Silk from a Sow’s Ear

What I wrote about Justified still goes, and then some. Its unflashy, straightahead brand of storytelling (presumably fallout from its modest budget) may keep it from ever being considered one of the great TV series, but it’ll do until one comes along. There have been weak episodes, such as the one where Raylan Givens’ pursuit of a dentist-embezzler carried him into a half-assed shootout on the Mexican border, the only time where the show’s violence, and Raylan’s almost divine facility with a handgun, were cartoonish and uninteresting. (It was also a case of someone’s affection for Midnight Run getting the best of them.) But even that episode could boast the classic confrontation between Clarence Williams III, playing a vinegary Vietnam veteran, and the young cop who tiredly confesses to him “Sir, I don’t know what the Mekong Delta is.” Justified is full of lines like that, lines which, while written totally in character, contain a bemused, aware measurement of American life.

It’d be too much to say that Justified breaks the fourth wall, but it definitely messes with it. Its one identifiable character arc—something to do with Raylan coming to grips with his “anger”—would be a groaner if the show’s creators took it at all seriously. It’d be just as easy to make Justified sound slovenly and lax, what with its nick-of-time appearances by characters who couldn’t be more genie-like if they showed up in puffs in smoke, Raylan’s fail-proof ability to intuit what the bad guys are going to do next, and the unlikely presence of not one but two small-town goddesses—Raylan’s current squeeze, Ava, and his ex-wife, Winona—either of whom could burn the big city down.

The truth is, Graham Yost and his writers aren’t crafting a masterpiece of Sopranos-level subtlety or polish (the direction is often merely functional), but they preempt such carping by focusing on Elmore Leonard’s menagerie of felonious, lovelorn fuck-ups and the back-country no-class world they inhabit. If Jake Gittes’ M.O. in Chinatown was to let sleeping dogs lie, Raylan Givens likes to kick them awake, demand their tags, and then start whacking them on the snout with their own chew-toys. But his self-righteousness never descends to a Death Wish shellacking of the bad guys, and sometimes, as when he picks a fight with two burly barroom louts, it even blows up in his face. It’s Raylan’s very fallibility that makes him, if not heroic, then at least endlessly diverting. Timothy Olyphant had to place his natural warmth under house arrest to play that natural-born prick Seth Bullock, but here he lets it ooze all the way through, and there’s something commonsensical, even disarming, in the calm, splay-fingered way Raylan addresses the hit-men and hostage-takers who are evidently overrunning southern Kentucky nowadays, even when he’s threatening their lives.

The balance between available talent and worthy material has probably always been out of whack, but these days, when a single show like The Wire can uncover literally scores of good actors in one fell swoop, it’s a joke to hope that any more than a few of them will find gigs that exploit everything they can do while treating them right money-wise, making it extra nice when a show like Justified comes along and starts passing out the juicy parts like Halloween candy. It took me a while to warm up to Walton Goggins—with his harshly chiseled features and thousand-yard stare, he looks like he ought to be a terrible actor, but he’s actually as much of a hoot as the shape-shifting, homicidal Boyd Crowder possibly can be. In fact, all the Crowders are fun to watch, especially the mountainous M.C. Gainey as the patriarch Bo, a habitual criminal who lumbers about in cammies and seems like the world’s coolest granddad until utterly vile things start spilling out of his mouth. (Gainey was also a kick as the no-nonsense Nam veteran in Citizen Ruth, and those were his blubbery nether parts jiggling against Paul Giamatti’s car window in Sideways.) Justified has also given guest-shots to a handful of Deadwood alumni—the next best thing to a Season Four, I guess, even if it was a sadistic tease to bring Con Stapleton back for only one brief scene.

Some of the other guest stars have given me simply ridiculous amounts of pleasure; along with Williams my favorites include Katherine LaNasa, as a manicured trophy wife with a bagful of dirty tricks, and Stephen Root, as a hanging judge with a weakness for whiskey and strippers. All of these characters, morally maladjusted as they are, are integral cogs in Elmore Leonard’s cosmic, comic view of temptation. His novels and short stories offer something like a malt liquor version of Jean Renoir’s judgment on the human race: people, in his eyes, indeed have their reasons, but they’re almost always half-baked, and are frequently indictable.

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