Now and Then: 'Justified' and the Anti-Antihero

Television
by Matt Brennan
January 3, 2013 7:22 AM
5 Comments
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Timothy Olyphant, star of "Justified" on FX
Tony Soprano. Dexter Morgan. Walter White. Television's latest "Golden Age," on cable and in the ancillary afterlife, is full of men who break bad. Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), the U.S. Marshal at the heart of "Justified," may not be squeaky clean, but he's a saint by comparison — and the key to the series' subtle genius.

Dashing, his square jaw just this side of clean shaven under that ten-gallon hat, Raylan returns to his childhood home after shooting a Miami mobster, only to find that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Harlan, Kentucky is the Wild West of the new millennium, populated by trailer-bound whores, pot-growing matriarchs, petty thieves, and Oxy addicts.

In Raylan, aided by Olyphant's ample charm, series creator Graham Yost and his talented team of writers have fashioned the anti-antihero, a Gary Cooper whose vengeance is pure, intentions good, and actions only rarely beyond the pale. Even if his relationships with women, including new flame Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), ex-wife Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), and fellow marshal Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel), tend toward an old-time chivalry lined with a little condescension, his heart is usually in the right place. It's refreshing to root for a protagonist mostly without reservation, and perhaps the more hard-won accomplishment: "Justified" operates by a less murky moral code than most of the last decade's great series, and does so without losing its grip on the rich texture of the world it constructs.

If its early episodes sit a little high on the poor-white-trash horse — Bible thumpers, neo-Nazis, and drug slingers being, I suspect, just one part of rural American life — "Justified" gradually emerges as a much more complicated portrait than its Western and police procedural roots would suggest. Raylan's quick draw (shoot first, ask for forgiveness later) may be justified by his adversaries' ruthlessness, but the villains have justifications of their own. Few shows on television investigate the criminal mind as fully, offering up strangely sympathetic antagonists with their own loyalties, miseries, and fears. The allusions to "Tombstone" and "Gunsmoke" turn out to be a canny form of misdirection — "Justified" is less a country-fried take on "Law and Order" than a twist on "The Wild Bunch," where the outlaws have something valuable to protect, too.

Raylan's run-ins with Harlan's less savory citizens sometimes end in a fusillade of bullets, but just as often there's a tacit, cautious dance going on, run through with the personal histories of small-town life. Even when their words turn out to be empty, the slippery villains of "Justified" tell another, more potent kind of truth. In Season 2, Mags Bennett argues against mountaintop coal removal — only to take the coal company's money in the end — in a rousing town hall speech. Played by Margo Martindale, in one of the small screen's great all-time performances, Mags had me, like all her compatriots, convinced: "The spoil! That is what our lives will be if Black Pike has their way with our mountain... Sometimes we need to stop and remember just what it is we have to lose."  

Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder in "Justified"
Mags' electrifying defense of a particular way of life feels like "Justified" in microcosm, roiling with the conviction that the first and last task is to protect one's own, whichever side of the law we may be on. So too with Boyd Crowder (series stalwart Walton Goggins, in a slimy, terse, and brilliant turn), whose malleability speaks to the show's laudable discomfort with easy answers. Boyd is, by turns, a virulent racist and anti-Semite, a godly preacher and anti-meth vigilante, crime kingpin, old friend, new lover, unsparing accomplice. "Justified" manages to keep Raylan's essential goodness interesting by pitting him against people like Mags and Boyd, whose essential badness is an open question.

Season 3, by contrast, wears a little thin. I'll admit this feeling may be a reaction to my recent "Justified" viewing binge, but I don't think that's the whole story. One of the strengths of the series is its skillful structure, introducing a season's threads through a handful of seemingly unrelated procedural episodes at the outset, then slowly drawing them together into a gorgeous whole. (Season 2 wound up Boyd Crowder's power grab, Mags Bennett's illicit family business, a young girl's transience and Raylan's own investigations so tightly that its penultimate episode — titled, appropriately, "Reckoning" — became a perfect novella in its own right, a stand-alone monument to serial television.)

Season 3 is a far looser collection, never quite as cohesive as it needs to be. There's potential in expanding the series' world to include the African-American community of Noble's Holler, where off-the-books banker Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) keeps a firm thumb on local proceedings, but sadly these hints at a complex racial politics never merit the kind of sustained attention that the Bennett, Crowder, and Givens clans receive. Rather, "Justified" ties itself more forcefully to the increasingly dissolute Detroit mafia operative Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), and the narrative becomes unmoored from its sharp, dense rendering of Kentucky's underworld. The show nods at his family man patina, encouraging his son on the phone before taking out anyone who stands in his way, but Quarles never escapes the bespoke chill of his Dearborn suit. In the end he's just a hired hand, an out-of-towner who's out of place in Harlan's blood-thick web of relationships.

Here's hoping the series returns to its roots in Season 4, examining what "the spoil" means when those who do the spoiling have more than money and power on their minds. Because Season 3, despite its disappointments, continued to hold out the promise of a show whose hero doesn't need to philander or pilfer to keep our attention. As Mags Bennett says in the powerful conclusion to Season 2, "You pick the devil you run with," and I'm running with "Justified."

