This fine week, I had the chance to relax as I wait to receive rejection emails from various employers. During this time, I watched the first season of new television series Fargo, of which seven of ten episodes have aired. The series has several, several flaws in plotting, characterization, and tone, but is still pretty enjoyable—although I must admit that the mass critical acclaim baffles me for the aforementioned reasons. Still, I’m not here to debate the merits of the series, per se; instead, I want to talk about something I noticed in this show’s story that intrigues and troubles me no small amount, and that is the narrative of Lester Nygaard (played by Martin Freeman).
First, let me explain the basic plot. Obviously, there will be some spoilers, but nothing huge outside of the pilot. The series starts with an overview of Lester’s suburban life in Bemidji, Minnesota. His wife, Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar), doesn’t respect him, and she frequently mentions his brother Chaz’s (Joshua Close) successes in order to undermine him for his impotency at work and other situations; his brother also has children, and is more traditionally handsome. Everyone disrespects Lester, and this culminates in his high school bully, Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady), embarrassing Lester in public. Sam mentions Pearl and their sexual liaison in high school—which is supposed to devastate Lester by (somehow?) undermining his current marriage—and threatens him with violence.
Clearly, we have a character whose masculinity is questioned in every capacity. He cannot stand up for himself; he talks a lot but rarely says anything (this contrasts other characters who invoke the silent cowboy type, those paragons of traditional narrative masculinity); his wife thinks him inadequate, and he cannot provide for the two of them; he’s an incompetent employee; and his wife doesn’t treat him with any respect. We’ve seen something very similar, although a bit more carefully done, in Breaking Bad, where the main character (Bryan Cranston‘s Walter White) goes through the same arc as Lester, albeit over 62 episodes as opposed to 10.
The issue here is that the undermining of the character is, of course, defined in direct relation to traditional masculinity. After all, a “real man” doesn’t talk often, and speaks clearly when he does; a “real man” is respected by his wife, family, and coworkers; a “real man” can’t be bullied and is not physically overpowered; a “real man” has a wife who hasn’t had sex with someone else (or something like that); and all that other drivel. This is lazy writing because it settles for tired gender norms, and seems in line with conservative reactions to shifting gender roles (see here for a few hundred examples).
But criticizing TV for conforming to traditional gender roles—although necessary in terms of improving discourse on the matter—is not exactly new. My main issue here is Lester’s narrative arc that results from this, and its reception by audiences. After all, the pilot focuses on what I’ve discussed only in its first half, whereas in the second half the concentration is on Lester’s “redemption” as a protagonist. At the hospital—where Lester waits due to running into a wall when Sam Hess faked a punch at him—he meets Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), who offers to kill Hess. After this, Lester decides he’s not gonna take all the disrespect anymore, and then kills his wife for “nagging” at him.
What follows is Lester’s descent not only into darkness, but also a redeemed masculinity. Yes, what he is doing is “wrong,” but as he does more evil deeds, he is also depicted as becoming less pathetic: he speaks clearly, knows what he wants, and—in what is definitely portrayed as a “manly” act—has sex with Sam’s scantily clad and traditionally “sexy” wife while staring down a portrait of the murdered ex-husband. He is a bad guy in the show, but his arc, while portrayed as socially negative, is also depicted as characteristically positive. Lester becomes a character that people like more. I certainly can’t be alone in thinking that audiences relish this development; people ate it up for all the wrong reasons in Breaking Bad, and there are certainly other forms of it listed in these related TV Tropes pages (here, here, and here).
I definitely cannot say that this is a trend, per se, although I am sure there are several similar shows, movies, and books with which I am unfamiliar. Still, I can’t help but find this Reaffirmation of Masculinity Narrative incredibly problematic. The main character is despicable, but in a way that audiences adore, and the way that is accomplished is by defining the characters as pathetic due to their inability to conform to the masculinity of cowboys and Han Solo types, then having them redeem themselves by lying, killing (Lester’s homicide is filmed as a comical response to his wife’s “nagging”, and the under/overtones of glee at violence against women certainly ring out), and cleverly screwing over others.
Maybe I am wrong to read this as a response to the numerous outcries on the “Crisis of Masculinity,” but the connection to me is too direct and the praise for Fargo too baffling for me to see many other possibilities. Is Fargo, for all its purported quirkiness and subversive qualities, really a reactionary narrative that privileges traditional gender norms in men? I personally think so. Even the great character of Molly Solverson (played brilliantly by Allison Tolman) is often portrayed positively due to her ability to out-man the men, which isn’t as nuanced as the character from which she originates: Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).
Fargo is not a terrible show by any means, but it utilizes a narrative that betrays its rooting in traditional and conservative methods despite its attempts to seem new and quirky. The characters on this show are a rehashing—not only of the Coen film (and the other works in their filmography that the show mindlessly takes from rather than incorporates), but of types we have seen several times before. I can’t say that the Reaffirmation of Masculinity Narrative over-saturates television programs, but I won’t be surprised if we see it showing up more frequently over the next several years.