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Sympathy for a wife-murderer: a feminist killjoy review of Fargo

The television adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ film exhibits an uncomfortable attitude to violence against women.

Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in Fargo. Photo: Channel 4/MGM
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in Fargo. Photo: Channel 4/MGM

Fargo, the FX television series adapted from the Coen Brothers’ film of the same name debuted in the UK last night on Channel 4. In the run-up to it being aired, I was excited. I’m in between boxsets just now, having finished Breaking Bad a couple of months ago and not yet settled on a successor, and Fargo appeared to have all the ingredients for a series I could really get my teeth into. To avoid spoilers, I tried to avoid reading too much about the plot in advance. Perhaps if I had, I would have averted some disappointment. Because one hour in, it became clear that it’s probably not going to work out between Fargo and me. My feminist killjoy button has been activated, and now there’s no turning it off.

In the first episode, we meet insurance salesman and henpecked husband Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman. Lester, we are to understand, is one of life’s losers, one of those essentially nice guys that the world just isn’t kind to. We learn that he was aggressively and humiliatingly bullied at school; that his younger, richer, better-looking brother is embarrassed and piteous of him; that his wife, Pearl, is a nagging harridan who openly impugns his masculinity, and laments the fact that she married the wrong brother. Lester works hard at his job, despite the fact that he is a hopeless salesman, and attempts to satisfy his harpy of a wife, but in so doing – trying but failing to mend the turbulent washing machine – only further demonstrates his lack of manhood in her eyes. Lester is presented as the perfect underdog protagonist, the kind of guy we can’t help rooting for. Seeing him being taunted afresh by the high school bully seventeen years on, and being mocked and harangued by his heartless crone of a wife, the viewer is almost willing him to flip and go on a murderous rampage.

And of course, that’s what happens, or something along those lines. Inspired by the brutal act of retribution a new acquaintance inflicts on the high school bully, Lester makes one final attempt to reclaim his lost manhood. Once more taunted by Pearl’s hectoring, and pushed over the edge by her derisory, scornful taunts – “oh, are you going to hit me?!” – Lester inevitably snaps, and hits her over the head with the hammer he had been wielding. For a second or two we, watching through Lester’s eyes, wait in stunned silence for the consequences of this act of madness to become apparent. As the blood begins to trickle down Pearl’s forehead, it becomes clear to us, and to Lester, that this is serious – there’s no going back from this. He might as well make sure the job is done properly now. And so we watch, as he continues to bludgeon her with the hammer, until she is well and truly dead.

What are we to make of this, the audience who up until this point have been rooting for the underdog, the nice guy who always finishes last? I can only assume, given how sympathetically Lester has been presented – and given that he is the story’s main protagonist – that we are to feel understanding and compassion for the predicament he now finds himself in, and share his panic about how he’s going to get out of it. And indeed, the part of my consciousness that is not being drowned out by the feminist killjoy klaxon felt exactly that for him. Of course Lester beat his wife to death with a hammer. Who wouldn’t, with a wife like that? The poor guy, constantly belittled and emasculated in every aspect of his life. Of course he snapped. Of course he lost his temper. She was mocking him. She was taunting him. She was daring him to do it. I would have hit her with that hammer too.

But this is the point at which I can’t just go with the flow, and shut off the feminist klaxon. I can’t just let myself be carried along in this natural wave of sympathy for Lester, even though this means my enjoyment of Fargo is now effectively ruined. I feel this way about Lester because I have been directed to feel this way by the narrative presented, and the not-at-all-nuanced portrayal of his character. If this were an accurate depiction of a true story, as the opening message at the start of the show would have us believe, I might really think that, heinous as his crime is, poor Lester Nygaard is still deserving of some compassion and understanding, that the blameworthiness of his actions is mitigated by the myriad ways in which the world has wilfully broken and humiliated him. If such a pitiful and tragic character could ever exist outside of the world of fiction, then he would indeed be deserving of some sympathy. But in reality, no person could be so tragic, so comprehensively victimised and universally dehumanised, and no wife could be so thoroughly, completely cruel, so callously and relentlessly disparaging. To present spousal murder in this way is to reinforce a dangerous myth about the men who murder their wives – that they are henpecked husbands, ground down by their wives’ nagging and emasculated by their hectoring, who then inevitably, understandably, snap. Or that they are loving, caring husbands and fathers, right up until the moment that the humiliations and indignities imposed upon them by an unjust world leads them to execute their entire families before killing themselves.

It is understandable why we would want to believe that the men who murder their wives are Lester Nygaard figures, and that the women they murder are cold-hearted, nagging shrews getting divine retribution for a lifetime of emasculation. Apart from enabling us to enjoy Fargo without discomfort, it also allows us to avoid confronting the real truth about domestic violence – that it is not the inevitable but tragic snapping of a mind pushed to the edge, but endemic to our societal notions of masculinity. We all know by now that in the UK, two women a week are murdered by their partners or ex-partners. Comforting as the illusion may be, these murders cannot be neatly filed away as individual catastrophes, the sad but inevitable consequence of shrill, domineering women pushing kind, loving, hard-working men to breaking point. Most wife-murderers are not decent, gentle Lester Nygaards, no matter how much they believe that they are, or want us to believe that they are. They usually have long histories of violence, towards their wives and others. Most wife-murders don’t just happen out of the blue, when a kind but fragile man snaps. They are usually the culmination of a long pattern of controlling and abusive behaviour, and could possibly have been prevented, if only we cared enough to take them seriously.

I will probably keep watching Fargo. If I wanted to avoid everything that contained damaging depictions of women, I would have to live in a cave. But I definitely won’t be rooting for Lester Nygaard. 

 

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