Posted by: gdevi | July 29, 2015

Review: Justified (2010-2015)

“There is no frigate like a book.”

Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, Justified, Season 4

Of course, Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens did not say that; Emily Dickinson did. But Raylan Givens, played oh so beautifully and memorably by Timothy Olyphant, says things like this; his little cache of adages and aphorisms includes poems by Emily Dickinson. Givens’ proclivity to quote Emily Dickinson while holed up in an abandoned schoolhouse with a federal fugitive on the run from the Detroit mafia is a good example of why Elmore Leonard, whose short novella Fire in the Hole is the source of the TV series Justified, is perhaps justifiably the greatest crime writer of the twentieth century. Crime literature and its offshoots are usually plot-driven; even when they are character-driven, like Inspector Columbo ( I am a fan), for instance, to take a popular television character, the characterizations rarely rise above certain personality quirks. We don’t really get to know the characters like we do when we read a good novel or a short story; where the internal landscape of the fictional character becomes as lifelike as that of your friend in Columbus, Ohio. Elmore Leonard writes like that; his crime novels are really beautiful depictions of character study: what makes a criminal? what makes a lawman? what makes a thug? what makes a drug dealer? what makes a prostitute? and so on and so forth. Though Leonard’s world is populated with violence, it is a moral world; it is the world you wish to live in where the mindless thugs tweaked up on drugs and arson and theft and murder are locked up behind bars. Thus the lawmen behave as we expect them to behave: in a world riddled with reports of “dirty cops,” Nick Searcy as Art Mullen, Givens’ boss, Jacob Pitts and Erika Tazel as Givens’s colleagues in the Marshals service, Tim Gutterson and Rachel Brooke, all play law enforcement officers who do their job rigorously and honorably to the last detail. There is never a gratuitous violent moment in Leonard; no excesses; no sensationalism. If someone chops off a leg, then the same dumb thug tries to cure it with a blowtorch to stop the bleeding before law enforcement steps in. It is all part of the criminal psyche. There are no super intelligent criminals in Leonard’s world, which is a big relief, because frankly, characters like Hannibal Lecter et al, where the writer makes a bad faith attempt to make the criminals into more than what they really are–criminals–have a tiresome falseness to them. In Leonard’s world, people who steal, murder, and deal drugs are sociopaths. They have no big mystery attached to them. If they could make money selling stones, they would. Since drugs, guns and racketeering promise more money, they turn to that. It is a very black and white world.

Graham Yost who developed Leonard’s novella into a six season television series has admirably retained Leonard’s vision for the characters, Leonard’s register, Leonard’s signature humor, and the overall ambiance of a Leonard plot for each of the episodes. Everyone is there because they have a role to play in the plot device. Leonard is also the Executive Producer for the series. The kernal of the plot revolves around US Marshal Givens trying to bring to justice Boyd Crowder, played flamboyantly by Walter Goggins, and his smalltime criminal empire in Harlan, Kentucky.  “Fire in the Hole” is a verbal warning used amongst coal miners to signal an impending detonation. Crowder, a racist arsonist, branches out to secure a position in the fractious world of drug- trafficking in Harlan county. But since a life of crime will have you sharing your pillow with unexpected partners, Givens’s task has him following crooks in all directions–Harlan and Lexington, Kentucky; Detroit, Michigan; and Miami, Florida; smalltown thugs and bigcity mobsters who want Harlan county in their distribution network. As with characters like Inspector Columbo, Givens has his outward difference from fellow marshals: he wears a Stetson hat and his official uniform is often jeans, plaid shirt, and cowboy boots. His colleagues and enemies refer to him as “the cowboy.” But unlike most westerns, even the Clint Eastwood ones, or even the Django paradigm, where the cowboy outlaw takes justice into his own hands, Justified is a police procedural. It is strictly in service of the state. This might have a certain reactionary flavor to it in the postmodern world, but there it is: meth, cocaine, and heroin are bad for you. You shouldn’t be buying or selling them. You should not steal. You should not kidnap. You should not murder. These are all bad for you.

