The Big Bads Of ‘Justified’

Friday, January 13 by
In Harlan, even the good guys aren't that great.  

(Spoilers abound)

Over its two-season run, Justified has struck a balance, serving its audience as a satisfying (and surprisingly funny) procedural, and at the same time creating both season-long and series-long arcs that utilize characters as compelling and realized as any show on the air today. The FX backwoods crime drama has consisted of long-plays, short-plays, and, for lack of better term, “medium-plays,” all working in concert to serve its audience on three fronts. This tale of a disenfranchised lawman’s homecoming ultimately pits seething marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) against himself and his “people.” The short-plays are the episodic procedural aspects of the show (transporting a witness, tracking a fugitive), and the medium-plays shake out as the season-long criminal arcs that force Raylan the lawman to reconcile Raylan, a dutiful son of Harlan, Kentucky.

While the long play is played with sublime conflict and anguish by Timothy Olyphant, the first two seasons have each offered an array of antagonists who are clearly and simply “bad guys,” but with enough nuance, charisma, and familiarity to cause the viewer to invest wholly in them. These complexities urge the audience to empathize with Raylan in a fashion that allows Justified to add layers of depth to the stock “g vs. b” procedural.

As the season three premiere approaches, viewers will undoubtedly be introduced to yet another cast of villains, so far teased with the appearance of noted character actor Neal McDonough as Detroit transplant Robert Quarles. In getting to this point, Raylan and Co. have laid waste to a number of villains that serve to make the show what it is: the story of an angry man whose professional duty is complicated, and sometimes precluded, by a host of homespun entanglements from which he has proven incapable or unwilling to divorce himself.

The Bennetts

The theme of “growing up Harlan” was tackled almost immediately in the premiere season, then started anew in season two, when viewers were introduced to the Bennett clan, a family harboring a long-standing grudge against the Givens. Son Dickey serves as a limping reminder of the feud’s fallout, and with his brother Doyle on the side of the law as sheriff, the Bennetts find themselves more than a little miffed having to answer to Raylan or anyone else for their criminal goings-on.

Mags (in an Emmy-winning turn by Margo Martindale) almost perfectly embodies the values held by the residents of this small, anachronistic town. Her control of the family showed a willingness to bend or break the law to the end of survival, but her exploits always stopped short of greed. She remained obsessively secretive, sharing little beyond her family, and killing those who try to insert themselves in her business. Crime aside, Mags Bennett sets out to preserve her family, her neighbors, and her town, most notably during a show-defining monologue defending her town from an outside mining company. The speech resonates as sincere in both her desire to protect her criminal interests and the town‘s heritage.

Mags shows that the duty of family in Harlan serves as a double-edged sword, with its creation of a caring support system, or form the structure of a ruthless criminal enterprise that refuses to answer to anyone but each other and their god. Not that the two are mutually exclusive or anything. Case in point: The ruthless matriarch kills a girl’s father only to take the girl in and raise her as one of her own.

While the clan was effectively wiped out over the course of the last season, Dickey will be returning to the show in season three, presumably with a whole mess of scores to settle, and, consequently, new allegiances to forge.

Bo Crowder

Angry at Raylan’s father Arlo for (best case) mismanaging his criminal enterprise or (worst case) flat-out ripping him off, Bo Crowder, father of Boyd (below) emerges from prison an angry man hell bent on revenge against Arlo and Raylan’s love interest, Ava, for the murder of Bo’s son.

It’s impossible to ignore the parallels between Bo and Raylan, as both are reintroduced to a new Harlan – Bo after his release from prison, and Raylan via an office transfer – and quick to toss out diplomacy in serving their purposes.

Though Bo’s undoing comes at the hands of Harlan outsiders, both Boyd and Raylan were waiting in the wings to finish the job, but were relieved that the job didn’t fall to them.

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