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The second season of FX’s Justified orbits around the scene where Mags Bennett discovers that her son Coover has been killed by U.S. Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens.

Mags Bennett is the matriarch of a clan of weed dealers nestled in the hills of Harlan, Kentucky. Mags runs a general store as her legitimate business front. As long as you have the common sense to not interfere in her criminal business interests, you might mistake her for a feisty grandmother. She’ll treat you to moonshine. Her “apple pie” shine is the best in Harlan County although the glass in which she serves it to you might be poisoned. She’ll take in an orphan girl whose father Mags had killed. She’ll baby her grown sons; they still call her Mama… even when she’s smashing one their hands in with a hammer. Coover should have known better

Coover and his brother Dickie earned their mother’s ire by drawing undue attention to the Bennett clan. They’d organized a hijacking of a “pill bus” without the consent of Mags or their older brother Doyle. Mags don’t meddle in the methamphetamine or Oxycontin trade. The Harlan PD can look the other way at the weed business. Doyle is the chief of police after all. But smack and pills… well, that’s liable to get the DEA involved. And that’s without mentioning the Dixie Mafia whose people Coover and Dickie ripped off in the first place. They’re more dangerous than the cops.

Coover and Dickie never had the best impulse control. Coover was a savant when it came to growing marijuana, but he was also a little too fond of smoking his own dope. Coover found himself living in a constant ganja haze. And Dickie… well, Dickie was always a little bit different after Raylan crippled one of his legs when they were teenage boys. They were playing Little League baseball; Dickie started the fight. Raylan finished it. Raylan does tend to finish any fights he gets involved in.

The first episode of Justified‘s second season ends with Mags killing a man, Walt McCready. Mags had an employee growing pot for her that was also a sex offender. Mags didn’t know his past, but that man was harassing the daughter of Walt McCready. Walt called the police on the man making intimations towards his fourteen year old girl, Loretta. Walt got the police involved in the Bennetts’ affairs, and Mags could not abide that. She’d have killed the pervert herself if Walt had come to her. But he didn’t. And even if he was just trying to protect Loretta, a girl that Mags adored more than most of her blood kin, Walt talking to the police was a violation of the Harlan code that Mags could not bear.

Coover grew jealous of the doting affection that his mother was imparting on Loretta while simultaneously brutally punishing him for trying to make his own mark as a drug dealer. He gets his hand smashed to hell while this daughter of a rat gets treated like royalty? Much like his Mama and Walt, Loretta’s presence was a transgression that Coover couldn’t abide. Coover helped to bury Walt after his murder, and Coover had stolen a gold watch that Walt was wearing at the time of his death. As Coover’s jealousy towards Loretta rose, his already half-baked intelligence slid. He wore that gold watch in front of Loretta hoping that she’d put two and two together. He was betting she’d figure out who killed her daddy and that she’d do something stupid when she found out. This would let Coover put her down. Loretta, being fourteen years old and of a particularly high opinion of her ability to take care of herself, took Coover’s bait.

Coover would have killed Loretta and thrown her body down the same abandoned mine shaft where her daddy’s corpse lay if Raylan hadn’t shown up at the last minute to avert catastrophe. Raylan nearly took a tumble down that mine shaft himself. In addition to being the THC equivalent of a sommelier, Coover’s a big boy. Raylan’s tough. No doubt about that, but tough only gets you so far when you’re fighting a mountain of a man like Coover Bennett. Fortunately for everyone’s favorite Stetson wearing US Marshall, Loretta managed to distract Coover just enough for Raylan to finish another fight… this time with a bullet to the side of Coover’s head. It don’t get more final than that.

Coover was dead. Dickie had told Raylan where to find Coover in hopes of keeping Coover from killing Loretta… and also cause he wasn’t too sure that Raylan wouldn’t kill him if he didn’t give up his brother. Dickie was Mags’ son, but he’d talked to the police. There are consequences for that, kin or no. Dickie got off easy though. Mags just exiled him from the family business. But, worst of all, Mags’ surrogate daughter — the girl that she never had but always wanted — knew Mags had killed her daddy. Mags didn’t think Loretta would go to the police. But that’s a rift that don’t heal. In one evening, Mags was short two of her sons and that surrogate daughter. And while Mags can usually keep an even-keel for her business affairs, there’s only so much heartbreak a woman can bear. And Mags had reached her limit. And there was going to be hell to pay in Harlan, KY, cause of it.

