The dust has settled over Harlan County, the blood’s stopped flowing out onto the dirt and the wind’s blowing gently through acres of Bennett marijuana plants. With this month’s finale “Bloody Harlan” FX’s Justified wrapped up its second season, once again closing out a chapter in the life of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens by turning the backwoods of Kentucky into a shooting gallery. And in comparing the difference to last season’s “Bulletville,” and extending that to both full seasons, there’s one statement that takes precedence over anything that’s been said on the show this year:
Justified isn’t a good show anymore. It’s a great show.
In much the same way as Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad, Justified rose to the challenge of improving on its solid first installment and completely knocked it out of the park. It retained the laconic dialogue and rapid action that categorized its source material, further realized the strengths of its actors in a multitude of character arcs, and tightened its storytelling to create episodes that both stand on their own merits and build an overarching story. The ninth episode “Brother’s Keeper” I’d rank in the top five episodes of television I’ve seen all year, with the penultimate “Reckoning” a close second, and at least half the cast deserves a slew of award nominations for what they did this season.
What’s changed? Certainly, the biggest improvement made this year was the season’s sense of unity. Unlike the first season, where the characters were chiefly running around and pursuing their own agendas until the latter half of the season, there was the clear impression that everyone was working towards different ends but still doing so in the same environment. The interest of Black Pike in Harlan’s land turned out not only to be the connection that kept dragging Raylan into the county’s intricacies, but also the long game that Mags and her boys were playing with its residents and the catalyst that led Boyd Crowder to give up his reformation. These characters had a reason to be around each other, or at least not far from each other’s orbit, which helped rationalize keeping so many of them as regulars.*
*Well, not exactly the regulars – once again, after showing at least some interest in fleshing them out in early episodes, Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel’s marshals were shoved off to the side in favor of much more entertaining characters. Sniper Tim had some good moments in “Full Commitment” as he played the bodyguard/warden to Raylan, and another “apricot” shot to round out the finale, but this now makes two seasons the show failed to prove they deserve top billing. They’re not horrible, but they’re beginning to feel as incidental to the good parts of the show as any of the cops on Dexter are.
And in this narrative sense of unity, the show began to create the universe of Harlan as not just a setting, but a place so soaked in tradition and a way of life that it exerted an almost psychic force on its characters. The three families in the center of this story – Givens, Crowder and Bennett – have been part of the county’s dynamic since it was founded, and each of its members found themselves pulled into that dynamic despite their best intentions (“This is who we are, Dickie,” Raylan wearily said in one of the show’s darkest moments). Raylan had an option to leave at the start but couldn’t take it, couldn’t even explain why to himself, and by the time he found a reason to leave it appeared he’d shut that door for good. Boyd fought against his darker instincts kicking and screaming, but the minute Mags offered him the criminal activity of Harlan he literally danced a jig and began reuniting his old cohorts* to take what was his. Mags tried to buy her way out of that life by dealing with the mining companies, but wasn’t prepared for the investment everyone else had in the community and how quickly they’d turn on their once-revered matriarch, and had no choice but to retake the reins as the horse was already headed off the cliff at the hands of her vicious second son Dickie.
*On that note, tip of the hat to showrunner Graham Yost and the casting team for continuing to recognize the deep bench they’ve created in this show. Boyd’s recruited not only his cousin Johnny, left crippled and mean from Bo’s shotgun last season, but his old friend from white supremacy days Devil Ellis, not seen since the pilot episode. David Meunier and Kevin Rankin add a lot of character to the growing Crowder operation, and given Justified‘s tendency to shoot down supporting cast it’s very satisfying to see they remember the ones who survive.
The Bennett family also deserves considerable praise in making this season what it was. It’s hard to work in a “big bad” right, let alone an entire clan of them, but Mags and her brood felt as if they’d always been part of the action – smart enough to stay off to the sides as Raylan and Boyd duked it out last season, and moving in once that particular blowup had resolved itself. Margo Martindale earned every word of praise that went her way this season, but each of her sons brought something special to their characters as they tried to please her and also fortify their own positions. Jeremy Davies in particular was the MVP of the season’s third act, so cold and rattlesnake mean as he tried to take his birthright that he held his own against the considerable talents of Olyphant and Goggins.
But what really cemented Justifed into the pantheon was the way it built the tension in equal pace with its narrative over the weeks, and did so in a way that distinguished it from the shows I mentioned at the start. Sons of Anarchy‘s second season built its tension on shared secrets, pulling SAMCRO’s members to the knife’s edge with the strain of what could happen if the dam broke; while Breaking Bad kept the momentum rolling in an almost chemical fashion by triggering rolling consequences to every action Walt or Jesse made. Justified, on the other hand, built its tension from the fact on its hair-trigger – the fact that every single character on the show was sitting on so much tension and resentment that, as Dan Fienberg observed astutely pointed, every one of the show’s one-on-one discussions could have feasibly ended with a gunfight. The threat of violence never went away, even for a minute, regardless of whether they were in a diner or a church or even a family potluck.
