There’s this game I sometimes play while watching a movie or one of them new-fangled, premium cable TV series. It’s best with war films, cop movies, and murder mysteries. The game usually starts when, say in a war film, the Young Green Recruit (often played by a third-tier Warner Brothers stock actor) pulls out a photo of the Girl He Left Behind and sighs like a silver moon as he says “. . . and when I get home we’re gonna get married right away and have twenty-four kids and a white picket fence!”
In cop movies, it’s sometimes Robert Duvall--in Grizzled Old Veteran mode—gazing out over the mean streets: “They’re-a gonna retire m’ badge next week,” he drawls. “And then I’m-a gonna get liquored up and go koi fishin’ off m’ back porch.”
It is at these moments of clarity that I will raise my arm, point my finger at the screen and declare with Churchillian solemnity: “He is GOING TO DIE!”
And die they do. (I’m batting near a thousand here, better than at the track.) The Green Recruit gets mowed down charging the Jap machine gun emplacement; Robert Duvall, peppered and perforated, crumples to the pavement, gasping, “Tell Mabel don’t forget to clean the pond . . . and don’t overfeed . . . the . . . koi . . . aaargh!”
My fine-tuned detector for this dime-store ironic foreshadowing hummed to life the other week while watching Justified, the popular FX series and one of the most purely entertaining cable series going.
To fill you in fast, Justified is a cop show set in a seriously Californian Harlan County, Kentucky. (You can almost see the mesquite bouncing by.) It’s an old-timey Dirty Harry western at its core; a tasty Elmore Leonard stew mostly flavored by the war of wills and attrition between insouciant quick-draw U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and absurdly eloquent, Nazi-racist drug kingpin Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Every season ends in a Grand Guignol eruption of torn limbs or bursting bellies. For me, it’s a sleek and welcome anachronism in the cable universe of tut-tutting frowny dramas. It’s cheerfully amoral, like a good spaghetti western, and, even to the eyes of this muddled liberal, the better for it.
It was in the first episode of Justified’s sixth (and rightfully last) season that foreboding showed its skull when Raylan’s old boss Art (Nick Searcy), crippled by gunfire in Season Five, warns Raylan, his itchy-fingered protégé, that someday a bad guy’s bullet may well find him. “Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way,” he drawls ominously. Raylan, of course, scoffs in that inimitable carefree Timothy Olyphant manner. Bullets not only can’t touch him, they stop and go around. No lowlife punk’s gonna shoot this tall glass of water off the fence.
Then, over the course of the next two episodes, Raylan lays plans for retirement to Florida where he’ll raise his adorable new baby daughter in the land of sunshine and oranges . . . .
Casual dismissal of warning about Dangers Ahead? Check!
Plan to retire? Check!
Plans to start new life with newborn daughter? Check!
Rise to feet, point at screen, voice cracking with doom:
“Raylan Givens is GOING TO DIE!”
As I sink back in my couch (and Missus B rolls her eyes), it occurs to me that I could be wrong—as I am, though rarely—about my premonition. Why I might be wrong lies in the nature of Justified itself—its purpose, tone and action-movie aesthetics.
Justified is not at all a serious dramatic show (though to judge from this article, it can be mistook for one). It is not Deadwood. It is not The Wire. Nor is it The Americans or any other cable/PBS dramas you care to name, genre or otherwise, that inspire mounds of heavy prose, including that monument to pompous nihilism, Boardwalk Empire.
Its tone is light, breezy, as smooth and carefree as a good fast car on a new-paved country road. This sleek form is inspired by Mr. Leonard’s work, of course. Its comedy seems grown from the comic relief in Sam Peckinpah’s films. Its insolence puts me in mind of For a Few Dollars More. The characters are comic-opera broad, the villains colorfully stupid and pathetic, like Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, “bastards everyone of them!” Occasionally, it captures the pathos of lowlifes hustling to survive.
But it’s not about “Life.” It’s not about real criminals. I’m almost sure it’s not about real-life in Harlan County, Kentucky.
In Justified’s universe, there’s no tormented drama of William Holden and Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch. What we often get is the Adventures of Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. Shakespeare’s gravediggers happily rule the screen, like kids playing in a pile of mud. And thanks to colorful, clever writing, slick filmmaking and exuberant acting, Justified entertains in grand gory glory. But it doesn’t do anything especially new and hasn’t a really serious idea in its head, or a deep soul—the very definition of a “guilty pleasure” (whose definition I’ll argue later).
Justified is an unpretentious show. And so, killing off Raylan Givens, its hero, in the name of “serious drama,” “high cable ratings” (or so I can say “See! Told ya so!”) would be a pretentious move, a killing too far. It’d be too much a “Statement” from a show that doesn’t make much of any; that takes more pride in its loopy plotting, gory shootouts and bowls of chewy slang. It would be a reach for Seriousness that, by the tragic lights of other cable series, it has not earned.
To be blunt, if Raylan goes and gets hisself killed, I’ll be madder than a mule with a bee on its tongue. (And I’m still weepy over the too-soon passing of Dewey Crowe!)
But, some may protest, turning the other road may create its own problems. Raylan Givens is a right bastard. Behold as he cheekily beat and shoots people left, right, upside and down while cheerfully thumbing that handsome nose at the civil rights of everyone, including his old man’s! With police-community relations under particular strain right now, allowing Raylan drive merrily off into a Florida sunrise to live happily ever after might leave behind another kind of distaste.
May I suggest a compromise? (No? I will anyway.) Let’s say that Raylan takes that bullet after all. But not everyone who gets shot dies. Instead, this 21st-Century Harry Callahan gets knocked out of the law enforcement business for good to where he’ll be less a danger to the rest of the world. Namely, a wheelchair. One without a motor.
It’s a thought. The tall drink of water knocked down to a shot glass of cheap bourbon. At least he gets to hold his baby daughter, just in a wheelchair, that’s all. Take that, Raylan. Ya lived by the sword, pardner. Be thankful that bullet got no closer.
Cheer up, Raylan! Maybe you’ll find a new life as Son of Ironside. Call me crazy! Call me excited! But call me! My word processor’s hot and rarin’ to go!
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by author