Checking In On…”Justified”

(Another in a series in which I occasionally check in on shows that I don’t regularly write about.)

I haven’t written about “Justified” at all this season, which seems like a crime. Sure, it’s not the type of crime that usually goes down in Harlan, but it’s a crime all the same. After all, I put this show atop my “Best of 2010” list, and it’s a choice I stand by: no show was more purely entertaining while simultaneously creating an emotional as well as historical depth to its environment. The Givens/Crowder/Bennett triumvirate of southern Gothic crime had a richness that befits the best art, and it suffused all actions with a context that stretched back decades.

This season? Well, it’s had a literal carpetbagger come in and try to gum up the works. And I’m not quite sure the show’s been entirely the better for it.

Now, that’s not to say that this season as a whole, or Neal McDonough in particular, has been anything close to bad. To say this third season doesn’t live up to the second isn’t damning the proceedings in any way, shape or form. Instead of trying to directly replace the loss of Mags Bennett, the show has gone the comic-book movie route and doubled the number of villains to replace her: the Detroit mobster Robert Quarles and Mykelti Williamson as Ellstin Limehouse. While the former is an out-of-towner who turns out to be more down on his luck that initial surmised, the latter runs the show in the local enclave know as Noble’s Holler.

justified-ep-3-ava-limehouse.jpgNoble’s Holler is probably the best addition to the show as a whole, keeping in the spirit of Season 2’s sense of expansive historical richness around every corner. Harlan County is finite, geographically speaking. But it’s infinite in terms of storytelling possibilities. So while Quarles’ function as an outsider is intentional, it also distracts from the elements that made “Justified” so rich in the first place. A recent installment of the “Firewall and Iceberg” podcast had Dan Fienberg suggest that Limehouse is in fact intended as a multiple-season character, which makes his lack of screentime this season somewhat more palatable. But surely there’s more to explore in the Holler than Limehouse thoughtfully cutting slabs of meat while pontificating about the preservation of their portion of the country.

The attempt to replace Mags by not actually replacing her at all is probably a smart move. But if there’s a lingering issue above and beyond her loss as a character on the show. I don’t want to say that “Justified” has a woman problem. But it certainly has a problem this season writing consistently compelling female characters. Margo Martindale’s performance had a lot to do with that character being so memorable, but the show also knew how to write for that character in compelling ways. It also knew what to do with Loretta McCready, one of the more fascinating child characters on television in 2010. And while Eva and Winona rarely got to the level of Mags and Loretta, they never took anything off the table. (Eva often brought quite a bit to it, albeit sporadically.)

In Season 3, however, it’s been somewhat of a sausage fest top to bottom. And no: the crystal meth-addicted prostitutes don’t count. Now, does the show NEED to have any specific amount of gender, ethnicity, or sexuality in its stories? No. Quotas such as that imposed inorganically upon a narrative are often didactic as best, and intellectually offensive at worst. But just because “Justified” doesn’t need to include women in its stories doesn’t mean the show is in any way better for their absence. Mags’ gender informed her character in a specific way, and allowed her to operate in a way in which people constantly underestimated her dangerous nature. It also allowed her to keep a psychological vice grip over her three children. Watching her hold the line against the men that surrounded her, coupled with her honestly tender affection towards Loretta, gave Mags a multitude of shading that wasn’t defined by her being female but certainly was informed by it.

justified-neal-mcdonough.jpgI bring all this up now because I’ve seen tomorrow’s episode already, and someone mentions Mags’ name at a key moment in the show. It’s a reminder of the continuous history of Harlan County, but it’s also a reminder of how much deeper everything felt in the second season. McDonough gives perhaps his finest performance to date in this upcoming episode, and no doubt it will be his Emmy submission when it comes time to go through that dog and pony show. But while he’s excelled this season, his presence is always a reminder of someone else’s absence. And it’s just not Mags that has gotten pushed to the side this season: Ava, Winona, and Rachel (remember her?) have all had to step aside in order to let the boys plays this season.

