I’ve been frustrated at times by the intrusion of Detroit into the hollers of Harlan during the last two seasons of Justified. But the finale of the fourth season of FX’s Western was a lovely hour of television that simultaneously seems to have cleared out the interlopers and showed us what happens when the things that make Harlan so indelibly itself snatch at Ryalan and Boyd. And it was a reminder of just how different Justified is from much of the rest of what’s on television, despite its relationship to anti-hero dramas, and how much it gets out of those differences. Here are five things that other television shows—and networks that are considering what to develop next—could stand to recognize as valuable from last night’s finale:
1. Location, Location, Location: I’ve written before about how dull it is for television shows to rely heavily on New York, Los Angeles, and Miami as settings without considering what it means for the stories they’re telling to be set there. Justified both is refreshing for being set elsewhere, and considering it setting in every decisions its characters make. The development of coal mining, an industry very different from politics, policing, media, or advertising, as a major theme has both provided short-hand for how well certain characters know each other—”I dug coal with him” is a phrase that’s endowed with devastating meaning—and a repeated image of a descent into hell that provided a perfect sense of dread as Boyd’s carefully-made plans to extract himself and Ava from Harlan came unraveled. From Noble’s Holler to Clover Hill, Justified has given us a geography that it’s endowed with rich meaning, so the green vista of a backyard or patched drywall can speak more than any dialogue. And when Brad Paisley sings “You will never leave Harlan alive” as Raylan contemplates Arlo’s grave, we have a sense of what it means for Raylan to have left town, and what it means for him to have been pulled back to it, for Boyd to have dreamed of cleansing his name, and to be left breaking into the dream he once thought was within reach through the front door.
2. True Love: If Homeland had really wanted to tell an epic love story about Carrie and Brody, they might have done well to take a page from Justified, which is simultaneously one of the most romantic shows on television, and one of the most realistic about the limits of romance when dashed up against the rocks of law and circumstance. “You know that you and the baby are safe, right?” Raylan asks Winona after he takes care of the Tonins and gets his family, such as it is, off the mob’s hit list. “I know,” Winona tells him. “That’s why I love you.” I’m sure she does, but it’s an illustration of the inadequacy of love when the mobsters who held Winona hostage have thought in more detail about what it means to be up nights with a baby than Raylan has. And it’s a reminder that the idea that a man can provide safety to his family is a minimal requirement for a modern, equitable relationship. Boyd’s storyline is a reminder of how hard crushingly hard that obligation, often equated with masculinity, can be to fulfill. He refers to Ava repeatedly as “my woman” in this episode, but he can’t protect her. Raylan won’t let Boyd kiss her goodbye. And when Paxton double-crosses him and gets Ava arrested, Boyd goes beserk at the sight of her on the way to jail, agonized by the sight of her in danger, and by his own failure. “I’m going to get a lawyer, the best money can buy, and I’m going to have you out of here in 24 hours,” Boyd promises her. But Ava sadly, and realistically, tells him, “We both know that ain’t going to happen.” Raylan may be skeptical that that Boyd truly loves Ava, asking him if he loves her “Like how you loved the Lord? Or that lovely white skin? Or Arlo? I know he meant a lot to you.” But Boyd’s been more present for Ava than Raylan has for Winona, dreamed for more of them together, and it makes the pain of his disappointment all the sharper. Justified knows better than any other show how making even the basics of a good life can be an epic challenge.
3. Class: Working-class and poor people are almost entirely absent from American television. And it’s been a long time since a show wasn’t afraid to be cutting and painful about, as The Wire put it, the “thin line ‘tween heaven and here.” Justified isn’t afraid to be casually cruel, as when Raylan talks about “That Ellen Mae, dumb as a box of rocks, but she’s such a sweet girl. And if you get her talking, she’s too lazy to shut up.” And it’s clear about the power that comes with wealth when Paxton sets up Ava to be caught by the police, then demonstrates his authority over the sheriff’s department when he tells them to let a struggling Boyd go. “He’s upset. I don’t think he’s going to be any more trouble,” he says authoritatively. “Let this white trash piece of shit go.” And when Wynn Duffy drops by to inform a devastated Boyd that “Did you hear the news out of Detroit? Little Sammy is the new head of the outfit,” and to ask Boyd to take over heroin distribution in Kentucky, Boyd’s nod of acceptance is one of utter defeat, a recognition that his dream of climbing to respectability via a Dairy Queen franchise is out of reach.
4. Language: Wynn Duffy’s reflection that “All the strife, all the bloodshed, all the turmoil. Kings fall. Princes rise up. And here we still are. The survivors,” alone is enough to label Justified the inheritor to Deadwood. Television has something of an authenticity fetish these days, from the details of Walter White’s meth cooking setup to the way Girls depicts sex. But if television aspires to act like literature, then it shouldn’t be afraid to sound like literature. And that sometimes means sounding mannered, sometimes sounding deep-fried, sometimes speaking with an enormous sense of occasion. Justified, by virtue of its setting and its relationship to Southern literature, has always been fearless about this, much to its benefit.
5. Bipolar Balances Of Power: This is one of Justified‘s biggest innovations in relationship to the canon of prestige drama: the show is evenly balanced between two protagonists, each of whom retains the ability to call out the other with great credibility. In a wonderful and painful conversation between Raylan and Boyd last night, Raylan told Boyd that he doesn’t believe in his ability to truly attach to anything. “I think you love anything that will let you put your head on the pillow last night thinking you’re not the bad guy,” he informed his old friend. But where Raylan is wrong about Boyd’s love for Ava, Boyd made a point about Raylan that was important for the show to acknowledge, that Raylan’s counting on other men to pull their guns is a form of premeditation. “But what if he won’t?” Boyd wanted to know in response to Raylan’s insistence that Nicky would draw on him. “You just going to murder him where he sits?” The answer turned out to be yes, and the fact that Raylan found someone else to do his killing for him, and the fact that he felt it to be necessary, doesn’t erase Boyd’s indictment of him. I’m not saying that audiences need to be hit upside the head and dumped down a mineshaft when it comes to moral complexity, but in a world where people still insist that Walter White is a badass, maybe we could use a little bit more balance in our big dramas.