NOTE: The following contains spoilers for the first season of the TV series Fargo.
Leftists, libertarians, and anarchists (and the latter two might actually mean it) often speak of “borders, boundaries, and forms of control” as if these were all terrible things, blights on the human condition that oppress humankind, stunt its development towards a more refined and utopian condition, and prevent individuals from achieving a beautiful state of self-actualization. Of course they speak this way – as de facto (and often de jure) rejecters of original sin, they see human nature as essentially good, and human beings as blank slates except for that essentially good nature. When undeniably not-good (certainly by Modernist definitions) aspects of human nature – clannishness, laziness, greed, selfishness, violence, exclusion, even traditional gender roles or the tendency of some groups to be better at certain tasks than others – make themselves persistently and undeniably apparent, these are dismissed as “social constructs” (as if that too was a bad thing), which are invariably the fault of the usual designated villain groups. All of this, of course, is nonsense.
What philosophers can fill hundreds of pages demonstrating, artists can often illustrate far more economically. It is with this in mind that we may look at the rather unexpected reactionary implications of the recent cable TV series Fargo. Here we witness the liberation of one Mr. Lester Nygaard (played by the wonderfully talented Martin Freeman), and the consequences thereof. Lester is a fine test subject – an average everyman of Modern America in all senses of the word. He has an average job that he isn’t very good at, he has a wife who emasculates and despises him, he is childless far past the age at which he should be, and he is faring unspectacularly in financial terms. He is one of those men who, in the words of Thoreau, leads a life of quiet desperation, and he lacks the strength of will to liberate himself from it. But, as we shall learn, perhaps that was for the best.
By happenstance, into Lester’s life drops one Lorne Malvo (a mesmerizing, as usual, Billy Bob Thornton), who is a demon. Whether he is in any physical/spiritual sense is the sort of question that Coen Brothers stories always leave one with, but he looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, so for our purposes we shall call him a duck. Thus, given the opportunity, he sows chaos, as is the wont of demons. How does he do this? Via the same method that a demon (perhaps even, it is later hinted, Malvo himself) used to ruin the first man and woman – by liberating them, by giving them what they secretly wanted, by promising them that they could transcend their boundaries and limitations and be as gods. Thus with a few words (this is all it took in the Garden of Eden, as well), Malvo sets in motion the ruination not just of Lester Nygaard, but of many of those around him as well.
With those words, and two simple acts of violence which follow, he breaks Lester’s chains. But what are chains? And what does it mean to have the broken? When we use the word “chains”, images of slavery inevitably come to mind. But our chains are also the ties that bind us – to family, to friends, to community, to society, to humanity, and to God. They are the rules of conduct by which function the mutual obligations that bind us to all of these. A very few people – natural aristocrats of the soul – can transcend the rules without breaking those bonds. And, of course, virtually everyone thinks of themselves as one of those who could. But for most, the breaking of chains leads to a euphoric period in which freedom seems to lead them to triumph, after which… well, let us return to our example.
And so Lester is liberated both from his harridan of a wife and from any immediate consequences of her demise. But there is more than that afoot. Lester becomes liberated not just from the external entities to which he was bound, but increasingly from all internally-held constraints as well. He gains genuine confidence, a precious commodity which he never had before; he learns to value and believe in himself. All of which, modern society teaches us, is unmitigated good. And for a while, it is visibly good in Lester’s life as well. For a year, he has his time of triumph. He evades responsibility for his crime, he marries a beautiful and adoring new wife, he opens a successful business of his own, and he is honored both personally and professionally.
But was that ever so rosy a picture as it seemed? His new wife may be adoring, but she is clearly a trophy wife who Lester married for the wrong reasons. And his freedom comes at the cost of his brother’s. His brother was an unsympathetic jerk, to be sure – but he wasn’t a murderer, and didn’t deserve a murderer’s punishment. Part of Lester’s liberation has been a liberation from empathy; from the idea of not using others and justifying it solipsistically based on whatever that person’s worth is to him. His brother displeases him, so to Lester’s mind he deserves any punishment available whether fitting or excessive. His wife pleases him for her beauty and the ease with which she is dominated, but that produces no bonds of the sort that will prevent him from discarding her when he feels it necessary to do so. And that time will come, soon enough.
