‘Justified,’ Guns, And A Taxonomy Of Violence

This post discusses plot points through the January 29 episode of Justified.

Last night’s episode of Justified juxtaposed one of the series’ goofier scenes of violence, Marshal Raylan Givens’ duel with aspiring cockfight manager Randall, conducted with fists and a beanbag gun, with one of its most somber, veteran Colton Rhodes’ preparation to kill prostitute Ellen May, who Boyd Crowder had decided was no longer sufficiently loyal to be trusted with the secret of a murder. It was a particularly striking contrast if, like me, you watched the first four episodes of Justified‘s fourth season in a single sitting. The show has always had a complicated attitude towards violence, one embodied in its title, a reference to Raylan’s insistence in the pilot that a shooting in Miami was “justified”: it’s awfully fun to watch Raylan wreak controlled mayhem, but the line between his deployment of it and the violence of Boyd, his opposite number, is fine and constantly shifting. And this season of Justified, whether it’s intentional or no, has been an extended meditation on both the use and abuse of guns—and of all the other ways we can do awful harm to each other.

When we met Patton Oswalt’s Constable Bob in the first episode of this season, Justified presents an interesting contrast between him and Raylan. The two men have known each other since high school, when Constable Bob put one of their classmates, who bullied him, in a coma—which he’s still in. “They underestimate me at their peril,” Bob tells Raylan. “Just ask Ollie Kemp,” Raylan plays along. “If he could respond,” Bob adds, a little too lightly. On the road, Bob tells Raylan that he’s got an unnerving cache of weapons packed in a “go bag.” “This shit goes road warrior, I’m ready,” Bob declares.

But when it comes to a standoff, Bob isn’t quite the badass he makes himself out to be. And Raylan’s most valuable weapon, in between everything else he uses to get the two of them out of a hostage situation, turns out to be his mouth. Where Raylan’s use of violence comes across as clever and precise—particularly when he shoots out the air bags in a fugitive’s car to break up a standoff without either man getting shot—Bob comes across like a bit of a poser, and one whose pretentions to heroism can actually be dangerous. Some of that is because we’ve been conditioned to think of Raylan as a cool drink of water, and we meet Constable Bob as a kind of dark comic relief. But it’s also true that, unlike Bob, Raylan actually knows what he’s doing with a gun, rather than thinking that possessing a gun confers upon him some sort of magical competence.

Bob isn’t the only person with that misconception, or whose access to guns is more dangerous than protective. Ellen May, who turns out to be keeping a gun for protection not just from clients, but from Ava Crowder, who is now pimping her, shoots and kills a client. “Arlo’s a furry. He usually dresses up in a bunny suit. But this was scary. Plus I was on drugs,” she explains to Ava of why the situation turned deadly (though she later confesses to not being high). When the Marshals go hunting for Waldo Truth, the mysterious man involved in the cocaine parachuting into Harlan County, they find his family smoking pot, telling stories—and pulling handguns. “You gave him a gun?” Mrs. Truth asks after her thirteen-year-old turns out to be packing. “We agreed it was time,” a male member of her family explains. The idea that a young teenager dumb enough to point a pistol at a federal marshal is ready for firearms ownership is a terrifying prospect. And Wynn Duffy’s pulling a pistol and casually shooting a member of the Dixie Mafia dumb enough to poach on Boyd’s territory is a cold illustration of what it means to normalize gun ownership, regular, threatening, gun use, and the escalation of disputes that have no reason to be fatal.

Of course, Justified has also spent a great deal of time this season dealing with force, lethal and otherwise, that doesn’t involve guns. There are knives in play. Arlo’s shivving a member of the Dixie Mafia in prison to keep the secrets of the diplomatic bag is a reminder that, even under extreme constraint, a murderous will can find a way. Mason Goynes menacing of the psychic with that nasty-looking curved knife, telling her “You might as well lie down and try to enjoy yourself,” is a testament to the fact that there are vastly worse more unpleasant ways to die than an immediately lethal gun shot.

And there are two men who provide particularly valuable counterparts to our romance with Raylan’s prowess with violence. Billy St. Cyr’s death by lethal snakebite, after his sister’s milking the rattlers he used in his worship ceremonies convinced him he he was protected from the deadly power he handled by the power of the Lord, is an illustration of the profound dangers of thinking yourself immune from the forces you deploy. And Randall’s delight in delivering savage beatings to the men who lay eyes, much less hands, on his wife takes that point a step further. This is the kind of person you turn into when you become not just supremely confident in your ability to deliver violence with precision and efficacy, but when you become enamored of the prospect of deploying violence. Raylan’s judgement that his shooting in Miami was justified is protected by his badge, but only so far. Randall has no such imprimatur for his opinions that a camera store clerk who flirted with his wife deserved to be turned into raw meat. But that doesn’t stop him from delivering the beating.

And that’s why the contrast between Raylan and Randall’s throw-down, and Colton’s attempt to prepare himself for murder was so striking, and so important. It’s fun to watch Raylan and Randall go at each other because, thanks to Rachel’s gift to Ryalan—she has to check that he knows how to use something that shoots beanbags, not bullets—we know the fight won’t end in anyone’s death, that this is about Raylan doing his job, but also the old-fashioned spectacle of two men slugging it out over a woman. But Colton’s preparation to kill Ellen May isn’t funny. It’s not funny because she is, on a fundamental, a deprived innocent, a woman with no education or grounding in the legitimate world, whose loyalty lies entirely with the deeply amoral Crowders, and it’s awful to watch her become disposable. It’s not funny because Colton, for all his profession of prowess, and his declarations of what he’s seen of heroin addiction in Afghanistan, needs a snort to prepare himself for killing. And it’s not funny because ultimately, murder is a very serious business.

Justified can often be deeply absurd about terrible violence, as it was last season when Robert Quarles, a sexual sadist ended up with his arm lopped off, lying on Limehouse’s slaughterhouse floor, an illustration of the limited difference between men and pigs. Both are available to be slaughtered. But this season is a reminder that there is something different about killing a human being. And on the escalating line from a fist-fight to a gas station killing, it’s not easy to draw a clear and demarcating line between what’s fun, and what we’re meant to see as awful.