The hillbilly whisperer
Justified – “Cottonmouth”
So I’m a bit torn how to talk about this week’s Justified – not because I have misgivings about its quality, but because it was so good that I’m at a loss where to begin. I could easily waste several hundred words talking about half a dozen super scenes, but I also want to continue reflecting on some fascinating themes we’ve been tracking that developed in interesting ways last night. I think we can safely say that, just as (say) a Xander story is bound to be a phenomenal episode of Buffy, so when Justified gives us a Boyd-heavy episode, it’s going to be Justified at its best. So we see this week, with “Cottonmouth” capitalizing on storylines the show has been building toward for several weeks. Boyd’s gradual recognition of the inevitability of his actions – that he steals because it’s in his nature to do so – was superbly affecting, and Goggins delivered the scene with real emotional weight. That Goggins plays Boyd so radically different from Shane on The Shield only makes the gravitas in that scene with Ava better; Shane was always reacting, a step behind the rapidly descending shitstorm that perpetually followed Vic’s machinations, reflexively panicking and impulsive. When stripped down to the core, his actions came from pure self-preservation; Boyd, like Raylan, operates by a code.
But this week, we see what makes him tick when forced to act at a level more visceral and urgent than that of the persona he’s constructed for himself. The trick, I think, to understanding Boyd is that he’s fundamentally been an ideologue, but the kind of ideologue that holds his identity without a bit of irony, even as that identity keeps shifting. So the answer to last season’s question – is Boyd’s conversion for real or is he full of it? – is really kind of both. When Boyd is a white supremacist, he acts with singleminded obsession; when he gets religion in prison, and launches a crusade against meth dealers (including his own father), that sense of purpose is the same. So again with his dedication to living right (and reading Of Human Bondage) and caring for Ava this season – that’s a responsibility held with a sobriety and devotion that pervades his every decision. But it’s always an identity mediated in something external to himself – so when he’s faced with something that reveals who he really is, it comes with the crushing force of fate (in the strict sense, that is, of tragedy). It literally doesn’t occur to him that he could go with Raylan rather than the miscreants at the mine.
Raylan, in many respects, is the opposite – he represents the ultimate Big Other, the government, but his actions really spring from something more personal. But I think, to further the parallels between the two we’ve been following,* that this week helped us get a look beneath his always-mannered inscrutability. I’m thinking of that last scene with Loretta (for me, already one of the best best characters this show has created, especially because the actress pulls off the hyperstylized Leonardesque dialogue at least as well as Goggins). His promise to protect her has little to do with his job as a marshall – something the show winkingly acknowledged by having Art comment on the trouble Raylan is always getting into outside his job description – and shows us something more fundamental about his motivations. It occurred to me, in that scene, that Loretta is basically this season’s Ava (excepting the whole sleeping with the witness thing, of course); she’s the girl caught up in violent events beyond her control, even if she’s considerably smarter than most of the players, and in need of protection from someone who, as the “hillbilly whisperer,” both understands the complexities of the situation and is capable of, nay justified in, handling it with the necessary force. As for Ava, Boyd has moved into that role of father-protector, as we see when he gives Ava the cash from the heist as he stoically awaits (yet another) arrest.**
There’s any number of superb scenes I could talk about in addition – Raylan’s great face off with Dewey at the beginning of the show, or Mag’s chilling administration of discipine to her son,*** or the scene with Boyd and the cellphone, or Raylan’s unflappable ability to jail his father, or, and let me just say this was one of my favorite Justified scenes ever, Raylan’s interrogation by slowly-charging taser – all come to mind as examples of just how well this show creates, frames, and executes scenes with great wit and originality. But I’m going to stop here, and note that I’m mulling over the possible fruitfulness of an extended comparative analysis of the X-Files and Justified, as completely incongruous as that might seem. But I’ll save that for another week.
*On that note, I wonder if it’s pushing the parallel too far to look at Boyd’s (vicious) murder of his co-conspirators as yet another example of someone doing Raylan’s killing for him?
**I’m usually more copacetic with suspending my disbelief than many, I think, but am I wrong in thinking that Ava’s going to have to move very quickly to hide that bag of c-notes, with the apparent entirety of the Harlan County Sheriff’s Office descending on her home?
***Here’s where I’m wondering if I’m just slow: Dickie’s limp – the result of an earlier discipline from Mags, right? Say, with a bear trap?
It’s funny…I was, at the conclusion of the episode thinking many of the same things, but most specifically how good the writing has been this season. I was trying to figure out what is making it so exceptional and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they’ve dropped this idea of having a sort of “heist-of-the-week” or whatever (they still do here and there), but there seems to be a greater focus on the interactions of all of the characters, and I think this makes for a much more fulfilling process. Aside from these formal aspects, let me turn to some of your points.
First, I completely agree about your analysis of Boyd–it’s funny that you mention this, but I was specifically thinking of exactly this in the context of Hegel’s illustration of Rameau’s nephew in the Phenomenology. There (let’s forget whether it is a good reading of Diderot), Rameau takes on and discards shapes of consciousness as necessary. In many ways, I think, Boyd is this Rameau and so we are in agreement. I’m not sure, however, about the tragic elements you propose. It seems to me that he doesn’t go Raylan not because it is “not in his nature” (as he alleges to Eva), but precisely because he had prior to encountering Raylan already chosen a particular role to play, and, as you point out, and as the analogy to Rameau holds, Boyd and Rameau are willing to change masks as necessary, but not in the midst of a performance. Once on course, he asks with, as you aptly put it, single-minded obsession. I think largely this is a minor point, but it seems important to me to push you on it, because I don’t see Justified as involved in any sort of tragedy, it is, in a Hegelian sense, post-tragic (i.e. modern…and here, I only point to your invocation of fate and so ancient tragedy–I think you could make a case–just as for Sons of Anarchy–that there is a Shakesperian or Cavellian tragic element at play).
As far as Raylan, I’m still not sure what to make of his character. To me, it seems like neither his motivations, nor his justifications are entirely clear yet…but I do agree with you on the point of Loretta’s character, which I think is awesome. I can use that as an entryway into something that struck me this week, namely the sort of weird parallelism that you get between Boyd and Raylan on the way they are *using* women. Although both of them claim to be trying to help the women in this episodes (whether Ava or Loretta), we can clearly see now that Boyd’s “help” with only cause trouble down the road, while Raylan’s contacting Loretta, although it provides a potential avenue for help, also–especially if Mags finds out, or finds out in the wrong way–puts her in a lot of danger. In this sense, both have good intentions (and so, again, even though their paths have radically diverged again, they are somehow united in a certain sort of care for women), they also seem incapable of either (1) thinking through those intentions, or (2) acting counter to them. All which suggests an interesting commonality, that is both their strength, and perhaps their weakness.
Finally, as far as Dickie’s limp–I’m not sure, I feel like last week there was a suggestion that Raylan was somehow involved in Dickie’s limp…but we don’t know the details of how. I also just want to add that I am constantly amused by Coover’s interactions with, well, everyone…but this episode, especially with Raylan and Loretta.
Until next week,