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

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.

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. 

 

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is a lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Warwick. She tweets as @boodleoops.

Show Hide image

Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

0800 7318496