Justified‘s second season can be broken down into three main segments. It’s the second installment of a continuing pulp law enforcement procedural starring Raylan Givens, a US Marshall that believes in the spirit of the law more than the letter of it. Raylan’s willingness to take on the mantle of judge, jury, and executioner can get him in trouble with both organized crime and his fellow law enforcement officials. The individual seasons of the series are like self-contained dime novels — albeit ones with hellaciously good dialogue and characterization —  with Raylan Givens’ neo-cowboy swagger working as the series’ center of gravity. The second segment of the season is the failed attempts of career criminal Boyd Crowder to set himself free from a life of sin. And the final segment is the disintegration of the Bennett clan as their lives begin to intersect with Raylan’s unyielding approach to law enforcement and Boyd Crowder’s increasing machinations for power in Harlan County.

During its most focused arcs, Justified is a tragic Appalachian morality play driven by hyper-stylized heroes and villains brought to life by a who’s who of the most chameleonic character actors working today.

Raylan Givens is the archetypal “cowboy cop” if he were a self-proclaimed actual cowboy albeit one that grew up in the backwood hollers of Kentucky instead of the great plains of Texas.  His heroic valor isn’t really up for question. If he has to die or put his life at risk to protect someone else, even a stranger, he’ll do it. But Raylan doesn’t feel too tore up any time he has to put a man down in the line of duty. As he likes to say, his killings are always “justified.” And Timothy Olyphant plays him simultaneously with the sort of steely glare that defined Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns while also finding enough self-aware anger and pain in Raylan that we question how confident he actually is in the path he travels in life. Raylan’s father, Arlo, is a two-bit crook. And is Raylan’s aggression in the line of duty just him following in his father’s footsteps except on the right side of the law. Are his killings as justified as he tells himself? Is it his responsibility to bear the burdens of every problem that he comes across? When those he loves get caught in the crossfire of his actions, is it Raylan’s fault just as much as the criminals? Raylan was raised by his stepmother, Helen, who protected him from Arlo’s avaricious hell raising and implied physical abuse. Helen is killed by Dickie Bennett after Arlo and Boyd Crowder rob the Bennetts’ weed business. And when Raylan confronts his father about Helen’s death, Olyphant’s voice is shaking to such a degree that it’s hard to decide if Raylan is about to kill his father or burst into tears. We’ve seen Raylan shoot his father in the past (in self-defense); we’ve never seen him cry.

Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder is one of the more memorably composed characters in all of television. A former coal miner turned white supremacist gang leader turned prisoner turned preacher turned reformed coal miner turned aspiring crime kingpin. And listing the things Boyd’s done to pay the bills only paints the portrait of who Boyd is in the broadest strokes. He’s a dapperly dressed man with wild hair sticking up in every direction. Goggins wears his uncontrollable mane like Boyd just couldn’t be bothered to try and tame it. Justified is based off of a series of Elmore Leonard stories, and more than anyone in the cast, Goggins’ relishes bringing the show’s neo-noir dialogue to life. Boyd is a man who brings flair and theater to every corner of his life. He isn’t being artificial or cloying. He’s just an idiosyncratic man. He’s a character in the classic sense of that word. There’s a sequence in the series’ first season where Boyd preaches at a local church. And it is magnetic. Goggins could have made a living reading the scripture. But the performance isn’t spectacular simply cause Goggins captured the fire of the Holy Spirit. He’s also there to stand up to his daddy whose crew predated the Bennetts as the chief criminal outfit in Harlan. And Goggins lets just the right amount of arrogance bleed through as he looks his daddy in the eyes and has a half-smirk creeping onto his face.

Boyd is the series’ central foil and contrast for Raylan Givens. Both are men who navigate lives defined by rigid codes that they firmly believe absolve them of any other moral obligations for their actions.

The series begins with Raylan killing a gun thug from a Miami drug cartel who draws down on him at a public restaurant. It’s a “justified” killing cause the man drew first but Raylan had told the gun thug he had 24 hours to get out of Miami or Raylan would kill him. Raylan had witnessed the man torture and kill a man in Central America. Did Raylan force this gun thug to draw down on him? Can Raylan still be a good man and a good Marshall if he goads another man into trying to kill him? It’s not the last time on the show that Raylan does something that he thinks is in the greater good but isn’t necessarily legal or ethical.

Contrast this to Boyd. Although Boyd did preach the Gospel at a Harlan church on one occasion, his primary flock was a ragtag collection of ex-cons and drug addicts that Boyd was trying to lead down a righteous path. Boyd interprets this new duty as a call to arms. He and his congregation declare war on the local meth dealers who are poisoning Boyd’s community. One evening, Boyd attempts to burn down a trailer where meth is being cooked in the woods, but in the process, he unintentionally kills one of the meth cooks. Boyd’s father kills all of Boyd’s men in retaliation for this action. Those meth dealers worked for him after all.

