Justified – “Save My Love”

“Save My Love”

March 23rd, 2011

I only recently caught up with FX’s Justified – after reviewing the premiere, I actually hadn’t seen a single episode, unable to find the time on Wednesday night to check in on what has been a pretty great second season. However, I was able to catch up over Spring Break, and spent Monday evening checking out last week’s episode, “Blaze of Glory,” and then following it with “Save My Love.”

Watching them together (they were on the same disc sent by FX) is a really unique experience, and I’m curious to know how viewers who waited a week between episodes responds to the transformative power of “Save My Love.” While I thought “Blaze of Glory” was fine, it was an example of a fairly simple storytelling method: a secondary character (Winona) gets mixed up with a primary case, the two storylines converging for a brief moment before eventually being resolved on their own terms. While the episode had a Justified feel, the material with Art hunting his old nemesis (slowly) being particularly charming, it didn’t really show us or tell us anything about the people involved. It might have said something about Winona, but the “resolution” sort of kept that from being fully investigated.

However, as you have no doubt figured out, “Save My Love” not only offered a stellar example of how serial convergence can function in a procedural setting, but it also dramatically transformed the ending of “Blaze of Glory.” It’s a stealth two-parter, undoing the resolution in a blink of an eye and marching on forward with an unending sense of tension. It’s an obnoxiously tight hour of television, but it also very much depends on both the series’ serial development up to this point and the lack of serial development in some of this season’s episodes.

If you’ll forgive me the aside, I was sort of perplexed with the respond to last night’s episode of The Good Wife. Without going into spoilers, the episode became much-buzzed about on the Twitter as a result of its closing moments, which revealed a secret about the character of Kalinda. The episode was solid, and the reveal has some interesting ramifications, the energy of that scene did not filter into the rest of the episode. Yes, The Good Wife is more capable than most procedurals at building tension around big character developments, but its finest episodes to me are where the procedural storylines take on the energy of the characters and the more long-form storytelling. Episodes like “Heart” or “Nine Hours” feature no plot twists, but they have a sense of atmosphere which sets the show apart more than a commitment to actual character development. Frankly, outside of that moment (and even within that moment), “Ham Sandwich” was just your topical Good Wife episode which includes more “plot” than what we’re used to seeing – it is different than usual, novel perhaps in the grand scheme of things, but I would not call it better.

There will be episodes of Justified’s second season which will be more serialized than “Save My Love,” which does not feature an appearance by the season’s central antagonists as the Bennett clan continues to take a back seat. And yet, I don’t know if the show will have a finer episode, as even a hyper-serialized outing would have trouble building this much tension and engaging in such impressive convergence.

The court case, which is ostensibly the episode’s procedural element, is a fine metaphor for the episode itself. On some level, this is a routine case: heck, it isn’t actually even a trial, as what we see in the episode is just a pre-trial hearing to determine the admissibility of the video recording made at the time of the man’s death. But the man’s death has created a volatile environment where even procedural elements of the trial (see what they did there?) have taken on new meaning, so much so that Stephen Root’s Judge Reardon offers to take justice into his own hands. Because of the context of the case, what would normally have been mundane becomes emotionally charged.

The A-Story in “Save My Love” is undoubtedly Winona’s initial transgression being revealed to have been far worse than Raylan was aware, and their efforts to cover up that transgression. And yet that happens in the context of what it simply the routine, everyday processing of the case from the previous week’s episode: the collecting of belonging becomes a key plot point, and Raylan shirking his coffee duties becomes an actual point of tension. It’s a striking decision, as it is a complete reversal of most procedural storytelling forms: whereas most episodes draw their tension from the episodic story and then use that tension to feed or consider the pre-existing tensions simmering amongst the show’s characters, “Save My Love” uses Raylan and Winona’s secret to fundamental transform a regular day at the office.

The ignorance of every other character was a cheat in many ways: Reardon doesn’t know what’s in the bag and thus insists that Winona keep it with her (or give it to his assistant), while Tim doesn’t know of Winona’s plight and thus goes on an errand to pick up the evidence. Their ignorance is a way to fuel the story, to keep building the tension as the chances of Winona being discovered become more real, and one could say that it’s a pretty cheap device. However, what makes it work is Natalie Zea’s performance, and the fact that Natalie Zea is not essential to this show.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Natalie Zea is fantastic in this episode, and the depth that this adds to her character will make Winona something more than an attractive foil during Raylan’s off-work hours. Before this episode, though, Winona was expendable in a way that many of the characters on the show are expendable. I was surprised that Erica Tazel stuck around given how little material she had last year, and to some degree the continued presence of both Joelle Carter and Zea seemed surprising. But as Ava had been folded into Boyd’s story (in a nice bit of storytelling I wasn’t able to comment on in recent weeks), Winona was left to play house (or, if you prefer accuracy, motel) with Raylan, and the tension was sexual but not particularly palpable.

