Waxing Episodic: ‘Bloody Harlan’ is ‘Justified’ at its peak

04.10.15 3 years ago


In HitFix's new feature “Waxing Episodic,” we reflect on an episode of television we'll never forget.

FX's “Justified” is coming to an end next week.

Let's all respectfully tip our morally color-coded cowboy hat to Graham Yost and company's  often superb Elmore Leonard adaptation, which has dispensed heaping servings of badassery on a consistent basis, especially if you pretend Season 5 just never happened.

But just as Season 5 is accepted by anybody sensible as the “Justified” nadir, I'm unprepared to accept the contention that any “Justified” season other than the second constitutes its peak.

“Justified” has reliably hovered in the second half of my Top 20 for all of its non-Season 5 seasons, but Season 2 was the only one to crack my Top 10, finishing at No.7, which seemed insufficiently rapturous to me in retrospect, but I looked back at the six shows that finished above and you're talking about the final “Friday Night Lights” season, the fourth “Breaking Bad” season, 26 near-perfect episodes of “Parks & Recreation,” Season 2 of “Louie” and Season 1 of “Game of Thrones.” I'm not going to quibble with any of those preferences, while distancing myself from the decision to place Season 1 of “Downton Abbey” at No.3 would just be bitter, disappointed ret-conning of my preferences and there's no point to that.

To my mind, “Justified” has been a near-great show for four seasons of its run, a perplexingly bad show for one season and, for one 13-episode stretch, it was great.

Once I decided that this week's Waxing Episodic feature would focus on a Season 2 “Justified” episode, it became a question of which one to choose. “The Spoil” features Mags Bennett's town-hall speech against Black Pike Mining, which may be my favorite moment of the season. “The Reckoning” was Timothy Olyphant's submission episode for the only “Justified” season that earned him an Emmy nomination. 

But sometimes it's safer not to try to outthink the room. The best season of “Justified” is as satisfying as it is in large part due to its climactic episode, a glorious bloodbath that left several major characters dead and at least two more major characters nursing bullet-wounds into the next season. 

Appropriately titled “Bloody Harlan,” the Season 2 finale featured shootouts, explosions, highfalutin speechifying, heroic sacrifice, nefarious double-dealing and as much Raylan Givens ethical and moral ambiguity as one could ever want.  

Some more thoughts on “Bloody Harlan,” as well as thoughts on what made Season 2 of “Justified” so special, after the break… This'll definitely contain Season 2 spoilers, but probably more.

Let's get right down to the important business of why “Justified” Season 2 is so great.

“Justified” is a show about generational legacy more than anything else. It's about the sins of the grandfathers and the fathers and the children becoming intermingled, as grudges and cycles of violence perpetuate themselves. It's about whether or not you can truly change the course that your blood put you on, whether two friends raised in the same mines can put themselves on truly different paths, whether the son of a bootlegger and drug dealer can ever become a noble lawman, whether you can extricate yourself from your upbringing or whether your upbringing will eventually pull you back, no matter how hard you try to change.

At its root, Season 2 is about the century of justifiable mistrust and animosity between the Bennett and the Givens families. It's about Mags Bennett and her backwoods drug empire, Arlo Givens and his constant attempts to be more than a petty criminal. But it's also about the way a high school baseball rivalry between Raylan Givens and Dickie Bennett left Dickie with an injured knee, changed the course of his future and gave old injustices new shadings.

If you're doing things generationally, effective age stratification is essential. 

So many characters on “Justified” have died or been incarcerated in the prime of their lives. The show's constant tension is whether Raylan, having been sucked back into the Harlan world by his own actions in the pilot, will ever be able to escape.  It's a show of cockroaches, not in the sense that they're base or scummy, though often they are, but in the sense that the show's characters keep low to the ground and aim mostly to survive, usually failing.

It's notable to see an Arlo or a Mags or a Markham (in this season) or even an Art, because they've lasted long enough to come naturally by their white or gray hair.

