"Justified," Fathers, and Federalism: Don't Want Live in My Father's House
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"Justified," Fathers, and Federalism: Don't Want Live in My Father's House

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV Reviews | June 20, 2013 | Comments ()


"Justified" is at once a solid procedural and something more than that, with running themes and commentaries that are both subtle and humble. It isn't Shakespearean in that grand tragic sense of "Breaking Bad," but it aims for a softer statement snuck in between the pages of modernized cowboys and indians.

It is a show that is very much about fathers and sons, and the wars they wage within their own hearts. Take a look at the various cases of the week highlighted by the show, the side stories that the protagonists only touch upon. More often than not the briefly sketched guest characters are defined by their fatherhood, by their failure to provide. There's the usual mix of other cases, but those are the ones that stick out. Even the eminent Robert Quarles is characterized almost entirely by his relationships with his fathers, both murdered and adopted.

Boyd goes looking for a new father, settles on the one above for some time, before taking on Raylan's as his own. Raylan has rejected his own, not spoken to him in years, having found himself at the beginning of the series serving under a replacement father of sorts. Look at the interactions between Raylan and Art, and it's clear that Art doesn't treat him anything like an employee, not even like a mentee. He treats him like a son, reacting to Raylan's mistakes not with anger but with that frustrated disappointment that every single one of us recognizes from our worst moments. The head-shaking resignation of a father who knows that his son can do better.

This tapers into Raylan's relationships throughout the show, his rocky but not openly hostile relations with Gutterson and Brooks, not written as colleagues so much as siblings who fight amongst themselves only to pull together against anyone from the outside. And his strangely similar relationship with little Loretta McCready, a de facto little sister with whom he shares that isolated life of a Harlan orphan raised by outsiders who for all their kindness cannot understand the self-destructive hardness of the adopted. Her foster parents look at her the same way Art looks at Raylan.

That same impulse is at work all through Harlan County, with the careful crafting of criminals distinct from those on any other television show. These Crowders and Givens and Bennetts and Limehouses, clans all and one, they are not evil by any real stretch, though each has done terrible things in their own time. They are throwbacks, the sorts who try to run things but ever with an eye on at least nominally taking care of those around them. They run crime not from the shadows, nor even from behind a politician's desk, but while standing up in front of everyone, inviting them over for dinner, settling their feuds. They act as fathers to their communities, abusive ones to be sure, the sort that drink late into the night and who explode in violence when there's that certain gleam in their eyes, but fathers nonetheless.

There is an interesting strand of thinking in history that looks at the evolution of Federal power in American history through the lens of fatherhood. In particular, the arguments for and against 19th century Indian policies in their original texts are staggering in their use of literal paternalism on all sides, in the refrains of fathers and children with respect to whites and the natives, such that the metaphor leeches from subtext to text.

In "Justified" that lens is used again, with the federal government and US Marshalls imposing a futile sort of order on Harlan. With the old federal fathers coming in to lay down the law. At other points, other parties do the same, from the coal companies to the Dixie Mafia, all external parties seeking to establish that same sort of order. They'll take care of everyone, they say, just do it their way and everything will be okay. And as the characters are fond of pointing out, this isn't new to them, that there have been fancy men in nice suits coming up into the hollers promising money and bringing only blood for the last two centuries.

And as the repeated season ending refrain goes: Raylan will never leave Harlan alive. And it's not because he can't quite disentangle himself from the criminal element there, nor that he's doomed to die in a shallow grave, but because he will always still be in Harlan. Miami, Los Angeles, whatever miles he puts between himself and those hollers will never be enough, because the county is inside him and will be until the day he dies. We always live in the houses built by our fathers, even when they're only in our own minds. It's how despite running two thousand miles away, Raylan still falls in love with the only Kentucky girl in the bar.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Bodhi

    I'm too tired to say anything eloquent or profound, but this is a wonderful piece about one of the best shows that has ever existed.

  • yemayah

    I truly enjoyed reading this piece, SLW. It makes me very happy when attention is given to the dramatic themes and mythology or how the actors breath such life into their characters, who take on a life of their own. I'm also just happy to find anything about Justified during this dry spell until Season 5. While the theme of The Father (fathers, fatherhood,and manhood)and the wounded Patriarchy resonates strongly in Justified, the theme and influence of The Mother/Female is just as strong- even in the absence. I would love to read a companion piece to this about The Mother image in Justified and/or a piece about the balance of The Mother and The Father. I hope season 5 will address some of these dramatic themes.

