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Justified Season Two Review

on Mon, 05/09/2011 - 00:00

The FX drama Justified follows the adventures of US Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens and his assignment to the rural surroundings of Eastern Kentucky in which he was raised. Although the premise of the series appears simplistic enough, the execution of the narratives within are another matter. Justified is not just another crime show with clear cut good guys and bad guys, but an exploration of such universal themes as family, identity and fate with a collection of characters that exhibit varying shades of morally gray. And while there is plenty of action, the series is often at its best when those characters embark on verbal conversations instead of relying on physical violence.

The first season of Justified contained numerous standalone episodes and seemingly unrelated storylines that neatly tied together in the end with an explosive gun fight in the hills of Harlan County. With elements of “the sins of the father will be visited upon the son” and sense of synchronicity in regards to events, the overarching narrative of that inaugural effort was almost Biblical in nature. The second season likewise exhibits a cohesive quality but more directly brings the events from the first episode full circle by the final installment, raising Justified to the levels of a Shakespearean drama rather than mere television.

“The playwright always insists on the operation of the doctrine of free will,” scholar A.C. Bradley wrote in regards to the Bard and his tragedies. “The (anti) hero is always able to back out, to redeem himself. But, the author dictates, they must move unheedingly to their doom.” The same observation holds true for the characters of Justified as many of them struggle with second chances and the opportunity to reinvent themselves in a better, more positive fashion. “Normally, I would have just shot you myself the second you pulled,” Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) declares in the initial episode of season two in regards to his propensity of using his gun to resolve conflict. “But I am doing my level best to avoid the paperwork and the self-recrimination that comes with it.”

Givens is not the only character to make such statements. “My outlaw ways are behind me,” the ambiguous Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) tells the US Deputy Marshal early on. Criminal matriarch Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), the main antagonist of the season, makes a similar comment after securing financial security from a land deal. Despite such proclamations, however, all three ultimately reject the second chances lying in front of them and instead embrace the ways they have struggled to move past.

“It’s what I do, it’s who I am,” Boyd Crowder inevitably realizes when he returns to his illegal ways, while Mags Bennett reaches a similar conclusion. “I don’t know who I was kidding,” she openly acknowledges by season end. “This is where I belong.”

Even Raylan Givens feels the pull of fate tugging at his boot straps. “This is who we are,” he explains to a begging-for-his-life Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies) in the darkened woods of Kentucky. “This is who we’ve always been.” While Givens backs away from his need for blood vengeance against the murderous Dickie in the end, the seeds of torment in regards to what kind of man he is continue to grow. The Deputy Marshal’s direct supervisor Art Mullen (Nick Searcy)—who also serves as a surrogate father to the wayward Givens—in effect disowns him during season two of Justified when he remarks, “I’m stuck with a man who’s a lousy marshal but a good lawman.” Raylan Givens, after all, is not a US Marshal in the modern day sense but a throwback to the Old West and its penchant for personal justice over the rule of law.

“I have no moral objection to you killing her,” Givens tells Boyd Crowder when he threatens to kill a gun thug from a Miami cartel in the first episode of the season. In the final episode, meanwhile, he exhibits no qualms about leaving Dickie Bennett alone with Crowder as he calmly states, “I didn’t pull the trigger but I’ll sleep like a baby knowing he will.” It is a belief system that may indeed be in line with the lawmen of the past, as Art Mullen suggested, but obviously not one for a Twenty First Century US Marshal.

Although the writers on Justified have not embraced the iambic pentameter style of William Shakespeare, the episodes of the FX drama sparkle with crisp, intelligent and memorable dialogue that is equally worthy of the Bard. While the final episode brings all the elements of the season full circle and to a satisfactory conclusion with plenty of action and bloodshed, the installment immediately beforehand packed a deeper and more intense emotional punch without a single bullet being fired. With what basically amounted to a series of interlocking conversations as Raylan Givens tracked down Dickie Bennett, Justified demonstrated that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword with a truly powerful episode of television.

The second season of Justified was more than mere Shakespearean tragedy, however, as a “cool-stylish-hip” form of comedy runs through the veins of each installment just as much as the drama. And when the character of Raylan Givens is further tested upon learning that his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea)—with whom he has recently been romantically reunited—has stupidly pilfered two hundred thousand dollars from a court house evidence locker, the US Marshal assists in returning the money in true screwball comedy fashion as a high profile trial, an impatient judge and a bomb threat all unwittingly conspire to prevent the plan from reaching fruition.

Considering the amount of blood spilled in Harlan County, as well as the internal conflict of the characters in regards to fate and destiny, the sophomore effort of Justified actually began quietly with the abduction of a fourteen-year-old girl (Kaitlyn Dever) by a convicted sexual predator. That action, however, inevitably set in motion the events of the overarching storyline of the season. Mags Bennett, for instance, kills the young Loretta McCready’s widowed father in the first episode in order to both protect and raise the girl herself, while Raylan Givens risks losing Winona forever in the final episode in order to save the strong-willed teenager. The narrative comes full circle in the end with the same poisoned glass of homemade “apple pie” moonshine that Mags used on the elder McCready and one final death before the screen turns to black.

Although their journeys do not directly relate to those of Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and other protagonists within the works of William Shakespeare, the characters of Raylan Givens, Boyd Crowder and Mags Bennett—along with numerous others from the second season of Justified— still embody the same elements of a classical tragedy. Revenge, greed, the hunger for power and pull of fate all play a role on the FX drama as much as family and identity. It may be television and not the stage, but Justified has reached Shakespearean heights nonetheless.

Anthony Letizia (May 9, 2011)

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