In the aftermath of the murder of Boyd’s people, he attempts to go straight. He works in a coal mine. He helps the widow of his deceased brother pay the bills at their house… even if that widow was the one who killed his brother. But everybody tells him he’s still a criminal. Raylan refuses to believe he’s given up his life of crime and his old criminal associates keep attempting to draw him into their affairs. Eventually, Boyd goes ballistic on a coal miner who wants to recruit Boyd for a plan to rob the coal mine. Boyd drags the man half a mile with his car when the man won’t take no for an answer, and Boyd’s resolve to lead a normal life snaps. If everyone believes he’s a thug and he’s still capable of doing something as violent as dragging a man by the neck from the windshield of his car, then maybe he really is just a thug after all.

But even after Boyd decides that he wants to be a “criminal” again, he considers himself to be a different breed of criminal. He agrees to rob the coal company, but they’ve robbed him and other hill people like him for over a hundred years. Boyd’s rationale isn’t ethical in any sense of the word, but take it from a West Virginian. There is nothing ethical about the coal business either. Watch John Sayles’ Matewan or read Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven if you doubt me. And, of course, Boyd’s unaware hypocrisy surfaces when he helps the coal company do their dirty work. The company wants to buy up even more of Harlan’s land so that they can build a road through the hills to a new mine. They hire Boyd to convince folks to sign on that dotted line. When Boyd robs people, he robs criminals and thinks that makes it okay… even when (comparatively) innocent people like Raylan’s stepmother pay the price for his actions. Boyd thinks he’s a redneck Robin Hood, but all the while he’s dealing drugs that tear apart families and trafficks in the prostitution of women. Raylan ignores the law for mostly selfless reasons — although that isn’t always true — while Boyd has crafted a code that exists to serve himself and cleanse his conscious.

And thus we return to Mags Bennett. Margo Martindale won a deserved Emmy for her deceptively subtle performance as the damned matriarch of the Kentucky weed trade. Mags’ code doesn’t do her much good if she can’t get her children to follow it, and she ends the season poisoning herself with the same glass of moonshine that she used to kill Walt earlier in the season. Two of her sons were dead. A third was going to jail for possibly the rest of his life. Her scheme to buy up the land the coal company was after and sell it back to them at an exorbitant price had fallen apart to save a son that she realizes probably wasn’t worth saving. Loretta would have killed Mags for murdering her daddy if Raylan hadn’t convinced her not to. What else did Mags have to live for?

And over the course of that season, Margo Martindale finds the tragedy, humor, and menace in this woman who can switch on a dime from affable community figurehead to a perpetrator of sadistic violence so fast it will chill your blood. Martindale has the sort of presence as an actress that Al Pacino used to have in the 70s. When necessary, she can put on a calm face. She can be friendly. She’ll reminisce with Raylan about the old days but Martindale will be avoiding eye contact just enough that you know she’s got less pleasant plans in mind if Raylan gets in her way. She’ll coldly cut one of her sons out of the family while he begs and pleads for his livelihood. Martindale finds the deadness in Mags’ voice when she has to cut Dickie out of the family business but her speech is just halting enough that you know how much it’s tearing her apart. Mags gives a fiery speech at a community meeting where she tells the community to stand up against the coal company and their greed while all the while she plans to buy that land and sell it to the coal company herself so only her family can profit from this new business. When the woman from the coal company confronts her on her hypocrisy, Mags glibly replies that her family is going to get their share of this action and that common folk getting screwed over by the coal trade is just how things work in these hills. Once again, Martindale can’t quite make the eye contact needed and you’re not entirely sure that even she believes what she’s saying anymore.

Those are only three characters in a series with a wonderful, revolving door of a cast. Jere Burns brings the sociopathic Dixie Mafia enforcer Wynn Duffy to darkly comic life. Odds are that if Jere Burns is on screen, you’re laughing. Damon Herriman finds the pitiable humanity in bumbling hood Dewey Crowe who is always being embarrassed either by Raylan or Boyd. That said, even Dewey has his moments of triumph. He rips off a couple of Bennett footsoldiers by buying a cowboy hat and blazer and pretending to be Raylan Givens. It would have got Dewey killed at the end of the day if Raylan hadn’t pulled his boots from the fire yet again. Jacob Pitts is charming as the mild-mannered Army sniper that is one of Raylan’s chief sources of backup in the Marshals service. David Meunier slinks through episodes as Boyd’s scheming and disloyal cousin, Johnny. And Natalie Zea is one of the few characters who can consistently stand up to Raylan when his recklessness gets to be too much as his ex-wife Winona.

Justified‘s moral complexity, the richness of its characters, and the endless flavor of its dialogue makes for excellent television without any qualifiers. Occasionally, the show’s reliance on standalone episodes that chronicle a random assignment in Raylan’s life as a law enforcement official weakens the series’ focus, but even those episodes often work as self-contained novellas. They’re just incapable, by their nature, of staying with you as long as the tribulations of the Bennett clan or the D.B. Cooper allegory at the heart of the show’s fourth season (which rivals the second in power). And, occasionally, the show can give short change to its female characters. As hypnotic as Margo Martindale is as Mags or as composed and professional as Erica Tazel gets to be as Rachel (another one of Raylan’s coworkers in the Marshall service), it took seasons before they let Joelle Carter’s Ava exist as anything other than a plot device for Boyd and Raylan. But, more often than not, the show finds a depth to the lives of its characters that belies the inherently pulpy nature of its subject matter.