And oh, how good those scenes were. The best of these was certainly the “Brother’s Keeper” conversation between Mags and Carol Johnson of Black Pike that revealed exactly what long game Mags was playing with the land of Harlan, but these actors and writers continued to push the envelope. Mags and Boyd’s conference in the church, Boyd and Ava after his mine theft double-cross, Raylan dragging Gary into conference with Wyn Duffy, Boyd convincing his cousin Johnny to rejoin the team, Helen and Mags trying to keep the feud under wraps, the denouement between Mags and Raylan in the Bennett kitchen with both of them bleeding from various wounds – I really could go on for hours. Justified is founded on the principles of Elmore Leonard, whose philosophy is to “leave out the part that people tend to skip,” and it was a rare scene that felt like it deserved to be skipped.
And despite the fact he only shot one person this season by my count, no one on the show had as much of a hair trigger as Raylan Givens, and the downward spiral he’s found himself in was the rock this season revolved around. I mentioned in the last post just how good Timothy Olyphant was all season, but as it got deeper into the second half we saw just how much of a toll keeping a leash on his emotions and darker impulses has been – and just how little even he knows about what he’s supposed to do next. Again, Deadwood‘s Seth Bullock has mostly been supplanted as Olyphant’s defining role, but the sheer tension of Raylan against himself this season has reminded me of something the incomparable Al Swearengen said of Bullock in the episode “Childish Things,” which could easily be said of Givens:
“In your mug there’s no such history. Are you a cunt-driven near-maniac or stalwart, driven by principle? The many cannot tell, for you yourself are so fuckin’ confused. But you do make a good appearance, so they’re prone to grant you their trust.”
The penultimate episode “Reckoning” was a key demonstration of this, and the episode that should by all rights earn him at least an Emmy nomination. He was forced into an icy precision by the death of his aunt Helen, moved at a single-minded force that almost led him to be shot by Boyd and Ava, viciously beat his father in a jail cell, and eventually caught and dragged Dickie out to the woods to shoot him like a dog. And yet as he had Dickie down at his mercy, he angrily spat out his memories of the only person who’d taken care of him when he was young, and the realization of what she’d think of what he’s doing here beats him into resignation.
But the way Raylan’s going, pretty soon no one will grant him any measure of trust – the illustration of how damaging his attitude was came in how he fractured every relationship he had going into it. Boyd has now twice been in a position where shooting his old coal buddy seemed like the most logical idea, and scorned lover Ava’s been there once as well. Art seems to have resigned himself to the fact that Raylan’s going to push himself into an early grave, and Tim and Rachel appear to have lost the respect he engendered in previous cases. And for all Winona does love him – and for the fact that she’s now carrying his child – I don’t think she’s ever believed that he’ll walk away from the marshal’s service* for her or anything else. He’s fast turning into a man without a country, and the question of next season will be whether or not he can find his center again**.
*The scene in “Bloody Harlan” where Raylan made that offer to her also contained a nice reference to Raylan’s origins when he suggests opening an ice cream parlor. In Leonard’s novel “Pronto,” a loan shark Raylan’s keeping an eye on watches him from the window, moving only to get some ice cream, and shakes his head at the sight: “Look at him licking his cone.” A little thing, but one that the obsessive adapter within me appreciates.
**While it’s more of a Robert B. Parker narrative device than a Leonard one, I’d suggest that if they want any hope of pulling Raylan back from the abyss he’s tumbling into he might want to take a closer interest in the life of the equally damaged Loretta. Kaityln Dever’s yet another talented actress Justified pulled in this season, and while she’s been cast in the new ABC/Tim Allen pilot Last Man Standing I really hope scheduling draws her back into Raylan’s orbit.
So where do we go in the third season? Well, while the season doesn’t end on as much of a dramatic cliffhanger as the last one, there’s still plenty of loose threads that Yost and company can tug to their heart’s content, even beyond the multitude of fractured relationships Raylan’s created for himself. Boyd’s now in full control of Harlan County, and it remains to be seen how brutal his outlaw ways will go – especially depending on whether or not Ava survives till next season. Dickie’s the last of the Bennetts standing, and while he seems bound for jail Davies is playing too good of a character to get rid of all together. And the threat of Lexington’s mysterious Dixie Mafia – only hinted at in connection to Winona’s idiot husband and Dickie’s botched drug robbery – was very thankfully pushed off until next season and avoided bogging down the later half of the season, and once again keeps my hope alive that they can bring in Ian McShane to be the shadowy head of that organization.
But honestly, Deadwood cast members or not, there’s every reason to watch next season, and to watch this one again and again and again. A tip of the Stetson to Yost, Olyphant, Goggins and company – in these 13 episodes, Justified shot straight to the top of my list for best television in 2011.