Monday, March 16, 2015

Box Set Blues: Justified, Season 5

It's been a while since I talked about Justified, one of the best crime dramas on TV that you're probably not watching. Here in the UK, at least, it's been hard to find, bought by Channel 5 and then buried down on it's cable-only 5USA, and then dropped entirely after a fourth series as part of whatever the hell restructuring Channel 5 are doing these days. Thankfully, Sky ran to the rescue in its role as the only UK broadcaster that seems to want US imports and it's now available on the "Box Sets" service, allowing us to catch up with the fifth season, just as the sixth (and final) one starts in the US. Its definitely worth catching up with. 

Justified is based on the works of crime writer Elmore Leonard, and its main character, Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens, appears the short story Fire in the Hole, which formed the basis of the shows pilot way back in the day. It's not a lot of material to spin six seasons out of, but the core of the show remains very recognizably Leonard in feel. The humour is laconic and deadpan, the violence sporadic but hard-hitting. It's full of dumb criminals who think they're smart, and smart people prone to act pretty dumb. In its central character, it has an archetypal Old West lawman, shooting from the hip and doing what needs to be done, a man who lives right on the line he's trying to police. You get the feeling that the show was originally conceived around Timothy Olyphant's Raylan, but it's been smart enough to realise that the wider ensemble, especially a balancing criminal lead in Walton Goggins' Boyd Crowder, needed to be at least half the show. 

Traditionally, Justified has structured each season around a central threat to the natives and denizens of Harlan County, Kentucky, a vortex of post-mining poverty and crime that sucks everything back to it's centre. This central threat has been the unifying force that has allowed Boyd and Raylan to spiral around each other, never quite on the opposite side, and never truly allied. It's second and fourth series, especially, have managed to juggle multiple strands to fantastic conclusions, but with the fifth series, it never quite manages it. It's not for want of trying, of course, but here they've tried to do something different, and don't really manage to pull it off. 

Z put her finger on it when she said "oh, it's Buffy Season Six", although given my opinions on that particular run of episodes it's possibly overly damning. But what she means is that it's a series where the actual threat is pretty minor - small town Florida rednecks trying to set up shop in Harlan - but everyone is too caught up in their own shit to properly deal with it until its far too late. Raylan is dealing with the fall out of decisions he made at the end of series 4, buring bridges as he goes. Boyd has lost the one thing in his life he truly loved- Ava - and the slow disintegration of their relationship is one of the better emotional through lines of the series. That he deals with this by trying his hand at widening his criminal empire just shows him making uncharacteristically poor decisions under pressure. 

In terms of concept, this is all pretty good stuff. It puts everyone under pressure in different ways, and it reinforces that this is a world with consequence, where things can't just be brushed aside. The Crowes, up from Florida, are an interesting set of characters and well played, but nothing that the show hasn't really produced before, and as a result it's hard to feel too invested in them. For a lot of the series I was just waiting for someone to turn around and deal with them like the annoyance that they were. None of this would have mattered if the overall plotting was running on all cylinders but it becomes clear in the last few episodes that this is only half a series. Justified is finishing, and that has to finish only one way - Boyd and Raylan and Ava, the three characters that were at the centre way back in the pilot. 

Along the way there is a lot of enjoy this season. A weak season of Justified is still something I'd take up against a lot of other shows, and the writing, acting and direction remain top notch. Deputies Tim and Rachel get underused, of course, but we've come to expect that by now. Raylans pretty terrible attitude towards women remains unchallenged, but then again that's true of Raylans terrible attitude towards pretty much everything. I do hope that next season has a lot of chickens coming home to roost, and it seems to be heading that way, making it one to look forward to.