Tuesday 23 August 2011

In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky

I'm a country bumpkin. I grew up in a village of 250 people which was nevertheless something of a metropolis in the area, boasting a church, a pub, a shop, a fire station and a bank (except for the church and the fire station, these have all closed). When I was eleven years old, we went to Paris on student exchange. Before we left, my mother asked one of my friends to look after me on the trip. It was my first time in a big city, you see.

Maybe that's why I like all things hillbilly. I certainly fell in love with Justified, set in rural eastern Kentucky, rather quickly. Ultimately, I think that's down to a sense of place the show absolutely nails: its fictionalised Harlan County feels like an actual community, with all the rifts and tensions that implies. Everybody knows everybody, and loyalties and grudges go back a long way, just like where I'm from. Although we don't shoot each other as much.

In the pilot, based on an Elmore Leonard short story, Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) shoots a gun thug in Miami after giving him twenty-four hours to leave town, and for his sins is transferred to his home state of Kentucky. In Harlan, white supremacists led by Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) bomb a church. Raylan is assigned the case because Boyd and he 'dug coal together when we were nineteen'. Now Raylan must bring down Boyd and protect Ava (Joelle Carter), who has just shot her husband, Boyd's brother Bowman, to death at the dinner table.

Raylan is rooted in eastern Kentucky, much though he would prefer he wasn't. His ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) lives there, as does his estranged father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry). On Justified, actions cause ripples throughout family, work and criminal networks, often coming back to haunt the characters. When Boyd tells Ryan that 'you get out of Harlan County by tomorrow noon, or I'll come looking for you', he confirms the claims, rooted in history, kinship and violence, that the parties have on Harlan.

The characters' feuds are often rooted in hopelessness and economic deprivation. As Ava says of her late husband's violence towards her, 'that all started as soon as he realised he was never getting out of Harlan'. Boyd's explanation for his racism, too, appeals to loss and defeat:
It's all changed. Mining's changed. No more following a seam underground - it's cheaper to take the tops off mountains and let the slag run down and ruin the creeks. You remember the picket lines, don't you? The courts backing the company scabs and gun thugs... Whose side do you think the government's always been on, Raylan, us or the people with money? And who do you think controls that money? Who do you think wants to mongrelise the world? The Jews.
That's not to suggest Justified is an austere social drama. In painting Harlan as a feuding society, the show creates something remarkably akin to the world of the Icelandic sagas: hard men and women competing with each other for power, money and influence by appealing to kinship, friendship, history and plain fear. And  chase scenes, standoffs and shootouts as well as verbal duels that can be as dangerous as those involving guns make for thrilling television.

It's fortunate that the series ultimately prefers wry humour to grimness. When the characters come under sniper fire on the Mexican border in 'Long in the Tooth', one comments that 'Well, that's not going to help tourism!'. Another scene, in which Raylan tells a chap wearing his hat that 'Mister, that's a ten-gallon hat on a twenty-gallon head', also springs to mind.

Timothy Olyphant gives a compelling performance as Raylan Givens. He has cowboy swagger enough and to spare, but that's not all he brings to the table. As Winona puts it, 'You do a good job of hiding it, and I suppose most folks don't see it, but honestly, you're the angriest man I have ever known'. Olyphant portrays Raylan as a man whose cool exterior masks the frustrations that he takes out on criminals. That sort of character could easily tip into outright villainy, but the actor and the writers have not dropped the ball yet.

It's not all sunshine and roses: as of Season One Winona is a seriously underwritten character, and Raylan's colleagues Rachel (Erica Tazel) and Tim (Jacob Pitts) mostly remain ciphers. But after the excellent series finale, I'm looking forward to catching up with the second season.

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