Posted on 4/23/2014 

The FX channel’s new mini-series Fargo just began, and I watched the first episode with great anticipation. I love Martin Freeman, who is one of the central characters in Fargo (fans of The Hobbit and Sherlock were probably all as pleased as I was to see Freeman playing a darker character than usual).

The first episode of Fargo did not disappoint. What particularly interested me about it was that honor ideology sat at the heart of the plot. Freeman’s character, Lester Nygaard, is confronted with the two fundamental questions, “What does it mean to be a real man,” and “Am I one?” These, of course, are questions near the heart of honor ideology, which rests its immense weight squarely on these two questions as well. Honor cultures define what real manhood is, insisting that real men are strong, brave, and do not suffer disrespect from anyone. Men who live in honor cultures spend their lives trying to prove and re-prove that they are just such men, for social proof is the necessary ingredient to an honorable reputation.

In Fargo, Lester Nygaard is a consummate loser. He was bullied mercilessly in high school, and he is still being bullied as a 40-year-old man (both by his own wife and by the man who bullied him in his youth). He accomplishes little in a job he dislikes and for which he is ill-suited, and he accomplishes next to nothing at home. Striking at the vitals, his wife even admits to fantasizing about other men whenever they have sex. Ouch.

In the midst of his despair, Lester meets a man who changes his life. This man, Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, challenges his pathetic non-response to being disrespected and suggests to Lester that if another man had treated him the way Lester had been treated, Malvo would have killed him. In fact, he tells Lester, he would even be willing to kill Lester’s tormenter (so driven by the honor code is he!). We know in watching this exchange that we should not like this man, but in some small corner of our souls, we can’t help ourselves. We feel Lester’s shame, and our empathy makes us recoil. It makes us want Lester to strike back.

This shadowy figure, with a name as dark as his charcoal grey clothes, represents the honor syndrome perfectly. Lester represents the opposite extreme, and together these figures demand that we, the audience, pick sides. We must choose to be the primitive gorillas that we really are, or pretend to follow rules that don’t actually exist, as Malvo insists to Lester. But is this a classic instance of a false dichotomy? Must we choose between listless passivity and homicidal, take-no-prisoners honor? The first episode of Fargo shows what happens when Lester follows the path this mysterious stranger puts before him. It doesn’t go well for Lester. Do we believe deep down that it will go better for us?