Saturday, 14 April 2012

Fire in the Hole

There will be spoilers for Justified season 1 and 2, but there will be warnings before them. 

In the last few years there has been a flood of quality television coming from the US of A. With AMC leading the attack on our television and claiming the throne of top class television, previously belonging to HBO, showcasing flagship MadMen, closely followed by the the cool kids' series Breaking Bad, other cable companies and even some networks were quick to step up with their own selection of quality or pseudo quality shows. The result is one of the most exciting television to come out of the US, reducing the gap between it and excellent British television, which means more TV for me.

Amongst all the cable companies, FX stands out with the most unique and thrilling television: Louie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer, American Horror Story are a few of the unexpected products to come out of FX. 

Out of all the wonderful television shows, cable and network alike, none has taken me by surprise and has been so surprising and exhilarating as FX's superb, but overlooked and underrated Justified. Based on the short story, Fire in the Hole, and the novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, by Elmore Leonard, right from its very beginning, Justified won me over with its innovation, boldness and the fact that it looked like nothing else on TV at the time it came out or since.

In an age when western became a trendy honorary episodical homage for any self aware series, Justified took on western and committed to it as the guiding force of the show. It's not a periodic drama, a stylish drama that can plant genres into episodes to make a trendy statement nor is it a fast paste clever comedy that uses genres as celebration or gimmick. Justified is a fully fledged modern time western and though homages are inevitably there, and other styles and genres beautifully weaved into the series, they are not the purpose of the show. Justified creates a its own western for television that can stand shoulder to shoulder proudly with some of the great westerns of cinema.

Raylan Givens is our fearless cowboy in the role of Deputy US marshal. He’s got the fastest gun in the west and a hat to go with it. His gun proved too fast for the east and Raylan is reassigned and sent from Florida back to his hometown, Harlan in Lexington, Kentucky, to bring law and order the Cling Eastwood way. Timothy Olyphant, who plays Raylan, is quite a brilliant casting choice to play a modern hybrid of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. He’s got the kind of clean, good-American-boy look that John Wayne had and he represents the law abiding community, but he also has the baggage, the anger and edge that Clint Eastwood had; and like Eastwood he is a bit of a wild card.

From here onwards there will be spoilers all over as I will be discussing the recently finished season three.

After the masterful second season and the death of one of Mags Bennett, mother of all hillbillies and one of the most brilliant villains in westerns and on television in general, baddies from every corner of Harlan and outside it are fighting to take over Mags' drug business and with it the control of Harlan’s underworld. Without Mags to restore order, the town is heading towards chaos and disarray. 

Season three reflects this deterioration of the town into anarchy with a messy and crazy feel to the season enhanced by the gradual meltdown of psychotic villain of the season Robert Quarles (the fantastic Neal McDonough, who seems to be born to play the creepy psychopath).

But Harlan is not the only one who lost a mother; towards the end of season two Dickie Bennett shot and killed Helen Givens, the closest thing Raylan had to a mother. Moreover, Helen was keeping Arlo, Raylan’s father, from moving completely into the dark side and it is because of her Arlo and Raylan sustained the shred of a relationship they didn’t really have. In the beginning of this season Raylan also loses Winona, the love of his life and mother of his child. Together with his hometown, Raylan is heading towards a decline; starting with the running over of Ash, a minor player in the game, twice (!) for information, shooting to kill a bad nurse and escalating to playing Harlan Roulette with Wynn Duffy as well as leaving Quarles bleeding to death, holding his hand, and not in a brotherly love kind of way.

In contrast, Boyd Crowder (the fantastic Walton Goggins) has come a long way since being an insignificant Nazi thug in the pilot episode, and he is now a serious contender for the title of king or Harlan crime. His relationship with Ava grows stronger and they develop almost as a Bonnie and Clyde kind of duo. Ava, who was once infatuated with Raylan and now lost all interest in him, stands by her man, Boyd for good and for bad, like Winona never did for Raylan. 

Moreover, now that Helen is gone Arlo is free to adapt Boyd as his preferred son and give him the love, appreciation and protection he never gave Raylan. He takes the blame for killing Devil as well as the state trooper, and while he did not kill Devil to protect Boyd, he takes the blame for it for the same reason. and what Raylan tells Winona at the end of the last episode, that Arlo shot the state trooper because he was a man with a hat, reveals Arlo’s hidden desire to kill his own son.

This season has introduced another new character, Elstin Limehouse. While Quarles is an outsider, Limehouse is Harlan made, but also contrary to Quarles, who is intimidating right from the start, Limehouse doesn’t come across as much of a threat. At his most menacing, Limehouse walks around his butcher house with his butcher's knife talking big, but doing very little. However, Limehouse's butcher’s knife featured in every scene he was in, like Chekhov’s gun comes to play in the final act bringing Quarles' to his brilliantly grotesque (H)end.

At the end of the crazy, and occasionally psychotic, joyride that was season three of Justified all the major local players of the town, are still at large and the battle for underworld control is still almost as open as it was at the beginning of the season, with Limehouse only slightly ahead of Boyd in the game. The insane outsider is left for dead, and Raylan is walking the line towards his own personal meltdown.

Justified portrays a place in the wilderness where justice is achieved with guns, and like the great western it is Justified choreographs complex stand offs and duels. What I hope to see, and I strongly believe the series is heading in that direction, is that once striped of all other villains, and I assume Limehouse is next season's big bad, Harlan's streets would be clear, and everyone would take cover, for a very different from the pilot episode, Raylan and Boyd ultimate and final showdown.  


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