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Friday, February 17, 2017

February 17, 2017: AmericanStudier Hearts Justified: Justified and Deadwood

[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 the two great shows, and what differentiates them.
If I’m to believe my usually reliable friends at the Movie Database o’ the Internet, Justified creator Graham Yost had no role in the production of David Milch’s groundbreaking and wonderful Deadwood (2004-2006). One reason for my disbelief is that in the course of its six-season run Justified employed a very very large number of Deadwood alums, not only star Timothy Olyphant (who played a U.S. Marshal in both shows) but also W. Earl Brown, Sean Bridgers, Jim Beaver, Peter Jason, Garret Dillahunt, and Gerald McRaney (and that’s just the ones I know for sure). And it’s not just the common cast list that links the two shows: in the opening seasons of both, Olyphant’s quick-draw and hot-tempered marshal character arrives in town and develops an enduring love-hate dynamic with an especially eloquent but dangerous local crime boss (with Ian McShane’s charismatic Al Swearengen serving as Deadwood’s equivalent of Boyd Crowder) while romancing a recent widow (with Molly Parker’s headstrong Alma Garret as Deadwood’s equivalent of Ava Crowder). Even the fact that Deadwood is set in 1876 South Dakota, not early 21st century Kentucky, isn’t a big a distinction between the two shows as you might think, given the heavy emphasis throughout Justified on wedding a Wild West main character and tone to that contemporary setting and context.
The two shows are connected by more than just a stable of actors and a similar premise and genre, however. Both, it seems to me, are fundamentally focused on questions of community and individual identity, and of whether and how each side of that duality affects the other. While this is a reductive point in each case, it would be possible to say that Deadwood was centrally about whether the town would become more Swearengen’s or Seth Bullock’s (Olyphant’s character), while Justified was about whether Raylan’s or Boyd’s vision for Harlan’s future would come to pass. At the same time, each setting was exerting its pull and influence on the two men (and everyone else within its purview); the unofficial Justified anthem “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” could just as easily substitute in “Deadwood” and work equally well for that setting and show. Similarly, characters like Ava and Alma offer a chance to see how the same questions play out for a strong single woman, while Deadwood’s Chinese community boss Mr. Wu (Keone Young) parallels Justified’s Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) as a complex and compelling spokesperson (if in Wu’s case one who by choice doesn’t speak much English) for a powerful minority community in town. The more I write these first two paragraphs, the more I feel that Yost learned a great deal from Milch’s show, and wedded those lessons to Elmore Leonard’s novella to create the template for Justified’s setting and world.
There are of course lots of differences between the shows as well, and I would highlight in particular an overarching element of Deadwood that, perhaps, pushes that show into a stratosphere that the excellent Justified didn’t quite achieve. David Milch clearly believes that what happened in Deadwood in 1876 and after represents no less than the birth of the modern United States, and over the course of the show’s (frustratingly aborted but possibly still evolving) arc worked hard to suggest precisely that sort of symbolic change and growth beneath the muddy realities of his frontier town. Whether we agree or disagree with that concept—I find it echoes a bit too closely Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, and would highlight a number of other national origin points as more broadly representative than Deadwood—it reflects a level of artistic and national ambition behind Deadwood that seems to me to have been present in only a handful of TV shows. Justified is much of the time a less weighty pleasure, one with compelling stories to tell and an equally engrossing community to create, but not quite as ambitious a sense of the symbolic value of either those stories or that community. As I hope this week’s series has made abundantly clear, I very much love Justified for what it is, and would recommend it to anyone for a binge-watching session.
Special Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other loves you’d share?

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