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How 'Fargo's' Lester Nygaard Introduces a Fascinating New Wrinkle to Television: The Unheroic Anti-Hero

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | April 16, 2014 | Comments ()


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Our ongoing obsession with television anti-heroes hit its peak last summer when Walter White and Breaking Bad ended its run on AMC, leaving its its wake a glut of lesser anti-heroes and a trend that had become more oversaturated than cops and lawyer shows. Did we really need Ray Donovan? Or Low Winter Sun? But leave it to the Coen Brothers (along with The Unusuals’ Noah Hawley) to resurrect their old title and introduce a different, but familiar character that brings back some old blood that’s been delightful refreshened and poured back into the vessels of the television world like Drano, clearing a path right back into our hearts.

Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a bumbling, emasculated, bullied and picked-upon anti-hero, and if his victims were drug kingpins, murderers, or even common thugs, there’d be no question about where our loyalties reside. But in the pilot episode of Fargo, Nygaard’s victims were his emasculating wife, and the bully who picked on him all through high school. They’re terrible people, to be sure, but their punishment — death— isn’t exactly proportionate to their crimes.

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To be sure, Nygaard didn’t commit these crimes alone: Lester Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton, playing what is essentially Fargo’s version of Anton Chigurh, complete with terrible haircut) was the devil on Nygaard’s shoulder, and in the case of Sam Hess, the assassin who transformed Nygaard’s daydream fantasies into a reality, killing Sam Hess while he was banging a prostitute. But Malvo also triggered Nygaard’s repressed darkness, the rage that had built up after 20 years of emasculation. One last failure of masculinity — his inability to fix a washing machine — finally brought that rage to the surface when his wife Pearl told him that she didn’t face him while they were having sex because she wanted to picture a real man.

With the satisfying whack of a hammer, Nygaard snuffed out his wife’s life and shut her up for good, before realizing right along with the audience that Pearl may have deserved to end up with a “real man” like Scott Hess, but she didn’t deserve to die.

Nygaard’s darkness, however, didn’t bring any latent intelligence to the surface, and his not-so-clever ploy to kill Malvo and pin his wife’s murder on him backfired when Chief Thurman showed up unexpectedly. Malvo entered through the backdoor and took out Thurman before the Sheriff could take down Nygaard for the murder of Pearl. After Malvo vanished, Lester at least had the wherewithal to knock himself out and blame the murders on a home invasion, but the die had already been cast.

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How long before Molly — a different, but not lesser version of Marge Gunderson — ties Lester to the murders of both Pearl and Hess, and how many more people will Lester kill to save his own ass? And what is it about Lester that makes us want to root for him? He has no secret talent for manufacturing meth. There’s no cunning villain buried deep inside. His more likely to trip himself up than he is to be tripped up. He’s an insurance salesman, and a bad one at that, and while the things his wife may have said about him were overly harsh and cruel, they weren’t necessarily untrue. He’s meek, a coward who would allow others to do his bidding for him and fight back against his wife not with words or actions, but a hammer.

And yet, even against the sweet, sympathetic and smart Molly Solverson — who is hamstrung by the dumb and naive successor to Chief Thurman, Deputy Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) — we still find ourselves rooting for Lester, and not for any of the reasons we root for Lorne Malvo, whose evil is pure and bad ass. Malvo is our Id. He has no moral compass; he simply wreaks havoc because he can, and he seems to gain an immense satisfaction from it.

But Lester taps into something more unsettling about ourselves; he’s the monster our insecurities allowed to escape. Malvo may reflect our buried desires, but there’s no confusion about why we root for him: Because he’s fucking cool, a guy who can back down a cop with a few well-delivered lines:

“You’re going to go home to your daughter and every few years you’re going to look at her face and know that you’re alive because you chose not to go down a certain road on a certain night. That you chose to walk into the light instead of the darkness.”

But there’s nothing about Nygaard — except for the fact that he’s played by Martin Freeman — that should awaken our sympathies. He’s not really an anti-hero, because there’s nothing heroic about him. But then again, there’s nothing villainous about him, either. He’s just a guy who had had enough, but instead of being transformed by his rage, he’s been trapped by it, and for some gosh darn reason, we root for him anyway.





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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Randall

    From what I gathered so far, lester is not meant to be seen as a "hero" but actually as one of the "bad" guys. He murdered his wife and felt no sympathy about getting away with it. He set up his own brother to spend 25 to life in prison and he is not forthcoming to the police at all even though a sheriff was gunned down.

  • Blake Shrapnel

    Lester is actually, the type of character that the word anti-hero was invented for: One that does not possess the traits associated with a hero. Not necessarily one with a flawed moral compass.

  • Billy Bob's Lorne was, to me, the Devil in Needful Things: throwing in just the right word into a person's ear to drive them towards chaos and darkness.

    As for Lester, I think we sympathize (not root) with him because he's our weaknesses made flesh. He's not just cowardly or weak or meek or bumbling. He's all these things. He's every negative aspect of modern American life come to life: a job where he's a failure, a community where he's a joke, a marriage/family that looks down on him. His lashing out is our lashing out. We sympathize with it because we've all had that same desire. To tell the boss to kiss your ass. To tell the client to go to hell. To knock out the asshole. To tell your spouse to get off your ass.

    Lester has been so repressed though, that to see his explosion will be spectacular.

  • I really enjoyed how darkly comedic it was. I hope we keep getting that Coen brothers feel, not just in the pilot. I took note of the aw jeez hash tag on some of the ads and thought "right midwest accents, makes sense". Then when Lester killed his wife and kept muttering it to himself while doing the deed, I lost it. Breaking bad always had it dark and funny moments tinged with a bit of make believe to drive the story. This I feel will be much more grounded but much darker to show just how horrible even the average life can become. I'm rooting for Martin Freeman not Lester just as I was rooting for Bryan Cranston not Walter White. I always root for Bob Odenkirk no matter who or what he's playing.

  • Aaron Schulz

    the first swing of the hammer made me bleat like a goat with a laugh. it was gross sure, but was so perfectly done, he did it without thinking, his imagination took over and he half hearted bopped her on the head, not thinking that a hammer would brain someone.

  • Guest

    .

  • BWeaves

    "But there’s nothing about Nygaard — except for the fact that he’s played by Martin Freeman — that should awaken our sympathies."

    That's precisely it. If Lester was played by almost anyone else, I would have no sympathy for him. But I like Tim (The Office) and Watson, and Bilbo (even though I hate the movies), and so I'm predisposed to like Lester, even though I shouldn't.

    And I also have a girl crush on Molly. It's nice to see a normal looking, smart, caring woman on a TV show, instead of the normal model looking lawyers and doctors. I think she's cute, too.

    Also, rewatching that GIF of Lester knocking himself out, reminds me of a trick I learned when I was about 11 or 12. It was how to fall straight backwards and catch yourself on your hands so you don't hurt yourself. I can see Freeman is catching himself on his hands before completing his fall backwards.

  • fluff_fluff

    I feel like we don't talk enough about how good Martin Freeman is at playing secret assholes, since we think of John and Tim as overwhelmingly "good" characters, but they have dickish tendencies, too.

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