This post contains spoilers through the January 17 episode of Justified.
Before plunging into what looks to be a tremendously exciting season of Justified, a thought: why is it that our great prestige television about cities that aren’t New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC has to be about the drug trade? Baltimore is defined by the drug trade in The Wire. We see Albuquerque largely through the lens of people who participate in the meth trade, or who are trying to shut it down in Breaking Bad — the city’s geography is bounded by the houses of the participants, Los Pollos Hermanos, the laundry, and Hank’s office. And Justified gives us a Kentucky populated by a colorful variety of narcotics wranglers. The Sopranos is a notable potential exception, though drugs are certainly part of the mix, and there’s an extent to which the show is about New Jersey’s relationship to New York.
I understand why we tell stories about criminal enterprises in general and drugs in particular. Cops and robbers, chase and race are both classic storytelling models. And the networks and problems of production, trade, and distribution make for fascinating character and power relationships between criminals and present substantial challenges for law enforcement officers. But are drugs really so psychically important to our country that they deserve this level of attention? I know I’m not alone in considering the War on Drugs both an over-investment and a failed strategy. And while I appreciate living in a neighborhood that isn’t blighted by drug-linked crime, I’m also not exceptionally concerned about Marlo Stanfield or Walter White showing up and upsetting that balance. So is this pattern just a result of the structural rewards of telling drug stories? Or do we see something rotten at the heart of America, a blight worse than the troubles we identify in our great cities?
I wanted to start on that note because I appreciate the way the show used Quarles’ arrival in town to set up a running conversation about real estate, and by extension, territory and a sense of home. When he first showed up, I actually assumed he was talking about the city of Detroit, rather than the criminal enterprise based there that he happens to represent. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not, but I like the idea of Detroit as a criminal conspiracy, the city’s profound troubles providing opportunities for men like Quarles to rise. “You picked a shitty time to get into commercial real estate, and now you’re under water. Detroit did not make an investment. It made a loan,” he warns. “Things are getting tough all over. So if you can’t have the money here by tomorrow, I trust you tell me right now.” He makes good on the threat by the end of the episode, but he’s set a theme that persists for the rest of the episode. There’s Boyd and Raylan fighting over Raylan’s broken promise, with Raylan spitting, “You think we’re in the holler? I’m a deputy U.S. Marshal.” Geography will reach out to pull you back, if you let it. And Raylan and Winona, they lie in bed after making love for the first time since Raylan was shot, property and geography become a proxy for talking about commitment. “Maybe we need more room,” Raylan proposes, baby planning. “After all the time I’ve spent redecorating?” Winona asks, a prickliness that’ll come up again when Raylan tentatively proposes naming their baby Felix, like the cat. “It’s sweet. It’s sweet that you think you have a say in the name,” she tells him.
Those twitchy power dynamics are all over the episode, and make for some of its best moments. “Didn’t wear your suit,” Raylan observes as he meets Boyd in the conference room. “Why do you say that as if I’ve only got one suit and not the whole closetful?” Boyd complains. And they poke at each other over the question of asset forfeiture. “How sizeable, Raylan?” Boyd asks.”Well over 10 dollars,” Raylan tells him. “If I had that kind of money, I’d be in Mexico by now,” Boyd tells him. One of the reasons things get so nasty is because the stakes are smaller than they are in Albuquerque, but the people involved need the money and the assertions of power more. When Ava clocks Devil with the frying pan and is told she didn’t have to, she forcefully asserts that it is, “Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.” Duffy slaps back at Raylan by treating him like a low priority, saying, “I would love to be of more help but I’ve got to get back to watching women’s tennis.” And Fletcher Nix, who on another show would be a great season-long villain, projects his air of menace in Raylan’s house in part by playing naive. “I look like I know anything about watches?” he asks Raylan. “I could take those off your hands. Give you $20 a piece for them,” Raylan plays along, a little bit classy and a little bit cheap. But he beats him by playing very, very cool. It’s going to be a terrific season.