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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

February 15, 2017: AmericanStudier Hearts Justified: Mags and Ava

[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 what links and what distinguishes two of the show’s strongest female characters.
Anyone who is familiar with Margo Martindale’s work on The Americans (a show with a deep, wonderful cast in which Martindale has still managed to stand out in a relatively small role) won’t be surprised that her Emmy-winning performance as Mags Bennett in season 2 of Justified was one of the show’s true high points. As I wrote in Monday’s post, Justified was consistently built around the marshal-and-criminal dynamics of its genre, and Mags was no exception—the main villain of season 2, her Harlan County crime boss was one of Raylan Givens’ most worthy adversaries. But at the same time, Mags was a lot more: the matriarch of a complicated and conflicted family, with unique and evolving relationships with all three of her sons; an adopted mother of sorts to young Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever), a headstrong teenage girl whose father Mags just happened to have killed in the season’s first episode; and, in one of the season’s and show’s most impressive moments and speeches, an impassioned advocate for her community and opponent to a mining company’s plans for the county and its mountains. In all of those dynamics, Mags is partly defined by her villainous ambitions, partly by her gender and her identity as a matriarch, but partly transcends and escapes any such categorizations to become one of the show’s most fully three-dimensional and nuanced characters.
For much of the show’s first two seasons, Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) seemed to fit a far more stereotypical female role: as a love interest to the show’s central men. Ava is a local Harlan woman who had been harboring a crush on Raylan Givens since childhood, and with whom he begins a relationship in the first season; when that affair ends, over the course of season two she slowly moves toward a romantic relationship with Boyd Crowder instead, one that would endure for the remainder of the show’s run. Yet the reason for the slowness of Ava’s warming to Boyd is the same reason they share a last name: Ava had for many years been married to Boyd’s brother Bowman, a violent and abusive man; until, just before the events of the show’s opening episode, she shot and killed Bowman in cold blood in their kitchen (while he was distracted by his favorite meal, her fried chicken). While we don’t necessarily always see that hardness and strength and self-sufficiency in Ava in the show’s first few seasons, they gradually become more and more apparent, until by the show’s concluding season Ava is entirely a co-lead along with Raylan and Boyd, and a character with as many layers as Mags Bennett—layers likewise defined in part by villainous ambitions, in part by her gender and beauty and sex, and in part by experiences and perspectives and nuances that make her just as rounded and complex as Raylan and Boyd (if not indeed more so).
So Mags and Ava are alike in many ways, as multi-layered female characters who can and do go toe-to-toe with the show’s male leads. (Significant series SPOILERS in what follows.) But while both women were born and bred in Harlan, they have very distinct perspectives on that setting and community. Mags wants nothing more than to rule the county, with an eye (it seems) toward doing right by the entire community and an eye (for sure) toward establishing a strong future for her own family; at various times in season 2 she is given opportunities to cash out and depart, but consistently chooses to stay rooted in Harlan (a decision that ultimately leads to her death). Ava, on the other hand, wants nothing more than a way out, to prove that the song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (used in that season 5 concluding moment as well as any song has ever been used in any TV show, I say) is not, in at least this one case, accurate. She certainly recognizes how fraught that goal is, as illustrated by her statement to Raylan, late in season 6, that “the past and the future are a fight to the death.” Yet of all three of the show’s leads, it is Ava who seems, in the extended epilogue that concludes the series, to have most fully found a way out, not just literally (Raylan too has left Harlan for good) but personally and symbolically. Which just might make her the show’s strongest character, in every sense of the description.
Next Justified Valentine tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other loves you’d share?

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