June 8th, 2010
I think an “I told you so” is in order (albeit a little bit late, as I didn’t get to the finale until this weekend).
I wrote at length earlier this spring about how Justified’s gradual serialization was nothing to be alarmed about, and could actually result in a stronger serialized core to the series by allowing us to spend time with the characters outside of the demands of long-term storylines, and “Bulletville” is the definitive example of the complexities of this form of narrative pleasure (or the pleasure of this narrative complexity – works either way).
Perhaps the best way to describe it is a sort of abstract serialization: while there are parts of the narrative which present clear actions and consequences, there are others which build on small moments, actions which have no immediate ramifications but which at some point in the story merge with serialized arcs and contribute to a meaningful image of setting or character.
In its first season finale, Justified did everything they needed to do to bring it all together: in fact, there was so many moving pieces here that parts of the series which one would have presumed to be central in a finale like this one (especially if the show were as generic a procedural as some presumed it to be) were left to small moments, actions within a larger whole, leaving “Bulletville” to mirror the events of the series’ pilot but with newfound, and pretty fantastic, complexity.
Walton Goggins has not entirely taken over this series, but I think it’s fair to say that this was very much Boyd Crowder’s finale more than it was Raylan Givens’. This is not to say that Raylan was irrelevant to this story, but rather that his dilemmas were more or less black and white: by pushing his relationship drama aside (with only the brief run-in with a newly separate Winona reminding us of their tryst), the finale doesn’t show Raylan as particularly conflicted. Now, I think that’s purposeful and part of the finale’s craft, but by comparison Boyd Crowder is struggling to differentiate between good and evil. Boyd doesn’t know how to respond to his father’s decision to murder his followers in cold blood, his faith being tested at every turn. The scene where Bo arrives at his camp has an important line: father asks son whether or not he really believed there would be no consequences, and we realize that Boyd never asked himself. He was so strong in his belief that this was his new purpose that he never stopped to question the potential consequences of his actions. Perhaps he thought that he was in a procedural, when in reality he was trapped in a serialized world where his father is more than willing to create a sickening art installation in the woods.
Goggins was absolutely fantastic in the hour as he portrayed Boyd coming to terms with the fact that his problem is not a question of good and evil so much as it is actions and ramifications. The parallels between the finale and the pilot are quite interesting on a number of levels, but I love that for the most part Boyd’s behaviour hasn’t changed. His purpose is different, but his modus operandi is identical: whether he’s blowing up churches or drug shipments, he’s still holding a shoulder rocket and yelling “fire in the hole.” However, while the police have only legal recourses which Boyd is capable of evading, his father has more powerful means to enact revenge, and the result is tragic and faith-shattering. Boyd truly has changed his outlook on life, despite Raylan’s earlier skepticism, but he hasn’t changed his means for altering that outlook: while he may have faith his father lost a long time ago, he also very nearly enacts the same measure of revenge (murder) which made him so angry in the first place. Boyd’s storyline has been the most plainly serialized of the series, largely because he was always a part of recurring rather than standalone story elements, but the transformation is still noteworthy, and certainly justifies Goggins being added as a series regular next season.
And yet, on the other side of the coin, Raylan’s story remain is a stealthier bit of serialization. On the one hand, the episode wraps up this chapter of his relationship with the Crowder family (Bo, in particular, as Boyd remains loose albeit a “friend” in some fashion), so it does represent the more straightforward serialized elements within the series. However, at the same time, some of the show’s quieter elements like Raylan’s ethics as it relates to firing his weapon came to a head in “Bulletville,” as the series’ body count rose significantly without much discussion. Raylan killed six people who were going to kill him, raising questions regarding his trigger finger without turning it into some sort of contrived barrier for the character. Raylan wasn’t taken out of the field due to the evil actions of ADA Vasquez, nor was there some sort of love triangle situation which kept him preoccupied: rather, Raylan had small moments of realization (like his comment that Ava didn’t have to chase him, or his comment in the cabin that this all goes back to Bucks’ murder). The cartel never became a huge part of the series, but their constant presence and the investigation into Raylan’s actions was always there slowly building towards this moment.
