Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The End Comes For JUSTIFIED


"In the deep, dark hills ... of eastern Kentucky ..."

- There are those TV shows that dominate the pop-cultural discussion, and there are those that live just outside the mainstream, somewhere on the fringes. Each week, my social media feeds are dominated with discussion about the Game of Thrones of the world - but for several years now, the TV drama that's been at or near the top of my personal must-see, must-discuss, can't-wait-for-more list has been JUSTIFIED. Each season of the F/X neo-Western has upped the stakes, pitting our trigger-happy hero Raylan Givens against all manner of would-be crime-bosses, kingpins, and outlaws who mean to stir up trouble in Harlan County. The show began to hit its stride midway through its first season, and has never looked back. The show became increasingly serialized, and increasingly fleshed out its universe so as to populate it with the greatest, most eclectic, most memorable cast of characters of any series I've seen. JUSTIFIED is plain and simply the most badass show on TV - and with tonight's final episode, I can't help but feel that there's going to be a void in the TV landscape that's hard to fill. Even in the middle of a TV renaissance that has flooded our screens with great content, few series can match JUSTIFIED pound for pound. The writing, acting, direction is second to none. And the pulpy, Elmore Leonard-inspired tone is unlike anything else currently airing, and unlike anything we're likely to see again anytime soon.

There was a time where the highest of high art in TV seemed to be artlessness. Endless procedural series and would-be gritty dramas in the 00's subscribed to the idea that dialogue had to be short and terse, that characters had to be ill-formed, that direction had to have a you-are-there immediacy in order to resonate with the modern audience. We went from Bond to Bourne, from The X-Files to CSI, from David Mamet to Damon Lindeloff. But a decade later, shows like Breaking Bad and JUSTIFIED helped to usher in a new pulp renaissance - an era when pop-culture again felt free to get moody, stylized, and evocative rather than immediate. JUSTIFIED - based on a series of novels by Elmore Leonard - quickly distinguished itself as existing in a pulp-fiction world of modern-day gunslingers and outlaws. Sure, there are elements of the show that count as recognizable to us. In particular, whenever the action shifts to the more modern world of Lexington, Justified takes on the trappings of a more straightforward brand of crime drama. But when we enter Harlan, we enter a twisted world where, for all intents and purposes, the Old West yet lives.

The two diametrically-opposed forces in Harlan - Raylan and his nemesis/frenemy Boyd Crowder - are, like many great foes, two sides of the same coin. Both see themselves as of another era. Raylan the pistol-packing cowboy, Boyd the rules-don't-apply outlaw. It's fitting that the show's final season finally re-focused the plot on their rivalry, as the two have been circling each other for the series' entire run. There was a great line said about Raylan early on in the show's run: "you're the angriest man I've ever met." To me, that succinct description colored my perspective on the entirety of JUSTIFIED. At first, I couldn't understand the sentiment. As played by Timothy Olyphant, Raylan seemed downright jovial at times. His default mode was to be wearing a sly grin, with a twinkle in his eye. And yet ... beneath that smile there was, indeed, rage. And it revealed itself in small ways - as when Raylan's grin soured into a scowl - and in larger, more disturbing ways - as when, so often, Raylan would seem to take a strange joy in facing down death and in inflicting it. The kind of comfort that a man content with his lot in life likely wouldn't enjoy. Time and again, Raylan has seemed to welcome life-or-death stand-offs. Time and again, he's been drawn back into lonely and dogged pursuits of vengeance masked as justice - when he could have taken refuge with his family. In this final season, we are left wondering if Raylan really can find peace if he were to finally take down Boyd, or whether all that can really satiate him is the dance of death. Hard to believe that a character like Raylan can ever really settle down. And that's the film-noir of it all - the sense of being trapped by existential forces, unable to escape a doomed, repetitious fate. "You'll never leave Harlan County alive," says the song - a mournful ballad that's played in more than one of the show's season finales. And that may very well be true for Raylan. Certainly, it's proven true for any number of the show's less lucky characters. It may well be a prophetic statement for Boyd as well. Boyd has narrowly escaped death numerous times - but he's never escaped Harlan. This season has seen Boyd's pride and outlaw spirit keep him from making an easy exit and cashing out when he had the chance. Now, he's headed for a collision with Raylan that likely won't end well. But Boyd trapped in a corner has proven resourceful. Still ... he's never been this much in a corner - with even his steadfast best-gal Ava having turned against him.

