Justified, Season 2 (Spoilers)
I trend toward the wordy, so I’ll be typing here what I have to say, and can find a way to say, in the half hour since the season finale concluded.
Justified comes in for a lot of praise from The A.V. Club and, even more so, from Alan Sepinwall. I can’t disagree too much with any of the specific points they praise, but I do have the sense that Justified is, if not underwhelming, profoundly less of a show than I would hope it to be.
I initially came to the series after catching a glimpse of Timothy Olyphant’s performance as Raylan, which has never surrendered its place as the reason to watch this show. It’s not Shakespearean work, or even one of the great television performances of the last decade. But it’s endlessly, infectiously compelling. You can’t help rooting for the guy, and that’s a great asset for the show to have.
The two best additions to the show since that time, the work of Wallace Goggins as Boyd Crowder, and this season’s addition of Margo Matindale as Mags Bennett, work in the same way; it’s difficult to reduce it to particulars, but they have such irresistible presence on-screen that you can’t look away. This is odd, in a way, because their character motivations–and to a lesser extent, Raylan’s–don’t actually add up too well. Boyd’s been built up as a mythic figure of unknowable, vaguely nefarious intentions, but that runs into real trouble when, as so often is the case, his plans don’t really make much sense. This kind of grey, wild card character needs to be competent to be effective, and while at his craziest this stops mattering–see any time he picks up a rocket launcher–the lack of foresight he consistently shows tilts the balance toward believing that Goggins’ performance as an actor and Crowder’s actions as a character are all smoke and mirrors. We’ve had less time to get to know Mags, but the same is largely true; everything she says and does is magnetic, yet she’s a family woman who’s terrible at keeping her family safe, and her central action of this season, attempting to steal Loretta, is as poorly thought through as Boyd’s irresponsible inability to anticipate the logical next moves of Bo Crowder, Dicky Bennett, or even Ava.
In a sense, this is in keeping with Elmore Leonard’s pet plot solution: the criminals turn out to turn on themselves, or otherwise botch what they’re going about, thereby doing most of the law’s work for them. But Justified has never planted its flag as a show attempting to do a Leonard short story stretched to impossible proportions: it’s instead slotted in those short stories as the “episodes” and gone about serializing on its own recognizance. And the writers simply don’t have the grasp of that serialized narrative in a way that they can make characters’ actions and long-term motivations reinforce and reflect the vividness of their short-form portrayals.
When you add in that the first season largely carved its path on the strength of its guest performances, and caught its most significant momentum late in Season One with M.C. Gainey as Bo Crowder, then you reach a very strange conclusion. Justified is, at its heart, an appealing show because of its performances. Yet it’s also a show with a sketchy grasp of characterization. Combined with its pulpy roots, that takes it way the hell out of the running in being an “art” show, like you’d expect from the masterpieces of the last decade. The logical move, then, would be for the show to realize what it is, and head toward ramping up the entertainment.
It’s flat-out better than any show short of “The Wire” at presenting instantly believable, evocative performers. It’s well laid-out the setting and metaphorical space for a county with many players, many competing agendas, and right and wrong being a moving target. Why not take the leap and let everything loose? Take a page from “Lost,” Season 4 in particular, and start pushing as many of the episodic elements into serial elements, and seeing where they head. Let the show develop organically, or appear to develop organically, rather than segregating its immediately engrossing aspects from its wider narrative frame. For a shot at translating that into plain English: stop making the motions of serialization and long-term character development, and instead let the performances bounce off each other. Have the plot logic follow from that–find what would be the most entertaining or compelling thing to see next, and find the absolute quickest way of getting there possible. The show may wind up with new kinds of holes, but it’ll be less at war with itself and more secure in what its strengths are.
At any rate, I can’t stay mad at Justified. And as I try to remind myself, we’re stuck with the art we have, not the art we’d like to see. Maybe next year the wheels will come off, and we can enjoy some real sustained chaos in Harlan.