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.

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game