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.