GREY MATTERS: The Dark Turn of JUSTIFIED

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by Ian Grey
March 20, 2012 11:31 PM
6 Comments
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Maybe I’m just touchy, or prone to over-reaction.  But I’m thinking there’s something about Quarles, Justified’s bleach-blond, Oxy-popping, batshit, gay-teen-torturing, Motor City gangster and all-around homosexual kill-freak that rubs me the wrong way.

Partially because he’s a huge step down from the peckerwood-noir magnificence of Margo Martindale as Harlan County’s crime matriarch, Mags Bennett.

But mainly because he’s a hateful creation that suggests the show’s creators trawled through all of American cinema and dredged up every repellant stereotype of queer mutation and threat and fused the results into one inarguably, impeccably well-dressed and well-coiffed sociopath named Quarles (Neal McDonough).

And as Quarles revealed himself, with bottomless self-pity, to be more queer-centrically worse than we’d ever imagined, with a  godawfulness that was a function of being queer, I realized that aghast was the only way to react to the new, suddenly appalling Justified.

The first question that comes to mind is why? Why did Justified’s staff need to dream up and feature this evil fuck-chop of regression?

My guess: Out of sheer, contemptuous, cynical utility. The season has been a listless bust.

Yes—the chewy nugget center of Justified, the it’s-so-wrong-it’s-right bromance between U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and jack-of-all-crimes Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) still sparked, but it sparked in something of a void.

Raylen’s life-love Winona (Natalie Zea) got pregnant, accepted him for who he was, and then dumped him. We learned that, without a woman to add vulnerability to his hard ass routine, Raylen often came off as distant, sour, or too cynical.

Elsewhere, we traveled to a trapped-in-time African American community called Nobble’s Holler where everyone dressed like Dexy’s Midnight Runners, run by a gnarly black godfather named Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson)who seemed perpetually on the verge of doing something epically badass . . . only to go back to cleaning pigs.  

A really promising plot strand involving black market organ harvesting from still-walking donors started, then petered out. The sole surviving Bennett, Dickie kept showing up like a persistant cough; I could never figure out why he was even in the show anymore.

And Quarles? He’s a Detroit mob enforcer who, while doing some Mob business, sees a way to cash in on the local Oxy trade. And to clarify: I was fine with Quarles for a while.

As played by McDonough, Quarles originally made an alternately terrifying and fun TV sociopath, Dexter in a Hugo Boss suit, another family man who switched between business, murder, and torturing people behind closed doors. He was fine as long as his monstrousness stayed behind those doors.

However, none of these things connected or built any narrative steam as the clock ticked on the basic Justified narrative: someone had to become sufficiently vile for Raylan to justifiably mete out frontier justice.

Thank god they had their own resident freakshow friend of Dorothy, someone to carry on the grand tradition of Peter Lorre as the barely human child killer in M,the queer-killing queer in Cruising, the incest-freak killer in Gladiator, the serial murderer of Silence of the Lambs, Big Love’s similarly impeccably dressed closet case.

One even imagines the head of the writers’ room assigning these films—and the hundreds more that came before them—as homework for the writers, inspiration for ways to make Quarles more terrifyingly gay.

Anyway, as the good ship Justified hit rough waters on the way towards its finale, the show pulled out its big gun.

One of Quarles’ victims grabbed and drew a gun on him. Quarles talked him down with a heartfelt, teary-eyed backstory of abuse, rape, and being forcibly whored out, and so on, all of it much worse because when all of that happens and it’s queer-based, well, man, that’s way worse. At least 65 per cent worse.

Of course, the boy ended up raped, tortured and dead at Quarles’ hands--Que sera—but now there’s no doubt what team Quarles plays for. Why do we need this detail? Because, once audiences know he’s a fairy on top of everything else, an alien, family-threatening, scary, seductive, anti-Leviticus queer, what else do we need to know? The writers count on audiences’ ticking the “no” box and move on.

Meanwhile, would the writing staff use a homo, boy-raping, whore-torturing, dope-fiend African American character?

No, that’s terrible. Plus, blacks have civil rights (technically). Gays, not so much, and if the election turns the wrong way . . .

Meanwhile, the writers’ choice betrays what’s really meant when the word “homophobia” is used. It’s what happens when what are probably entirely decent people try to concoct a TV bad guy and, when their imaginations are faced with an eternity of choices, the darkest, most horrible thing they can imagine is a homosexual.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

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6 Comments

  • Ian Grey | March 22, 2012 2:27 PMReply

    Hey Jim, what's up?

