Friday, July 15, 2011

Some Quick Thoughts on Justified, Season 2

Note: these are just my quick thoughts on the second season; this is not a recap of the season. So, I will be referring to characters without really going in-depth on who they are in the context of the series. In other words, this is full of spoilers and should only be read by those that have finished the second season.

Graham Yost and company have found their own voice and rhythm in the second season of Justified, and they’ve really found the correct tone and setting for the show, too.  Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard (“Fire in the Hole), the first season felt like Yost and the writers doing their best Leonard karaoke routines. Only a few episodes from the first half of season one really felt fresh and energetic (I really liked the one with Alan Ruck as the dentist), and those were the ones that were more stand-alone, Leonard-esque episodes. But something started to happen with the last four episodes of season one: the show started to find its own voice, and the writers started to realize what they wanted to do with their two great characters, Boyd Crowder and Raylan Givens. Some quick thoughts after the jump…

  •  The second season really shows how talented Olyphant can be. Sure, he was great in Deadwood for what David Milch wanted out of him – speaking dialogue through gritted teeth; pulling people by the ear; looking sexy in a cowboy hat – but Justified and its writers have really found something for Olyphant in Raylan Givens that allows the actor to show off his acting chops (while still wearing a cowboy hat, no less). It’s no wonder, too, considering that Olyphant became a producer for the second season. This is obviously a labor of love for him, and I’m glad FX is giving them a third season to further evolve this great character.
  • About the evolution of Raylan: season two was some of the best television I can remember watching in a long, long time. A big reason for that was the way Yost and his writers slowly had Raylan realize that he is a Givens (warts and all) and that the things he does – whether justified or not – don’t really make him that much more different than the people he’s trying to arrest. There’s a great moment in the penultimate episode of the second season where Raylan is about to avenge the death of his aunt (the only family member that he liked) by executing small-time drug dealer Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies in a great role). Before Raylan is about to pull the trigger, Dickie pleads with him stating, “You don’t have to do this!” And Raylan just says, in that cold and detached Olyphant way of delivering a line, “Of course I do. This is who we are, Dickie.” And just when we think we know what's going to happen (that is, Raylan being Raylan), a Raylan turns away from Dickie and thinks long and hard about something. It's a great, quiet moment (pictured at the top of this post) that is played absolutely perfectly by Olyphant. Finally, Raylan acquiesces to his better nature (or Dickie's pleas) and let his go. It's a step in the right direction for the Raylan that's trying to reform, get out of Harlan County,  and make a life of sorts with Winona. 
  • And that’s what has been most interesting about the second season: the realization that no matter how hard Raylan tries to be different – whether it’s in adhering to Art’s (Nick Searcy, who is just outstanding and really coming into his own this season) rules of the Marshall’s office or rekindling the flame with his ex-wife – he’s still the same shoot-first lawman that is being forced to be a Marshall (a distinction that is made by Art this season and is brilliantly handled in the last handful of episodes when Raylan debates whether or not to leave Harlan County).
  • The parallel storyline here is the evolution of Boyd Crowder. He, like Raylan, is trying his best to be a different person. One of the highlights of this season was the slow burn the writers used on the fleshing out of the new Boyd. You never quite had a handle on his intentions, even when he was playing vigilante in the coal mine; however, those final few episodes show Boyd losing the war against his nature, just like Raylan is. Boyd may be more entrepreneurial in his drug endeavors compared to the first season (he does seem different, though, especially in the way that he actually cares about Ava and exacting justice for her having been shot),  but he’s still the Boyd that must exist in the criminal realm. Just like Raylan learns to exist with his drug-dealing dad, Arlo (played by the always great Raymond J. Barry), now, if he decides to stay in Kentucky, he must learn to co-exist with Boyd who is Arlo’s partner.  The Boyd/Raylan dynamic was one of the most interesting things about this season.    
  • I never watched The Shield, so I was unaware of Walton Goggins and how amazing of an actor he is. The way he and the writers fleshed out Boyd’s character in this second season was some brilliant television writing. I know things like The Emmy’s aren’t a measure of what truly is “the best,” but if Goggins doesn’t win for his portrayal of Boyd Crowder, the voters should have their privileges revoked. 
  •  Margo Martindale as matriarch of the Bennett clan, Mags shouldn’t be forgotten, either. She was more than up to the task in the episodes she appeared in playing both icy drug queen and down-home, -aw-shucks mama. Martindale and the writers could have easily turned Mags into a caricature (especially considering the way Paul Haggis and Clint Eastwood cast her as the horrible stereotype white trash in Million Dollar Baby), but she adds depth to the role that makes the viewer forget, for a moment, that the writers seemed to have been cribbing her story thread from Winter’s Bone. Thankfully, Martindale and the writers and the other actors don’t fall into the trap of stereotype and caricature (one of the best things about the writing on this show is that it avoids those pitfalls) and it allows for things like Martindale’s final scene (which, in a nice bit of writing, comes full circle from one of the first episodes of the season) in the last episode to contain a real powerful, poignant punch. Just another great piece of acting that I hope doesn’t go unrecognized.
  • Justified has been picked up for a third season, and it seems that the natural segue into next season is Raylan finding Loretta and dealing with her while also having to worry about how he’s going to – against his will, naturally – protect Dickie from Boyd. I’m really glad they didn’t kill-off Dickie because Davies has been one (in a long line) of the best things about the show. Davies’ tics (which he really employed in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris) are what make Dickie such a great, Leonard-esque character. Here’s someone who we hate at times and feel like deserves the Raylan Givens form of justice, but when those times come, like in the aforementioned scene of the penultimate episode, we can’t help but feel sorry for how pathetic Dickie is. His character isn’t as cut and dry as “poor white trash drug dealer,” evidenced by the way Mags and favored his brother Doyle. But now that Mags and Doyle are both dead, it’ll be interesting to see if Dickie, somehow, slips by Raylan and Boyd and starts his business up again (and takes over where mom left off), or if he’ll just be in a few episodes before Boyd kills him and Raylan and Boyd play another game of cat and mouse.
  • Underneath the primary Raylan/Boyd conflict, there are a few other things left unresolved: Is Ava dead? What happens with Arlo? Is Raylan really leaving with Winona? Should Winona even stick around? How is Art going to continue to deal with Raylan if he does stay? And can we please get more of two of my favorite supporting characters, Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel (Erica Tazel) in some stand-alone episodes (and speaking of stand-alone episodes, I think we need a few more of the episodes like the one with Stephen Root as the eccentric Judge of Harlan County)?
This season of Justified really rivaled Boardwalk Empire as my favorite show on TV this year. What did everyone else think of the second season?