    Raylan's mother, in her absence in the afterlife resonates as strongly as Arlo's presence in the hell he has created on earth. The characters are all off-balance, off their center. The influence of The Mother is lost, suppressed, discarded, shunned (as weakness), forgotten, or unknown due to loss in early childhood. For individual reasons, Raylan, Boyd, Tim, Rachel, Mags, Ava and others dwell in (or have moved toward) a darker place for survival and protection. Mags is dead, but are those still living capable of finding or letting some light within, or will they continuously fail due to some mix of selfishness, hubris and living in the past and in a patriarchal society they help to perpetuate and are in danger of passing on to their children? Outsiders bring their darkness into Harlan to pillage and destroy.

    Paradoxically, in trying to kill or escape their fathers, most of the characters have incorporated (or believes s/he has inherited the taint/stain/shadow) the very traits s/he despises or even challenges if seen in others. Hunter challenges Raylan to find and listen to the Mother inside; Cousin Mary sees Frances' reflection in him.

    Yet even in death Arlo still has a hold on Raylan's soul even as Winona and his unborn baby girl influence his move to a lighter place. Mags Bennett tried to recapture and recreate in Loretta what she lost/sacrificed of herself out of necessity to survive, becoming as hard and merciless-even to her own boys- as Bo Crowder. Angry, betrayed and alone, Loretta sheds the dress. Is she on the path to become another version of Mags after her large inheritance?

    Boyd recalls the calm of his gram's singing and- in the only time I recall him mentioning his mother- he recalls the optimism and promise the vast universe held for the future when his mother used to bring him to the overlook where they gazed at the stars. Ava was his guide into the light until she fell into his darkness. He justifies his deeds, which would turn Harlan into a total Wasteland, with the promise of a future which always just slips out of reach.

    The women kept the aggression and senseless violence of the men in check; they kept or tried to maintain the peace; they tried to prevent Harlan from becoming a total Wasteland falling to greed, violence, drugs, corruption, vice, and poverty. I'm certain they own their individual measure of darkness and were not saints. Perhaps Raylan or Boyd or Tim harbor some anger and resentment for their mother leaving them behind and/or not protecting them.

    I find it odd that none of the women of Justified have their own family name (except Loretta, Cassie and perhaps the Black Pike woman). They have their husband's names (Helen and Frances Givens, Mags Bennett, Winona-before-I was-a-Hawkins-I was-a-Givens, Ava Crowder, etc), and we know nothing of their own people. We don't even know poor Ellen Mae's last name and cringe at references to her as The Whore. Where are the women in Noble's Holler?

  • dizzylucy

    Great piece.

    The transference of Arlo from Raylan's father to Boyd's father figure always fascinated me, and I think definitely adds to the tension and strange kinship between Raylan and Boyd.

  • janedoe

    That last paragraph contained some of the truest words I have ever read, certainly on in the internet, and in life as well.

  • Nadine

    Okay, it only took fully fifteen minutes to get disqus to work AND I am back to posting as simple Nadine and not Nadineydoll etc al so ENJOY THE RIDE PEOPLE.

    This is excellent. It is excellent. And it applies so accurately. Even Rachel and Tim have daddy issues, Rachel specifies her fathers death as what made her realise just how shitty her childhood had been and Tim expresses regret he never got to shoot his father before the man died.

    I've always felt like this show was about little boys and girls and their daddies. Even the vague spirit of Papa Bennett drifted in and out of focus throughout series 2, the legacy he left and what his lifes work and then death forced Mags to become.

    The St Cyr siblings were orphans and Cassie made it clear her fathers agonised death spurred her deceptive behaviours and perhaps caused her faith in the Word to waiver(but not her faith in Billy).

    Ellen May found a father in Drewlby, despite her past, his apparent isolation, her dressing in his wifes clothes, I personally didn't detect the whiff of romance. It was about love and trust but it was almost like an estranged father and daughter trying to figure each other out.

    As for Arlo and Raylan...what I always have in the back of my mind when I watch the show is this question of whether they're even father and son. Sometimes I feel like the writers put it in there as well but don't ask me for examples because....just no, I'm too tired.

    But I do seriously question it and sometimes I think Raylan does as well. Or he wouldn't mind if it were true. He might be quite relieved in a way because he tries very hard not to be his fathers son but at the same time can't help but be his fathers son. Some people have said if they weren't related it sort of deflates everything between them but I disagree. I mean, like any adoptive father, Arlo didn't have to conceive Raylan to be the man that raised, fed and clothed him, how ever nightmarish a life it was.

