April 10th, 2012
While I haven’t exactly had the chance to write about Justified this season, I haven’t exactly been silent on the subject: my good friend David Chen at /Film has been hosting the JustifiedCast all season, and I had the pleasure of joining him a few times over the course of the season, including in a mid-season interview with Graham Yost.
However, those conversations tended to be fairly episodic, and my general line in terms of broader thematic work was a “Wait and see” attitude that there isn’t enough time to expand on within a podcast setting. Now that we’ve reached the end of the season, however, I want to return to those larger questions I put off in earlier editions of the JustifiedCast, in part because I feel like “Slaughterhouse” rewarded my patience by embracing the tensions that had been creating some degree of dissonance throughout the season itself. This was not a cohesive season, but that did not keep it from coming to a meaningful conclusion, a fact that says something quite profound about the value of narrative play in the face of audience expectation and anticipation.
I have always been a strong proponent of Justified’s interest in procedural storytelling, in part because it establishes a status quo: on a normal day, Raylan would be hunting down a random fugitive, which is why the occasional presence of standalone storylines are important to maintaining the meaning of Raylan’s connection to Harlan.
It also meant that the third season’s decision to focus on Harlan more extensively was a meaningful departure. This season has been far more concerned with Harlan than previous seasons, sketching out broader conflicts with the introduction of Limehouse, the insurrection of Quarles, and the ascension of Boyd to the status as “King of Harlan” (with Ava, his Queen, at his side). It’s meant that, while Raylan has occasionally (although less often) been a part of traditional investigations, the show has continued to have a serialized throughline with Boyd as a secondary lead, a shift that has taken some time to settle in.
What I found so compelling about “Slaughterhouse” is the way it distilled these broader conflicts into something incredibly meaningful to the characters, if not necessarily to the audience. I would argue that the second season told a story for the sake of the audience, a carefully contained and tightly plotted story of one family’s defense of their way of life against corporate interests and the limits of the law. By comparison, the narrative of the third season was far less contained, with larger-than-life characters who rarely fit into such typical serialized expectations. Robert Quarles was a loose cannon with nothing to lose, while Ellstin Limehouse has everything to lose and no intention of doing so after holding onto it for so long. While one floats through Harlan untethered, the other is fully embedded into the Harlan eco-system, leaving characters like Boyd, Ava, and even Raylan to float somewhere in between.
In the comments on the most recent episode of the JustifiedCast, user “Richard Caveman” argues that this focus on the interplay between these various forces in Harlan has actually resulted in the show losing track of Raylan and Boyd’s narratives:
“The show is having the same problem several of the Batman movies have; it’s more interested in it’s rogue gallery than it’s [sic] protagonist. And what about the Joker to Raylan’s Batman, Boyd Crowder? Besides the business with Devil and the lackluster election storyline, we have no sense of Boyd’s criminal enterprise, nor what he is doing at all. It feels like we have been just grinding it out until the point in the season where a stand-off will occur because it MUST occur.”
Here’s the thing: that’s exactly what he was doing, and that’s very much part of the point. I’m not going to argue it was as singularly compelling as Mags’ storyline, but watching Boyd prove unable to establish the criminal enterprise he imagined is key to the season’s purpose. Boyd spends the season fighting off Quarles’ insurrection without actually having a foothold of his own, to the point where he nearly finds himself losing everything in “Slaughterhouse.” It is only then that the pieces for Boyd’s control fall into place, whether it’s Ava displaying her power over Ellen Mae (who she saved from a similar fate earlier in the season) or Arlo taking the fall for Devil’s murder.
Those are acts of family. While Boyd still has an actual family member within his midst who means to see him fall from his perch, the idea of family is a key thread in “Slaughterhouse.” When Limehouse dismisses Errol for his mishandling of the entire situation with Quarrels (and Dickie Bennett, and Boyd), he does so by telling a story about how he used to butcher alongside his father. While characterization for Limehouse has been too thin this season, this glimpse of history suggests someone who does good by those who are part of his extended family, a rootedness that takes time to cultivate and was necessary based on the segregation of the community and the need to stick together. It was the same need that the Bennetts had it until it all fell apart thanks to outside pressures, and it’s the same need that Boyd and Ava develop in responding to the circumstances that come to a head in “Slaughterhouse.”
It’s worth noting, too, that the big showdown doesn’t happen the way one might expect it to. The episode picks up where “Measures” leaves off, the showdown between Boyd and Quarrels, but Boyd Crowder is off in a jail cell when Quarrels meets his untimely end, a viciously satisfying death which ends up being more about Raylan than it does about Boyd. While previous seasons have seen Raylan asserting himself into the business of Harlan, as though he was incapable of staying away even as he claimed it was all he wanted to do, this season has seen other characters asserting themselves into his world, whether it’s by drugging him and nearly killing him, literally driving away with him, or taking him hostage as we see here. As war breaks out in Harlan, Raylan becomes part of it whether he wants to or not, helping accelerate the end of his relationship with Winona and shatter whatever opportunity for a family there might have been there. The season very purposefully shifted Raylan’s agency, to the point where an outside observer – Stephen Tobolowsky’s FBI agent – presumed he was actually Boyd’s puppet based on the nature of his involvement with his former home.
