not just to live here, but to work here. He and Wilson are working on the script for the pilot of a series that would be set — and, they hope, will be produced — in Salt Lake City.
“It’s a crime story about a burgeoning self-help guru and life coach who lives and works in Salt Lake City. She discovers she has a half-sister she never knew existed,” Mileti said. And when they meet, “it leads our self-help guru into this underworld of crime.”
The self-help guru grew up “white and privileged”; her half sister is half Paiute and grew up in the tribe.
The series would be distinctive for its setting alone. While a number of scripted TV shows have filmed in Utah — including “Touched by an Angel,” “Yellowstone,” “Everwood” and “Andi Mack” — only “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” has been set here. And the “HSM:TH:TS” version of Salt Lake City is pure fantasy.
Mileti and Wilson originally envisioned their series taking place in Los Angeles, before an “a-ha moment” when they “realized that it should be set somewhere a little more unique — in a place that people hadn’t really seen. And Salt Lake is such an interesting place that has so many different elements that I think really lend themselves to a cool, pulpy crime story.”
As a Utah native, Mileti knows the misperceptions about the state are widespread.
“I think everybody’s perception of Utah is that it’s just this really white, Mormon place where you can’t get a beer,” he said. “So just playing with people’s expectations of that world and exploring some of the nether regions that most people don’t know about spoke to us. And it fit with the characters we were already thinking about.”
Now, they need to finish the pilot script and hope FX execs like it. “Hopefully, we’ll get a shot,” Mileti said. “We’ll see. I’m hopeful.”