(The third in a series in which I occasionally check in on series that I watch but don’t regularly write about…)
There are plenty of reasons to fall in love with a particular show. None of them are particularly wrong, even “I just like Actor/Actress X’s butt.” That’s a shallow way to approach a show, but it’s certainly within one’s purview to do so. Personally, I get draw to genre shows more often than not, mostly because great sci-fi/fantasy tends to explore aspects of humanity through allegory in ways most non-genre shows can’t. (Think of the way the original “Star Trek” got to talk about race in a way few other shows could at the time.) But what draws me to genre shows–recognizable people confronting problems in unfamiliar territory–also draws me to shows like “Justified.”
Full confession time up front: I tend not to like shows about lawmen too much. That has a little to do with subject matter and a lot to do with the procedural aspects that usually accompany such shows. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: “The Shield” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets” took a longer narrative approach to the subject matter. And “The Wire” is right now my favorite show of all time, but what appeals to me about “The Wire” carries over into “Justified”: it’s not simply a show about both sides of the criminal world but rather a sociological slice of life, detailing a part of America I can hardly recognize and about which I previously knew far less than I should have.
That I can’t recognize it bespeaks my own ignorance as much as the multifaceted socioeconomic structures of America itself. Back when Peter Jackson was remaking “King Kong,” he spoke of not modernizing it due to the fact that it would seem unbelievable in today’s age that an island could still yet be undiscovered. But “The Wire” and “Justified” demonstrated that while every bit of this country may have been mapped, there are far from understood. And that separation between simple cartography and in-depth sociology makes these shows feel so vibrant, even while often depicting the basest instincts of our fellow man.
What separates “Justified” in terms of its approach to its cases, both big and small, is the level of familiarity that both sides have with each other. It’s not a matter of familiarity based on a history of criminal activity, but a world in which “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is more like “Two Degrees of Raylan Givens.” It’s a world in which everyone knows what the other is doing, but PROVING that becomes an incredibly complex process. It’s a world in which casual Sunday dinners threaten to devolve into the Showdown at the OK Corral at any given moment. That’s not simply because the blood spilt by a previous generation still runs in the veins of the next one, but also because the modernization of American’s urban areas hasn’t quite trickled down to Harlan County yet.
It’s one small slice of an incredibly widespread area of America that doesn’t know about 4G speeds, how to feel as fly as a G6, or even what any other type of G thang might be. These people aren’t backwards by any stretch (well, a few are, truth be told) so much as living in a world where an aspect of days gone past still resides in the DNA of its citizenry, a lawlessless that exists even in the lawmen themselves. Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is as much Old West gunslinger as modern-day marshal, and a lot of his appeal lies in awakening that dormant aspect of our chromosomes that resents red tape and prefers action over bureaucracy. However, his character also shows just how much action without consequence isn’t a luxury that we have anymore.
As such, Givens stands in for the collective id of a nation that romanticizes an era long gone, plunked down into a world we barely understand. His ability to defuse almost any situation is admirable, but usually comes at a cost that he’s forced to bear solely himself. So much of Season 1 concerned a man that was under investigation for a series of “justified” homicides, yet almost always found himself ultimately solving problems by firing bullets into people. He did so not only out of his moral interpretation of the law, but also to those he loved. As the series has gone on, it’s sought to complicate our view of just how heroic this man truly is, and what it says about us that we cheered on this weekly display of violence.
Complications arise, as they always do, in the form of family and loved ones. And where “Justified” has shined is not in the case-of-the-week aspects (although some of those have been excellent), but in detailing the way in which certain families have managed to clash with each other over the generations. The Givens, Crowder, and Bennett families have a history extending far beyond the reach of the show’s scope, and “Justified” has done an almost unerringly good job at hinting at this history without feeling the need to give people pages of exposition in order to fill us in. That makes the stakes at hand far more personal, and far more difficult for these respective parties to navigate.
Just watch the way in which Raylan interacts with Mags. In many ways, he’s still the respectful boy he was growing up around her. The two share a collective shorthand in language, and there are aspects about each that both still admire. But what they don’t, or CAN’T, say around each other speaks even louder about the animosity between them. Were they enemies meeting for the first time, the discourse between the two would be completely different. But the familiarity between the major parties means that things left unspoken are still well understood, both by the characters themselves and the audience at home.
Now’s as good a time as any to bring up the show’s not-so-secret weapon: its language. It’s part and parcel of the way that Harlan County exists both within America and yet slightly outside of it. The world of “Justified” show that language used to be a helluva lot cooler before it got homogenized through popular culture into the more descriptive yet less colorful way the rest of us employ it now. While watching this show, I’ve also been playing the videogame “Red Dead Redemption,” a game set in the last throes of the Old West before civilization truly overtook it. “Redemption” also features the type of heightened language, familiar in terms of words but unfamiliar in terms of rhythm and structure. Givens disarms men with his words as much with his physical prowess. It’s just another way for the show to harken back to its Western roots, not simply show off lingually.
Most intriguingly, the show has decided this season to use Boyd’s complicated, multiseason arc as an example of just how dangerous Raylan’s overall attitude truly can be. Think of “Justified” less as the best television representation of Elmore Leonard’s work, and more as the best television representation of “The Dark Knight,” and a compelling picture comes into focus. Much like that film’s Bruce Wayne, Givens has essentially inspired Boyd into meting out justice in a gunslinger fashion. The moral complexities of the actions that led to him blowing up three fellow miners shows that while Boyd may be at his core prone to evil acts, he can control them a la Givens into something that can be justified (see what I did there?) as something ultimately noble.
The trick, of course, lies in the way that people can deceive themselves into thinking their causes are moral and just. Since we see the world of “Justified” through Givens’ eyes, by and large, we tend to accept his reasons as just. And, for the most part, they are. But not every single he does is pure, and from the perspective of those with which he works in the marshal’s office, they seem at times bordering on vigilantism. Just as Batman essentially birthed The Joker into existence in Christopher Nolan’s world, so too has Givens transformed Crowder and unwittingly molded him into a funhouse mirror of himself. Boyd may not subscribe to anarchy, but he’s certainly more solidified in the righteousness of his cause. And that makes him far more dangerous that he was during his faux skinhead days, even while his capacity to do “good” has increased exponentially since Givens shot him.
I’ve seen the next two episodes that will air already, and while I won’t say anything specific about them, I will say that tonally they are quite different than those that have come before. Whereas there’s generally an amiable energy to the controlled chaos at work in the show, the next two weeks are as white-knuckle as anything that “Justified” has ever done. They explore the themes I’ve laid out here, while tightening the noose around one character through the unfortunate actions of other in ways that feel surprising and yet organic to the paths these two have taken to this point. Also, more than ever, the insulated, relatively isolated world of Harlan County will be exposed, with a new threat looming that makes the Dixie Mafia look like a couple of kids with squirt guns.
Have you been keeping up with “Justified”? Leave your thoughts on the current state of the show below!