I’m not convinced this shift was wholly successful, and I do think the narrative in Harlan lacked the subtlety the show worked with in the second season. As terrifying and brilliant as Neal McDonough was throughout, the character’s ability to act out his plans with aggressive (and psychotic) violence makes for a very different kind of villain than Mags (who mostly stuck to threats), and Limehouse’s motivations have often seemed too moustache-twirly for their own good. However, much as Boyd’s lack of clear agency forced a character like Ava to take aggressive action (clearing the path for greater agency in the future), Raylan’s struggle to avoid getting wrapped up in the ever-escalating tension between the man from Detroit and the men from his past forced Raylan to consider that relationship more carefully than even last season’s gunshot.
Although he largely flitted in and out of the season itself, Arlo became incredibly important here, and his was a story where the pieces really fell into place. Haunted by one dead wife and imagining a world where the other was still alive, Arlo Givens was a man losing grip with his own reality as his past and present converged. Raymond Barry did a great job capturing the subtlety of mental illness within the general irascibility of the character, but more importantly he offered Raylan a glimpse into his own future. That sonogram remained on his bathroom mirror for a reason, and the return to Winona’s sister at the end (and the idea of Raylan telling her a story, almost as if it were a bedtime story to his child) reminds us that we are seeing a cycle playing out, a cycle that characters like Boyd, Raylan, and Ava are fated to be a part of.
Yes, at the end of the day Quarles was a narrative device who brought that cycle to the surface, yet another carpetbagger who comes to Harlan, causes a ruckus, and leaves a bit lighter than when he arrived (give or take a left arm). And yes, because the character’s history was so plainly sketched out through exposition as opposed to being rooted within this world and its characters, his death ends a finite narrative with minimal resonance beyond the simple satisfaction of a fittingly badass death (with that gun arm, so proficient in life, proving the cause of his death). And yes, when we isolated Justified villains in the future, Robert Quarles does not measure up to Mags Bennett.
However, he was never meant to. While both Mags and Quarles’ storylines were isolated to one season, the trails of those storylines move in two very different directions: while Mags’ storyline fleshed out the history of life in Harlan, Quarrels’ storyline fleshed out the future. The second season of Justified proved that they could tell a compelling and cohesive story, but the third season abandons that idea to test the status quo in ways which may not have been as consistently brilliant but have a much greater potential to resonate amongst the show’s characters. It played with the formula in ways that didn’t always take full advantage of the show’s potential, but I’d argue they were never unproductive, always dislocating something or someone in ways that proved resonant when we reached tonight’s finale.
While I’ve seen some people – including the aforementioned Robert Caveman – refer to Quarles as a Dexter villain, we need to take a step back for a moment. Dexter’s problem with its cyclical villains is that the show and its characters never seemed to see that there was a cycle, a lack of self-awareness that has sent the show into a creative dead zone where no real change can be made so long as that central conflict exists. By comparison, Justified felt extremely self-aware this season, no more so than in “Slaughterhouse.” While this finale solidifies the cyclical nature of figures like Quarles, it also becomes a commentary on the power of cycles within this environment, and the position of our central characters within that cycle. Quarles wasn’t a neatly packaged parallel for Raylan or Boyd: he was a messy, unpredictable character whose impact was both destructive and constructive, symbolic of past threats but also meaningful for future ones.
In my view, Quarles was a sign of the writers’ willingness to play with this universe. The tone of the character felt experimental, the impact of the character seemed forceful, and the pace of the narrative was willing to go with the flow of the creative forces at work. I don’t think all of this “play” worked, but the worst thing that can happen to a show as it becomes a success is for it to lose the desire to try new things. It would have been very easy, and likely still quite compelling, if the show had simply built another legacy Harlan character (like Limehouse) into the season’s central antagonist, but I’m not convinced it would have been in the show’s best interest.
While that scenario might have been something we could more cleanly identify as a carefully plotted season of television, I feel it would have struggled to provide the dynamism necessary to move the show as a whole to the next level – in other words, I’d much rather be complaining about some uneven episodes than a complacency from which the show might never recover. That the show remained brilliantly acted, and continued to deliver tremendous setpieces, even amidst this experimentation and play is a sign of a show that knows what it’s doing and yet is also willing to expand into the space where it doesn’t have the same level of confidence, delivering a season of television that bodes well for the future while still proving incredibly fulfilling on its own merits.
- Given that Limehouse remains very much a part of the Harlan infrastructure, and that Mykelti Williamson seems likely to return in the future, curious if we get some more insight into the character. We got a bit of it in that conversation with Errol, and I’m wondering if the show might not have more plans given his central role in Quarles’ death.
- I love how the show captured the terror of Quarles’ kidnapping of that poor family, and the disconnect between their terror (of this man who has a gun pointed at them) and our terror (which expands beyond that to include his penchant for abusing and murdering young boys). The show never actually raises the final point directly, but his elimination of the Mother from the equation was particularly chilling to me.
- Given that I haven’t been writing about it, I’ve missed out on hearing what any of you might have had to say about the finale – not sure how many of you still have thoughts you haven’t said elsewhere, but I’d be particularly curious on how the season came together for you.