Thursday, April 16, 2015

So long to Harlan County

Last night was the series finale for one of my all-time favorite television shows, Justified. The saga of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens fighting serial (and oft times overlapping) wars against a small army of bad guys – ranging from Detroit mobsters to local redneck drug dealers – was, in reality, an updating of the traditional western (even down to Givens’ cowboy hat), but it stayed true to the genre’s main themes: the lonely lawman’s courageous struggle against the nihilism and barbarity of self-proclaimed outlaws, whose hands are set against everyone who gets in their way.

And what a marvelous cast! I can’t even imagine any modern actor but Timothy Oliphant playing the tall, squint-eyed Givens, and Walton Goggins was an absolute revelation as the articulate, single-minded, po’ boy-cum-outlaw, Boyd Crowder. It is a tribute to the acting skills of Goggins (and to the fine writing and direction, of course) that Crowder, in spite of his murderous pursuit of wealth and power, was able to compel a grudging admiration for his brains, his wit and his touching loyalty to Ava Crowder, one of the most fatal of femmes in TV drama (beautifully portrayed by Joelle Carter).

Nick Searcy added both gravitas and comedy as Givens’ long-suffering boss, Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel were outstanding as fellow-deputies and foils to Givens’ unorthodox methods, and Jere Burns was a frequent scene-stealer as the sleazy wisecracking crook who demonstrated an unparalleled genius for survival. The casting was excellent from top to bottom - main characters, occasional walk-ons and even the bit players. So many wonderful performances: Sam Elliot as the would-be weed tycoon; Mary Steenburgen as his silky, predatory mistress; Mykelti Williamson, the calculating African-American boss of "the holler"; and, although he only appeared in the final season, Jonathan Tucker as the chillingly composed and ruthlessly lethal Boon, a hired gunman who fancies himself as a kind of modern-day Billy the Kid. Simply too many fine actors and performances to mention them all here. “Epic” is a much overused word, but it clearly applies to both the scope of the overarching plot and to the depth of talent that marked this show.

The writing was always pitch-perfect, tight and highly creative, enabling the successive themes and plot lines to unfold with admirable continuity, the dialog unfailingly sharp and fresh. And a final note: the show avoided the knee-jerk stereotyping of poor, rural white people as knuckle-dragging morons. Sure, some of the characters were remarkably, even comically dumb (one thinks immediately of the hapless Dewey Crowe); but mostly, even the poorest denizens of the Kentucky hill country depicted in the series came across as nuanced and reasonably complex, and if not always intellectually gifted (although several clearly were), at least possessing an animal cunning that enabled many of them to run rings around the outsiders who constantly threatened their own simple, but jealously guarded, traditions and prerogatives.

A huge tip of the hat to the shade of Elmore Leonard, whose handful of Givens stories served as the inspirational nucleus for this powerful and engrossing television series.


bruce said...

I have 4 seasons downloaded so far and I watch a few episodes over and over to savour them. Was particularly impressed with Ma Bennett. Actually saw the 'apple-pie' episode on cable in India of all places. Was hooked from then. It's in the Scots-Irish blood I think. Like old Clint Eastwood movies but with more insight.

rinardman said...

I didn't read this post, Paco. I haven't seen the final season yet.

Do you need to add a spoiler alert?

RebeccaH said...

Justified was my favorite show and I'm sorry to see it go, but it went out with style.

Paco said...

R-man: there are no spoilers in the post.

bruce said...

I live in an area where mostly Irish navvies carved a way through mountains 200 years ago. You can still see the half-holes lined up along along the cliffs where they blasted them away.

They had long hand drills which went into the rock 10 feet, one navvy'd give it a turn, the other would hit with a hammer, till they had a good depth. Then they'd pour in gunpowder (way before dynamite). Then I'm sure they'd yell 'Fire in the hole!'.