Saturday, May 14, 2011
At a climactic second-act moment in the Justified finale, a few days after the extrajudicial punishment of Osama bin Laden for his confessed crimes, Timothy Olyphant’s trigger-happy Kentucky marshal Raylan Givens swaggers away from—let’s simplify—his defenseless enemy and his gun-toting friend saying, “I didn’t pull the trigger, but I’ll sleep like a baby knowing he will.” It’s a coincidence with uncanny resonance. The show is, in name anyway, about the justified use of physical force, particularly gun violence, but this scene, this moment, this line is the distilled expression of a nation’s unburdened catharsis. Dickie hurt our buddy Raylan, he was this close to killing him, and he’s only out of bars because of his greasy fur. Who could possibly object to the execution that’s coming one way or another?
I’m not here to scold. As Keith Mars, a man much wiser than I, once said, “I think you should probably just feel however you’re feeling.” That’s how I try to live, with the stipulation that I at least examine my emotions. Because nobody is happier than Spock.
That said, I have misgivings about Bin Laden’s execution. One reason I reject capital punishment is that violence usurps individual liberty, like the American Idol Judges’ Save. Or as Mrs. Welch taught us, two wrongs don’t make a right. But she was wrong about a lot of things, like the nuclear specter of the USSR and Crystal Pepsi.
Like the huddled masses celebrating all over the world, Justified begs to differ. Raylan’s pile of bodies grows so fast the paper trail can’t keep up. Shootouts and standoffs are the fun of the show. The violence is awesome. Look no further than Mags’ meeting with Boyd in that Twain vignette as their crews descend on one another: fancy shots, an exploding barn, a surprise hit on a regular we all REALLY want to die (just me?). I can only imagine how hard it was to keep a straight face during the episode’s climax.
If the life of violence from which Aunt Helen tries to deliver Raylan and he tries to deliver Loretta is so vaguely bad, why does it look so admirable? Are we not meant to worship Raylan’s aim, lap up Dickie’s batting practice one-liners, secretly chase Boyd back to the dark side like a recovering alcoholic who was only funny drunk?
I suspect if you asked the writers they’d side with their unflappable moral hero Art, who never met a shooter he couldn’t shame. Tim the military sharpshooter is even more isolated than Quickdraw Givens, and Rachel’s entire life has been warped by intimate traumatic violence. Ava may be dying—just play along—Winona’s been attacked, and the major clans have thinned. Violence is costly on Justified, so permanently damaging that even hardy Mags saw no choice but to close her book. Only Art the Gunless is at peace.
There’s something romantic about such a background argument built on the old chestnut “show don’t tell,” but somehow I’m not buying it. If anything, Justified's worldview is that violence is a necessary evil, emphasis on "necessary," but with the added bonus that it's really fucking invigorating to shoot someone right between the eyes. And with the irrepressibly charming Olyphant at the show’s center, the sparks fly. I think he's sending me mixed signals.
Killing Claudius was not Hamlet’s panacea. Raylan Givens is a tragic hero in name only, a violent depressive who’s damn good at his job, surprisingly good at forging lasting interpersonal relationships, and pretty fun to be around. If this is what comes of gun violence, where do I sign up?