“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.