Fargo and why we like antiheroes

(Spoilers are contained below–but I tend to agree with A.O. Scott on the subject.)

It seems like no matter where I turn, I’m getting compelled to watch a white, male antihero develop on the latest TV shows.

Lately, it seems like the line between antihero and true hero is getting more and more blurred. I’ve written about True Detective in the past. Rust Cohle is the antihero on True Detective. Gruff, direct, weirdly philosophical, unknown. The audience longs to be as stoic as he is—even as he’s guzzling down his Jameson and Lone Star, looking like a ghost. The audience sympathizes with him as he is contrasted with Marty Hart—the family man, who is increasingly isolating himself. It seems to be good drama to have characters mix up the traditional hero traits. And the best part of True Detective? Rust appears to have gotten redeemed at the end of the show.

Breaking Bad does a similar thing. And even though I never fell for Walter White’s obsession with his own immortality, it is amazing how innocent the audience can make him. Everyone seems to want to be like Heisenberg, the meth-dealing, vengeful, burnout chemist who abandons his family so that he can be the real meth king of Albuquerque. It’s amazing how unattractive he is, but still how magnetic he is for so many people. We’ve somehow exonerating Walter White, in part because of his skin color, but also because of how Vince Gilligan portrayed him. Of course, not many of us are going to be like Walter White mainly because we aren’t that sick. But we might be tempted to get revenge on our enemies or live our delusions of grandeur or even just talk to people as meanly as he does.

The latest example of the antihero is on FX’s Fargo. It has the same setting as the Coen brothers movie of the same name. It feels familiar. It is critically acclaimed and I enjoyed it. (I could’ve done without the over-the-top violence, of course.) And even though Deputy Molly Solverson, an unassuming but proficient Bemidji cop, is the real hero of the story—not to mention former Duluth officer Gus Grimly, it is not them who get the attention of the accolades. The characters have some depth, but truly, the antihero and villain get the most screen time. Billy Bob Thornton plays the reprehensible Lorne Malvo, a contracted killer who does his fair share of personal killing. Fans might like his wit, but most of us are convinced he is mentally ill and using his skills for evil.

But Lester Nygaard, the bullied-in-high-school, dissatisfied-in-his-marriage, deadbeat insurance salesman, gets the audience’s pity (although never my discerning wife’s). For a second, we actually think he is justified in hammering his verbally abusive wife to death in his basement. Then Malvo comes over and cleans up Lester’s dirty work (“Lester, have you been a bad boy?”) and the rest of the show chronicles the unlikely relationship between a high school dweeb and is cooler than ice comrade. Lester is led by Malvo because he’s not a real adult; he can’t assert himself. Just like he can’t honestly talk to his wife, so he kills her, he can’t honestly talk to Malvo or the high school bully that Malvo kills for him. Lester navigates the rest of his life with the same level of cowardice (he frames his brother and leaves his next wife for dead too), meanwhile gaining wealth and prestige. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s most unpretentious and inconspicuous cop navigates to hunt down a murderer who is known in town as the most unfortunate man.

Not surprisingly, the show ends with barely an iota of morality intact. Though Molly is pregnant and endearing until the end, the male leads in the show dominate the conversation so much, I can’t help but wonder why.

Even though Lester Nygaard and Walter White met their untimely ends, it’s not that fact which we are compelled to remember, but perhaps that despite their idiosyncrasies, despite being bullied by those high school jocks, they tasted justice as they became the bullier and the dominant. They finally get to assert the power that’s been withheld from them, and for many of us, in a society that’s dominated by oligarchs and their private interests, we are tempted. To them, the revolution is not creating an alternative, it’s using the same sword our enemies use against them.

Maybe that’s why are attracted to these man-boys. We are living out a fantasy to be irresponsible, unchecked, emotional fools. We think we are gaining the whole world, but all we have to show for us is a premature death through thin ice, much like Dirk Willems’ captor, but there’s no moral here.

It seems like the regular availability of pornography, entertainment, processed food, alcohol, and caffeine make us into infants that feed on entertainment that ultimately allows us to dream about our own immature fantasies. We think if only I could really do what I wanted to do (like start dealing meth, eating junk food all the time, have sex with anyone I want, or—worse—killing people that bother us!), we would be free.

Freedom comes from Jesus and it comes from Him leading us to be full and whole. I think He calls us to be adults, living out of our dignity, through our commitments, unafraid of our emotions and being able to assert them in order to be truly intimate. He leads us to keep commitments, make decisions and take initiative to influence and lead people to find hope, grace, and purpose in Someone greater than them.

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