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.
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.
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.