Though a police procedural, Leonard and the series head writer Yost have followed the Western genre’s emphasis on private codes of law and honor that rise in societies without a formal structure of law and order as the springboard for the plot. Family feuds and the so-called blood feuds between clans across generations are symptomatic of such societies. Seasons one, two and three of Justified interweave the generational feud between four clans in their narratives: Crowders, Bennetts, Limehouse, and the Givens, that is, Raylan’s father, played spectacularly by Raymond Barry, whose other memorable roles include that of the father of the murdered Walter Delacroix in Dead Man Walking. All four families are sociopaths convinced of their right to do whatever they want whenever they want wherever they want. (A good reason for gun control, don’t you think?)  Barry plays Arlo Givens, the Marshal’s father, a ruthless, smalltime crook and criminal, who rejects his own biological son in favor of Boyd Crowder, the criminal who plays a surrogate son role to him. Margo Martindale plays Mags Bennett, the matriarch of the Bennetts, a psychopathic woman in the mold of Ma Barker, who justifies her brutality towards her enemies as well as her own sons as “preserving our way of life.” M. C. Gainey plays Bo Crowder, father to Boyd Crowder, whose release from prison starts the narrative line: as with Martindale and Barry, Gainey’s performance will stand the test of time. The utter ruthlessness with which he destroys his son Boyd’s enterprise mirrors the Bennett matriarch’s destruction of her sons, and Arlo’s hostility towards Raylan. “Family” feud and “family” honor are just convenient euphemisms for sociopaths to indulge their unchecked desire for absolute power. The fourth leg of this illicit square is Ellstin Limehouse played just beautifully by Mykelti Williamson, a black smalltime drug dealer who tries to keep a low profile in racist Harlan county, running a BBQ joint in Noble’s Holler, the black neighborhood.

The plot movement splicing the four clans and the intersection of their complicated criminal past and present is mostly as precise and flawless as the movement of a Victorinox chronograph. The plot does not lag at all with the various alliances, conspiracies, and betrayals beautifully controlled through the central, relentless and patient pursuit of these crooks by Marshal Givens. The horizontal spread of the plot is balanced by the vertical exposition of Raylan’s relationship with his father Arlo. Father-son feud is as old as the Greek myths or the Bible, and oftentimes a trope meant to signal the transition from an old order to a new order. It is so in Justified as well, with an added moral imperative. Raylan wants to shut down his father’s immoral and criminal enterprises. If we invert the original father-son myth of the Bible–Adam, Cain and Abel–if Adam were the murderous Arlo, then Boyd, the criminal would be Abel, the favored stand-in son, and Raylan, the Marshal would be Cain, the cast-out son. It is an arresting relationship; who is to say this paradigm does not exist? What is good is bad, what is bad is good, as the bard put it.

Though Justified is by and large a show about men, the women characters are drawn in clear relief. Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), who travels the arc of a defendant in a self-defense murder to being a brothel owner and love interest of Boyd Crowder, Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), the Marshal’s ex-wife, US Marshal Rachel Green (Erica Tazel), Ellen May, the prostitute (Abby Miller), not to mention Margo Martindale, as the psychopathic Mags Bennett play women who are equally challenged to respond morally to the circumstances that open up before them.  Each one of these characters are completely fleshed out. Women get no special concessions in Leonard’s existential world; they evolve or degenerate as their male counterparts do.

Though the setting is Kentucky, Justified was shot mostly in rural Pennsylvania and California whose geographical features mirror the excesses of land laid waste by coal mining and uneven development. Francis Kenny’s cinematography captures the points of views of characters and serves to focus the dialog and actions of the characters. The result is an overall feeling of crisp clarity of particular states of mind.

One of the hallmarks of a good crime story is how rigorously it parses the environment that engenders and maintains the criminal world. Leonard is masterful at making us see the connections between the white-collar thugs who reside in sleek mansions with crystal pools and the meth addicts with rotten teeth dumping bodies in putrid coal slurries for cash payment.  Justified features some of the more compelling villains on the tube in recent years: Wynn Duffy of the Detroit mafia who resembles Goethe’s Mephistopheles and played memorably by Jere Burns, Robert Quarles, the deviant pederastic psychopath played with perverse pleasure by Neal McDonough, and Nick Augustine of the Detroit mob played by Mike O’Malley. I must admit that my favorite villain of the series was Dickie Bennett played by Jeremy Davies; watching Davies play Dickie was like being inside a Flannery O’Connor story; terrific performance.

Sony has released the complete box sets for all six seasons. Check your local library. If you are in the mood for some binge watching of an excellent story wonderfully told, then I highly recommend Justified.


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