    For a really long time I thought Raylan's mother would be the one that hid the bag and part of the reason would be that Drew was Raylan's real father and part of THAT was why Arlo wouldn't tell Raylan who Drew was. He was in part protecting Francis but mostly he was sticking it to Raylan because he knew Raylan would love not to be his kid, love it. And Arlo just couldn't let him have that because Arlo was basically pure evil, every day.

    I think Raylan wants it to be true because then it wasn't his DAD that beat Raylan silly, it was just this guy, beating the bastard he was stuck raising as his own.

    And in case anyone is wondering, if Raylan did have a different father and he appears on the show, it can obviously only be Sam Elliot. Obviously.

    I want the show to explore fathers more. I want to know why Tim wanted to shoot his dad and why it is something he still regrets what has to be at least a decade later. That's one of the things that Justified does and captures so well is recognising the legacy these families have. Even Boyd talking to Ava about how in a few decades their kids or grandkids will be established in decent society and presumably will just be know as the Crowders from the Hill, he knows who and what he is and why. His father made him. And Bo's father made him.

    Arlo talks about his own psychotic father and his god of war and thunder and the terror endured under his reign and how it made him who he is. I love it.

    Mothers and fathers are gods in the eyes of their children and Justified captures the constant crisis of faith this creates for some people absolutely perfectly.

  • Bodhi

    When the hell is Yost going to get you on the writing team?


  • Nadine

    Heeeheee!!! But as I may have said before I would give anything for that. Anything.ANYTHING YOST!!

    Also thank you so much what a lovely thing to read first thing in the AM

  • Cazadora

    Upvoted for the great comment, but ESPECIALLY upvoted for the reference to Sam Elliot. Actually made my heart go pitter pat for a second.

  • Nadine

    hehe, thanks and yes. Yes. He is a distractingly attractive older man.

  • Bert_McGurt

    I think it's rather fitting that these themes are about to come to a crescendo, as our boy becomes a father himself next season.

  • ShinyHappyPeopleLaughing

    Well done.

  • emmalita

    I think Arlo Givens, Bo Crowder, and Mags Bennett would be at home in any Shakespeare play, comedy, history or tragedy. Raylan, Boyd, and Dickie are living in the aftermath. Although Boyd and Ava are enacting their own Shakespearean tragedy.

    I was so excited when I saw there was a new piece about Justified for me to obsess over this morning.

  • Louise


  • lowercase_ryan

    Also, I tend to think of Harlan itself as a flawed parent figure. Harlan's blood binds and unites as much as corrupts and divides. It's more easily explained in a saying like "we dug coal together", but it's the same as admitting that you're fruit from the same tree. As with any or most parent/child relationships there is resentment to go with the love, but also a kind of unconditional acceptance of who they are, flaws and all.

  • Salieri2

    God, that line.

    The only ep of "Justified" I happen to have on my laptop--where I don't keep much video at all--is the pilot, so every now and then in a dead hour I rewatch it. It holds up perfectly: it's as solid, start to finish, as a good poem, and the near-ending*--Boyd gasping for air on the floor while Raylan remembers with a quick flashback, "We dug coal together"--tells you absolutely everything you need to know about Raylan, and Boyd, and Harlan.

    *I go back and forth on the actual ending--Winona telling Raylan he's the angriest man she's ever met--because sometimes it feels unnecessary and sometimes it seems like a useful wrinkle, not just Raylan's anger but Winona's awareness. It lets us know that a), she's smarter than she looks, and b) he doesn't have it nearly as together as he looks to.

  • kbenton

    Precisely. It's that ultimate clannishness that drives so much of the tension of the show. In one sense Boyd and Raylan are brothers, while simultaneously having become part of otherwise diametrically opposed "families". These complexities and paradoxes are the heart of drama of this sort.

  • emmalita

    Well said. I was going to say something like that, but not as clearly.

  • koko temur

    As i dont live in the states, plus generally not that bright, publishing of this review tricked me into thinking new season starts today. And then crushed me when i figured out that it doesnt. Well done.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I loved this, well done sir. I would add that, while everyone focuses on the father aspect, I tend to think of it as more of a parenthood/family theme. Ava, Mags, and Helen have been some of the strongest characters on the show and their maternal instincts have played a huge role in how the story has unfolded. Even Frances has a tremendous impact on Raylan from beyond the grave.

