Monday, March 28, 2011

Revealing Character The 'Justified' Way

"Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn't in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do!

"Unfortunately, what they didn't know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, they wouldn't be able to shut him up! Dysfunction this! Dysfunction that! Dysfunction va fan cul’!"         
                                                              - Tony Soprano
One of my favorite series on the air right now is FX’s Justified. For those of you not familiar with the show, it’s probably best described as a modern-day Western (though it’s set in Kentucky). Starring the always impressive Timothy Oliphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, Justified has its share of shootouts and showdowns, but what really draws me in is the way it gives characters that might have been the same old stock clich├ęs (the kind that killed the Western in the first place) some real depth.
Take Raylan himself, for example. At first glance he appears to be the kind of man Tony Soprano wished hadn’t disappeared: The taciturn lawman, a straightforward, uncomplicated guy who gets the job done. He isn’t the kind to vent on Oprah, that’s for certain. So how to reveal there’s some complexity to him?

Through action, of course. And in the first episode of the series, [SPOILER ALERT!] things start off with a literal bang as Raylan, assigned to the U.S. Marshal’s office in Miami, squares off against Tommy Bucks, a criminal with whom Raylan clearly has some history. In true Western fashion, Raylan has given Tommy an ultimatum - leave Miami in 24 hours... or else. But when Tommy refuses to leave, things quickly go south and Raylan ends up shooting him to death.

The question that hangs over the entire episode is, why did Raylan shoot Tommy? Raylan repeatedly points out that Tommy drew his weapon first, so the shooting was justified. But that doesn’t really answer why Raylan initiated the confrontation in the first place. As his boss in Miami reminds him, U.S. Marshals haven’t used those sorts of Wild West tactics in a hundred years.

For punishment, Raylan gets reassigned to a district in Kentucky that includes the town of Harlan, where he was raised. His new boss there asks him, “Is your dad still down in Harlan?” “As far as I know,” Raylan answers. 


Later, when Raylan meets Ava Crowder, an old flame, she asks him, “Have you been to see your father?” Raylan just sort of shakes his head, even though by now he’s been in town for a while.  

Hmm, again.

The biggest clue we get into Raylan’s relationship with his father comes when Boyd Crowder, a neo-Nazi Raylan knows from the years they both mined coal as teenagers, asks him about the Tommy Bucks shooting. “Heard about that gun thug you shot in a hotel in Miami,” says Boyd, sneering. “At any point, when you were looking at that gun thug, did you see your daddy’s face?”

Wow. As writers, we’ve all learned that character is revealed through action. But in this case, it’s also revealed by what Raylan doesn’t do – he never visits or talks to his father. Just this and Boyd's taunt is all it takes for us to realize that Raylan has serious father issues. We even get a sense of what kind of man Raylan’s father must be, even though Arlo Givens doesn't make his first appearance until several episodes into the series. And we get it all without having to be hit over the head with soap-opera style confessions, or teary moments on the psychiatrist’s couch. 

It’s a subtle approach to revealing character, and it’s one that trusts the viewer will be paying close enough attention they won’t need to have everything spelled out. But it’s also an approach that really pulls the viewer in, by letting them know paying close attention will be rewarded.

Here’s another example: When Raylan first arrives in Kentucky, he learns his ex-wife, Winona, is also in the area. In fact, she works in the same courthouse Raylan will be working out of. But Raylan only reacts with mild surprise when he hears this. We don’t get any sense of how he feels toward her, even when he catches a glimpse of her in a courtroom later on. He does describe his marriage to Winona as a “mistake” during his visit with Ava Crowder... but he does so with a smile.

During that same visit with Ava, Raylan stops a neo-Nazi from barging into her house. “Lemme tell you something,” he says. “You don’t walk in a person’s house ‘less you’re invited.  What you better do, go on outside and knock on the door.” Raylan relays this like he’s giving a lesson in courtesy. And throughout the episode, we see Raylan demonstrating this kind of basic respect. He practices what he preaches.

Until the end of the episode. He nearly gives Gary, Winona’s current husband, a heart attack in his own home, when the guy finds Raylan in his living room, sitting alone in the dark. Turns out Raylan broke into Gary and Winona’s house in the middle of the night, just so he could talk to her. And right there, by violating his own normal code of conduct, we realize that 1) Raylan doesn’t think much of Gary, and 2) He still has feelings for Winona.

After Winona scolds Raylan for breaking into her house, Raylan finally opens up, for the first time in the entire episode. He tells her how in Nicaragua he saw Tommy Bucks tape a piece of dynamite into a man’s mouth, and light it on fire.  And that’s why Raylan visited Tommy in Miami and threatened to shoot him if he didn’t leave town.

“He pulled first, so I was justified,” says Raylan. “What troubles me, is what if he hadn’t?  What if he just sat there and let the clock run out? Would I have killed him anyway? I know I wanted to. Guess I just never thought of myself as an angry man.”

At this point Winona smiles and shakes her head. “Raylan,” she says. “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.”

As the show ended on a shot of Raylan mulling this over, I knew I was going to love this series.


1 comment:

  1. Great article, Fred. I'm working my way through Justified right now. I, too, was really engaged by those character beats in the first episode, and especially by that closing line. You did an excellent job of breaking down the key moments. Thanks to you and Paul for putting me onto this series!