Friday, June 11, 2010

All Hat: Thoughts on Justified

Of all the many pleasures that television offers me, the one itch it rarely scratches is eloquence.  I love a beautifully written piece of prose, but there's something so much more satisfying about beautiful speech.  We live in a society in which eloquence is a vanishing commodity, and public speech and conversation have become homogenized and diluted.  It's rare for any of us to have even a small fraction of our vocabulary at our immediate, unconsidered disposal, or for unrehearsed speech to have a cadence or poetry that reflect the speaker's personality and the full breadth of their intelligence.  This is, of course, because true eloquence is rare even when it's prized and nurtured, but that's exactly where the scripted media, which offer a marriage of the performance of spontaneity and pre-written and -edited words, should come in.  Alas, most television characters just talk the way most of us would if we didn't have to pause for thought or backtrack over our mistakes.  It's a rare series that actually tries to invent its own patterns of speech or highlight those that break the mold, and I tend to love these unreservedly.  It's why I fell in love with Deadwood and Firefly, and to a lesser extent one of the major draws of Joss Whedon's other series and Aaron Sorkin's work--because they give their characters and the settings they move in distinct voices.  And it's what won me over to FX's new crime drama Justified.  The series has other strengths, and several weaknesses, but what made me a fan almost from day one was that everyone talked so pretty.
BOYD: In your dark imaginings, Raylan, what is it that you think I'm up to?
RAYLAN: Given the talent pool you got here, I assume you're gonna do what you always done, steal money and blow shit up.
BOYD: We will not be robbing banks.
RAYLAN: Could you be any more vague?
BOYD: All of us here, every single one of us, repaid our debts to society.
RAYLAN: No, no, no, no.  Not you.  Not by a long shot.
BOYD: Well out here, in our church, we can begin to repay our debts to God.  By righteous living, righteous action.
RAYLAN: Gotta go now.
BOYD: Are you sure you don't want a meal?  Our food is simple, but it's good.
RAYLAN: No, I stopped at a Hardee's on the way.  I wouldn't mind addressing the congregation before I went.  Would that be alright?
BOYD: [to his followers] Excuse me!  We have us a guest speaker today.  Please, have at it.
RAYLAN: Yeah. [pauses, doffs his hat] Dear Lord.  Before we eat this meal we ask forgiveness for our sins.  Especially Boyd, who blew up a black church with a rocket launcher, and afterward he shot his associate Jared Hale in the back of the head out on Tate's Creek Bridge.  Let the image of Jared's brain matter on that windshield not dampen our appetites, but may the knowledge of Boyd's past sins help guide these men.  May this food provide them with all the nourishment they need.  But if it does not, may they find comfort in knowing that the United States Marshals Service is offering $50,000 to any individual providing information that'll put Boyd back in prison.  Cash or check, we can make it out to them or to Jesus, whoever they want.  In your name, we pray.  [puts on his hat]  Amen.
(What's missing here, of course, is the acting, and as much as that the Southern accents, which are a rare commodity on TV as anything but a curiosity or a means of marking a character out.  Unfortunately, most of the Justified clips online are behind Hulu's US-only walls.)

The two men here make up one side of the cross-generational quadrangle of friendship, enmity, and strained family relationships that drives Justified's first season.  Raylan is Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, whose casting is either an attempt to cash in on his Deadwood cachet or karmic compensation for the way the writers of that series sidelined his character in its second and third seasons; either way he does good work here), who in the series's opening scene guns down a drug cartel captain in Miami.  The shooting is, strictly speaking, justified--as Raylan repeatedly points out, the other guy drew his gun first--but it's complicated by the fact that Raylan had targeted his victim, warned him to get out of town or else, and all but goaded him to reach for his weapon.  His career now a political hot potato and with the cartel hot for vengeance, Raylan's superiors decide to stash him in his home state of Kentucky while the shooting is investigated, which brings Raylan back in contact with places and people he had hoped and planned to leave behind forever: there's Boyd Crowder, a boyhood friend with whom Raylan used to dig coal; Boyd's father Bo, who ran protection in his and Raylan's home town of Harlan; Raylan's father Arlo, a crook who sometimes worked for Bo; Raylan's ex-wife Winona, now remarried; and Ava, Raylan's boyhood crush who used to be married to Boyd's brother.  No sooner does he arrive in Kentucky than Raylan tangles with Boyd, who runs a white supremacist group and commits the bombing and murder referred to above in the series pilot before being shot by Raylan and experiencing a spiritual awakening as a result of his near-death experience, and his entanglement with the Crowder clan deepens when Bo is released from prison and sets about trying to regain his criminal empire, recruiting Arlo for the task and partnering up with the same cartel now out for Raylan's blood.

