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Television Collision: Justified – A Southern Delight

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Alright already, if you’re gonna put a gun to my head, I won’t deny it: I have been MIA for a short while. But I have a very good reason, besides willingly surrendering the television spot to the marvelous Sex Week last Tuesday, I was also suffering from a severe Football-related trauma. It’s not every year that my Packers win the Superbowl the very same week my favorite of all TV shows Friday Night Lights goes off the air for good. So I didn’t know what to do with myself. I literally didn’t know. And forming a coherent sentence was completely out of the question.

I am still not over my Friday Night Lights mourning phase, but I’m not ready to talk about it either, so instead I am going to write about the show that actually helped mend some of my FNL wounds: Justified! (Note: you should read the rest of this entry with the best Southern accent you can muster up in your head.)
I watched the first season back to back over the last week and let me just say: I’d let Raylan Givens save me from any kind of trouble, emotional or otherwise, any day of the year. Oh, yeah!

It being established thereby that Timothy Olyphant as Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens is just the pinnacle of sexiness, manliness and “hot-damn-put-some-of-that-on-my-plate”, let’s talk about some of the other things that make Justified outstanding, compelling television.

First off, the setting. If we were to make a list of the places cop shows usually take place – and I guess technically Justified qualifies as a cop show – we’d come up with a lot of urban centers and big cities. Which is why it is so refreshing to see Justified set in Kentucky, and not even mainly in the city of Lexington, but in the small community of Harlan, where everyone knows everybody else and all of them talk in a Southern accent and seemingly everyone is getting their hands dirty. Kentucky doesn’t even serve so much as a backdrop on Justified, it is almost a breathing, living thing, exemplified in every unique, complex and authentic character walking around on screen. Because folks in the backwoods of Kentucky may be simple sometimes, but that doesn’t mean life is easy.

The viewers’ reluctance to want to enter the “hillbilly country” we might think of when we hear “Kentucky” is actually brilliantly mirrored in the character of Raylan Givens, who tried his damndest to get out of the place he grew up in, only to end up right back where he started, when he is transferred from the Marshal’s office in Miami following him shooting a suspect.
Over the course of the first season, as Raylan gets back into the swing of things in Kentucky and remembers how life works there, not only Raylan himself but also the initially hesitant viewer realizes that Kentucky is where Raylan belongs and it is where the show belongs. Raylan gets into all kinds of trouble of course – not the least of which is his love life – but he is also incredibly good at his job and can use a lot of the knowledge he has from growing up in Kentucky to his advantage.

On the very surface, Justified is a procedural and a cop show. There tends to be one fugitive a week, whom Raylan and his colleagues of the U.S. Marshal Service have to catch, but Justified is more than an anthology show a la CSI and I actually feel the labels “procedural” and “cop show” do Justified a great disservice. I would simply call it an excellent drama, which has a ton of subtle, very smart humor mixed in as well. The stories it tells are never simple, the show’s seasons have an overarching story arc, giving Raylan & Co. “bigger fish” to go after, who won’t be so easy to catch, and who won’t go down without a fight.
And what’s even better: even the “bad guys” get to have a personality, get to be conflicted, even get to be likable at times. If there is one thing Justified doesn’t do, it’s black and white.

Everything is murky and shady, right down to Raylan himself. Reverse psychology works wonders on him. You tell him not to do something, you can bet your ass that is precisely the one thing he will end up doing. Like having a sexual relationship with Ava Crowder, who not only shot her husband a day before Raylan got into town, but who is also a witness to Raylan shooting Ava’s husband’s brother, Boyd. It was a justified shooting – Boyd pulled a weapon first – and yet the District Attorney is beginning to look at Raylan sideways, seeing as how he ends up shooting so many of the criminals he is actually just supposed to arrest.

The relationship between Raylan and Ava is more complicated than this though. They have known each other basically all their lives, grew up in the same small town, Ava even had a crush on Raylan when she was a teenager, but he was a little bit older than her and never really gave her the time of day. Now he is back, they are both adults, and you could cut the sexual tension between them with a knife every time they run into each other. Even if Ava is just standing outside smoking a cigarette and he walks up to her. The whole “forbidden fruits” thing works in Ava’s favor, of course, because Raylan can’t stay away from forbidden fruit, but being with Ava to him also means reconnecting with his old self, the roots he tried to outgrow. And those are levels of himself he only reluctantly explores.

Which is, of course, where Raylan’s ex-wife Winona comes into the picture. She also makes him examine the kind of man he is, like his underlying anger issues he tries so hard to deny. And by explaining to him why she left him, why “his grind” is so exhausting to everyone around him. Love and attraction was never the problem between these two – hence they end up in bed again and again – but he lacks the optimism and zest for life she desires in a partner (which she found in her new husband Gary, who can’t stay out of trouble either). Raylan and Winona aren’t quite ready to let go of each other yet, but they are also aware that there might be other reasons why they probably can’t work as a couple.
(Fans of the show are divided into “Team Ava” and “Team Winona”, and eventually Raylan will have to choose. But I think it just might take him a good long while to do so.)

You can see, the character of Raylan Given is complex and very authentic. Much of the credit for this must go to the original creator of the character, writer Elmore Leonard, whose short story “Fire in the Hole” inspired the show, and who is also credited as the writer for almost every episode. Raylan Givens alone would be compelling enough to watch Justified, yet what makes Justified outstanding television is the fact that Raylan is surrounded by characters just as compelling and well-developed as him.

Take his “eternal antagonist” Boyd Crowder, for example, played to perfection by Walton Goggins. Boyd has had almost the same upbringing as Raylan – they could have contests to see which one of their fathers was the worse one to have – yet where Raylan chose to be on the “right side of the law”, Boyd initially got sucked into his father’s dirty dealings. Until Raylan shoots Boyd, that is, and suddenly Boyd goes Bible crazy and wants to save everyone’s soul. His methods are a little unorthodox to say the least, and yet Boyd is a pleasure to watch. You never quite know what to make of him – is he crazy, is he sincere, is he plotting something – and Raylan doesn’t know what to do with him either, but ain’t that just the way life goes?

The reality of Justified is so rich and detailed and accurate and authentic, it vibes off the screen, it seeps into your body through every pore and you walk away from watching the show talking in a Kentucky accent and reaching for your cowboy hat (which only Raylan wears and even people in Kentucky make fun of him for it). Honestly, I don’t quite know what more you could want from a TV show. Despite all the criminals and morally shady behavior that goes on in Justified’s Kentucky, I wouldn’t mind being sucked into my television set and living there forever. Even if it was just to catch a glimpse of Raylan Givens/Timothy Olyphant riding around in his Lincoln every now and then.

Seasons Two has just gotten started (two episodes in), so make a date: Wednesdays, 10 p.m., FX. Justified!

Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.

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