Boyd Crowder will stand as the best “Justified” Big Bad, because he was a character the show couldn't bring itself to kill off and he was posed as an ongoing foil for Raylan. But the thing to remember is that the second season, at least its first half, is about Boyd either going straight or pretending to go straight, having found God. 

But as erudite and often polite as Boyd is, “decency” is just a hat he puts on or takes off, rather than something essential to his character.

But Mags Bennett? She's decent. Her husband was the criminal. She just adopted his enterprise out of necessity and out of a desire to protect her family. She just happens to be utterly cutthroat in her dedication to the cause.

“I had every intention of living a simple life, raising my boys, keeping house,” Mags tells Raylan in “The Reckoning.”

She adds, “I accepted this role, did what I had to do for my family. I may not have lived the life I wanted, but I'll be damned if my grandchildren are gonna live it the same way.”

I believe that. Of course, Mags is absolutely vicious when it comes to the things she's willing to do to protect her family, even if sometimes she has to use a hammer to keep her clan in line, and even if she has to betray her community times as well. Community is important, but it isn't family.

Mags has her boys. Coover and Dickie and Doyle form a generation of their own in the second season. As Mags is parallel to Arlo, her sons are parallel to Raylan. 

As great as Mags is, though, it's possible that Season 2 of “Justified” wouldn't have worked nearly as well without the addition of a younger generation in the form of Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever). Mags kills Loretta's father for a variety of reasons, but there's an earnestness in the affection that Mags shows the teen. When she dresses Loretta up and gives her an heirloom trinket for her hair in the marvelous “Brother's Keeper,” it's the love of a mother for a daughter that she's showing, even if it's also the cautious coddling of a woman who knows she's dealing with a potential viper.

Loretta is of a generation that we want to believe has a choice, but her transition from seemingly innocent victim to equally cold-eyed revenge-seeker is seamless. It's not a transition at all. It's a thing that was always in her. So when Raylan wants to try to protect Loretta, he also treats her as a daughter, without Mags' ulterior motives. In “Bloody Harlan,” this gets its own parallel as Raylan learns that Winona is pregnant just after requesting a transfer to become a weapons' instructor at Glynco, the pipe dream of escape the series has offered on several occasions. At the beginning of the episode, Winona still believes it's possible and believes Raylan when he says that even if he doesn't get assigned to Glynco, he'll still leave the job and they can do something else.

“I don't have any skills, so I don't know what that'll be,” he admits.

That early scene ends with Raylan declaring, “Maybe I'll sell ice cream. I like ice cream.”

Part of me hopes that plays into the series finale somehow.

The whole season is about chickens coming home to roost and generational wrongs being perpetuated and righted and the illusion of compromise and settlement, the illusion that Raylan is giving Winona of quitting and settling down. It's about being mired in the past but trying to look to the future.

So Boyd can propose a parlay with Mags and be partially confident and aware that she'll betray him, using their church sit-down as an opportunity to move on Boyd's men, but he still can't see far enough to protect Ava, who gets shot by Dickie.

And Dickie can see far enough to work with Wade (James LeGros in his first appropriately scruffy appearance) to trap Raylan and get him strung up for a few minutes of utterly sadistic and crazed beating with a baseball bat, but he can't see far enough to realize that Boyd would be looking for him and find him. 

And Raylan, having been rescued by Boyd, can see far enough to know that Boyd will be willing to enact the frontier justice he, himself, would rather not have to enact.

“Dickie, I didn't pull the trigger, but I'll sleep like a baby knowing he will,” Raylan says, leaving Dickie behind with Boyd, but he can't immediately see far enough to realize he needs Dickie to find Loretta. 

It's here that, at least temporarily, choices end.

“Are you asking me or are you telling me?” Boyd demands when Raylan makes it clear that he needs Dickie.

“Makes you feel better, you can tell people I asked,” Raylan replies in one of the series' defining lines. The idea of free will is a pretty one, but sometimes it's just a thing you tell other people you had to make you feel better about the fact that you didn't.

