‘I got a cold mind
to go tripping cross that thin line
Sick of doing straight time.’
Bruce Springsteen, Straight Time.
I have recently been enjoying the Netflix T.V. series Fargo. Set in rural Minnesota, Fargo explores a range of different storylines (allegedly based on true stories) which highlight the ambiguity, complexity, and raw emotion involved in moral decision making.
What unites the central protagonists in each instalment of Fargo is the experience of a traumatic, unplanned event which presents them with a moral crisis. In the first series, an unfortunate character named Lester Nygaard murders his wife with an ax to the head. Up until this point, Lester has lived a relatively inconsequential life as a seller of life insurance in small-town Minnesota. Impotent and ineffectual by nature, Lester has endured years of his wife’s abuse and mockery due to his inability to “be a man.” She taunts him constantly: why can’t you be more like your brother? You know he earns more than you right? You only fuck me from behind cause you are not man enough to look at me in the eyes… and so on and so forth. It’s true that the viciousness of her comments betray a deep hurt, and this may well be justified. But as viewers of the unfolding drama our sympathies- at least initially- are intended to lie with Lester.
In response to the constant denigration, Lester had been doing what all nice guys do: he suppresses his rage. Instead of putting his wife in her place by challenging her perception of him, he simply accepts her derision meekly and with a feebleness that makes you want to reach into the screen and punch him in the face to provoke some kind of a response which would indicate the presence of a backbone. There appears to be an inner emptiness to Lester, as if the core of his being was a formless ghost. External stimuli don’t seem to be able to penetrate through to whatever substance may be present somewhere in his heart. Lester is aloof, sad, and distracted by a compulsion we don’t understand. Perhaps it is this inner sense of hollowness that has allowed Lester to be consistently abused by his wife for so long.
This dynamic all changes on that fateful evening in which his wife receives an ax strike down the middle of her skull courtesy of the long-suffering Lester. Even as he is brandishing the ax in her face his wife still taunts him with his weakness. “You’re not man enough to hit me, Lester” she mocks. With a maniacal glee, she continues to unleash her venom on Lester, but a line has been crossed. Lester’s rage has seeped over into that part of the brain that discounts reason and consequences as mere trifles. He strikes once, twice, three times; on and on his onslaught comes, inexorable in its force and hatred. After decades spent asserting her superiority over her lowly husband, Lester’s wife falls to the floor in a bloody mess.
The moral conflict now arises for Lester. Horrified and astounded at his actions, he now faces the first of multiple moral dilemmas: does he call the police and confess, or attempt to disguise the crime? Whatever his future decision may be, there is no turning back. The moral crisis has arisen in an instinctual, reflexive moment. It is as if the years of suppression have been slowly building to a crescendo of explosive violence which would snuff out one life and forever change another. Ultimately, Lester chooses to commit to the dark path. A moral line has been crossed, rendering future actions incapable of redeeming Lester, who is now a murderer. Instead of trying to make amends, Lester abandons all to the voice inside him that drives him toward evil.
Yet however tempting it may be for viewers to consign Lester to the realm of moral oblivion, this is not a simple case of moral black and whites. Indeed, life rarely is. From a philosophical perspective, the moral issues raised by Fargo concern how we understand our internal drives as individuals. Is it our selfish desires which define us, or should we also take into account our capacity for selflessness? What does it mean to label someone as “good” or “bad”? Do these categories do justice to the complex interplay of drives which inhabit each of us? What criteria do we use when making our moral judgments? Was Lester justified in seeking revenge?
It seems to me that these are important questions to ask in an age which is so quick to identify scandal and moral outrage in others. Fargo probes beyond surface level morality by highlighting the distinct potential we all have to commit acts that our rational brain may find repulsive. This series exposes the lie that all we need in order to make upright moral decisions is to maintain a clear head and cool detachment. Unfortunately, moral decisions are so often made in the heat of the moment according to instinctual responses that we find hard to control. This does not justify them, of course, and Lester remained a murderer who needed to be stopped. Yet by decreasing the distance between ourselves and the realities of moral failure, Fargo prompts us to consider on a deeper level the complicated dynamics that fuel our moral worldview.