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‘Justified’: A contemporary Western worth considering

"The English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov. The Western is ours.”

~Robert Duval
More than once, Robert Duval has describes the Western as America’s Shakespeare, and I’m more than inclined to agree. The themes and motifs of Westerns make for fertile ground when it comes to exploring what makes us human, why we do what we do, and how the world works around us—all the makings of a good story.

FX’s Justified is right up this alley—in fact, I think it’s quickly on its way to becoming one of the best contemporary Westerns on television. The series—adapted from a short story by Elmore Leonard—follows Raylan Givens, a cowboy hat and boot clad U.S. Marshall whose quick draw shooting gets him reassigned from bustling Miami to the backwaters of Kentucky—which also happens to be the place where he was born and raised and from which he fled some years before, leaving behind a less-than-happy childhood, an ex-wife and an estranged relationship with his other-side-of-the-law father. From the first episode, I was hooked by the series’ characters, story-telling, Western themes, God-talk and imagery—all of which bring God-talk into these open spaces.

Both classical as well as contemporary and revisionist themes and motifs in Westerns weave their way through Justified. The series is set in rural Kentucky, cast here as a modern “lawless frontier.” There’s no shortage of folks—like the Crowder family—who exploit all means towards their own goals and criminal enterprises, often leaving a trail of dead or maimed bodies in their wake. There are also a few folks that aim to keep the law, corral the criminal element and protect the weak or innocent—and that’s led to more than one gunfight. And Raylan Givens—our lone (and soul-wounded) hero bound by his own internal code of justice and honor—literally made his fame as a quick and deadly draw. The more ambiguous morality of the Spaghetti or contemporary Westerns is favored above the more clear-cut morality of the classics, but this seems appropriate as the series explores the complexity in threads like the tension between Raylan’s internal code of justice and his compassion, the darkness he stands against and the darkness he struggles with within, and broader themes like the tension we feel between the letter versus the spirit of the law as well as well as the nature of and struggle with how to confront evil.

And all these elements are ripe with potential for God-talk—which Justified has in spades. Most literally, this is playing out in criminal Boyd Crowder’s “born-again” experience after being shot by Raylan (who, it turns out, was boyhood friends with Crowder). Boyd’s begun his own “church”a community of going-clean drug abusers, felons and other outcasts—and continually quotes Scripture. There’s outright skepticism about the authenticity of Boyd’s conversion by Raylan and his boss (who in one episode, declares it’s men like Boyd who give Christians like him a bad name). But there’s a real sense that Boyd is seeking some kind of redemption even as he also seems bent on twisting it all to his own brand or version—a kind of make-your-own redemption, which begs the question of which path Boyd is really walking and how his quest for redemption will play out.

One of the best things about the Justified, however, is the match between the writing of the character of Raylan Givens and actor Timothy Olyphant (also the reluctant sherriff in HBO’s shortlived Deadwood), who was born to wear a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He plays the lone and angst-ridden cowboy to complete believability, and his performance has drawn comparisons to Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. And it’s the match of the well-written character and born-to-play-the-role actor that allows the richness and complexity of America’s Shakespeare come alive before our eyes—and that adds a depth and respectability to the contemporary Western that is Justified.

In “The cowboy myth” in the Denver Post, Jeffrey A. Lockwood touches on the value of the Western, Cowboy Myth and what he aptly describes as “shared stories” in our culture: “The goal of Myth is to illuminate a moral ideal toward which a people aspire, binding together generations and communities, and helping us to understand how we are to live in the world and treat one another….” Lockwood goes on to point out that, “Myth is not meant to be journalistic; it is not concerned with timeworn facts but with timeless truths, such as the virtues of unflinching courage and fierce independence.”

Lockwood points to a good image of the cowboy in Conagher (a classic Western story by Louis L'Amour) in a passage in which the title character is deciding whether to confront the bad guys:

"He simply did what had to be done . . . It would be easy, he told himself, to throw everything overboard and disclaim any responsibility. All he had to do was saddle up and ride out of the country. It sounded easy, but it was not that easy, even if a man could leave behind his sense of guilt at having deserted a cause. To be a man was to be responsible. It was as simple as that. To be a man was to build something, to try to make the world about him a bit easier to live in for himself and those who followed. You could sneer at that, you could scoff, you could refuse to acknowledge it, but when it came right down to it, [Conagher] decided it was the man who planted a tree, dug a well, or graded a road who mattered."
In contemporizing the image, Lockwood adds that the “cowboy would aggressively protect the vulnerable. Conagher would abide no excuses from the methamphetamine addict, the delinquent youth, or the teenage mother—but he'd not abandon them, either.”

