Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Justification through Works - 'Justified' Reviewed

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Justification through Works

Tuesdays at 9 pm CST on FX

By Santiago Ramos

When we say that a television show is “realistic,” we usually mean dirt and broken sentences. The dirt is both literal and moral; the sentences always “sound like people talk.” The sets look grimy and lived-in, and the actions taking place in them are ambiguous—they arise from multiple intentions, and whether they are right or wrong is something that we should be able to contemplate for a long time after the credits roll. The conversations which convey this ambiguity do not sound like they have been crafted and polished by writers, even though they have been; their artistry lies in that they sound artless.

This is all for the good, I suppose. Perhaps one of the positive recent developments in TV drama is the rise of this form of gritty realism in shows like The Wire, and that this realism allows us to say that some TV shows which take place on space ships (e.g., Battlestar Galactica) are more “realistic” than others (e.g., Star Trek).

But what about shows that are “realistic” in the more classical sense—in the sense of drama and tragedy? Shows which mimic first and foremost a moral decision, and the nervous indecisiveness which sometimes precedes such a decision?

That’s what I was wondering as I watched the first few episodes of FX’s admirable new police drama, Justified, based on a character created by the legendary writer of westerns and crime fiction, Elmore Leonard. The show deals with the crime-busting adventures of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who once worked a more glamorous beat in Miami, but who is transferred to his home state of Kentucky after certain trigger-happy excesses which take place in the beginning of the series.

The scenery is “dirty” and “real”: Eastern Kentucky looks cloudy and dark, it echoes with southern accents, and even though it is also full of recently-built plastic suburbs (erected on grounds where old criminals once hid their loot), it also contains at least one quaint bar (with shadowy booths) where everybody knows your name. Within the US Marshal’s office, the dynamics between the investigators and enforcers-of-the-law reflect the tensions and friendships which develop in any real workplace. Clichés are avoided. This is not the type of show where the hero leads the charge and everyone is a Robin to his Batman.

Yet Marshal Givens does walk with a swagger, and he does wear a cowboy hat (though the show, obviously, takes place in the present day). The cowboy hat is joked about throughout the show, but it stays on Givens’ head because he wants it there and he needs it there. So I was thrown off. On the one hand, we are not dealing with a light, criminal-action-caper type show; on the other, this is not cinema verité, either. What is the realism here, then?

My answer came watching one of the latest, and so far, best episodes, “Long in the Tooth.” Immediately, in the teaser before the opening credits, we get the dramatic opening action which unleashes the plot: a good dentist, Roland Pike, who works for poor immigrants and takes tamales and cookies as payment, has been insulted by one of his few wealthy clients, and been humiliated in front of his receptionist (who is also his lover). Consumed by humiliation and anger, he goes outside and finds his client in his SUV; he pins him down, and yanks off two teeth with pliers. He becomes a fugitive, and his plan is to flee to Belize with his receptionist-lover and to start a new life as a dentist.

The police who chase him—led by Givens—are interested in catching him not only for the dental crime, but also because Pike was once an accountant for a Miami-based drug cartel. Pike has been hiding for five years—five years in which he changed his ways, became a dentist, and found a new life. But the law doesn’t see this change; the law must make him pay his debts. Justified always depicts criminals who are on the cusp of escaping their criminal status; the difficulty in doing so—in finding justification—is the main theme of the show.

The final scene in the episode is, in one sense, unreal: it takes place on the border with Mexico, far from Kentucky. Pike is hiding behind a rock on the top of a cliff. An unseen sniper has been shooting at him and he can’t escape. (The sniper is hired by the drug cartel, who wants their old employee dead before he can snitch.) A few feet away, behind an abandoned bus, is Givens, who has tracked him down, crouching next to the receptionist. Pike knows that a sniper finds his prey, kills it, and runs away. But if the sniper can’t catch his prey, he will come down and shoot not only the prey but any possible witnesses—i.e., Givens and the woman Pike loves. So Pike must decide to make a sacrifice.

Even if the situation is unreal, Pike’s deliberation is real, and the pathos… Well, the pathos is simply pathos, exaggerated and dramatic, and real.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College.