A lot can be said about the performances of Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins on JUSTIFIED. Both have consistently killed it for years now. The lack of Emmy recognition is shameful. Olyphant was a guy I knew from a few movies, pre-Justified (don't worry, I later saw Deadwood). But he was the perfect Raylan - absolutely embodying the character and making him into a full-fledged TV icon. Walton Goggins has, over the years, become one of my favorite actors. You can't take your eyes off of him as Boyd. He's snake-like, unpredictable, cold-blooded, and yet oddly likable. When Boyd rallies the people of Harlan to whatever his pet cause of the day is, you get why they side with him. The man may be a criminal and a liar, but by god, he's Harlan through-and-through, and the Crowder roots run deep.

And roots have long been a pet theme of this show. Raylan has long been tormented by the Givens name. His father, Arlo, was a scheming, rotten bottom-feeder. And when Raylan wasn't actively dealing with his still-up-to-no-good dad, he was dealing with the long shadow that his family's bad reputation cast. But good or bad, family roots are like currency in Harlan. It's why its people are apt to trust a Crowder over an outsider. And indeed, a recurring theme of Justified has been the battles among Harlan's clan-like factions for power, as well as those clans' unlikely alliances when faced with a common, alien threat. This season gives us a classic example of the outsider entering Harlan and unwittingly biting off more than he can chew. Sam Elliott's Avery Markham is a big fish in a small pond - he should be able carry out his land-grabbing schemes relatively unopposed. But the rules work a little differently in Harlan County. If you don't have the homefield advantage, well ... like the song says. As is happening to all of America's hidden hideaways and enclaves, the forces of modernity are indeed closing in on Harlan. But that encroachment only seems to make the natives restless and feisty. They ain't going down without a fight.

This season has been a who's-who of badass character actors coming in as recurring villains. Sam Elliott - so often the noble elder statesman, is here the serpent-like, devilish Big Bad. And as Avery Markham, he's absolutely killin' it. Garrett Dillahunt and Jeff Fahey have been fantastic. And that's just the guest cast. So much can be said for the regulars. Aside from Goggins and Olyphant, special mention has to be given to Joelle Carter as Ava Crowder, the tough-as-nails, shotgun-toting antihero of the show. Carter's work this season has been phenomenal, and JUSTIFIED has become as much Ava's story as it has Raylan and Boyd's. Then there's the show's cult-favorite Wynn Duffy, played with smarmy, shady perfection by Jere Burns. Wynn is the show's human cockroach - a pervy, seedy, RV-dwelling slimeball who seems to be the show's single character immune to death. Burns has won fans by making Wynn the ultimate survivor in a ruthless world - a man who crawls away from scrapes by the skin of his teeth, but who never fails to get right back to the business of being a scuzz-bucket. Nick Searcy as Raylan's U.S. Marshall mentor Art has been one of the show's secret weapons, and delivered some of its greatest moments. Same goes for the uber-badass Tim, played by Jacob Pitts. He, Raylan, and Erica Tazel's Rachel have long formed a U.S. Marshall trifecta-of-awesome, cleaning up Harlan one lowlife at a time. Kaitlyn Dever is a real scene-stealer as young crime-boss-in-training Loretta McCready. Introduced in the standout season in which the Emmy-winning Margo Martindale played the Big Bad, Loretta has blossomed into a fan-favorite, gaining more gumption as she's aged, and becoming a surprisingly important player in the show's final season. 

For years now, JUSTIFIED has taken us to a heightened, pulp-noir, neo-Western world where modern-day cowboys and outlaws wage a neverending battle for the soul of Harlan County, Kentucky. The show has served as an ongoing tribute to the great Elmore Leonard - never shying away from bringing his pop-snap dialogue, outlandish characters, and grim morality plays to television in a way that always seemed to honor the spirit of the writer and his source material. In a world of written-by-committee scripts, JUSTIFIED had a singular voice, a singular style, that few shows ever have. That voice was Leonard's. And we saw it embodied every week in the darkly-humorous witticisms, soliloquies, and whip-sharp banter of Raylan, Boyd, and the rest of the show's larger-than-life denizens. The series took us to ramshackle hillbilly enclaves, Noble's Holler, Boyd's seedy bar hideaway, and any number of other distinctly unsavory locations. But most of all, it took us to Harlan. It took us down a road fraught with death and gunpowder, with backstabbing and feuding and square-dancing and booze and drugs and the ghosts of days gone by. These characters may never leave Harlan alive. But we'll have left Harlan the better for having visited. 

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