Season 3 of "Justified" is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Season 4 premieres Tuesday, January 8 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.

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5 Comments

  • richard | July 29, 2013 6:38 PMReply

    hmm, I STRONGLY disagree. I actually thought season 3 was their best season, and I think Quarles is a better villain than Mags. And that's nothing against Mags, it's more a testament to how much I like Quarles.

  • Matt Brennan | January 3, 2013 10:34 AMReply

    Aaron and Roy, like I said, I'll admit I'm still close to it, so maybe I'm not seeing it. I also think my feelings about S3 stem in part from the incomparable Margo Martindale. Few antagonists COULD ever be as compelling as Mags thanks to her, so S3's Neal McDonough seems weak by comparison.

    But cohesion, to me at least, isn't just about consistency or flow, it's about taking the threads of plot you've laid out over the season and pulling the line through at the end, which S3 doesn't quite do. We never get much of a sense of life inside Noble's Holler (beyond Limehouse's control of it); Quarles weird sexual tastes are only explained, sort of, in a cheap monologue near the end of the season; Winn Duffy as a walking enigma worked when he was a minor subplot in S2, but as one of the central players here, I needed more from him.

    S2 may have been more diffuse at the beginning, but it was so much tighter at the end, in brilliant and troubling ways.

  • Roy J | January 3, 2013 11:26 AM

    First rule to following up an incredible villain: Don't try to out do them. Neal McDonough is a fine actor, even underrated. His villain was more colorful than Mags, which was the right way to go. Trying to aim higher than Mags probably would have led the writers to creating a similar character, which wouldn't have done the show justice. Noble's Holler was never meant to be Bennetts 2.0. This was obvious considering Robert Quarles was the main villain. Although, they could have made Limehouse the main villain, but then we wouldn't have such a fascinating character returning for season 4. Quarles "sexual tastes" wasn't expanded on because there was no point. How could they explain it any further? And would we even want it expanded upon? Robert Quarles was a great villain because he was volatile, more so than Boyd and Mags. The writers focused on the outcome of his problems than the actual reasons behind them, rightfully so. His personal life wasn't divulged as much because he's an outsider to Harlan, which makes him an outsider to the people watching the show. This was supposed to be the point. As for Wynn Duffy, he's not what I would call a "central player" in season 3. He's more like an unwilling participant. Which makes his scenes with Quarles(his expressions as he begins to realize Quarles is off his rocker are well played by Jere Burns) so much better. Not to mention, his scene with Raylan playing Harlan roulette in the finale is one of the best scenes I've ever watched on television. Which brings up another point, everyone seemed to step up in the acting department this season. Season 2 had Martindale, but season 3's actors stepped up across the board. Especially Olyphant. Why he wasn't a hit in awards season is beyond me.

  • Aaron | January 3, 2013 10:11 AMReply

    I have to agree with the comment by Roy J. I felt season 3 flowed through all 13 episodes much more smoothly than season 2. After re-watching the third season in the past 2 days it is probably the strongest season yet, from beginning to finnish.

  • Roy J | January 3, 2013 8:21 AMReply

    Season 3 was actually more cohesive than Season 2 in my opinion. Season 2 has a bit of a questionable first half(in the context of the entire season I mean, the episodes themselves were great), though the second half is absolutely incredible. Season 3 was better put together, despite the main villain not being as fascinating(but still so) as Mags. It was also much more intriguing to watch since there was quite a lot going on, without it feeling cramped. I liked how they brought in an outsider as the main villain because the interactions between him and a world he's obviously not welcome in is thoroughly interesting to watch. And Harlan County's reactions to him kind of expands on the way things work there. It was almost harking back to the western genre in that sense. Harlan being the Old West and Robert Quarles being the man from the "civilized world" coming to take control. No disappointment for me.

    Anyway, back to the topic at hand though. A lot of shows nowadays that are so great to watch have anti heroes or villains as the main character. It's starting to become a bit over saturated. That's why I like Justified. Raylan is a "good guy" in the modern sense but he also has a few quirks that make you question him. If he wasn't a Marshal, you start to think that maybe he'd be a criminal just like his father, still with no problems pulling his gun on people. It makes you question who he'd be in slightly different circumstances. I also wonder if the writers are slowly breaking him down. In season 2, he had to deal with a family feud that he obviously wanted no part in, as well as the death of Helen. In Season 3, he has to deal with the fact that his father practically replaced him with Boyd(whether Raylan cares or not is also left open) and the fear of being a father himself. From what I've read, Season 4 is supposed revolve around his family being at the heart of a cold case and unsolved mystery. I wonder if he'll reach a breaking point or not, depending on what exactly this case is about. And he'll have to deal with it by himself since he's practically the only Givens left in Harlan. Whatever happens, it's surely going to be just as fascinating as the last two seasons.

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