Monday, February 13, 2017
February 13, 2017: AmericanStudier Hearts Justified: Appalachian Action
[Last fall, I spent a very happy month or so binge-watching all of FX’s Justified. With main characters based on an Elmore Leonard novella, the show focused on—but was in no way limited to—the exploits of Timothy Olyphant’s federal marshal Raylan Givens. I loved many many things about Justified, so for this year’s Valentine’s series I wanted to highlight and analyze a few of them. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show, or other things you love, in comments]
On the limits of a cops-and-robbers TV show about Appalachia, and how Justified transcended them.
Two and a half years ago, as the last main post in a weeklong series entitled AmericanStudying Appalachia, I wrote a post on two Appalachia-set action films: Steven Seagal’s Fire Down Below (1997) and the recent Christian Bale- and Casey Affleck-starring Out of the Furnace (2013). As I noted in that post, both films offer some unique and interesting lenses through which to analyze their Appalachian settings and communities, but both are also hamstrung, not only by unnecessary failings but also and more relevantly by the necessary limits of their action genres. That is, while we may (and I would argue do) learn something about Appalachia in the course of the films, that isn’t and can’t be their central purpose or goal—and in order to achieve their actual purposes (which if I were to sum up reductively, I’d call showing Seagal kicking everyone’s butt and leading up to a Bale and Woody Harrelson showdown, respectively), both films necessarily have to minimize their cultural and social worldbuilding sufficiently to render our glimpses of Appalachia partial and relatively superficial. Again, that’s not a critique of them—if they come up short, it’s as mediocre action films—but rather a reflection on the limits of a genre like action in presenting multi-layered depictions of settings and communities.
From the famous opening scene of its very first episode, in which Timothy Olyphant’s Stetson-wearing Marshal Raylan Givens approaches a notorious Miami criminal, gives him two minutes to leave town or face execution, and then, when the man draws on him instead, shoots to kill, Justified clearly established itself within a particular genre as well: a Wild West-echoing, marshal-and-outlaw update for the 21st century. The rest of the show’s six seasons, which saw Givens transferred to the marshal’s office in his native Kentucky, followed that lead in many ways: not only specifically, in giving Raylan many many more opportunities to outdraw villains; but also more broadly, in presenting both single-episode standalone and season-long (or, in one special case about which more tomorrow, series-long) serial plotlines about Raylan and his fellow marshals pursuing and bringing justice to criminals. To be very clear, Justified executed that genre (pun intended) far better than do the two aforementioned action films, so my point here is even less of a critique than it was with them. But at the same time, the genre nonetheless presented similar limits—I’m sure there were a few characters in the course of the show who weren’t overtly linked to one or another of its law enforcement or criminal communities or plotlines, but I can’t think of any offhand; and in any case those plotlines certainly and consistently dictated what we saw of the show’s Appalachian world.
Yet nonetheless, what made Justified particularly great is that it frequently transcended its genre to become a show about that Kentucky setting. One way it did so will be the topic of tomorrow’s post: the multi-layered lifelong association between Raylan and the show’s other main character, Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder; Raylan and Boyd not only grew up together in Harlan County, but (in one of the show’s most oft-repeated phrases) “dug coal together,” allowing for extensive engagements with that place and identity through these two men. Another main strategy for this worldbuilding was the result of a very conscious choice: to link the main villains of each season (about a couple of whom, Mags Bennett and Limehouse, more in the week’s third and fourth posts) to different sides of Harlan and Kentucky, producing a show that (much like David Simon’s The Wire) gradually developed a powerfully multi-layered portrayal of that Appalachian community alongside its genre emphases. And as loyal readers well know, if I’m comparing a show to The Wire, my love for it is already clear!
Next Justified Valentine tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other loves you’d share?