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

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.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.