Interspersed with the season-long power struggle between Crowders and Givenses--Raylan tries to puzzle out what criminal scam underlies Boyd's newfound faith, Arlo tries to get back in Bo's good graces, Arlo and Bo try to manipulate and control their sons--are its standalone crime stories, the fugitive criminals, reluctant witnesses, and other various scraps that Raylan stumbles into (frankly, given the Marshals Service's not-too-sexy purview of witness protection, prisoner transport, and court security it's impressive that the show's writers have managed to find so many exciting stories to drop Raylan in).  In both of its aspects, Justified delivers a lot of talking and a lot of shooting, both of which it handles admirably.  The standalone episodes are less crime stories as they are windows into the lives of the people perpetrating those crimes, and it's through their eloquence that we get to know these characters not as criminal masterminds or black-hearted villains but as people who are often short-sighted and dim-witted (a comment I encountered today about the show called it a catalog of human folly, which sounds about right) but who have more facets to their personality than their criminal one.

Raylan functions as a witness to these characters' stories.  With a quiet, unruffled demeanor, bemused but not judgmental, he lets them tell their stories and tries to give them as much of an out from the predicament they've landed themselves in as he can.  This is not what the series pilot leads us to expect, from either the character or the show.  The pilot (based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, who created the Givens character and featured him in two novels, though the series apparently retools him quite considerably) introduces Raylan as a maverick, a cowboy cop who plays by his own rules and his own sense of justice.  The man he kills in the opening scene, we learn, viciously murdered an innocent bystander in front of Raylan, and as he admits to Winona in the pilot's closing minutes, he doesn't know what he would have done if the man hadn't drawn his gun--would he have killed him anyway?  These scenes create the expectation of a Southern-set Life on Mars, with Raylan playing the Gene Hunt role and rebelling against a too-polite, too-impersonal notion of justice that leaves out the traditional Western-derived values of right and wrong.  Certainly the season's early episodes, in which Raylan's affectation of a cowboy hat and his Old West-inspired demeanor are constantly commented upon (most notably in a scene in which he and a man he suspects of wrongdoing discuss the mechanics of the quick-draw), sometimes in admiration but more often in dismay, suggest a character who is not simply a fish out of water but out of time, a throwback to a bygone and perhaps mythical era.

So it's a surprise when Raylan turns out to be a thoroughly modern policeman, comfortable with the tools that technology and bureaucracy provide him (as opposed to Bradley Whitford's Gene Hunt-esque character in the new cop comedy The Good Guys, a 50ish man who complains that in his day he didn't have all these newfangled forensics tests and computers) and unruffled by the PC craze that prohibits him from planting evidence or beating up suspects.  Partly this is because the show's writers have rethought the character since the season started--as they say in the link above, they've started downplaying the hat and all that it implies.  But it's also a way of subtly distinguishing between Raylan's notions of how to use violence and those of the people around him.  Raylan is a fearsome shot--so many of the season's episodes end with him coolly surveying the prone figures of his opponents and calmly calling for an ambulance that the season finale seems to be poking fun at itself when it shows him making the call, then pausing and asking for a coroner's van as well--but seems to lack any sort of bluster or bravado.  In a mid-season episode he's assigned to guard a judge, known for his harsh sentences and for wearing a gun under his robes, who has been receiving death threats.  It turns out that the judge asked for Raylan especially because of the incident in Miami, which leads him to believe that he and Raylan are birds of a feather, fellow travelers on a crusade to rid the world of evildoers by any means necessary and with no remorse.  You can see Raylan's distaste at being thought the equal of this overzealous person, and when he talks the judge's attacker down rather than kill him, the judge, who has finally had a taste of violence, thanks Raylan for stopping him from killing.  Nor does the show balk at emasculating Raylan--when he calls out a pair of loud drunks at a bar, we expect him to deliver an ass-kicking.  Instead the two men not only trounce him but steal his hat (the absence of which is, hilariously, commented upon by every character he meets for the rest of the episode).  Instead of coming back for revenge, Raylan apologizes nicely and asks for his hat back.

