The Cultural Gutter

we've seen things you people wouldn't believe

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Deserve’s got nothing to do with it


Posted October 16, 2014

Justified thumbAs 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.

Justified all drawnWhen 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 manJUSTIFIED: Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens. CR: Robert Zukerman / FX,” 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.

MWilliam Munnyy 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.

4 Responses to “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it”

  1. Carol Borden
    October 16th, 2014 @ 1:14 pm

    This is a fantastic piece, alex.

    And I worry about Art so much.

  2. Paul D. Brazill
    October 16th, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

    Splendid article.

  3. Chris S.
    October 16th, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

    “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.

  4. Matt Finch
    October 19th, 2014 @ 12:36 am

    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.

    Matt

Leave a Reply





keep looking »
  • Support The Gutter

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    An interactive sculpture of Hanuman made from 26,000 light bells made by Charuvi Design Labs. to promote their film Sri Hanuman Chalisa. Here is a video of the interactive experience. (Thanks, Beth!)

    ~

    At The Daily Beast, Arthur Chu writes about GamerGate, Disco Demolition and Lilith Fair. “The biggest 1970s music bonfire was not done by a church, and the records they destroyed weren’t metal records. And they didn’t use kerosene and a match, they used explosives. And rather than singing hymns and being quietly self-righteous, the event erupted into an orgy of violent rage. I’m talking, of course, about the ill-fated promotion the Chicago White Sox ran on July 12, 1979, known as ‘Disco Demolition Night.’

    Yes, in an era where Christians literally believed rock bands were Satanic cults who used backward masking to hypnotize people, the worst violence against music was wrought by guys who just didn’t like disco.”

    ~

    Actor Elizabeth Peña has died. Peña appeared in both film and television including, La Bamba (1987), Batteries Not Included (1987), Blue Steel (1989), L.A. Law, Lone Star (1996),  The Incredibles (2004), Justice League, Prime Suspect and Modern Family. NPR remembers Peña. The Guardian has collected clips of Peña’s work. Latino Review, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and  The Hollywood Reporter have obituaries.

    ~

    The Book Design Blog has a gallery of Valeria Brancaforte’s hand-printed books.

    ~

    Jake Adelstein has shared an unpublished chapter of his book Tokyo Vice online.  “This chapter never made the final cut of Tokyo Vice because it’s not about crime or the underworld. It is about the battle to tell the truth when it is inconvenient for the powers that be to have it known.  It could probably use some more editing but for those who feel like the Japanese government isn’t telling you the whole truth about the actual environmental damage coming from the Fukushima meltdown–which is still going on–because if they stop pumping in water, nuclear fission will start again, this should help make you even a little more paranoid.  Enjoy.”

    ~

    “Lights Out, Please combines retellings of traditional ghost stories and urban legends, alongside new, personal stories from a variety of international authors in order to tell others about the kinds of fears we live with. We tell our stories as a ghost story or urban legend to get people to believe us.” Find out more here and then play it!

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: