Justified Slumps When It Strays from Harlan County

Et tu, Justified? Last fall, I decided to quit watching The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy because I was bored with the repetitive storylines and frustrated with the direction both of the storylines were taking. And now I’m worried that one of my favorite shows is doing the same thing. Now, admittedly, I’m willing to cut Justified a whole lot of slack, because it’s been so good for four seasons, and even when the episodes themselves aren’t all stellar, as in Season 1, I’m still so fond of the characters and so delighted by the witty dialogue. But I have to say that three episodes into a subpar stretch of season 5, I’m wavering. It’s not that Justified is suddenly a bad show, but it’s not one of the best on TV any more, and I’ve been trying to pin down what I feel are the problems this season.

First of all, I think there are now too many disconnected plots on a show that’s always had really fantastic plotting and brought things together in really satisfying ways at the end of the season. Moreover, there always needs to be some connectedness between Boyd and Raylan, the best of frenemies, who are the yin and yang of this show. Either they have been in direct opposition to each other, or else their stories have intertwined (whether Arlo Givens, Raylan’s father, working for Boyd during season 3, or both men hunting for Drew Thompson with very different motives in season 4.) But thus far, the only point of connection to the Boyd Crowder and Raylan Givens stories this season is the rather tenuous one of the Crowe family.

Which brings me to another unsatisfactory point this season: the villains just aren’t all that compelling. Compared to the ruthless Nicky Augustine, the psychopathic Robert Quarles, and the most compelling, cool-headed villain of them all, the late great Mags Bennett, the Crowes are bantam-weights. They’re not even convincing opponents for Dewey Crowe half the time, let alone for Boyd Crowder or Raylan, and my beloved Botoxed Wynn Duffy would eat them alive. (It says something when Chelsea the dog is by far the most terrifying member of the clan.) I guess it’s one of those “be careful what you wish for” situations, because I was truly delighted to have Dewey featured in the show

But more importantly, I think what we’re missing with the Crowes (and indeed with most of this season’s plots) is the incredible sense of place that Justified has always had. Let’s talk about Harlan and Kentucky in general; I know that they don’t actually film the show in Kentucky, but nonetheless, there was always an incredibly strong sense of place about it – that the story being told onscreen was told the way it was because of its setting. The bond between Boyd and Raylan was formed because they dug coal together; Dicky Bennett and his brothers hated Raylan because of a badly pitched baseball back in the day; there was always a sense that even the outsiders from Frankfurt didn’t really understand what was going on in Harlan County. Cut to this season, where our main villains are outsiders (yes, the Detroit Mafia in season 3 were also outsiders, but I think that it’s not a coincidence that that was the weakest season until this one!), and the plots could be set anywhere and not really be that different. Boyd doesn’t belong in Mexico, he belongs in Harlan County. The place is the taproot of the story and this season doesn’t really reflect that.

There’s also the matter of the characters; until this year, I’d always had a sense of the characters’ living a real, concrete existence offscreen. It sounds strange, but even a character we met for five or fifteen minutes of one episode (like the family drawing welfare checks in the name of Drew Thompson) was memorable and distinctive, and I miss that sense of three-dimensionality in this season’s crew. We’ve barely seen Rachel and Tim and the other marshals, and Natalie Zea’s other commitments mean that Raylan has gotten cast in the role of Terrible Absentee Father without much preparation for it. (I just am having a hard time imagining him not going to see his baby at all, and maybe some dialogue or scenes would have convinced me of the fact that the man who was willing to connive at the murder of an organized crime boss to protect his family would then absent himself completely from said family’s lives.) Instead, we’ve been given a whole bunch of clichés (from the Crowe family to Ava’s time on the “inside” complete with corrupt prison guards) and storylines that fizzled out or were just plain confusing to begin with, like Boyd’s feud with Lee Paxton.

I also miss the conflict in Raylan’s life that came from being Arlo Givens’ son. I know he has this whole faux-father-figure thing going with Art Mullen, but it’s never going to be the same as Raylan’s knowledge that his own father hated him so much he wanted him dead, or that he had so much of his terrifying father inside him. Arlo’s death, though brilliantly done last season, seems to have just made Raylan into yet another TV cop with undefined angst issues, and frankly, I expect better of that from Justified.

So, here’s hoping that this was just an unusual slump, and we’ll get back to the usual high quality of this show, because I don’t want to have to stop watching!

Regina Thorne is an avid reader of just about everything, an aspiring writer, a lover of old movies and current TV shows, and a hopeless romantic.

Read all posts by Regina Thorne for Criminal Element.

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