Of course, another way of looking at this is that Raylan's even temper (for all that the pilot concludes with Winona telling Raylan that he's the angriest man she knows, there's precious little evidence of this in the series) and measured approach to violence are actually an amplification of his role as Justified's Western-style lawman.  The man in the white hat knows how to use violence but will only do so when it's absolutely necessary, and he is the only one who can infallibly distinguish between necessary and unnecessary violence.  It's a bit amusing that I should have picked up Justified in the same TV season in which I became a fan of The Good Wife, because if that series is an examination of different ways of being a woman, Justified often seems to be concerned with the construction of masculinity, particularly among working class men.  Raylan is the prime example, but name a (white) TV character actor from the top two or three tiers and they'll have shown up on this show at some point in the season to give their take on how to be a man.

The white supremacist dogma that Boyd spouts at Raylan is rife with slogans about reclaiming America for (white) Americans, but it's also a way for men who feel that the world has gotten away from them to reclaim their manhood.  When Raylan lambastes Arlo for his criminal career, his father angrily retorts that "You'd have rather seen me down in the mines my whole life, dead of black-lung like my old man," suggesting that for men of his class and background, masculinity comes down to a choice between a hard, poverty-stricken honest life and the 21st century stereotype of the Southerner as a hard-drinking, meth-cooking redneck.  Characters who are not from a working class background, meanwhile, run the gamut between living uneasily with new-style masculinity and playing gender expectations like a fiddle.  A witness that Raylan lost several years ago worked as a mob accountant and has since retrained as a dentist, but with both Raylan and his former employers on his trail he finds his inner Capable Man--capable of both outwitting his pursuers and committing murder--but ends up carrying this newfound badassness to its logical conclusion of sacrificing his life to save his girlfriend.  The state's attorney Raylan deals with plays the beta male to Raylan's alpha to the hilt, deferring to his judgment in emergent situations and privately expressing sympathy for the shooting in Miami, but he turns on a dime, using the same deference and friendliness to put Raylan at his ease, and then on the spot, when questioning him about another dubious shooting.  When Winona's husband Gary finds himself in trouble with gray market moneylenders he turns to a friend, a former footballer now living in luxurious retirement, to play the heavy with his creditors.  The friend, eager to recapture his past glory, quickly agrees, but when he returns home to decant a bottle of wine and prepare a gourmet meal for his family, the real tough guys are waiting for him.  Most interesting is Gary himself, who Winona defends to Raylan in that same episode as a man with vision and dreams.  This seems like a paltry defense in an episode that up until that point has portrayed Gary as foolish and even craven, but when Raylan catches up with him Gary tells him about the shopping area he was going to develop on the land he bought with the borrowed money, and something wonderful happens--the project sounds genuinely inspiring, the sort of place you'd like to be able to visit in your own town, and Winona's reasons for choosing Gary suddenly become clear (which makes it all the more disappointing when at the end of the season she out of the blue separates from him and starts pursuing Raylan).