We might complain about this in previous episodes, about the character remaining somewhat one-dimensional even after last week’s smaller transgression, but that allows “Save My Love” to work. The character’s lack of complexity means that we sort of believe she might really get caught with the money, that there was some chance of her being caught when the bomb squad opened her back in their search for the protestor’s non-existent explosive device. Part of me, being the pragmatist I am, knew that the character wouldn’t actually be leaving, but her inessential nature made the transformation to essential possible. Zea was stupendous as the shell-shocked Winona, struggling to keep control of a situation which she had no way of controlling.

Raylan takes the central role in trying to diffuse the situation, of course, but his struggle is similarly well drawn by Timothy Olyphant. What I love about Raylan’s actions here are how unflinching they are – he does it because he loves her, and because he feels like he needs to save her. Part of Raylan, I think, feels as though he saved her from Gary, that he has a responsibility to her not unlike he has to the people he fights for as a Marshal. So seeing that tested in this fashion, as he resists the urge to criticize her actions and instead goes about committing various crimes to help her keep in the clear, is as much a character moment for Raylan as it is for Winona.

When the bomb threat comes in, and the Marshal service steps into gear to keep Boyd’s new boss from being shot, the episode becomes more typical. However, its energy doesn’t return to normal, the tension lingering right until that moment as Art and Raylan stare each other down in the hall while Winona struggles to get the money into another box where it will likely go missing for another two decades. And while the bomb threat is the moment where the tension intersects with a typical episodic storyline, the tension also bleeds into smaller moments: I love when Raylan walks into the court room to discover Boyd sitting there in a suit, or the scene in the elevator where Rachel legitimately gets pissed at Raylan for sleeping in. As everything gets filtered through their situation, it’s like the world is conspiring against them – while this could have felt contrived, like the writers placing roadblock after roadblock to the success return of the money, it seemed instead like life just following its own course. It was procedure getting in the way of the serial, but at a time when the serial storyline couldn’t be put on hold or delayed for another episode.

It was, in other words, a case of collision more than convergence, what Zack Handlen referred to as “directed chaos” on Twitter. It’s a good term, and I think it’s being directed in the right fashion. In Boyd’s temptation we see that this was not simply about creating a tense hour of television: just as Raylan and Winona enter into a new stage of their relationship after her transgression, Boyd receiving a license to return to his old ways through private security points to the Bennett family and the promise of future collision. “Save My Love” is an episode where nothing stops moving, where momentum is created through circumstance more than any particular plot event. It transforms the mundane into the truly suspenseful, delivering the kind of episode that is most effective when it is actually transforming something: no show could be this every week, but the idea that a show can become this at will is infinitely more exciting.

And certainly, at least for me, a more interesting convergence of procedural and serialized elements than its network brethren.

Cultural Observations

  • I think some of the reason that The Good Wife gets somewhat more credit for its narrative play than Justified is that the initial expectations for both were so opposed: people expected a simple procedural from The Good Wife, making its complexity novel, whereas people were actually initially disappointed with Justified’s lack of seriality (making its mixture a step down from the expectation). I think we need to erase those preconceptions, personally, but that’s going to be challenging.
  • Some strong work from the cast all around here, and in the season as a whole – Tazel proved her mettle with her brother-in-law, and even in a reduced role Joelle Carter has Ava’s particular approach to life down to a science. Throw in Goggins and the whole Bennett clan on the slightly more villainous side of things, and you’ve got one of the finest ensembles on television.
  • I haven’t seen any upcoming episodes, so I don’t know if I’ll stick to this, but I don’t know if I’ll get back to reviewing the show until the finale later this Spring. If something strikes my fancy, though, you might see me return.
  • I like Lenore a lot more when she’s not on Hung.
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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Justified – “Save My Love”

  1. William Goodman

    Nice to see you writing about Justified. I agree with you phrasing of “directed chaos,” as it seems to a near perfect way to describe the series.

    I’m really glad that Tazel has had more to do this season. She’s a good actress and I thought both she and Natalie Zea were very underused last season.

  2. Misha

    Great review; thanks. And for the record, as someone who’s watching it on a weekly basis, I was sort of dreading this one – very happy to have been proven wrong…!

    I would argue that the A plot intersected with and resonated with the B plot (court case) and even the C plot (Boyd and the coal executive) more than you’re giving the writers credit for – even if we only contrast the way Raylan has to admit that he does, on some level, almost trust Boyd with the way the look on his face at the end of the episode suggests that he no longer fully trusts Winona. (There are some other echoes between Boyd’s predicament and Raylan’s, but I’ll wait to see how Boyd’s new job plays out.)

    In a way, I would even argue that the true emotional climax of the episode is when Rachel tells Raylan he needs to “wake up!” – she means it about the coffee, but for him it’s double-edged: he needs to step back from the desire to fix the situation in front of him and realize just how far down the rabbit hole he’s gotten.

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