That’s where the series becomes so effective, as it taps into the standalone storylines where Raylan has or has not showed restraint in order to contextualize his absolute lack of hesitation here. He doesn’t hesitate to shoot his father because he knows not to trust him, and he resists shooting Boyd for reasons beyond the fact that his gun was empty. There’s no messing around in this episode: Raylan has no crisis about his actions and overcomes no clear obstacles. Rather, much like the series as a whole, he overcomes subtle obstacles that the show created in the pilot (his lack of comfort in Kentucky, his trigger finger, etc.) which have been slowly broken down as the series has progressed. The show has left plenty of conflict on the table: the love triangle remains in play, the investigation into Raylan’s shootings is not likely to go away, and Boyd remains “on the loose.” However, the series has taken both the Givens and Crowder families on a journey this season, both through a substantial feud and through some personal character arcs, and the result has been some great television which was only possible with the slow burn of early episodes.
However, I do think that Justified’s focus was not necessarily as clear as this review may make it seem. I think it ultimately became a great show, and I particularly enjoyed much of the final stretch of episodes, but I do think we have to go back to some of the standalone episodes and wonder about the show’s focus. For example, we never really got to spend much time with Tim or Rachel when it comes to the serialized storylines, and yet they were often prominent in the standalone episodes. This is fine, but there’s potential in expanding the depth of the Marshall’s office as a whole that the show more or less ignored. There’s a risk in abandoning parts of your show by engaging with a larger serialized story, and Tim and Rachel stand as victims of that shift. And while I’m not suggesting this makes the standalone episodes less valuable or interesting, I do think their presence there and absence later in the season makes the disconnect more visible and pushes us to separate the episodes in some way. As much as I don’t want to put someone out of a job, I would almost suggest that they dump one of the characters next season so they can focus more closely; however, when I start to think about who that would be, I don’t want to lose either of them. I liked Rachel’s dynamic with Raylan, while I find Tim more interesting as an independent character, so the show sort of left me wanting more with them.
You could technically compare Justified first season to that of another FX show, Sons of Anarchy, which started out a bit slowly but which became far more complex and satisfying towards the end of the season. However, with Sons of Anarchy, I think it was just that the heavily masculine biker environment took some time to adjust to, keeping us at a distance until things really escalated. With Justified, I think this was a bit more calculated: I think that the series took a network note about spending some time on standalone cases and used it to its advantage, eventually delivering a finale which was structurally unique (in that it had absolutely no standalone elements, having turned the Givens/Crowder battle into an ongoing investigation) and tonally consistent (in that it drew from so many elements of previous episodes). And while it’s possible that the show may have been even better had it simply told the story of the Givens and the Crowder families, I think the subtle nature of some of the series’ serialization allowed for the eventual hail of bullets to feel much more natural and meaningful than if the show had been pitting the two families against one another each and every week, or bringing the Cartel into the picture on more than a handful of occasions. My parceling those moments throughout the season, the season came to a much more satisfying conclusion, one which shows a great deal of promise for the future.
- Realized in retrospect that I didn’t mention Timothy Olyphant above, but he was pretty good and all that – this was just very much Goggins’ show, and Olyphant was solid but wasn’t given the material to really give an outstanding performance.
- This show hasn’t gotten enough credit for being particularly funny, and while the humour stopped once Bo committed mass murder Raylan’s “Maybe he’s Batman” line had me cracking up on a bus, garnering some funny looks.
- I like Natalie Zea and all, but I do think that the Winona character suffers from feeling so disconnected from the action: Joelle Carter has a far more enjoyable and relevant role in Ava, and so perhaps the show wants to pair Raylan with the former because they know the latter can still fit into Harlen storylines.
- I’m going to miss M.C. Gainey, who was really great at bringing Bo to life in a relatively short amount of time. He and Raymond J. Barry did some really tremendous work this season, and so I’m hopeful that the latter returns in the future and that there’s a way to bring Gainey back in flashbacks or something.
- The American flag shirt Bo was wearing when he died was fantastic. Just saying.