I can hear Raylan’s voice saying those words—and believing most of it. An interesting twist in Raylan’s story is that he initially did "saddle up and ride out." But in leaving Kentucky earlier in his career, he wasn’t so much avoiding a confrontation with the bad guys as he was trying to flee his own brokenness and darkness within. (And this element of internal confrontation of evil and darkness is one that draws me to the Western genre, particularly the contemporary.) But now’s Raylan Givens is back—and I don’t think he’s leaving again. “I tried that,” he recently told Winona (his ex-wife) when she asked about him whether he was trying to get out of Kentucky again.

Interestingly, it’s Raylan’s boss Chief Deputy Art Mullen who most closely fits Conagher’s description of a realized cowboy. Essentially, Mullen’s planted a tree, dug a well, and graded a road. He’s firmly committed to and invested in the terriority in which he lives and protects. He’s got integrity, honesty and wisdom—something Raylan’s still earning. Mullen sees Raylan’s value—not as a gunslinger but the man he is inside. Interestingly, Mullen seems to treat Raylan like the man he has the potential to be rather than the man he currently is. He talks to and deals with Raylan as if he's already that man, affirming Raylan’s choices that fit with that kind of man and unhesitatingly admonishing him for the ones that don’t. While he also seems to know that he can’t fix Raylan, he does what he can to help him become the kind of man who makes better choices and lives rightly.

And maybe that’s what draws me to the series more than anything else: watching the evolution or formation of a man on the cusp of becoming something more—and what aids in that transformation as well as what fights against it. I suppose you could say we are watching the magnificent mess that is redemption.

In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard says each and every one of us is always undergoing spiritual formation to “become a certain kind of person:”
You have had a spiritual formation and I have had one, and it is still ongoing. It is like education: everyone gets one—a good one or a bad one.”
In Justified, we are watching this happen not only in Raylan but other characters as well (Boyd proving to be as interesting a formation as Raylan). And while the story we are watching doesn’t directly suggest that, as Willard puts it, “the only transformation adequate to the human self” is the “genuine transformation of the whole person into the goodness and power seen in Jesus,” like all good stories, this one begs us to explore and examine that truth in our own lives as well as our own formation. Which way are we being formed? Who’s helping us? And what is fighting against that--both without as well as within? And how we are aiding or harming the formation and redemption of others?

In his article, Lockwood suggests a revitalization of the Cowboy Myth in contemporary culture—“and in so doing ground our future in the virtues of our past.” I too think that our shared stories, like Westerns, can help us in as we move into the future. But I am also among those who think the best of our stories—and Justified just might be one of those—and the truths we discover in them point to and echo an even greater Story and greater Truth. In the end, it is that Story in which we find the best and truest hope and grounding for the future.

(Images: FX via IMDB)


George Duncan said…
Yes, a powerful and wonderful analysis of the show, and you quote one of my favorite authors Louis L'Amour. Five stars to the show and five stars to your review
The Whiskeratti said…
I absolutely love this show. Boyd is my favorite character - like everyone, I'm waiting to see how his story plays out. I think he really wants to be a true man of God but he is so twisted inside, everything he does gets twisted... which makes me wonder how such a man could ever find his way out. Any ideas?
Carmen Andres said…
George, thanks for your kind remarks!

as to how Boyd's desire for redemption will play out, no firm ideas as yet. but i'm more than curious! it's one of the things that keeps me watching.
Joseph said…
How did I not know about this show?! I LOVE Westerns, I love everything about them. I'm already a fan and this is the first I've heard of it.
Carmen Andres said…
joe--let me know what you think! be forewarned, heh, it is rated TV-Mature for language, violence and some sexual situations.
Keanan Brand said…
Awesome review -- I was hooked on this show from the opening scene of the first episode. I'm also a L'amour fan since childhood, and can see the camaraderie between his work and this television show. Western literature, in addition to my upbringing and faith, shaped much of the person I am today, and I'm glad to see it being brought to life on the screen.

And Boyd? He makes me laugh, makes me shake my head, makes me think of my redneck relatives who still carry their prejudices and their religion like two uneasy rattlers in the same tow sack.
Carmen Andres said…
"... carry their prejudices and their religion like two uneasy rattlers in the same tow sack."

what a great image!

regarding Boyd, after watching the season finale, i'm realizing that JUSTIFIED is becoming just as much his story as Raylan's. in fact, the connection between the two is well-played and thought-provoking.
Karen said…
I went to a screening for Justified and I'm intrigued by the characters. Elmore Leonard, the showrunner and a couple of the the stars were there to discuss the pilot episode. The series has potential! Looking forward to more of your commentary.
Karen said…
This hits the mark:

"And maybe that’s what draws me to the series more than anything else: watching the evolution or formation of a man on the cusp of becoming something more—and what aids in that transformation as well as what fights against it. I suppose you could say we are watching the magnificent mess that is redemption."

Well said!