But I have to admit to a personal reason for my attachment to Graham Yost’s Appalachian crime epic. I can only name a single Hollywood film that takes place in West Virginia that isn’t either a historical drama (along the lines of Matewan or October Sky) or a horror film about inbred rednecks (ala the infamous Wrong Turn series). That movie is the light romantic comedy Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!. It’s not a bad film, but I’m sure that 90% of the reason that I have any sentimental affection towards it is that for the first time in my entire life, I was seeing folks from my homestate presented in a light that wasn’t stereotypical and condescending. There’s a character in the film (the father of Kate Bosworth’s love struck heroine) who is obsessed with Hollywood and reads all the trade periodicals and keeps up with industry news on the internet. And that was literally me as a teenager and a man in his early 20s. I followed this world that I never had any access to and that never seemed to care about the stories of people like me, but I kept up with it anyways because there was something magical about it despite the fact that I was never going to have my experienced reflected in the worlds it created. In that film, Appalachians were allowed to be people before they were stock characters of the region.

I feel guilty when I complain about a lack of representation of Appalachian culture in broader American popular culture. I’m a cisgendered white male. I get the vast majority of representation in culture. But I don’t hear the stories of the area where I grew up and have called home off and on for nearly thirty years now. Appalachians aren’t charming leads in romantic comedies. We don’t get to suffer the existential angst of art house drama. We’re rednecks and hillbillies. We’re jokes. We’re somebody for city folks to look at and feel better that “Hey, at least we aren’t them.” The suburbs have stories told about their existential malaise. Cities are at the heart of much of the canon of great American cinema. The rural Midwest has its own body of cinema. But Appalachia (and West Virginia in particular) is mostly ignored as a vehicle for not just complex and nuanced storytelling but for any sort of visibility at all.

Justified takes place in Kentucky instead of West Virginia, but its roots are Appalachian to their core. These are men and women that I’ve known. I’m not saying that I know US Marshalls or weed kingpins. But I know folks that worked in the coal mines. I grew up in the sort of Pentecostal churches that Boyd preaches in. I’ve frequented the Mom & Pop convenience stores that look just like the one that Mags runs. I’ve experienced first hand the sort of poverty that leads people down the path of crime that Boyd and his folk embrace. I’ve seen the way that the Appalachian drug trade — particularly pills and heroin — destroys communities. I was once robbed at knife point by a heroin addict looking for a fix. He placed a butcher knife to my ribcage at a bar where I was a server. These crimes weren’t just committed by strangers. Kids I went to elementary school with — kids who had been my childhood friends and who had stayed in my home — have served jail time for drug related offenses. They’ve lost parents to addiction.

And throughout Justified, the eternal conflicts of Appalachia — home versus freedom to escape poverty and to be something other than what the rest of the world says you are — are giving poetic life without ever condescending the folks for whom these are their lived experiences. Actors that I’ve known and loved in other works like Deadwood get to bring charisma and charm to men and women that would be treated as oddities in lesser hands. Their lives may be tragedies, but these tragedies are explored with a piercing moral clarity that both critiques and empathizes with a culture that doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the nation’s.

Justified‘s representations of Appalachia aren’t perfect. The show is clearly shot in Southern California. You can tell because the hills and the trees just aren’t right. The hills aren’t tall enough and there aren’t the right kinds of trees dotting them. There’s too much blindingly bright California light. Everything in rural Appalachia has the shadows of trees and the barest tint of green. Unless you’re at the top of one of the taller hills in the region, you can’t look in any direction without being dwarfed by the surrounding hills. Anytime I’ve lived somewhere besides West Virginia, I always feel slightly disoriented because I’m not enveloped by foothills. The only place I’ve ever felt like I do at home was in Florence in Tuscany. I’m not the first to make this connection either. During the second World War, soldiers that were being sent to Italy for the land invasion of Europe were trained in West Virginia because Tuscany bears such a striking resemblance to Appalachia.

Malcolm Gladwell once wrote a (majorly offensive) essay on Appalachia’s “culture of honor” and attempted to pathologize an entire region of the nation. Justified shows a diversity of voices and faces and beliefs in hollers and small towns, deep in coal mines and at the top of mountains. They are good men. There are bad men. Its best characters cut a Shakespearean figure across these tragic landscapes. They might not ever make it out of Harlan alive, but we’re damn lucky to join them for as long as we can.

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