Why ‘Justified’ Is More Interesting When It Focuses On Harlan County

This post discusses plot points from the fourth season of Justified. Read at your own caution if you aren’t caught up.

As I’ve watched Justified over the past several weeks, I’ve been struck by a sense of how crowded the show has become. It sometimes seems as if everyone is descending on Harlan County, which is simultaneously sprouting new layers of law enforcement, a Native American community, and teenage miscreants. But last night it struck me why I haven’t loved this season of the show, even as I’ve loved the evolution of Boyd and Ava’s relationship this year. Much of what makes Justified special is its attention to its setting, and everything the show’s been adding lately has made Harlan more obscure and less specific.

The story of Drew Thompson was supposed to be a story about the arrival of the serious hard drug trade in Harlan. But instead, it’s ended up being about people in Harlan responding to, and in Boyd’s case, manipulating, Theo Tonin, the Detroit crime boss who was pulled into the show last season by the presence of Robert Quarles. The problem with the Tonin storyline though is that it doesn’t actually tell us all that much about Harlan or the people who live there. Theo, at least so far, comes across as a fairly generic mercurial gangster who indulges his son and has a henchman who wanted his fatherly approval. He doesn’t represent Detroit in nearly the same way Boyd or Yorkie-owning, Dixie Mafia-running Wynn Duffy tell us about Harlan by letting us see a very particular vision of crime in Harlan.

And the time spent on Thompson this season has ended up taking away from any number of other, more local, and more interesting subplots. I was terribly disappointed to see the initial plot by Harlan’s elite to hire Boyd to blow a hole in a slurry pond so they could claim EPA clean-up funds to address the resulting disaster turn into a cheap assassination plot. That’s a fascinatingly diabolical idea rooted in real dangers—coal slurry threatened the Tuscaloosa water supply in 2011—and it would have provided both fascinating commentary on a long-running American industry and a throughline to Boyd’s experiences as a coal miner, first as a teenager with Raylan, and in season two.

The slurry plot could have made physically manifest the ways in which coal mining has had a morally poisonous influence on Harlan. Coal has helped economically stratify the county, something that became very clear when Boyd and Ava went house-hunting in Clover Hill, the neighborhood where Ava’s mother worked as a cleaning lady when Ava was a child—”They locked up their jewelry whenever she came over,” Ava says, a little sadly. “Are you sure I can’t show you something a little further down the hill? There are some lovely starter homes down there. Beautiful views. Quaint,” their realtor told them, trying to shoo the couple out of the neighborhood that might by polluted by the implications of their all-cash purchase and unpolished diction. “You and your fiancee might want to think about the commute..I ask because the banks are getting very stringent with applications.” It’s not that no show or movie has ever focused on poor or unwanted people moving into a rich—or white—neighborhood before. But Harlan’s class dynamics are specific, and, just as Boyd and Ava have discussed, the role of Crowders in Harlan is specific, persisting as they suspect from one generation into the next, requiring radical action, or at least a Dairy Queen franchise, to change.

And coal has morally twisted the county as well, as was clear two episodes ago at the party Boyd and Ava attended. It wasn’t just that it was a sex party—adults are complicated, and Boyd, after all, is engaged to his former sister-in-law. It was that it became clear quickly that the men there assumed they deserved sexual access to Ava, perhaps because she was poor, perhaps because she was pretty, perhaps because she was with Boyd, all things that marked her as an entitlement. In the striking scene where two men cornered her in an upstairs hallway, one approaching her for a conversation, the other closing off her ability to leave from behind, it was clear that they were convinced she’d consented by attending, and if Boyd hadn’t intervened to both restore Ava’s choice and to reassert a sense of morality to the moment, she might have been raped. That glimpse into an ugly part of Harlan’s sexual politics is an important one, particularly in conjunction with the existence of Noble’s Holler, the area of Harlan ruled by butcher and barbequer Ellstin Limehouse, as a refuge for women, white and black alike and Ava included, who have suffered domestic abuse, and the persistence of prostitution in the county. There’s a rich tapestry there, but increasingly, it’s covered by shell casings.

Now, the revelation that Shelby, who’s risen from big box store greeter to Harlan sheriff, is Drew Thompson may end up revealing more about Harlan. But thus far, the keeping of his secret hasn’t actually told us much about why the men who guard his identity have been loyal to him—those motivations and relationships have been obscured by gouts of blood. That the Tonins’ incursions into Harlan have mainly been inspired by the fact that Drew is a witness to a murder Theo committed actually makes the idea of Harlan as a satellite criminal state in Detroit’s orbit less geographically and culturally revealing, though Boyd’s involvement there could improve the story, as he does every place he enters wearing those collarless shirts and snazzy vests. I understand the desire for a season-long story in a cable drama. But Justified is at its most interesting when those season-long arcs take us places we’ve genuinely never been before on television, from Noble’s Holler to Clover Hill.