Do you know how firearms work?
Justified: “The Moonshine War”
So on Wednesday we had the return of one of my favorite shows (and FX’s second-best new series of last year*). The first season of Justified managed to do several things, all at once: it developed a great cast of characters, especially Walton Goggin’s maddeningly devious Boyd Crowder; it pulled off the nearly impossible feat of sustaining Elmore Leonard’s stylized and witty dialogue sans a Leonard script or source; and it neatly balanced standalone and big-arc storytelling in a relatively unique way, all while pulling the threads together at the end of the season nearly perfectly. Perhaps most memorable to me, however, was Justified‘s extraordinary sense of place. Earlier this year, I wrote about Sons of Anarchy as one of a crop of superb shows, such as Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights, that are grounded in somewhere totally outside of bicoastal, primetime-drama America. Red state shows, if you will; and even more remarkably, all of these shows have developed a nuanced sense of the rules and structure of small, deeply traditioned communities, and played out their dramas against the backdrop of settings and characters portrayed without condescension or caricature.
Thus, one of the best dynamics of Justified has been Raylan’s ability (reluctantly, at first), to draw upon his history and kinship ties with the Crowders and other undesirables of Harlan, KY to effectively walk in places a “federal” wouldn’t normally be able to in rural Kentucky. While the law would normally be viewed as an interloper, an outsider to be stonewalled and resisted at all costs, Raylan has a ties to the community that run deeper than those of his badge, and the best moments of the first season showed how adeptly and craftily he negotiated and exploited those ties. That said, for all the strength Justified displayed in playing out its stories as steeped in local color, Raylan has remained a mysterious figure (deliberately so, I think). Timothy Olyphant’s laconic reading of his lines has a way (kind of Agent Mulder-like, come to think of it) of playing Raylan with just enough irony and bemusement to make his way of straddling two worlds fascinatingly insightful, so that we never quite know his read of the situation. With Walton Goggin’s bizarre Boyd an inscrutable foil to play off against, this gave the first season a powerful dynamic to work with, and allowed it to deepen the world of Harlan, and particularly the Crowder family, in a way at that was at once realist and mythological.
Interestingly enough, that dynamic characterized the film that best captured Justified‘s world last year, the superb Winter’s Bone,** which similarly portrayed both the poison and power of blood and soil in rural communities, and the contemporary blight of meth in so many of those communities. “The Moonshine War” feels in many ways like it’s cut from the same cloth – a young girl at the mercy of the more vicious elements of these rural societies gives us this week’s (presumably) episodic arc, and the leering menace of James Earl Dean was, I thought perfectly portrayed, very dark but not cartoonish, and with a real sense of ugliness. But aside from giving us the best line of the night, quoted in the title, as well as a chance for Raylan to exercise his non-lethal use of force, this plot merely provided the entree into the sphere of the crime family of Mags and Dickie. I loved how this all played out – Raylan’s childhood memories of Mags and her “apple pie,” the nuanced way both Mags and Dickie were played (I love Jeremy Davies, and am thrilled to see how he’s going to play off Olyphant) , and tension that Rachel’s presence brought to the proceedings. Rachel was an underused character last season, and her presence as an African-American in such a reflexively racist setting automatically amped up the tension (as she very well knew). The standoff outside of Davies’ house, in fact, was probably my favorite scene of the night; I love that not once, but twice, it was Rachel that had the draw on the bad guy, and I really hope we get a chance to see her character emerge this season.
I grew up in a small mountain town myself, and when Mags says, “there’s knowledge in the hills,” she’s right. Such knowledges can be healing, sometimes, but they’re also poisonous, to outsiders and to those who make themselves outsiders, like the unfortunate McCready. That’s the truth of a place like Harlan, and one of the struggles of Raylan’s character has been figuring out exactly where he stands within that tension. This episode sets up this dynamic beautifully, and I think we’re off to a great start. Boyd? A total wild card, just as he should be.
*Yes, I’m still mourning Terriers.
**All quibbling about big-name films aside…
I’m totally with you on all of your points and am so pleased by this first episode and by the return of this show, and more importantly, by FX in general (having just caught up with Sons of Anarchy!)
First, let me expand a bit on your thoughts about these sorts of shows. I find them very powerful, especially at this moment in time, with our country so palpably split along red/blue state lines. What impresses me most, aside from the way they manage to execute their storytelling (as you say without caricature or condescension), is how they put into question the very project of America. I know I must sound like a broken record with my continual references to Cavell, but these shows seem through and through Cavellian in their approach to America: it’s an unachieved, oftentimes unapproachable America. From Raylan’s split loyalties to his skirting the law to the judge from last season to Doyle’s obvious involvement with the drug trade, we see that the solutions to the various problems the show presents will not, and indeed fundamentally cannot, by means of a reliance on some “pure” or “ideal” institution(s). But neither are the problems purely, let’s say, interpersonal (as in, e.g., the sort of issues Raylan still has with his ex-wife and now, Ava). Rather they are a strange combination of structural, personal, and, for lack of a better, term, American: the obvious legacies of racism, structural forms of poverty, radically anti-government libertarian streaks, and, perhaps, even, the preponderance of firearms. I am extremely excited to see how Justified pursue and elaborates these points–how it draws and re-draws, critiques and dreams, America.
Second, I am just wholeheartedly attracted to these characters. They’re so complex and so well-acted (and so well, likable and funny) that it is always a pleasure to watch the show. Similarly, the dialogue is, as you touch on, brilliant. In addition to the standoff you mention, I especially liked the dialogue between Loretta and the sex offender. It was so perfect and captured that locale, age, and uncertainty (both moral and personal) to perfection. I don’t have much to add about this week’s episode. I am very curious to see where Boyd’s character goes and I hope they continue to pursue the religious themes they so wonderfully presented last season. Similarly, I am quite excited by Jeremy Davis’s character and by the character of Mags. We know already that she is ruthless, but she also has a strange tenderness to her and this combination (and in a female) character will prove, I think, to be very interesting, not only in this context, but on its own.
So, until next week!