Saturday, May 7, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified “Bloody Harlan”

Last week I set aside space at the end of my review to take some guesses at who would come out of the season finale alive, and re-reading them I was amazed to discover I batted 1.000, if you don’t get picky about how people actually went down or hold it over my head that a couple situations are left up in the air, which, you know, don’t be a jerk about it.  Let’s not pretend I’m a genius for knowing that Doyle was going to get put down for a season’s worth of unforgivable assholery, nor is it really an act of extra-sensory perception to predict that Mags would have to pay some price as the season’s villain.  Dickie always seemed too pitiable to pay with his life when, truthfully, he’s right in pointing out to Raylan tonight that he owes Raylan about 7,000 steps a day, times 20 years of days, on a gimp leg thanks to Raylan’s home run swing.  Loretta got a wonderful wrap-up to one of the more painful stories of the season—she gets to put a bullet in Mags without carrying with her the burden of killing for the rest of her life.  I had said that she might provide one of this week’s surprises, and I’m not sure if that’s really true or not in retrospect.  It seems inevitable in hindsight that seeking to rectify her father’s unavenged murder would be her final act of the season, given her feistiness and quiet resolve in pretty much every moment of screen time.  I will claim at least partial credit for seeing Ava’s chest wound coming, but since I had a feeling she’d die and now I get the impression she’ll pull through to annoy us more with her poor decision making skills and make up for it with the way she wears a pair of jeans, I can’t really say I guessed it entirely. 

On the upside, I’m really glad to have been correct (again, certainly no oracle for guessing at this) about Boyd coming out of it all unscathed tonight, and managing to walk ambiguous lines again as a likeable scoundrel.  Most notable tonight, I thought, were the things that I didn’t guess at:  Wynona provides an ultimatum which is probably the most emotional cliffhanger left for next season, especially since she’s pregnant (!), Boyd finds himself a Harlan County sheriff to enlist as an ally (I don’t think he served his usefulness tonight, not the way Boyd operates), and the old lady who changed Jed’s mind last week was nowhere to be seen, unless she was hiding in the woods somewhere chuckling as it all went down just as she had foreseen (that’s wild speculation on my part; there’s no reason to believe she’s an all-powerful Emperor Palpatine-type puppet master here, but there’s no way she’s going unexplained next season). 

I probably enjoyed Dickie’s final moments tonight (final moments of the season—who knows whether we’ll see him again next season in some capacity) more than any other character.  He’s a tragic figure of almost appalling proportions, and it seemed as much an act of mercy as anything else that the writers let him survive all this.  Arguably, his is the deepest woe of all, such has been his lot in life, as he outlives his entire family (and watches his older brother take a bullet in the head) and will have plenty of time in prison to mull over that fate.  He’s killed Aunt Helen and may have killed Ava, both cowardly acts breaking the code that better men than him abide by without exception (note how often Boyd goes out of his way to treat Ava with the Southern respect accorded to a woman), and yet he’s so outmatched by every masculine figure in the war that he’s little more than pitiable even in these horrible moments.

Maybe that’s why I felt his batting practice at Raylan’s expense made for one of tonight’s best moments both in the exchange between two thoroughly three-dimensional characters and for the complexity of what it demanded from us as viewers.  To feel bad for Dickie after all we’ve seen him do is a bit tough, but after watching him sniveling at the wrong end of Raylan’s gun while handcuffed last week, it’s also hard not to feel a sense of understanding for a man wanting a bit of revenge against one of the many people who seemed to turn the tides of fate against him in his life.  Raylan cutting Dickie down in his youth was a small part of a feud that was bigger than both of them, but it also reeks of inevitability in other ways:  Raylan is the picture of masculine strength and resolve and was probably an imposing figure even in his youth on the baseball diamond.  By comparison, Dickie would be a slight man even had he kept his leg intact, but he too has a brazenness and defiant nature about him which isn’t so different from Raylan.  Nor did either man come from a background which afforded him much opportunity; despite the blood feud between their families, the important figureheads in each had more in common as criminals and ne’er-do-wells than they had differences worth killing each other over.  Dickie, however, lacked the motherly figure of an Aunt Helen (how ironic that his only real revenge then is to steal that figure from Raylan) to pluck him from the riptide pulling him down into the family lifestyle and find something more worthy to focus his ambitions upon.  