It comes because Lester’s path, now bereft of borders and boundaries, has no limit; no endpoint at which anyone, including Lester, can or will say “Alright, this is enough. Stop here and go no farther”. He is not an aristocrat of the soul, but only a common man. He does not know when enough is enough, and when enough is too much. There is nothing to stop him at Aristotle’s Golden Mean; there is nothing in his past or present experience to show him even where that might be, and thus he goes sailing right past it.
Yet here a point deserves reemphasis. Lester is not an aristocrat of the soul, nor is he a saint. But neither is he particularly or exceptionally prone to evil. Lester’s key flaw – his tragic flaw, in the sense of the Greek tragedies – is simply that he is a common man; one who has come into possession of more freedom than a common man can cope with. Of course, the demon Malvo knew perfectly well when he broke Lester’s chains that this was the case, and that eventually death, misery, and chaos would ensue because of it. But again, sowing chaos is simply what demons do – Malvo is very good at it and, as his suitcase full of audiotapes shows, has done it many times before. The demon understands that giving too much liberation to those who are unequipped to rationally deal with it will only lead to their destruction and the destruction of everyone around them.
As indeed it does for Lester and those unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity when he finally implodes. His chance second encounter with Malvo in an elevator in Las Vegas sets the end in motion. It all seems very avoidable at first glance, but on further analysis, what happened was inevitable. Lester can’t help but to push too hard and too far; to ignore warning after warning and disregard common sense until it is suddenly, plainly too late. That is his new, liberated nature. To self-destruct was his destiny; the path without borders and limits can, for the common man, lead only to this and to nothing else. If it had not been this particular encounter that had sparked the beginning of Lester’s end, it would just have been another one; the fact that the circumstances involved offending the demon who liberated him is only a bit of Coen-esque poetry added to the story.
It is at this point that the effects of Lester’s newfound liberation kick into a panic-induced high gear. Consumed by cowardice, but also by a selfishness (at this point advanced into sociopathy) born of his liberation from the chains that bind him to others, Lester sacrifices his trophy wife, not an hour after she has committed a crime and taken an enormous risk by lying to a police officer in order to try to save him (Based on my own observations it was at this point that Lester’s few remaining defenders among the show’s fan base seemed to have finally given up on him). And when, as the final confrontation looms before them all, Molly Solverson tries to get him to tell her the truth, thereby sacrificing his freedom for the good of others, we see that at this point he is so far gone that he can’t even understand the parable that she uses to try to reach him (even though his faculties of reason are perfectly intact, as he demonstrates by easily solving the fox/cabbage/rabbit riddle). Thus do even more people die – the FBI agents assigned to watch him, the demon Malvo (this only through the selfless courage of Gus Grimly), and eventually Lester himself – finally dragged down to the bottom and drowned, literally, as a consequence of his decisions.
So what are the takeaways from all of this?
The first is that demons often – in fact, nearly always – appear as liberators and breakers of chains. “You will be as gods”, says the demon, who, unlike his prey, knows full well what that will mean. Giving the powers of a god to those without the godhead is a recipe for sowing chaos, which is, again, the business of demons. Thus, there should be a healthy skepticism of liberators. “Liberated from what… to what?” is a question that should always be asked. The average man may not have the vision or the wisdom to ask that, but natural aristocrats do, which brings us to our next point.
The second takeaway begins by reiterating that most people can’t rationally, much less virtuously, handle a great deal of liberation. Most people need to be taught and led, and it is, in fact, inhumane to deprive them of this structure and guidance. Lester’s basement prominently features a poster that shows a fish swimming against the direction of all the other fishes, with a caption reading: “What if you’re right and they’re wrong?”. But most people are not Socrates. They cannot rationally and virtuously find their own way; left to do so, they will, as Lester did, only turn into selfish monsters who destroy themselves and those around them. Most people can’t and shouldn’t swim against the direction of the rest of the fish, so it is the responsibility of the elites of society – of the very natural aristocrats who could find their own way – to make sure that the rest of the fish are swimming in the right direction; i.e. that the basis of the ideals on which their orderly and harmonious society is based are indeed rational and virtuous.
Because otherwise we end up with a world of Lester Nygaards. A world of utter chaos.