Tuesday, February 14, 2017
February 14, 2017: AmericanStudier Hearts Justified: Raylan and Boyd
[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 why it can be problematic to love characters, and why that love is still worth embracing.
Justified was a star vehicle for Timothy Olyphant (if there were any true justice in the world, Deadwood would have already achieved that purpose, but I digress), and throughout its six seasons Olyphant was never less than compelling and charismatic in that central role of Marshal Raylan Givens. But the true breakout star was Walton Goggins, long an acclaimed character actor (such as in The Shield) whose performance as Raylan’s boyhood friend, teenage coal mining colleague, and ongoing nemesis Boyd Crowder was so good it literally changed the entire show: Crowder, the other main character who appears in Leonard’s novella, was originally supposed to be in only the show’s pilot (which was based directly on the Leonard story); but Goggins was so magnetic and his chemistry with Olyphant so undeniable that the show’s creator Graham Yost wrote him into the remainder of season one. And the rest is television history: Boyd would go on to become a co-lead in Justified, with at least as many plotlines and arcs dedicated to his character, relationships, and communities as to Raylan’s. I dare you to watch the 3-minute video/interview at that last hyperlink and not see the chemistry between these two actors, which, combined with each’s potent individual talents and charisma, makes for an infinitely lovable pair of central characters.
I don’t want to be a Valentine’s Day Grinch, but such love can have its downsides, and in the case of Raylan and Boyd, I think our love for the pair might make it easy to overlook a couple problems with their characterizations. In the case of Raylan, from the first season on his propensity for answering problems with violence is presented as a potential, complex legacy from his abusive, violent, thoroughly unpleasant father Arlo Givens. By the show’s conclusion Raylan has certainly made peace with Arlo and that legacy, yet in the final episode, one of Raylan’s last scenes is another quick-draw showdown that he wins by killing someone; and while such showdowns are an unquestioned pleasure, they don’t allow for any true resolution of Raylan’s questions. Somewhat similarly, Boyd is first presented as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi, spouting hate about Jews and African Americans; eventually the show wants us to see that identity as one of Boyd’s many self-inventions and performances, but the fact that those performances are so consistently engrossing doesn’t in any way minimize the problematic fact (in 2017 even more than ever) that the originating one was as a purveyor of bigotry, hate, and violence. It’s easy, that is, to forget that origin in the course of the show—but we shouldn’t, and so perhaps we shouldn’t love Boyd as much as we come to.
On the other hand, we can love something or someone and still be critical of it (that might in fact be the subject of my most recent book), and so recognizing these shortcomings in the characterizations of Raylan and Boyd doesn’t mean we have to stop loving them. And I want to argue briefly for both psychological and AmericanStudies benefits of doing so. On the psychological level, I believe one of the things art can do most powerfully is allow us to think deeply about humanity, about identity, about the things that define us and shape us and how we move through our lives; and loving characters helps pull us as fully as possible into their stories and identities, furthering the possibility of us engaging with those fundamental and vital questions both for them and (through them) for ourselves. And on a related, AmericanStudies level, doing so can also help us connect and engage with experiences and communities that might seem very distinct from our own—such as, in the case of these two Justified characters, the experience of growing up in a community like Harlan, of working together in the coal mines there, and of trying with at best mixed success (as illustrated by their amazing final conversation in the show’s closing moments; SPOILERS, obviously) to shape a life beyond those Kentucky starting points. Those experiences and questions wouldn’t resonate nearly as much, I don’t believe, if we didn’t love the two men going through and asking them.
Next Justified Valentine tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other loves you’d share?