More’s the tragedy that his only companion was a moron of a brother who was more of a burden to be looked after than a partner to build any meaningful legacy with.  Raylan doesn’t even give him the pleasure of seeing his punishment cause any real pain.  “Go back to the part about you reading,” he says sarcastically when Dickie begins the speech he must have been writing mentally these past 20 years in case he actually ever got this moment to exact his revenge on Dickie.  The fact that even the pleasure of giving his longtime tormentor a good beating is stolen from him by his newer nemesis, Boyd, is a tragedy worthy of the great playwrights, thought circumstances ironically save his life when Raylan uses him once more as a pawn to complete the destruction of Dickie’s own family. 

Raylan has barely been on the right side of the law himself this season, though his character’s position has always been one of moral standards before legal standards (which doesn’t excuse him from the money theft, but I stand by my position that that was a stupid subplot to begin with).  That being said, it’s impossible to picture Raylan (or this show) without the badge, hat, and approval of the federal government to do what he’s best at, so the unresolved elements of his future as a marshal, a husband, and a father promise for some fancy writin’ to get him out of the conundrum he’s left in this season.  It was heartening to see Art save Raylan’s life on a tip from Wynona, but it certainly doesn’t suggest that anything has been forgiven between the two of them, and Art’s recommendation for Raylan to return to Glenco is as undesirable an option as him not  giving the recommendation for fans of the show.  His disapproving stares and words towards Raylan have been the most difficult things to bear in the past few weeks (rivaling Mags methods of punishing her grown children, even), and the fact that the season saw fit to let that rift go largely unresolved is a disappointment but not really a strike against the writers, who clearly know how much tension that subplot is causing in viewers.  The reality is clearly that Raylan’s connection to his job is as deeply rooted as any of his other relationships in Harlan, which makes the likelihood of him leaving for good, Wynona or no Wynona, baby or no baby, very small. 

Even tonight, within an hour of his realization that he’s going to be a father, he defies Wynona’s wishes and rushes into the most dangerous place he can possibly put himself.  Note though, and nod in respectful amazement at the cleverness of the showrunners, that he doesn’t run off out of a sense of duty to his job or a burning desire to see all of those Bennetts finally thrown in prison.  No—he defies Wynona’s wishes (and resists the ultimatum that if he goes, she might not be waiting when he returns) because he gets a call about a little girl for whom he has already been a father figure to for whatever short time he was able to serve as her caretaker.  In a season full of complex relationships, Raylan’s sometime-mentoring of Loretta has been minor and intermittent, but how important it became tonight when everyone’s cards were finally laid on the table.  The two storylines have nothing and everything to do with each other tonight—he’s probably somewhat in the wrong for not honoring Wynona’s wishes given the higher stakes of their relationship now, and yet, ironically, nothing could say more about his fitness to be a father to a child than the fact that he can’t keep himself from acting to help a child in danger who is neither his nor his responsibility any more, by any reasonable measure. 

For anyone who would doubt that this show is at least partially about the depths of relationships and how they tie us to certain choices, for better or worse, look no further than tonight’s final moments between Raylan, Loretta, and Mags.  Raylan walks in on Loretta getting ready to add another bullet to the one already in Mags, this one probably more permanent.  Mags, in a fascinating mixture of menace, sorrow, and regret, seems to be intent on talking the gun from Loretta, who is having none of it.  Once she puts a bullet in Mags’ leg, everything changes.  She is a child staring down the path Mags children were forcibly pushed down and which Raylan avoided in a sense, but ended up treading on anyway (he’s more than comfortable with taking life, though he doesn’t do so recklessly or without cause).  Raylan is bound and determined to preserve her innocence, despite knowing (and having said earlier) that she’s doing exactly what he would have done as a child in her shoes.  Mags, who clearly loved Loretta in a genuine sense despite the cruelty of having taken the girl’s father, seems similarly intent on talking Loretta out of the act, and not just for the preservation of her own life.  Her sadness at having brought Loretta to this is plain on her face.  Raylan and Mags thus become surrogate mother and father to Loretta for a few moments in order to ensure that she has better options for a future than anyone could hope for a girl in such circumstances.  For Loretta, the only relationship worth anything to her has already been taken:  “I want him here to tell me,” she says when Raylan asks her if this is what her father would want her to do. 

