Thursday 8 September 2011

Bloody Harlan

In a key scene of the second season of FX's Justified, a representative for a coal company faces a meeting with the people of Harlan County. She argues that the corporation will bring jobs to Harlan, 'make it fertile in infertile times', but people are not convinced. In an extraordinary performance, Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) argues that blowing off mountaintops will bring 'the spoil', chemical devastation of local water and flora, and threaten the region's unique and isolated culture.

It's this compelling evocation of a place that, as I've said before, quickly turned FX's Justified into one of my favourite TV series. The latter half of the first season was excellent, using the serial format to build towards a bloody climax and a perfect closing scene. After cleaning up the fallout from the Season One finale, the Season Two opener, 'The Moonshine War', introduces us to the Bennett clan. Mags and her sons Dickie (Jeremy Davies), Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and Coover (Brad William Henke) grow and sell marijuana in Harlan County, and seek to expand their operations after the demise of the Crowder clan.

Let's give it up for Margo Martindale: in Mags, she has created a mesmerising villain. Behind a motherly, folksy exterior (at one point, she invites all of Harlan to a 'big 'ole whoop-tee-doo'), Mags is ruthless, enforcing the family's rule position and internal discipline without mercy. She wreaks terrible vengeance on one of her sons in retaliation for a foolish venture; later, she asks a hostile local, 'Wherever your boys grow up, do you think they’d be better off doing it with or without their daddy?'.

At the same time, Mags is capable of great love: she raises fourteen-year-old Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever, in a promising performance) after murdering her father, and is looking to create a better future for her grandchildren's generation. She feels guilty for raising three miscreants: Doyle, a bent policeman, is the nearest thing to a good son, but Dickie is overambitious, vindictive and reckless (he is even treated to a variation on The Godfather's 'Never let anyone outside the family know what you're thinking' speech), while Coover, though a savant when it comes to marijuana, is by Mags's own admission a 'nitwit'. (In one of the season's funniest scenes, he throws a dead rat at Raylan's car to express contempt.)

 None of this raving is to disparage last season's villains. M.C. Gainey as Bo Crowder was a brilliant, quietly menacing presence, but unlike the Bennetts, he was given less time to make his mark. Mags Bennett and her kin are present throughout the second season, ready to respond to every action by Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). And of course there's another sometimes-villain, sometimes-hero: Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), finally promoted to regular cast, moves in with Ava (Joelle Carter) and struggles with the lure of his old outlaw ways.

It's the delicacy of the state of affairs that gives Justified its particular tension. In the insular world of Harlan, every action has consequences. The attempt by coal representative Carol Johnson (played with aplomb by the absurdly sexy Rebecca Creskoff) to buy properties held by Mags and Raylan's father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry, still brilliant and now with more to do) increases tension between the parties and threatens to rekindle the feud between the Bennett and Givens clans. Raylan's promise of help to Loretta, whose storyline is reminiscent of last year's indie hit Winter's Bone, draws him into the machinations of the Bennetts, leading to violence.

Season Two deepens the world of Harlan County, bringing it to life more and fleshing out characters and tensions, and it is in this sense absolutely better than Season One. Granted, like the first season, it has a couple of stand-alone episodes that drag down the overall experience: 'The Life Inside', the best of these, deals with a pregnant convict who escapes to give birth in freedom; the worst, 'For Blood or Money', tries and fails to give Raylan's colleague Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) more definition.

There's Justified's biggest problem: it has a couple of characters whom the writers cannot or will not develop. Rachel and Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), both billed as main stars, are well portrayed by their respective actors, and one would very much like to know more about them: but the writers do not integrate them properly. Since they are of equal rank with Raylan, it's somewhat irritating to see them play second fiddle to the lead. (An exception, late in the season, is Tim's 'nanny duty' to stop Raylan from going after a group of criminals, which reveals that Raylan is quite possibly the least mature and responsible person at the Marshals office.) Raylan's ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) also continues to be a weak character despite the actress's capable performance.

It was a foregone conclusion that Justified would eventually touch on Harlan County's history of coal mining and trade union struggles, well known from the Oscar-winning 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA. We knew that Raylan and Boyd 'dug coal together' when they were nineteen, and Season Two sees Boyd returning to deep mining, with the possibility of death or injury, as well as the temptation to lay hands on the company's wealth, ever present. The locals plainly do not believe the philanthropy the mining company feigns to gain access to their coal, and the anger over their poverty and impotence provides a crucial backdrop to crime in the region.

The season ending is, perhaps, a little too neat, providing far more closure than the finale of the first season. But with the deep wounds many characters have sustained this time around, a breather, a new beginning, is not the worst of things. When Justified returns in 2012, I'll be watching.

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