May 4th, 2011
In what has been a truly spectacular second season, Justified has more or less followed the same pattern as the first season: serialized elements are introduced gradually over the first half of the season before exploding in the final episodes.
What seems different this time around, though, was the nature of that explosion. While both seasons feature conclusions defined by a three-way battle (Miami/Crowders/Raylan in S1, Bennetts/Boyd/Raylan in S2), the second season had given each of those groups an incredible level of detail and history. With the Bennett/Givens feud having been established early on (and most evident in Dickie’s daily reminder of Raylan’s baseball bat handiwork), and with Boyd having risen into a position of power in opposition to the Bennetts, “Bloody Harlan” lives up to its title by giving us the big action climax to these ongoing feuds.
And yet, on some level this still felt like a denouement, or at least a futile attempt at a denouement for a show purposefully designed to avoid such efforts. With so many storylines featuring so many characters with a great deal of agency (and a multitude of motivations), Justified is always reaching the climax of one story or another, but it’s never truly allowed to have that moment to pause and reconsider. There is a brief moment early in “Bloody Harlan” where it feels like Raylan and Winona are going to be able to look to the future, but within minutes another loose end is picked up and another bloody firefight begins to unfold, before being replaced by contemplative scenes almost begging to serve as resolution.
In other words, Justified is a show of false parlays, which this season has focused in on the qualities that will make its constant search for futile resolution one of the finest shows on television.
The two moments in the episode that feel like a denouement come at the beginning and the end. News of Winona’s pregnancy feels like a denouement because it’s clearly something that we won’t see play out until next season. While it is true that the news does put Raylan’s relationship with Loretta into a particular context, thus serving a function in the episode itself, the fact is that the real drama surrounding that pregnancy will play out in season three.
The other moment, of course, is Mags Bennett’s final moments. In what is truly a spectacular swan song for Margo Martindale’s tour de force performance, she chooses to end her life and join her two favorite sons in the afterlife, searching for the answer to the mystery of it all. I love the poetry of the moment, giving her an exit befitting a character that was always a bit larger than life, and I also love the fact that it’s more poetic for us than for Raylan. Raylan doesn’t know how Loretta’s father died, after all, which means that he has no reason to suspect anything is amiss when she offers him a drink.
Even though the episode plays with the poison being in Raylan’s glass for a brief moment, I never had a doubt: not just because the show isn’t going to kill Raylan Givens, but more importantly because that would have undercut what was a legitimately emotional scene. Centered as it was on Mags’ relationship with Loretta, “Bloody Harlan” focuses on how Mags has reconciled motherhood and criminality – while the show initially positioned her as a hard-edged matriarch, Loretta demonstrated a serious change in her characterization, and her suicide feels motivated by that idea. In Coover she lost her baby, in Doyle she lost her eldest son, and in Loretta she lost the daughter she never had. The absence of Dickie is part of the point, the awkward middle son who never quite found his place – that he is alive does not give her a reason to live, leaving him a lone Bennett on this Earth.
On Twitter, Jaime Weinman argues that this felt like a “pat” conclusion, and he has a point: Mags’ arc comes to a close within a single season, ending with a final poetic moment. However, he simultaneously argued that “Bloody Harlan” was trying to be epic, but I think that word doesn’t exactly describe what the show is going for (and Jaime agrees, acknowledging that he’s looking for a different word). While Johnny does blow up his house with some of Bennett’s men inside, and there is a huge firefight in which Raylan gets shot, and Doyle Bennett does get sniped through the head by Tim, I keep coming back to the fact that it was Loretta paying a local vagrant $150 that drove the central conflict of the episode. Maybe that’s just convenient, bordering on contrived, but that feels like the precise opposite of epic: rather, it feels like countless numbers of small things coming together in a place where something is always bubbling to the surface.
More than with the Crowders, the story of the Bennett family felt like a glimpse into Harlan as a place. It is possible that this makes them “devices,” able to resonate on a thematical level following their death to signal a change in Harlan and the way it is governed, but is that necessarily a problem? What elevated the show this season was the sense of depth offered to Mags as a character and the structure of her family, which is why I’m perfectly fine with a more poetic and conclusive ending to her tale. Putting a button on Mags’ story does not change the fact that Harlan has now lost both of its matriarchs, and the fact that the heir apparent is bleeding out on her own kitchen table. It also doesn’t change the fact that Loretta is the one who might have a chance to escape (the show’s very own Namond, if you will), or the fact that Winona fears she’ll become one whether she wants it or not so long as Raylan keeps returning to his old stomping grounds. If Helen died defending her family, and is Mags killed herself when she no longer had a family to defend, what does it say for the next generation of women of Harlan?
Now, this analysis has largely elided Raylan, who was certainly put into more of a submissive position in this episode (what with the needing to be saved by Boyd and Art on two separate occasions). And yet, I don’t think this necessarily limits his sense of agency in “Bloody Harlan.” On some level, Raylan’s decision to even return to Harlan was a conscious choice to put himself into danger, and the show has been moving further away form a singular study of Olyphant’s “heroism” this season. While Raylan is still a heroic figure within the series, I think that his sense of heroism has shifted away from notions of the law. He is “heroic” in saving Winona from being arrested for breaking the law, and he is “heroic” in protecting Loretta because of his connection to his past. More than ever before, Raylan seems driven by the kind of emotion that we rarely saw from the character last season, and I quite like the more vulnerable figure that Raylan has gradually become this season. I especially love it when you contrast it with Boyd, who simultaneously embraces his criminality while becoming a more romantic figure in his relationship with Ava – I love the growing contrast between the two characters, and the shifting image of “heroism” that they offer.
Based on Winona’s pregnancy, I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing more of this changing Raylan next season, and presuming that Ava lives I think we’ll be seeing more of the new Boyd as well. Boyd, of course, is the byproduct of last season: while Bo Crowder may have died, and Raylan’s battle with the Miami crew may have come to an end, Boyd’s continued presence demonstrated the weight of those storylines on the show’s larger arc. The byproduct for season two is less clear: I imagine Dickie will remain a recurring figure at most, which means that the Bennett family will not quite live on in the same fashion. However, on a larger scale I think “Bloody Harlan” emphasizes the degree to which season two has turned Harlan a place with its own sense of identity. We met the likely new Sheriff tonight, after all, and it seems like Boyd will become the new most powerful man in Harlan in light of this particular shooting.
And thanks to the fantastic work of Margo Martindale and a really strong season of television, Justified has made it clear what that domain looks like, and how its magnetic pull for these men and women could well play out for many seasons to come.
- The show often has some nice transitions into the credits, but the musical side of this evening’s was particularly striking for me.
- As Dan Fienberg noted on Twitter, Kaitlyn Dever was exceptional tonight, matching Martindale beautifully (which is quite the task).
- As I’ve said on Twitter, it’s a real shame that FX has to protect its image of having multiple award-caliber dramas to submit for the Emmys: with Terriers and Lights Out canceled (may they rest in peace), and with Sons of Anarchy having a weak season, I really wish they’d just go for broke and send Emmy voters the entire second season (like DirecTV did with Friday Night Lights last year). I really think it would grab Olyphant/Martindale nominations, with maybe even Goggins thrown in there for good measure.
- It’s unfortunate that time made it so difficult to review the show more regularly – if S3 keeps up this level of quality, I’d like to try to review weekly, if possible.