It’s the most tragic moment of the night and highlights for us why Mags’ theft of her father is the most heinous act of the season:  There is no greater crime than stealing a relationship from someone, least of all a child.  Mags is twice guilty of it, given that she cut her own son out of her life in favor of future business endeavors.  Loretta is saved from a path that could make her into another Mags in 20 years by the parental devotion of the woman who stole her father and a man who will soon be a father but cares for her out of a simple sense of responsibility to people one knows are in need of help and guidance.  Unfortunately, Mags has burned through all of her relationships (what might Helen have said in this moment?) once she finds out that Doyle has been killed.  It’s one final knock against poor Dickie that his survival (granted he’s under arrest, but still) is meaningless to her in the face of losing Loretta and Doyle.  She takes her own life quietly over a drink with Raylan, pointing out that it’s “an end to her troubles” and she’ll “get to see [her] boys again” (Dickie, again, doesn’t rate).  In her final moment before the pain grabs her, she points out to Raylan that it’s too late, the poison was “already in the glass, not the jar”—a word-for-word repeat of her explanation to Loretta’s father when she killed him.  Back then I thought nothing of it, except that it was obviously an enormously cruel act.  Having heard it repeated here, it seems much more a comment about inevitability and circumstance—the poison is waiting for some of us all along; what we pour into the glass is really rather meaningless.  Given her story of entering into this lifestyle from last episode, and the fact that she drew her own boys into it as well, it’s a fitting way for her to leave us. 

As far as action sequences went tonight, the episode didn’t pull any punches in delivering the goods.  The inevitable firefight between Boyd and the Bennett clan he double crossed is handled with some nice editing and more firepower than we’ve ever seen on this show before.  The pummeling sound of automatic weaponry going off everywhere created even more chaos in already hectic scenes—everything was handled with an impressive intensity.  Johnny gets a nice moment where he handles his would-be assassins at the small expense of his house, which he blows up with them inside.  It’s mostly a moment for us to nod our heads at and comment to one another about how awesome people are on this show, but there’s also the footnote that whatever reservations Johnny had about Boyd’s endeavors, he’s clearly set them aside if he’s willing to destroy his own home to help them duck these troubles and get back to business.  Boyd certainly makes good at his end, nearly getting his chance to kill Dickie (yet again a season ends with him doing Raylan a good turn in a moment of need and then running off), and enjoying a smug moment of victory when Doyle takes the phone call during their parlay informing him that the assassination attempts have failed and they’re down a few operatives for their troubles.  Really, Boyd’s overall scheming and seizing of opportunities tonight probably speaks strongly towards his centrality as next season’s villain—Harlan County doesn’t have room for another criminal power once Boyd Crowder gets his devious groove back. 

It was another great season for this show, despite a few growing pains and one subplot that altered one of the best relationships on the show irreparably.  There’s plenty for us to stew about in the long wait leading up to next season, and a lot to be content with.  Justified is another entry in the list of FX shows I’ve been happy to get friends hooked on, and I’ve (literally) had a couple of people thank me for pointing the show out to them, which I take no credit for except to say they’re lucky I watch way too much television.  In looking back at season two, it seems so unlikely that a show so deeply rooted in and devoted to an American subculture that doesn’t exactly strike chords of familiarity with the mainstream viewer gets a chance to breathe and grow into something special like this with a solid viewership and an ever-increasing sense of confidence in itself.  The landscape of television gets more homogenous every year; the 53rd spinoff of CSI took to the air this season and new cults of pseudo-celebrity worship (hey these teens are pregnant!  Somebody sign them to a big contract!) control more and more of prime time programming.  For those of us who appreciate shows with the qualities Justified has in spades, not enough can be said about little holdouts like this staking their claim and proving their worth.  It’s an uphill battle fighting the stupidity of the average American TV viewer, but I commend you for continuing to fight it.  See you next season.

Overall Rating:  9.7/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot, and Occasionally What-Have-You:

Art’s stern “I said I want to think about it” is heartbreaking—I get the impression he’ll never forgive Raylan for the money thing.

It’s a simple moment, but the shot of Boyd standing on the bridge watching the police officer he just turned to his side driving away is a powerful image of a man capable of scary things.

Wynona’s face is beautiful when she confirms that Raylan heard her correctly about being pregnant.  These two actors have great chemistry together.

“Maybe I’ll sell ice cream, I like ice cream.”  I’ll be looking for some little nod to this joke on Raylan’s part next season when he’s looking or a new job. 

You need to move to a new county when the Pastor of your church organizes a criminal parlay as routinely as he passes the collection plate.

“Aside from money, what is business but contracts and agreements?”  An interesting question from Mags.

I already mentioned loving the action scenes tonight, but I especially thought the POV shots from the back of Dickie’s truck as he frantically made his cowardly escape after shooting Ava were well done. 

These rodeo clowns your idea of security?”

“Whoo!  No one gonna tell me that there wasn’t a base hit!”  I love Dickie even when I hate him. 

“Assume the position now.  You dumb ass peckerwoods understand English?  On the ground, hillbillies!”

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