As soon as the old detective starts talking about buying a boat and all the fish he’s going to catch, or what the view will be like from his back window when he retires, you pretty much know he’s not gonna make it. Or maybe he will, but not without taking a bullet in the gut first just to psych you out. It’s not because he’s not a good guy – in fact he’s often the most genuinely decent, likeable character. It’s because life isn’t fair, and bad guys are only clearly bad if they hurt good people. And, like a bad boyfriend/girlfriend, the movie wants to hurt you so it can be the one to make you feel better.
It’s one of the things I’ve always worried about when I’m watching Justified. As you might expect from a series based on an Elmore Leonard short story, it’s an eccentric mix ranging from the deeply philosophical to the random and absurd, part procedural and part western, hovering between drama and black comedy. Raylan Givens is the hotheaded young U.S. Marshal who can’t keep his gun holstered or his mouth shut, and Art Mullen is the level-headed, experienced old-time Chief Deputy who’s likely to end up in the line of fire because of something Raylan does or refuses to do. The closer Art gets to retirement, the more anxious I am that he’s not going to get there. I’m pretty sure he worries about the same thing – there’s one episode where he actually says “I’m afraid I’m going to get shot.” He’s well aware of how dangerous it is to care about and rely on people who don’t really know themselves, especially when they’re armed and licensed to kill.
When it comes to good guys and bad guys, I think self-awareness is where the lines really get blurred. Each one of us is the hero of our own story, even if we’re the only ones who see it that way. The problem with that though, is that we’re all unreliable narrators. The description that stuck with me the most is from Tom Spanbauer’s novel, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon:
We may think we’re here for this reason or that reason. We may think that what we’re doing is what we’re doing, but really what we’re doing is [something else].
Me, in the end, I lost them all.
All that’s left of them is this story and me telling this story.
Wasn’t til I lost them all, that I heard the story I had forever needed to hear, and I found out that things weren’t the way I thought they were, which meant: what I was doing wasn’t what I thought I was doing, and me, in the end, who I thought I was, wasn’t at all who I was.
Raylan is a classic example of “what you think you’re doing isn’t what you’re doing.” When he left Harlan County, he told himself he was getting out and never coming back to Kentucky. He chose to become a U.S. Marshal in part because he thought that being on the opposite side of that badge from his father and all of the violence and illegal dealing he grew up with would make him one of the good guys no matter what else he did. Even when he’s reassigned to work back in Lexington, he refuses to look back at his past, and predictably the result is that he can’t see all the ways that he’s become what he was trying to leave behind. When he tells his Aunt Helen, “What I went down there for concerned the here and now, nothing to do with the past,” her response about sums it up: “That’d be a neat trick, escaping the past.”
The title of the show itself is about the story he’s telling, how each time he pulls his gun or doesn’t pull his punches he’s got good reason for it. The people he shoots made choices that led them to that moment, and they deserved what they got. It’s not untrue, exactly, but it doesn’t take into account who he is or all the other good reasons there might have been for him to make some other choice. He can’t afford to look too closely at why he does what he does, so instead he’s created a narrative where he’s a tough, cool, cowboy deputy. Even the teenage kids in the show stop buying it once they’ve spent any time with him, but it’s easier for him to stick to it then face up to how damaged he is.
Raylan thinks he’s trying to succeed at his job and make his life better, but so many of the things he does undermine that at every turn. His ex-wife, Winona, gives him a second chance and he’s planning to buy a house with her where they can settle down and raise a family, but really he’s doing exactly what he’s always done, acting without thinking about the consequences for the people who care about him. At one point early on in the show he says, “I guess I never thought of myself as an angry man,” and she shakes her head and tells him, “Well, you do a good job of hiding it, and I suppose most folks don’t see it, but honestly, you’re the angriest man I have ever known.” No matter how much a part of him wants to change, he always stops shy of looking at himself closely enough to actually do it.
Which is why I worry about Art. He doesn’t deserve to die, but Raylan can’t see how the choices he’s making lead them both down that road. Even after Winona takes their daughter to Florida and Art actually does get shot as a direct result of things Raylan’s done, he still can’t seem to figure out why his life is playing out the way it is. Raylan sees himself as a “good guy”, but the thing about “bad guys” is that they don’t always think of themselves that way. Some of them intentionally do bad things and are at peace with that, but others are the hero of their own story and feel justified in whatever it is they’re trying to do.
My favorite example is Gene Hackman’s character in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. He plays local sheriff, Little Bill, an old gunfighter turned lawman who owns most of the town and sees himself as a benevolent benefactor and keeper of the peace, but he got where he is by means of fear and violence. He goes easy on two cowboys who assault and injure a local prostitute, but the other girls put out a bounty on their heads. Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, a legendary killer who left it all behind and is trying to raise his two children but agrees to take one last job for the money and a good cause. He talks his old friend Ned, played by Morgan Freeman, into coming along, but Little Bill captures him and tortures him to death. In the end, William stands over Little Bill with a shotgun and they have this exchange before William shoots him:
Little Bill: “I don’t deserve this… to die like this. I was building a house.”
William: “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
In life the things that happen do often seem random and unreasonable, and perhaps they truly are, but in literature and film the story arc is determined by the need to create meaning for the audience. Little Bill thinks he’s building a house and Raylan thinks he’s committing to moving in with his ex-wife, but that’s not what they deserve and it’s not really what they’re doing. What the author and reader or viewer need from the story is different from what the characters want. There’s what they think they deserve and are planning for, and then there’s what they end up getting based on what the narrative requires, whether they deserve it or not.
It makes it more interesting when those two things don’t match up, but sometimes it’s also nice to see people uncomplicatedly get what you think they deserve. I hope Art does get to retire in one piece at the end of Justified, but if he starts building a house, you know it’s all over.
“As it turned out, that was a story in itself, me standing and watching…me thinking I was standing and watching, but what I was doing was not what I thought I was doing. What I was doing was freezing to death.”
– The Man Who Fell In Love with the Moon
Carol Borden deserves some of the credit for the connection between Unforgiven and Justified, which was jointly forged during one of many hours spent watching westerns together, but alex MacFadyen went ahead and used it in his article because deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
This is a fantastic piece, alex.
And I worry about Art so much.
“You’re the angriest man I’ve ever known…”
I think I said the words aloud as Winona did — his anger was just that palpable.
It’s always an education to realize there are so many people out there who never spend a single second trying to understand their own motivations — and yet think they actually do. And that goes for real life as well as fiction.
A great piece. I felt like some of Justified’s goodness ebbed away last season; I’m glad they’re doing just one more and getting out while the getting’s good.
In the wake of Ferguson and debates around the militarisation of US police, I hope that the production team dare to ask harder questions about the shoot-first-ask-questions-later gunfighter tradition. The show is at its best when it is unsentimental about the cowboy qualities of its main characters.