Bullet(ville) Points: “We dug coal together”

It’s an oft-repeated piece of Justified lore that Boyd Crowder, the silver-tongued outlaw played by Walton Goggins, was not meant to survive the first episode. In the Elmore Leonard short story from which the pilot was directly adapted by creator/showrunner Graham Yost, US Marshal Raylan Givens shoots and kills Boyd at the dinner table of Boyd’s sister-in-law Ava. Goggins, fresh off FX’s gritty crime drama The Shield, was basically on hand to christen the maiden voyage of FX’s new gritty crime drama, but when Yost realized what lightning he had just bottled, he rewrote the end of the episode: Boyd survives Raylan’s bullet. In fact, Raylan purposefully did not shoot to kill. And in those twin decisions–Raylan’s and Yost’s–Justified found its beating heart, its reason to exist beyond the appeal of putting star (and erstwhile sheriff of Deadwood) Timothy Olyphant back in a cowboy hat. For the next six seasons, Raylan and Boyd would chase one another, cowboy and bandit, each gaining the upper hand at various points only to let the other escape, for reasons only half explained by Raylan’s description of their one-time friendship: “We dug coal together.”

The cop and criminal who are mirrors of one another and who understand each other better than anyone else are old, tired clichés. The cop who loves his wife and family, but is a terrible husband and father, is also a cliché. So is the high school cheerleader who married young and became trapped by her dreary small-town life. So is the guy who leaves for the big city, yet can never really leave home behind. Or the crusty but benign commanding officer who is often exasperated by the hero’s reckless actions. Or backwoods country types who drink moonshine in their rusted out pickups and are distrustful of outsiders. On paper, Justified was built on cliché atop cliché. It was a hard sell in an era of higher concept, hookier prestige dramas. It’s fish-back-in-water premise could have just as easily been on CBS’ Sunday lineup, in this decade or really any previous one. Compared to an identity-stealing 1960s ad executive, or a chemistry teacher cooking crystal meth, a lawman returning to his hometown sounds pretty unsexy. Justified‘s (many) skills and (many, many) virtues were found in its execution; the devils were not just in the details, the devils were the details. One could point to its stellar main cast and murderer’s row of character actor guest stars, or its eminently memorable dialogue, or its structure and approach to action and violence–as effortlessly clever as it was unobtrusive–but trying to sell the show to people who weren’t already watching it was like trying to retell someone else’s funny story. It was just great. You had to be there.

It was unfussy. It was a show that knew exactly what it was, was so self-possessed that it was easily taken for granted compared to the austere likes of Mad Men or the frantic twists of Breaking Bad or 24. If The Wire is television’s Great American Novel, then Justified is the dog-eared Elmore Leonard paperback you picked up on a whim or at the airport and couldn’t put down, the one that you hold onto when cleaning out your book collection, the one you read and then read again and soon you’ve read it a dozen times, like Raylan and his ratty copy of The Friends of Eddie Coyle (which is an awesome movie that everyone should see immediately).

Of course it wasn’t a perfect show. Despite a hall of fame first episode, Season One suffered from the same growing pains that every show deals with in one way or another. In this instance, it was about recalibrating the season to be more serialized (partly as a way to incorporate Boyd back into the show), rather than the bad-guy-of-the-week format that the first half of the season follows. And while Season Two was the show’s best, thanks in large part to a killer (pun!) turn by Margo Martindale, Season Three was left floundering in her absence. Likewise Season Five, which followed Season Four’s singular mystery story with what felt like a hundred different plotlines with no real impact (give or take an exploding mobster). And it must be said that the show never quite figured out what to do with some of its characters, particularly Erica Tazel as fellow marshal Rachel Brooks, who, as the show’s sole black female regular, was especially conspicuous when left in the background.