(Of course, between its setting and this emphasis on masculinity one can't help but eye the show suspiciously when it comes to women, and that suspicion is sadly repaid.  With almost no exception women, both recurring and regular characters, are portrayed as driven by the men in their lives and making choices based on their relationships with men.  One-off criminal characters are almost invariably brought into the crime by the men in their life, and on two separate occasions they betray one lover to another, realize that the first lover will be killed because of their actions, and help Raylan in order to save him.  On the main cast, Raylan has a female colleague who is also black and who in a mid-season episode complains that he gains professional status by playing on the cowboy image that is unavailable to her because of her race and gender.  He dismisses that concern, which is very nearly the last we see or hear of this character for the rest of the season--one senses that the writers knew that they needed a professional women on the cast but had no idea what to do with her.  Raylan's stepmother has tolerated and even enabled Arlo's criminal activities for years, not because of greed or criminal tendencies on her own part but because she loves him.  Winona I've already spoken about, but Raylan's other love interest over the course of the season is Ava, who had the potential to be a very interesting character.  In the pilot episode Ava kills her abusive husband, which causes not an eyelash to bat as everyone agrees that he was a bastard who needed killing, and the state's attorney quickly makes her a deal for a suspended sentence.  But--and I say this with a full awareness of what a delicate subject this is and in the hopes of not sticking my foot too deep down my throat--Ava does not seem at all like the sort of woman for whom the battered wife defense was created.  She is spirited, independent-minded, and furious in her own defense and in the defense of others.  It's hard not to conclude that rather than being so emotionally tormented and so terrified for her life that the only recourse for Ava was to kill her husband, she simply had enough and killed him out of anger and wounded pride.  So it might be said that Ava embodies the concept of Old West justice much more powerfully than Raylan does, and much could have been done with this point.  Alas, she spends most of the season pursuing Raylan, and even gets kidnapped twice by people who want to get his attention.  It's possible to enjoy Justified despite its troubling treatment of its female characters because, like the men, these women are so vividly and vibrantly brought to life, but one almost wishes that the show's writers had given up on writing women entirely if they couldn't come up with more varied roles and motivations for them.)

Justified pokes and prods at its characters' concept of masculinity, but it leaves Raylan's alone.  This has the unfortunate consequence of suggesting that Raylan's is the true masculinity, the one to which all other men can merely aspire--unfortunate because Raylan's version of manhood is so very tenuous, based on a fictional construct probably garnered from TV shows, rooted in a culture a hundred years gone to which he has no personal connection (I don't know if they have cowboys in Kentucky, which is not a Western state, but they probably don't have them in mining towns), and quite obviously arrived at due to his burning desire to leave Kentucky and Arlo Givens in his rearview mirror. As I've said, Raylan often acts as the silent witness to other men's struggles with their manhood, only coming out of his shell when the season's overarching plot, involving the Crowders and his father, heats up.  It's only in these scenes that we see Raylan's polite exterior crack, and only in his interactions with Arlo that he comes close to earning Winona's characterization of his as the angriest man she's known.  But it's also in these scenes that the cowboy persona is most tamped down, so that the question of Raylan's anger and his relationship to violence is never really addressed.  The result is to make both the character and the series feel more than a little centerless, and the conclusion of the Crowder-Givens arc, which is essentially an hour-long shoot-'em-up, has much the same effect.  It feels like the endings to the season's standalone episodes writ large--a chance for Raylan to show off his cool head, quick draw, and superior marksmanship skills, and for the rest of the cast to show off their folly.  None of this is badly done, of course, but given the season-long buildup to the confrontation between fathers and sons, former friends and former enemies, one would have expected a bit more.

It's hard not to wonder whether Justified can't simply be summed up as a show with a lot of talking and a lot of shooting, both very well done.  Or, to put it another way, whether it isn't a series with more style than substance, whose writers are more successful at writing perfectly-crafted, quirky one-off characters for Raylan to smile indulgently at for a single scene or episode than they are at constructing a season-long arc.  That's not a bad thing, of course, and there's a lot that Justified does, and does well, that is all too rare on our screens--the fact that it is set in the rural South, that it depicts working class characters, that it's giving work, and good, meaty work at that, to so many character actors, that its writers know what pleasure can be wrought out of a story that lingers on the humanity of even its most incidental characters, and of course, that very eloquence that won me over.  But there's is constantly a sense that the series could do more--with Raylan, with the women in his life, with his notions of what a man is.  As I said at the beginning of this post, eloquence is a good way to win me over, but to truly win my heart you have to have something to say with all those pretty words.  Here's hoping that Justified finds it.

2 comments:

Bemused said...

that's a great analysis of a really good show. thank you.

Geoffrey Marshall said...

Four seasons in, it's safe to say that Justified found it. It's now in the top tier of TV dramas for the past 5 years.

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