The choices, or lacks thereof, lead to Loretta's arrival at the Bennett homestead, seeking reprisals, or at least answers. The undercurrent of the scene is in the link between love and animus that Mags has for Loretta, but also the link between hospitality and hostility for a woman known to kill with moonshine in poisoned mason jars.

So when Mags asks Loretta, “You thirsty, darling?” it's a question of kindness and malevolence. 

And when Loretta replies, “No ma'am. I didn't come for refreshments,” it's trained politeness and self-defense at the same time.

There's both sweetness and also condescension when Loretta pulls a purloined Smith & Wesson .38 on her former benefactor and Mags observes, “Sugar, you think this is the first time I had a pistol pointed at me?”

Loretta shoots Mags in the leg, but even that's almost an act of generosity. [It leads to a chain-of-reaction shootout outside that leaves Doyle Bennett dead, Raylan just a little shot.]

“I'm tired of people telling me as much truth as they see fit. I wanna know who really killed my daddy,” Loretta demands.

Even after getting the answer she needs, Loretta is convinced to leave the room, not to do anything that will stop her progress.

“Marshal and me, we made our choices and now we're paying for them. But you've got a choice,” Mags tells her.

We've subsequently see what Loretta has done with her choices and the results have periodically been worthwhile, including the only good Season 5 episode, but I think there's a  version of “Justified” in a universe without “Last Man Standing” in which Kaitlyn Dever has been available for a regular role on the show and I think that version of “Justified” has achieved “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire” levels of awesomeness. [Sepinwall wants me to note that the Eric Roberts episode was a second good Season 5 episode, a petition I'll grant.]

The finale ends with Raylan and Mags burying the hatchet, shaking hands and sharing a drink, a drink which is laced with poison in Mags' case.

“Put an end to my troubles. I get to see my boys again. Get to know the mystery,” she says. Death is the only way to end the cycle, death on her own terms. [That Mags' last words mirror what she told Loretta's father when she killed him is just another part of the cycle.]

The only flaw to this ending is that it denied the show future use of Margo Martindale, but it was the perfect end for that character, who only wanted the best for her children and now faced a world with two sons dead, another son incarcerated and a disgrace to the community that once worshipped her. 

Martindale won an Emmy for “Justified,” one of only two Emmys the show has taken over the years. It was a surprising win, but only surprising because of how rarely Emmy voters are able to see something so obvious so clearly. You'd want to think it would always be the case that a performance of manifest greatness would be impossible to overlook, but Emmy voters overlook them all the time. 

Kaitlyn Dever didn't get a nomination for the season. Raymond J. Barry didn't get a nomination over five seasons of great work. Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins were nominated that year and it looked like they would settle in and become regular Emmy losers, worthy of nods, but maybe not of wins in this Golden Age of TV Drama. Instead, neither has received a second nomination for the show. Jeremy Davies was nominated for that great season in which Dickie was multi-dimensional and grounded, but he lost. Naturally, he won an Emmy the next season when Dickie wasn't nearly as recognizably human in his outrage.

It's just one of those Emmy things.

A few other thoughts on the glory of “Bloody Harlan” and the end of Season 2:

*** Tim and Rachel have a combined zero lines of dialogue in the last two episodes of this great season. We're supposed to assume that it was Tim who put the bullet in Doyle's head — — I don't call him Sniper Marshal for nothing — but I don't remember him ever getting direct credit.

*** Dealing with Helen's death in “The Reckoning,” Olyphant is as good as he's ever been. But I'm not going to say that he deserved to beat Kyle Chandler, who had “Always” as his submission episode that season. Keep in mind that was a year without Bryan Cranston and “Breaking Bad” and everybody assumed that with “The Suitcase,” Jon Hamm was finally going to win. Oh well.

*** The season ends with Brad Paisley's version of Darrell Scott's traditional season-ender “You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” It's a good cover. We'll probably need to choose a good version for our “Justified” Firewall & Iceberg.

Now, let's settle in and get ready for the “Justified” finale…

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