Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Adios, Raylin

I’m mourning the passing of one of my all-time favorite television programs, Justified, which ended its six-year run last night. Why? Because I’ll miss the writing, the charismatic stars and supporting cast, the Harlan County setting, and, again, the writing. The show was based on a slender Elmore Leonard short story called “Fire In the Hole.” Now you may ask, as did I, how do you get six years of quality TV out of one short story? Well, it helps to have Elmore Leonard around as producer and consultant for the first five years. I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t name any of the TV script writers who accomplished this feat.

(Not nearly as amazing a feat, though, as what Alexander McCall Smith does on a regular basis: crank out four novels a year, including one series, Love Over Scotland,  that’s serially published—an episode per week while it’s being written—in the Edinburgh Scotsman. As far as I know, nobody’s done that since Dostoevsky or Dickens. There are 10 books in the series so far. My wife and I got to meet Mr. McCall Smith before he spoke at the Louisville Free Public Library recently. He told us he writes every day, including while on tour. His talk was incredible; he’s easily the most entertaining, quick-witted, and brilliant speaker I’ve ever heard.)

My affection for Justified must begin with Raylin Givens, the Deputy U.S. Marshall in Leonard’s original short story, who dug coal with one Boyd Crowder, the biggest outlaw in Appalachia, or at least Harlan County. Givens is played by Timothy Oliphant, who played a similar character in Deadwood, a Western series on HBO that was possibly the most profane TV program ever. Oliphant further develops Raylin Givens so that he combines ironic humor, fearlessness, and the ability to shoot fast and straight. 

In Justified, Oliphant is a Harlan County boy, who as a lawman has found a legal path out of that economically struggling region, while his contemporaries like Boyd Crowder must turn to a life of crime to survive. Boyd is Raylin’s nemesis. They grew up together, dug coal together, and were once friends. But now they are on opposite sides. Walton Goggins, who plays Crowder, also was a similar character in a previous show, The Shield crime series, though in his case I suspect he’s just playing another version of Walton Goggins. In both “Justified” and “The Shield,” I almost always rooted for Goggins’ character no matter how many despicable acts he committed because he was just so darn likeable.

Putting Goggins and Olyphant in opposition to each other was just pure genius casting. Although Raylin is the hero, he often faces temptation. And Boyd, while the kingpin of Harlan County, continues to try and go straight right up to the very end (albeit through murder and $10 million in ill-gotten gains). And what we thought would be the ending last night was a classic, with Raylin and Boyd pitted against each other in an Old West shootout. But Boyd refuses to draw.

The story leaps forward four years. Raylin has finally gotten out of Harlan to Florida, where he'd hoped to be reunited with his wife Winona and his little girl. But being a tale inspired by Elmore Leonard, we know that everyone cannot live happily ever after. So Winona has a new husband and Raylin only gets to see his daughter occasionally.

When Ava is spotted in California, Raylin goes to bring her in. But she doesn't have the stolen $10 million and is living hand-to-mouth. Once he puts her back in prison again, she is sure to be murdered by Boyd, whom she shot to escape. Whatever Raylin’s original intentions were, once he sees that Ava has a child, he lets her off the hook. In fact, Raylin goes so far as to visit Boyd in prison for the sole purpose of convincing him that Ava is dead. But wily Boyd, once again a jailhouse preacher, is suspicious of Raylin's motives.

“Miami’s a long way from Kentucky, Raylin,” Boyd says. “Now is that the only reason you come?”

“Well,” Raylin replies, “If I was to put all the rest of this nonsense aside for just a moment …”

He doesn’t get to finish the statement. Boyd finishes it for him: “Because we dug coal together.”

This is an homage to the short story’s ending, which is how much the creators of the show cherished Dutch Leonard, who died last year after serving as a producer and consultant. But does Boyd believe Raylin? Or does he want to believe Raylin so much that he wills himself to, so he won’t have to murder Ava, whom he still loves? We’ll never know. But when the show ended with a black screen, a big fat tear leaked out of my eye and slid down my cheek. I felt sad about it the rest of the night.

Which brings us to Harlan, by all accounts a very tough and perhaps misunderstood place. Mountain people almost always are misunderstood by others. Given the unflattering portrayals of some residents as mean hillbillies (as opposed to “The Beverly Hillbillies”), it would be understandable if they objected. But apparently that hasn’t happened. Maybe the people of Harlan are fatalistic about such a depiction by now. Or maybe they just think the show is funny, too. I, for one, am laughing with them, not at them.

I think Joelle Carter is wonderful as Ava Crowder, a woman to be reckoned with. Ava has more pluck, moxie, and depth than any of the other characters in the show. She is earthy and seductive, too, but what I like most about her is that she is real in a way that nobody else is. Seldom has a TV character been saddled with so many unlikely situations, yet managed to make every single one seem completely plausible.

Which brings us back to the writing. Elmore Leonard made a career out of portraying hard-ass Kentuckians who've been transplanted into the Detroit auto industry after WWII. Leonard knows such people well, which I believe is how he makes Raylin believable. He is fearless, good-hearted, insightful. The best of Harlan, you might say. I read Leonard's novels both for amusement and to learn about writing. While I can’t say I agree with everything Elmore says about writing, it’s his work itself that speaks loudest. Leonard teaches us how to write by example. The Justified script-writers probably consider him as the world’s greatest bullpen coach, the old master who can teach you not only how to throw a split-fingered fastball but a decent spitter, too.

Experience and wisdom are inextricably linked. When I was a kid, I was contemptuous of soap operas. Actually, I still am. However, now that I’m retired, and have time on my hands, I understand so much better why women watched them. They were lonely because their duties prevented them from having human contact. So they turned to TV.

My days now are largely spent in solitude. Most of my friends have scattered, or died. My neighbors in the city keep to themselves, as do we all in a contemporary America where people are shooting one another all the time. Or so it seems. Who can blame us for shrinking from human contact? That leaves the virtual world of the internet, computer games, and television.

I watch a lot of television, so it’s good that we live in a golden age of TV. There are more high-quality shows that ever before. Think The Good Wife, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Downton Abbey and all the other incredible PBS British imports. The list just goes on and on. And if you don’t factor in the cost of a cable subscription and a DVR, they’re free.

Unlike most of the movies nowadays, lots of TV shows are aimed at my generation, the aging baby boomers. I know this because of the arthritis medicine and Viagra commercials that support many of my favorite shows (not Justified, though, interestingly enough, which seemed aimed at a younger FX audience.). I watch more and more. They’ve invented a term for it now, “binge-watching.” When my daughter insisted that I needed to see Breaking Bad, and I overcame my initial skepticism about a show featuring a school teacher who also is a meth dealer, I proceeded to gulp down all five seasons’ worth of programs like chocolate Easter bunnies in about a week. That’s 65 hours worth of TV.

Back to Justified. While I wait hoping the stars and writers will find some new worthy vehicles for their talents, my consolation is that two new shows—Better Call Sol and Battle Creek, both from the creator of Breaking Bad, still come to see me every week. They’re my new best friends.