But it was also a show that tried to own its shortcomings, and even sometimes head them off at the pass. The hole at the center of Season Three after Martindale’s exit was explicitly framed in the show as a hole in Harlan’s criminal power structure, and much of the season was about usurpers trying to fill that role. And the show’s focus on rural Kentucky whites in specific terms, rather than just as a cultural default, helped defend the show against similar (legitimate) criticisms of whitewashing in Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and just about every other show in television history. (Still didn’t help Erica Tazel all that much, but I digress.)

But the show’s canniest move was to undercut its hero from the very beginning. While its laconic style and cowboy cool may have marked it as old-fashioned, if enjoyably so, the show has always had a deeply ambivalent view of its hero. To be clear: Raylan Givens is a terrible lawman. He may be the fastest gun in Kentucky, and a fun guy to spend an hour with every week, he is an unfit officer in every other way. His Kentucky assignment in the very first episode was the result of the PR nightmare resulting from his killing of a Miami mob enforcer in the middle of a public area. His coworkers hate working with him, and the show agrees with them. Raylan’s anger at his upbringing in Harlan led him to leave home for the Marshals as soon as he could, but he set out to prove to everyone that he wasn’t a dirtbag criminal like his father by becoming (almost) a dirtbag criminal with a badge.

It’s that (almost) where the show’s heart lives, and what brings us back to Boyd. Elmore Leonard’s worlds don’t value bullies and knuckleheads. To survive and thrive, one needs to not only be smarter than everyone else, but self-honest. Raylan and Boyd are both generally the smartest guys in their respective rooms (though that isn’t always saying much), but only Boyd understands (most of the time) what he’s all about. Raylan’s biggest blind spot is himself, to the point that when his ex-wife Winona notes at the end of the first episode how boundlessly angry he is, it comes as a surprise. And so Raylan needs Boyd, not just as an ever-moving target, but a version of himself that he can actually see–the murderous, corrupt endpoint of trying to live an ambitious life when born in Harlan, by which he can always clearly assess, and judge his own indiscretions as relatively innocent. And for Boyd’s part in their symbiosis, perhaps it’s just that, being a smart and passionate man raised amongst neanderthals, he values having a friend that he can always talk to, even when there are bars between them, even when they are lying to each other and themselves. For all of his florid speechifying, Boyd for better/worse did not ever need to really explain himself to Raylan. They had an understanding than ran ever deeper than their immediate aims of justice, revenge, or greed. They dug coal together.

Six rounds on tonight’s (final) Justified.

1. So this is the end, folks, and quieter than most. The show’s finales usually end a fireworks display with a moment of quite grace and reflection, whether it’s Raylan letting Boyd escape after the siege of Bulletville or Mags Bennett having a taste of her own Apple Pie. Here, the fireworks ended with about a quarter of the show left to go, after the highway quick draw between Raylan and Boon.

2. It’s a testament to the power of the show that for a minute I actually thought Raylan was dead on the highway. Kudos to returning director Adam Arkin for the stark long take in which Raylan and Boon both shoot and both go down.

3. Sam Elliott’s one-eyed death grimace probably won’t show up in gifs and Halloween costumes the way Gus Fring went out on Breaking Bad, but it was a great, arresting final image for the show’s last guest star.

4. I mentioned this several weeks ago, but with all of the hell Raylan has caused the Marshal’s service, from Tommy Bucks in the first episode to the mess with Nicky Augustine in Season Four to Ava’s escape and theft of Markham’s money, I was secretly hoping that Rachel would step up like Kima at the end of The Wire and put Raylan away, either out of the Marshals or behind bars.

5. Ava dressing her son up like a little Boyd (complete with buttoned collar) and then having him digging in his sandbox was too cute by half, but I’d say the show’s earned it.

6. I assume that Raylan’s new shorter-brimmed hat (thanks, Boon!) was a tip to Elmore Leonard, who originally wrote Raylan in such a hat and disagreed with the show’s decision to put him in a more traditional cowboy hat.

Take it easy.

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