Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Television Series Review: Justified

Since it's been on TV for three seasons (just wrapping up its 3rd season last week), I feel a little silly recommending this amazing series simply because, if you haven't watched it yet, you probably aren't going to do so any time soon.

However, my love for this series compels me to get on a soapbox and state that I think it's one of the best crime dramas I've seen in a long, long time.  This past week, I sat down and watched the first two seasons on DVD, mostly as a refresher to events leading up to the third season. For anyone completely unfamiliar with the series, Justified follows the adventures of Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens as he hunts down criminals and battles his own personal demons deep in the heart of Kentucky coal country, Harlan County. If that place-name rings a bell, that's probably because you've heard of Harlan Country, USA, an award-winning documentary about coal mining and battles (literally) between the miners and the mining company. I've seen the documentary and it is a powerful, sometimes shockingly brutal story of small town feuds, politics, and the struggles between small towns and big businesses.

However, back to Justified. After a very public and controversial shooting in Miami, Raylan Givens is transferred to the Lexington, Kentucky office of the Marshall's service. Born and bred in Kentucky, Raylan is horrified to be transferred there; he "escaped" the state at 19 and had no intention of ever going back home, but the Marshall's service thinks otherwise. Raylan is put under the supervision of Art Mullen, an old friend and former shooting co-instructor when Raylan taught at Glynco, where the Marshall's service training facilities are located. Between this piece of information and the shooting in the opening moments of the pilot, we're given some indication that Raylan Givens is not a man you want to draw down on, and believe me, that is a notion reinforced over the course of the series.

Back home in Kentucky, Raylan finds himself returning time and time again to Harlan country, where he grew up and now must perform his duties, hunting fugitives who used to be old high school classmates and hell-raising buddies.  This is one of the strongest points in the series; the interactions between Raylan and so many people from his past, most of whom have decided to pursue interests and a way of life that is fundamentally at odds with Raylan's career as "a federal". That he is now lumped in with the "revenuers" and other "big city lawmen" who are universally despised by his old acquaintances is a constant point of conflict, and one that is handled admirably, both by the writers and directors as well as the cast.

As has been done by many reviewers, Graham Yost (the man who developed the series) refers to Justified in one of the commentaries as a "post-modern western". This comment perked my ears up for obvious reasons, and I think the label fits. Raylan Givens is every inch the Western lawman, from his quick-draw skills to his cowboy boots to his hat and his intense, deadly stare. Timothy Olyphant is the perfect actor to portray a western lawman, a fact validated by his great performance as one in the HBO series Deadwood, where he played another Marshall, Seth Bullock. However, Olyphant's great performance on that series is, in my mind, completely overshadowed by his role as Raylan Givens, who's wife describes him as "...the angriest man I have ever known". This is one of the lines that sold the role to Olyphant, because it cuts to the heart of his character; for all his modern civility and smooth talking when the situation calls for it, there resides in the heart of Raylan Givens a smouldering ember of righteous fury and explosive violence. When he is confronted over his recent series of shootings, his boss Art says something to the effect of "...if you were in grade school and bit a kid every week, pretty soon you'd get the reputation as a 'biter'". Well, Raylan has the reputation as a "shooter", and over the course of three seasons, that is a reputation he earns in spades. Justifed has a number of shootouts, and while they are all to a greater or lesser degree "justified", it is clear that Raylan has a tendency - conscious or not - to place himself in situations where gunplay is the only solution to the problem. Raylan is a hammer, no doubt about it, and many people throughout the series feel that he looks at every criminal as if they have a nice, flat surface at the top of their heads.

However, the fault doesn't lay entirely in Raylan's lap. The criminal element in Justified is rife with violence and murder, where poverty and desperation drive many to commit heinous crimes, and where generations of feuding and clandestine criminal activity in the backwoods of the "hollers" can only be mitigated by law enforcement, never eradicated. Every character has access to a firearm, be it a double-barreled "scattergun", a hunting rifle, a revolver in a drawer somewhere, a more modern semi-automatic pistol or assault rifle. Having grown up in a rural area myself, I know that guns are more common than pickup trucks, and there's a whole lot of pickup trucks. This doesn't necessarily make every character a criminal, but it does give everyone a lethal means of resolving conflicts if pushed into a desperate corner.

All this mixes into a heady brew of American tropes that form the heart and soul of the series. Classic Western stories most often revolve around the individual coming into conflict with an entity larger than themselves - a feuding family, a coal mining company, a law enforcement agency, or a marauding band of violent gun thugs. The individual taking the law into their own hands - justified or maybe not so much - forms the crux of the conflict in these stories. In this series, Raylan's struggles to remain on the right side of the law in a lawless land form the show's over-arching conflict, as he is dragged time and time again into personal feuds and vendettas with old acquaintances and new enemies.

But what makes this show a "post-modern western"? Well for the easy money, you could certainly pick the show up, dust off all the modern trappings, and drop it back into Harlan country a hundred years ago, and the series would still pack a lot of punch. But it is the generations-old mentality of the locals coming into conflict with the modern world of business, criminal enterprise, and 21st century law enforcement that gives the show its unique flavor. Hillbilly moonshiners using cell phones and M-4 carbines, drug dealers selling "hillbilly heroin" (Oxycontin), meth cookers making deals with Cartel kingpins on Florida golf courses...despite the mixing of such disparate worlds, it is a mixture that works, and works very well.

Although the third season has just ended, you can get the first two seasons for a song via Amazon. I picked up the first season on DVD for $15, and I think that's not too much to ask for 13 episodes of top-notch television drama. Fire up the television, pour yourself a bourbon, tip back your hat, and dive into the world of Harlan country, Kentucky.

1 comment:

Matthew P. Mayo said...

I agree. This is an amazing series that is rich with fine acting and writing. I haven't seen season three yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I think I'll have to rewatch one and two first, though. After all, it's Justified....