    I don't think you undersell the show, I'm just maybe more rabid than you, however I do think you undersell the importance of the mothers on the show.

  • Nadine

    I totally forgot to say in my own comment that mothers are huge on the show as well. Ava in season 4 especially revealed the role her mother played in her life and where it left her in plenty of different ways. Knowing she went with her mother to those homes and was probably ignored and dismissed if not outright mocked for being the Harlan girl, then got into the sad situation she was at the shows start, you can draw a line from being raised knowing you were second best to marrying a man who insists this is the case with his fists.

    Raylan is absolutely influenced by Frances, even Loretta only got into the situation she did in part due to her mothers death and her fathers grief. Rachel as well has a formidable mother.

    So far the only unmentioned mothers on the show are Tim's and Boyds. I would give my fucking left leg to meet Mrs Crowder. And with Tim I get a vibe his mother was not a part of his life. No idea why. But I do think they will have influenced their sons as much as Frances did Raylan.

  • annie

    Let's not forget Winona who seems tougher and cooler with her own pending motherhood.

  • Nadine

    Damn straight!! And even much if ER reason for even being in Kentucky was her own sick mother and her sister seems scary and tough as well. For all her many, many, many, MANY flaws innings gained several levels in badass once she had a baby inside her.

  • annie

    Not that motherhood is a requirement to be a real, fully formed, awesome woman, it'd definitely helped her! Her bullshit threshold has definitely gone down.

  • annie

    Helen definitely deserves more love.

  • sal paradise

    Definitely agree. The scene that always leaps to mind for me is in Season Two, when Helen and Mags have a parley after Coover's death. Helen makes a plea for her (adopted) son while acknowledging Mag's pain at losing her own and it is made clear that the women are the ones who keep the fragile peace when possible. They are the ones who attempt to write a family legacy in more than blood and lost children- that Mags made her big play with the Coal money to secure her grandchildrens' futures proves that.

  • Bodhi

    "[...]it is made clear that the women are the ones who keep the fragile peace when possible."

    Amazingly well said

  • kbenton

    Likewise... the above isn't wrong at all, and it exposes part of why we love Justified so much. That said, SLW's focus on the Father-Son element does a disservice to the women on the show and the more overarching familial themes. Themes that come down obsession with family, with clan, all of which are multifaceted and layered and intersectional. To reduce that all to *just* a father/son dynamic is... troubling to me.

  • emmalita

    I think the father/son dynamic plays out more explicitly. There are far more fathers than mothers and sons than daughters. Raylan has much more conflict with his father, and with his father's legacy than with either of his mother figures. And Raylan must adapt to his own impending fatherhood. The mother/child relationship is definitely secondary on Justified. We are fortunate that the writers have written some strong interesting women to give the less explored "mommy issues" some depth and bite.

  • Fredo

    Great piece, SLW.

    My only disagreement: I think Justified is as Shakespearean as Breaking Bad. Maybe more "Twelfth Night" than "Macbeth" but all the same, it's these same grand themes and undercurrents that run through each of these shows. Just as Breaking Bad is more than just about a teacher making meth, Justified is more than just a weekly cop procedural.

    The great tragedy of Justified is that the lives that Raylan and Boyd live are more the norm than the exception in places like Harlan County. They're communities full of broken families, failed hopes and no expectations.

  • Gauephat

    I'd argue the characterization in Justified is much more subtle. Breaking Bad's is big, broad, and obvious, especially in Walter White's case. I'd take Raylan as a deluded asshole over Heisenberg's cartoon villainy.

  • Jerce

    You are interfering with my work duties

  • PaddyDog

    Nice piece. It makes me ashamed that when I saw the pic my first thought was "Ooh, Men in Hats Part II"

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I would just like to note, ladies can wear hats, too.

    Por ejemplo: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-OXUR...

  • danielrandkai

    I think you are vastly underselling how good "Justified" is. Shame on you.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I upvoted you because you're obviously a fan so you can't be all bad.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Any chance he's just making a joke?

  • Don't know if Disqus lets users see who downvotes posts. In case it doesn't, I'd like to inform you that one of what will certainly be many downvotes can be laid at my feet.

  • pajiba

    Oh, so you read the first paragraph and drew a dumb conclusion, without reading all the ways in which SLW explored the themes and layers of the show, and treated it with the reverence and intelligence "Justified" so rightly deserves.

    Shame on you.

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