One of the main reasons I love the crime drama genre is getting to see how characters react to sets of extreme circumstances. We all live by a certain sets of rules – both upheld by our society and ourselves, whether they come from religion, cultural transmission or wherever – and if we’re lucky we keep on the safe side of the tracks all our lives. But occasionally perpetrating a crime or being the victim of a crime can throw us off these tracks. This is when I really start to enjoy watching crime drama (or reading crime fiction) – seeing people adapt to situations they have had no experience in dealing with. Look at Lester Nygaard, a key character in the superb Fargo. He committed a crime. He felt guilt, extreme anxiety and regret. He had to adapt, but how would he adapt. We actually felt sorry for him. But now? We’re not so sure.
This is only one element of the genius of Fargo. Its handling of Lester’s character development and the way we’ve been taken this way and that has led to some conflicting and conflicted emotions in this TV-watching house.
To begin with we saw Lester as a timid, bullied, hen-pecked man who repressed his unhappiness so deeply and so spectacularly it became a secret place only he knew about and had access to. In fact, he had hidden his bitterness so well he seemed like the happiest man on Earth. He was a man with a friendly face and a friendly smile and was relentlessly cheery, punctuating his smiley Ned Flanders-style howdy doodie schtick with a nervous physicality. (In the real world I’m always suspicious of people who are this cheerful all the time. No one one can be this happy so evenly and so frequently, and I’ve always thought they try too hard to impress – like the person who laughs too loudly at other people’s jokes. I’ve often speculated internally whether these sorts of people would be the first to blow a gasket.) His hang-dog expression and the plaster across the bridge of his nose made him look more like a silent movie clown than a villain of any kind.
But so it happened with Lester. The scene where he murdered his wife was as comical as it was brutal. As his wife started to unpick the lock to his repressed rage you just knew it would all come tumbling out sooner rather than later, but when he bonked Pearl on the head with a hammer he surprised us as much as he surprised himself. He paused for a moment to ask himself what he had just done and then… he finished the job off with a frenzy. As he was bashing his wife’s face in you could see him feel both appalled and exhilarated. Behind him on the wall of the basement room there was the poster, which read: what if you’re right and they’re wrong.
This homespun phrase – one of many Pearl liked to festoon her and Lester’s house with – took on new meaning during this scene. To me referenced the whole concept of rules and whether we go along and follow them or not. Society, religion etc governs our rules but what would happen if we did stray outside of the majority and did what we wanted, when we wanted? Malvo had planted the seed and Lester was now finding what it was like to open his own personal Pandora’s Box.
Even though he murdered his wife we still felt sorry for Lester, going against our better judgement. He expressed extreme guilt, anxiety and remorse, while the wound on hand was driving him insane. I’ve always had the impression that Lester is a bit-part player in a much larger game here (I’ll write a post about that too, soon), and that he would soon fall by the wayside – a man who had bitten off more than he could chew and could not handle the consequences of his actions.
But however sorry you felt for him, there was also the other side of the coin. Namely that he was a murderer. A hapless, loveable murderer, but a murderer nonetheless. We could not forget that he had brutally taken someone’s life.
But Lester is played by Martin Freeman, he of the friendliest face in the world and those puppy-dog looks we’ve come to love. How can we hate Lester? As it turns out, quite easily.
In the last few episodes, ever since the wound on his hand healed, Lester has suddenly evolved into an insidious, manipulative and calculating man. Lester has changed, and not for the better.
During his time grieving for his wife and feeling the waves of anxiety any previously law-abiding person trying to cover up a crime would, I did wonder whether it was fight or flight for Lester. The idea of ‘flight’ was clearly winning, but now it’s all about fight – he’s in full survival mode, coming up with warped plan after warped plan to save his bacon. He stitched up not only his brother but the whole of his brother’s family, he’s in the process of stitching up his erstwhile tormentor Hess and his family (while sleeping with Hess’s widow, a scene that absolutely illustrated the transformation of Lester… staring at Hess’s portrait on the wall as he shagged into his widow violently) and now his completion from zero to hero (in his eyes) is complete after he won Insurance Salesman Of The Year.
All the bitterness he felt towards those who did him wrong has been channelled into a dark river of revenge that bubbled and spat and now has a momentum and current like grand rapids. What if you’re right and they’re wrong? In Lester’s case being daring to be different from the majority (currently) and taking a step outside of the norm means he can get away with murder and become the person he’s always wanted to be. But what price ambition? We have a feeling things aren’t going to end well for Lester Nygaard.
The development from good guy to bad guy has been stark, surprising and never dull. What used to be loveable Lester is now evil, sociopath Lester. And no one likes a sociopath.
For all our Fargo coverage, go here.