Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tube Steak: Three Seasons in on Justified

As the third season of Justified came to an end, there was little doubt in my mind that I was watching the best show on television. If I thought that I had the energy to actually do it, I would absolutely write something after each episode of the show. Unfortunately, I don't have that energy, I surely do not have the time, and far too many do a much better job than I could possibly do (I'm looking at you, Alan Sepinwall). Not having that energy should not give you the impression that I am anything less than completely enamored with the show.

In Justified, Graham Yost and Company have created a television universe so rich with compelling characters both good and bad that it forces comparisons to The Wire in sheer terms of its magnitude of truly enjoyable secondary and tertiary characters. The wide array of law enforcement officials, regular citizens, and criminals of varying degrees is impressive, but more impressive is the skill to which they are drawn. A Crank-like episode following the delinquent dipshit Dewey Crowe ultimately matters to the audience because for whatever reason we welcome Damon Herriman--playing an illiterate racist--into our homes, at least on screen. The simple fleeting appearance of Loretta McCready in the penultimate episode of season three couldn't help but elicit a smile from the audience, and her not striking one as a Van Halen fan beckoned a hearty subsequent laugh. We are conflicted when it comes down to who we actually want to mete out Dickie Bennett's comeuppance because, despite the fact that Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is the show's protagonist, the character of Boyd Crowder draws us in and we simultaneously root for him to succeed--for him to avenge Ava.

Where the show draws its most strength is from the fact that it takes the world that Elmore Leonard created, gives it legs, expands upon it, lets it flourish into something so much bigger than it ever could have been in a book. Since the repopularization of serialized television, especially as cable television got into the mix and started paring down the production load to 10-13 episode seasons for a program, television has afforded writers the opportunity of telling much more complex stories than they had been afforded in any other medium. Even when given that latitude, most show-runners have not gotten their programs to the level that Justified now sits at in terms of having created a universe with a (mostly) singular protagonist in which there is such a dearth of richly imagined secondary characters to draw from each week that characters may pop up only once in a season if for no other reason than that there isn't enough time to fit them in more than that.

What Justified accomplished in its third season, though, was in adding so many characters to the mix working against each other and against Raylan that it was a marvel just to see where each episode went. Each character's motivations set them careening into and away from each other. Each character's actions consistently surprised while setting off interesting and unpredictable chain reactions. As each new event transpired, the turn that it took was unexpected leaving the viewer totally and blissfully unable to suss out where the plot would go next. The introduction of Robert Quarles and Ellstin Limehouse to the mix not only brought heavy hitters Neal McDonough and Mykelti Williamson into the Justified-fold but also added big-time players to struggle with Boyd Crowder and the re-emerged Wynn Duffy--played fantastically well by Jere Burns--for power in Harlan.

The ensuing orgy of machinations that these varied big bads played out against one another and Raylan was at once overwhelming (in the best possible way) and invigorating. With each one's motives never being entirely clear, the tidal shifts of power were a joy to watch. Even with the inimitable Walton Goggins getting considerably less screen time this season than in years past, the show wasn't lacking for its relative lack of Boyd Crowder goodness. Even with the dynamic between Boyd and Raylan being the most interesting aspect of the show, Graham Yost seems to have an eye on the long play and maintains a healthy dose of the two acting off of one another while keeping them from facing off in a final showdown. Goggins has forced them in this direction with his spectacular turn as Boyd, but the tension and drama between Raylan and Boyd has to build and build and build all the way until the show's end. The successful introduction of first Mags Bennett in Season Two and now Robert Quarles and Ellstin Limehouse in Season Three just shows how deftly they have been able to set up foils for Raylan while not blowing their load on the Boyd front.

Where Yost & Co. will take things in Season Four is anyone's guess. I, for one, am a bit leery about the talk of three four-episode mini arcs that Yost mentioned as a possibility at What's Alan Watching's Post-Mortem on Season Three, but at this point I'll gladly watch whatever they do. I'm on this ride until the end.

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