While that’s produced some mighty fine entertainment, it’s cut the show’s emotional reservoirs off slightly in the process. And that’s not because of some BS argument that every show needs a nurturing presence to offset the testosterone overload. It’s because those female characters have added that depth of richness to the proceedings, offering both a different perspective and a different note for their male counterparts to play. Watching Raylan worm his way out of Quarles’ traps in “Watching The Detectives” was pretty fantastic. But the way in which he put himself in harm’s way for Winona in Season 2’s one-two punch of “Blaze of Glory”/”Save My Love” had an added personal component that lifted the proceedings up. And yes, “Detectives” dealt with elements related to Raylan and Winona’s past. But it felt more like ancient history that anything else at this point, a plot point to be dug up and regurgitated rather than organically related to the matter at hand.

In short, by adding so much to compensate for Mags’ absence, the show has slightly diluted its product. Emphasis on “slightly”. “Justified” is almost a sure-fire bet to end up on an end-of-year list here on this blog. But while no one could expect the show to capture lighting in a bottle again, one could reasonable expect the show to maintain the female presence in an ostensibly male world. While the men are quite compelling, I do miss the women of “Justified” giving as good as they get as well.

One Comment

  1. Sterling Cooper
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    I think you got it right, Ryan, that part of what the show is missing this season is emotional depth. One woman you didn’t mention in your list is Helen, who, while far from being the most central female character, provided a lot of charge last season through her connections with Ava, Mags, and of course Raylan. Her death is what catapulted the season to its fantastic close, and basically brought together everything that had been in play all season.

    Of course, the emotional resonance of Helen’s death has just as much to do with her female presence as her relationship to the history of the Holler, the history of the Givens and the Bennetts and the Crowders, which, as you said, provided the show with such richness last season. While there’s no way in which the show could have (or should have) replicated this backstory with its “villains” in season three, I think the problem with Quarles and Limehouse and their affect on the overall narrative has less to do with their gender than their relationship to Raylan. After all, we didn’t know Mags Bennett existed until she showed up in “The Moonshine War,” but because of her interaction with Raylan (and with Loretta, but it’s also of equal importance that Raylan interacts with Loretta, too) in that episode, and the way in which they affect the other in subsequent episodes, even without actually sharing the screen, we gained an emotional mooring that would have been strong had there not been a family history.

    With Quarles and Limehouse, Raylan did not have as significant an initial interaction as he did with Mags (and Doyle, Dickie, and Coover). Though Raylan’s connection with Quarles has substantially increased, in the beginning of the season, Quarles and Limehouse had more to do with Boyd than with Raylan. This wouldn’t have been a problem necessarily if Boyd had more to do (and indeed, as the character most representative of Harlan’s criminal world, perhaps Boyd ought to have had more to do), and if we weren’t as an audience tied more to Raylan and his emotional state more than any other character in the series. I think that this lack of connection has made integrating all the disparate strands this season a bit more challenging, and made the overall proceedings substantially more hollow.

    This isn’t to say, of course, that the only way in which Mags Bennett was a worthwhile character was because she had a connection to Raylan. Far from it. But by being introduced to the viewer in terms of Raylan and blossoming into multi-dimensonality from there outward, there was an immediate emotional connection that helped us to care more about Mags and her concerns, all of which came into focus during “The Moonshine War” and continued developing throughout the season.

    And who else came into focus during that episode? Why, Loretta McCready. I remember reading an interview with Graham Yost in which he claimed that Loretta was the “heart” of season two, and damn, if the happenings of that girl’s life and her quest to find out what happened to her daddy and Raylan’s commitment to protecting her didn’t help make the season two the beauty it mightily is. Loretta’s presence and Mags’s presence was of vital importance to last season, but the absolute effectiveness of their characters came not only from the way in which they were both richly drawn, but from their connection to each other and their immediate and developing connections to Raylan Givens.