Justified and Ancient

Rather than do the predictable, not to mention timely and sensible, thing and write about the season première of Justified, I thought I’d take a different approach.  Raylan Givens, the quick-triggered U.S. marshal who is the protagonist of the show, is played by Timothy Olyphant, who also played Seth Bullock, the quick-tempered sheriff of Deadwood in the HBO series of the same name, and with Justified now entering its third season — the same length of time Deadwood was on the air — it’s become easier to see how the two characters both reflect and oppose one another.

There are, of course, pretty facile surface similarities beyond the man playing the role.  The cowboy hat, the easy lure of the hand to the gun, and the constant familiarity with violence, though, could be assigned to a hundred characters of the Wild West (and the New South) since The Wild Bunch placed its permanent twist on the moral codes of the lawman and the outlaw.  To really see their similarities and their difference, you have to go beyond the men to their surroundings and circumstances, starting with the places they ply their trades.  Deadwood‘s Seth Bullock was a man who sincerely believed in the weight and authority of the law, in the load-bearing qualities of its letter as well as the moral force of its meaning; the first time we see him, indeed, he single-handedly carries out the execution by hanging of a horse thief rather than let a drunken mob handle the task.  It is this belief in structure and process that is thrown into the environment of the Deadwood camp, a place marked by, if not complete anarchy, at least a resistance to bureaucracy that saturates its very timbers.  Bullock wants to make a life for himself out of the rags and scraps of his dead brother’s family, a desire driven — as we will see — not out of his personal desire, but out of a sense of honor and propriety.  He is a man utterly dedicated not only to doing what is right, but doing it the right way, and Deadwood is a place where people are perversely uninterested in the right way.  (Witness Tom Nuttall’s reaction to being asked to take basic fire prevention measures as a harbinger of the Apocalypse.)  The camp is a place well-suited to Bullock’s desire to make himself a new man by stepping into a dead man’s shoes, and in Sol Star he has a partner who can make him rich, but he couldn’t be more ill-suited to the lawless environment.

While Deadwood is a microcosm of the development of a larger society, though, Raylan Givens’ Harlan County is simply the modern world made small.  The real Harlan is a small town struggling to drag its 19th-century rural-industrial spirit into a 21st-century technocratic reality; the TV Harlan is whatever the writers want it to be, with Rastafarian ministers, smooth-talking hustlers, real estate swindlers and displaced urban gangstas among its backwoods meth-heads and rebel-flaggers.  It’s a Harlan that has moved into the modern world with far less trouble than Deadwood experienced in the process, and while violence is still endemic, it is no longer taken for granted.   Wu’s pigs are nowhere to be found, and Raylan must answer for every killing, no matter how cozily it fits the description of the show’s title.  He is a man who devotedly loves the spirit of justice, because it makes bad men answer for their wrongs, but he is far less concerned with the legal niceties his work entails, largely restricting himself to making sure his ass is covered if he has to put a bullet through someone’s heart.  This is why his supervisor calls him “a good lawman but a bad marshal” — he wants to do the right thing, but he finds himself incapable of caring too much if he does it the right way.

It is in their relationships with their peers and their foes that the differences between Bullock and Givens most reveal themselves.  It’s evident from the first time we see Seth Bullock that he will eventually wear a lawman’s star, and each time he tries to resist, it causes him almost tangible pain, as if he is standing against the tide.  When he eventually pins it on, he does so with a fierce sense of resistance — not to assuming the role of authority, which he was clearly born to, but because of the hand offering it.  His devotion is to law itself, and becoming a lawman at the behest of Al Swearengen seems like an insult too grave to be borne at first.  Bullock is governed by a rectitude and determination that is almost frightening in its intensity, and his all-too-obvious love of violence doesn’t speak to any kind of sociopathy, but to a man who simply isn’t bright enough to solve a lot of problems on his own and resorts to force because he can’t think of anything else.  (This fierceness is expressed by Oyphant in a way that, at first, makes him seem like a rather limited actor; his screwed-up mad-face looks like his only go-to move until you’ve seen his disarming cool in Justified.)

Givens, though, really doesn’t care that much about the job, and if anything, he’s driven by inertia, if such a contradiction is possible.  He’s a lawman because he has a good heart but lacks the skill to do much besides kill people.  He drifts even within the limited paths available to a U.S. marshal, serving wherever he’s sent and contemplating a move out of the field to please his ex-wife.  If Al Swearengen is manipulating Bullock into the sheriff’s role, forcing him to do good despite himself, Art Mullen is keeping Givens in Kentucky as a sort of existential punishment for both of them — Raylan for failing to show any ambition or aptitude, and Art for failing to make him into a good marshal but hoping he’ll at least remain a good man.  Bullock doesn’t particularly want to take on his late brother’s wife and child, but having judged it his duty to do so, he builds them an impressive house on a choice plot of land in a remarkably short period of time; getting his ex-wife back is about the only thing Givens wants, but he can’t even be bothered to move out of a hotel room.  It’s become a common observation that Boyd Crowder is Raylan Givens’ opposite number — the man who he might have become if he’d never made it out of Harlan; the truth may be more dismaying.  If he’d stayed in Harlan, Raylan might have become Bowman Crowder, or Devil, or some other nameless and directionless thug with no skills past the barrel of a gun.

Even in their enemies, Raylan Givens and Seth Bullock are shaped to opposite ends.  Though some of this can be attributed to the nature of the shows in which they appeared, Bullock’s enemies tend to be forces greater than he is capable of addressing, either mentally or physically.  The pathetic wreck Jack McCall poses him no threat; all he fears there is his own sense of right — and its powerful draw towards the end of putting McCall down like a dog — getting in the way of his adherence to the law.  It is when he encounters men beyond the reach of both his fists and his understanding that he is truly given to rage, which always results in blood he didn’t intend to spill:  Otis Russell has him over a barrel and he knows it, and Bullock hands out a brutal but pointless beating before going to the cavalry and asking them to protect Alma’s father against his own short-sightedness.  And he’s flustered by George Hurst at every turn:  the man who truly understands the nature of power — and who holds in contempt both justice and law, the only constants in Bullock’s life — constantly stymies him.  Givens, on the other hand, only seems energized and full of what we might term a Bullockian sensibility in the pilot, when he faces down the drug boss Buckley.  The rest of his opponents tend to be beneath him:  unambitious lowlifes, pushers, and grifters who think they’re smarter than the system, and the occasional Mags Bennett, who, like Raylan himself, can’t tear herself away from the enervating minutiae of the old Harlan enough to realize her true potential and chokes on her own poison, saving him the trouble of another AUSA interview.  The only figure who poses a challenge to Raylan is Boyd Crowder, who may be well on his way to becoming his own personal Al Swearengen.

Deadwood made Seth Bullock a flawed and tragic figure from the get-go, and let both his admirable qualities and his frustrating shortcomings spool themselves out regularly from episode to episode, and even from moment to moment.  Justified had more of an interest in the very beginning in establishing Raylan Givens as a hero, if a flawed one, but events late in the second season, usually filtered through the underappreciated Art Mullen, made it clear that the flaws hinted at in the first season run deeper and darker than we’d come to believe.  While Justified may not deliver the majestic highs of Deadwood, it also won’t likely end on a note of such cruel suspension, and so far at least, it’s given a deceptively good actor in the person of Timothy Olyphant a great deal of stretching room to take a character that could have been played like a descendent of Seth Bullock’s and turn him into the branch of a whole different family tree.

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