    I think it's interesting that Abner posts that "If you just now figured his sexuality, you haven't been paying attention" and you think I'm stretching things.

    So yeah Abner, I was OK--or in denial--about Quarles as long as he remained this horrible Thing Behind the Door.

    It's sickening to call him gay, queer or homosexual because he's such a noxious version of what an ignorant scared person stuck in 1956 might think 'homosexual' might mean.

    Bottomline: Quarles desires people of his own sex. And he does so while embodying every stupid cliche/trope of almost 100 years of US cinema--the scary autodidact (recall the literary quote-off he had with Boyd who at least had the excuse of prison-time learning), an obsession with contemptuous good manners, superior grooming, finely tailored suits, the physiological freakishness (the semi-albino thing) suggesting inner moral malformation, his black sheep familial status, the queered version of yer usual sociopath child abuse thing (that, if it led to serial killers as often as it does in movies, would cause a 20% dip in the US population), the Taxi Driver gun which it won't take a depth psychologist to suggest was still a phallus that kills, and again, the utter disinterest in women although he did shoot one in the back and so on. And the only thing that takes the edge off is having an attractive boy tied to a bed with whom he can torture and do what he wants.

    And again--the writers could have imagined for their seasonal antagonist--from Russian mobsters to Texas yakuza to Noble's Holler taking control to Boyd really discovering religion and nobody caring. And this is what they chose.

  • SC | March 22, 2012 1:43 AMReply

    I really don't think you can classify Quarles as queer. If the story he told the kid with the gun was true, then isn't what Quarles is doing with the hustlers directly related to the trauma he endured as a child? It's sexual, of course, but I can't see it as being a true expression of sexuality.

    For what it's worth, I think this season has been a bit of a bust, too. I hated the way the writers played out the stuff with Raylan and Winona -- why ignore Winona's threat of leaving at the end of season two and pretend everything's rosy ... until she leaves? Why not just let them confront the situation head on? -- and agree that the disparate elements of this season have not come together all that well. But using Quarles's childhood story to firmly establish him as queer and thus give the audience an official reason to hate him? I don't see it. If anything, I have more sympathy for the guy than ever before, and I still don't really feel like he and Raylan are meaningfully connected unlike Mags and Raylan were.

  • jim emerson | March 22, 2012 12:55 AMReply

    To say that "the darkest, most horrible thing [the writers] can imagine is a homosexual" is assuming an awful lot. I hadn't thought of Quarles as queer. Strange, definitely; homosexual, not really. I didn't believe his story about his father while he was telling it. He'd been drinking, popping pills, and was trying to get the gun away from the kid. Which he did. Quarles is unhinged, which I'd say is more significant than his sexuality -- and the writers already threw us (and him) a curve in this episode with the overturning of the election results. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the reason he stripped before entering the bathroom (where we see the fully clothed kid chained to the toilet) ... is that he was going to take a shower. (Coke and alcohol and psychotic anger makes you sweaty and he's a fastidious groomer.) That's just the kind of off-kilter, mind-fuck thing Quarles might do. We'll see where the character goes...

  • Abner | March 22, 2012 12:34 AMReply

    If you just now figured his sexuality, you haven't been paying attention. Try again.

  • Keith | March 23, 2012 2:51 AM

    I think this season has been a bit lackluster, as well, with too many divergent plot points that promise to come together but never really do, taking a page from the books of Heroes, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica.

    However, I think it's unfair to assume that the writers are making an association between Quarles' homosexuality with all of his bad deeds. Simply because a character is bad AND gay, doesn't mean the writers are implying that homosexuality has anything to do with his bad qualities. I mean, the guy is also a molester of young boys- homosexuality isn't really the characteristic that jumps out as being immoral.

    I agree with BJ- his sexuality was quite muddled; he had a sexual relationship with a woman earlier in the season (he was taking advantage of her for his own needs, but still, it implies that he may be bisexual). It's fair to raise a concern about the writers potentially having unfair preconceptions about gay people, but even that alone is a stretch, based on the information we have available. As the thesis of an entire article, it doesn't really hold up.

  • BJ Summers | March 21, 2012 7:45 PMReply

    Being prostituted to guys by your strung out Dad doesn't make you gay, just horrifically maladjusted sexually. Quarles sexuality seems very very muddled indeed.

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