  1. I was a huge fan of the second season of Justified and was surprised that they actually found a way to top the excellent opening season. Nearly all of the characters (especially Raylan and Boyd) are more developed, with Ava being the rare exception. Martindale is wonderful, and it's almost too bad she's not returning for another year. That relates to my only concern for the 3rd season - Can they find another predominant storyline? The first season had the Crowders, and the second had the Bennetts. Will it be the Kentucky Mafia? I can't wait to find out.

  2. I think you're right-on-the-money with your third-season prediction, Dan. I think they go with the Kentucky Mafia...especially since they've already taken the time to establish that we haven't seen the last of them thanks to Glen's connection to Raylan.

  3. I hated the handling of Tim in the last few episodes, like when raylan loses him and he catches up. Tim is my favorite supporting character and he has a dark side they elude to but have yet to realize. Near the end they made him look foolish.

    Walton Goggins was one of the best things about the shield. His character was not much different then boyd's, just doing the dirty as a cop =) I recommend you watch the old seasons of the shield. I will watch anything on FX mainly because of the shield. Although last season of sons was sketchy.......

  4. I'm with you on how well they've done with Raylan. He's straddles that line between outsider in the Harlan world due to him being a US Marshall, but still knows that being a Givens comes with certain repsonsibilities and respect from the community. They play both sides of this really well.

    Agreed on Goggins -- he's incredible. I remember hating him when I first saw him on THE SHIELD, thinking, "who is this hick that they give all this screentime too" before realizing that he was simply playing the character like that on purpose, he was supposed to be the annoying Vic Mackey sycophant. Anyways, he's good.

    I'm with you on Emmy's being worthless, but I think Margo Martindale's is in the bag. Her last few onscreen moments were powerful.

    I'm glad you mention WINTER'S BONE, as it did seem pretty obvious that the storyline from that had some influence here (though the whole white trash drug dealing thing is a long and storied tradition in TV/movies/books, I guess).

    I like where they can go with many of the threads here -- Dickie doesn't seem long for this world, but I'm sure they can get a few more good episodes out of Davies. I wonder if this is the year where the finally begin fleshing out some of Raylan's colleagues (I really liked the story where Art tracked down the elderly criminal that had eluded him all these years -- the foot chase at the end was hilarious). Perhaps they put a more serious spin on a showdown with the Dixie mafia, which has thus far been played mostly for Leonard-esque comedy.

  5. Kevin, as much as I love JUSTIFIED and Raylan Givens, I really think you're selling Olyphant's performance on DEADWOOD quite short. I've been rewatching DEADWOOD this summer and was surprised to see Seth Bullock well up with tears in one pivotal scene. The Bullock I remember was cold and brutal to the point of being robotic. It proves that our memory of Olyphant's Bullock (and Milch's show as a whole) is not as accurate as we would like to think.

    DEADWOOD is a much subtler, literary show. JUSTIFIED is more traditional serialized entertainment. Nothing wrong with either of them in my opinion. I just think they're going for different things.

  6. Tony:

    That's possible.It's been awhile since I've revisited DEADWOOD, so maybe I'm only thinking of the times Seth and Alma are together. I never quite bought Olyphant and Parker's performances together, so perhaps I'm judging it on that. I'll keep this mind when I go through DEADWOOD again (which I want to very soon). Thanks for the comment, Tony!