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Cowboy's Lament

By Dan Saipher | TV | February 10, 2011 |

By Dan Saipher | TV | February 10, 2011 |

I spied a young cowboy, all wrapped in white linen
Wrapped up in white linen and cold as the clay.

Right around 1876, our man Seth Bullock settled in to the town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Seth was quick to put the lawman life behind him, keep things simple and let the public course guide itself. But an outlaw town, a settlement run by cutthroats and thieves, paid for by the sweat of the whores’ cheap-bought love and a well-fixed game of dice is no place for a man with a conscience. Temptation might be an evil word in the good Lord’s book, but it means the same to men that can’t help but leap to the defense of the helpless. Seth Bullock might not have been the best man, but he was certainly the right man. And in a place like Deadwood, the right man lasts a good bit longer. He wrestled the tin star back from the pisspot puppet Sheriff Con Stapleton, made his deals with devil Swearengen and his knife-wielding Dumah named Dan Dority, and buried the goodly Reverend Smith. Though our time with Seth Bullock was cut short, and though well-intentioned Harry Manning was elected sheriff, we know who stood for justice in the town of Deadwood.

First down to Rosie’s, and then to the card-house,
Got shot in the breast, and I’m dying today.

As time passed the mystery of the west subsided, colonized, gentrified, and became electrified over the next century. The cowboy became a part of the American mythos, romanticized in the brushwork of Thomas Hart Benton and the fists of John Wayne. That “Wild West” moved back east, into the deep woods of the Appalachian hills. And that, my cowpokes, is where we find our man again, this time in the guise of Federal Marshal Raylan Givens. The vast expanses of desert gave way to winding one-lane country roads, unmapped on your little dashboard GPS units and hand-held navigators. No more cattle barons and hired gunfighters, replaced by slick drug dealers and slow-handed hitmen. We followed our man Raylan back to his hometown, Harlan, Kentucky. There he came a-striding in, wide-brimmed hat and straight-pointed boots. That old-time stride of his, a real direct and narrow gait. There was rhythm in his walk; but subdued and almost pained as if he got tired of hiding the wear and tear of the job. Raylan was a thin and wiry man, but don’t let that fool you. Quick and true on the gun, strong and tightly wound as a bare-knuckle Irish boxer. You can evade the law, as plenty of old bastards will attest, but the law just can’t hide from the criminals. Harlan, Kentucky. The kind of town where the people greet you at the door with a smile and a sawed-off shotgun.

Then swing your rope slowly and rattle your spurs lowly,
And give a wild whoop as you carry me along;

Justifiedseason23.jpgIn our first season of tales entitled “Justified,” those old west demons came back to haunt our Marshal Raylan Givens. The problems started with the Crowder clan, each one of pappy Bo’s progeny meaner and more determined than the next to snuff out our hero. His former election rival, Harry Manning, turned up in the same job, but with much more devilish intentions. Even Dan Dority reincarnated his self, and crossed paths with our man for a tempestuous standoff, shiv at the ready until cooler heads prevailed. Marshal Givens might have thought Kentucky to be a step down the hierarchy, what with his transfer from the glitz and glamour of Miami, yet there was plenty of need in Harlan. The pace of our first season was quick and unpredictable, sidewinder snakes lying in wait at many a turn. Oh, and those women. How often they do make for a pretty mess of a man’s life. Plenty of twangy southern belles with fine shapes, tussled dirty-blonde hair and seductive sways to catch the eyes of a man.

For we loved our comrade, so brave, young and handsome,
We all loved our comrade, although he’d done wrong.

Begin the second chapter of our time with Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) at the woodland cabin that hosted season 1’s shootout finale. Raylan begins by tying up the loose ends, ending his feud with Miami’s cartel on a truce (which of course is delightfully backed by an ultimatum of expedient violence). His decision is to stay in Kentucky, tempted by his ex-wife Winona and Chief Deputy-turned father figure Art Mullen. The body count has turned to names and pictures on a whiteboard, easier to wipe clean the stink of the wretched Crowders.

With an old-fashioned parolee roundup as the stagecoach driving this episode, we scratch the surface on Harlan County’s resident pot farmers and local monarchy, the Bennetts. “Nature abhors a vacuum” might seem like a throwaway quote from an ancillary officer of the law, but it certainly defines the nature of our setting. Where the Crowders imported all manners of narcotics and illegal contraband, the Bennett family evades John Law on a cultivated thousand acre marijuana lot, complete with a grocery store run by Ma Bennett and son Doyle Bennett neatly installed as town sheriff. Mama Mags (Margo Martindale, familiar as Camilla on “Dexter”) is a friendly face to Raylan, country-smart and a fine craftsman of apple-pie flavored moonshine. Her boys are the muscle, including Jeremy Davies as limp-legged Dickie Bennett, a total 180-degree turn from the multilingual weakling Corporal Upham he’s most famous for. Just when you think the many-headed Hydra has been felled, a new beast enters the scene to renew the Herculean quest.

Despite Marshall Givens’ hesitance to unhinge his notoriously itchy trigger finger, it certainly looks to be prelude to another bloody country war. Many of our previous instigators are so far absent, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) coming full circle from coal miner to violent white supremacist to born again Christian Crusader to blasting holes in mountains yet again. Criminal offense and corruption are omnipresent in Harlan County, self-policing backwater towns none too quick to catch up to the 21st century. “You never go outside” Mags Bennett warns us. What Raylan represents is familiar blood instigating trouble for the old institutions, too smart and too determined to turn a blind eye. Much as Sheriff Seth could not resist the temptation to clean up Deadwood, Marshal Raylan Givens wants peace for the hometown he ran from long ago. And we, cowpokes, get to watch the right man do the work.

Fire in the hole.

Dan Saipher hopes y’all can hear Sam Elliot reading this to you

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