For two episodes with very little action, “The Man Behind the Curtain” and “Watching the Detectives” wind up revealing quite a bit about Justified’s representation of violence. These are both plot-heavy episodes that serve mostly to move the various pieces around and transition the audience toward the season’s end game, but they’re also further proof that Justified has little interest in following traditional narratives of violence, and in particular how it relates to power. The various adversaries are certainly trying to carve out as much power for themselves as possible, yet their use of force only renders each of them more vulnerable and their many power moves ultimately serve to demonstrate how little control ear player has over their situations.
This isn’t new for Justified, of course, following last season’s finale, in which the primary villain committed a somber suicide after Art (Nick Searcy) saved Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) from his showdown with the Bennett crew. Stoic, gun-slinging Raylan is, on paper, about as traditional as heroes get, but his use of force, while solving a lot of problems, never quite has the order-bringing, power-consolidating effect we might expect. Violence in Justified is always, in a way, chaotic and never brings about the consequences we’d see in a more traditional story about a lawman coming to a crime-ridden town.
Whether they’re about the crime family, the drug cartel, or the F.B.I., stories of crime, violence, and law enforcement frequently focus on entrenched power, and the violence that brings institutions, criminals, and law men alike closer to their goal of control. On its face, Justified may seem to follow a similar pattern, but the power structures and relationships in season three are never so entrenched as the characters think they are. They’re considerably more transient and fleeting, and every time a character seems to have a play on something that might help establish his position, the ensuing conflict only leaves the situation more chaotic and unstable.
In “The Man Behind the Curtain,” Raylan, Boyd (Walton Goggins), Quarles (Neal McDonough), and Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) are all focused on gaining influence over whoever might help establish their power, and thereby position themselves to make a play against their adversaries. “Watching the Detectives” focuses more on the institutional elements at play, especially on the law enforcement agencies that come into conflict with one another, but also on the various factions of the Dixie mafia. The results are largely the same: It’s all mostly bluster. All of the maneuvering and manipulation of these two episodes doesn’t amount to too much, and it seems inevitable that Harlan’s edifices of power will continue to be stripped away until all that remains is the raw expression of violence.
In the past I’ve described the season-three arc as a struggle to fill the power vacuum left behind by season two, but more specifically it’s an arc about a town that has fallen out of balance, and therefore given its residents the opportunity to express the decidedly unbalanced aspects of their personalities. It’s not that Mags Bennett represented some sort of unifying power that kept Harlan County operating; rather, it’s that the Harlan of seasons one and two existed in an equilibrium. Limehouse has even stated that the people of Noble’s Holler have been able to exist in the hills of Harlan by sticking to themselves and remaining self-contained, never attempting to extend their sphere of influence too far.
Harlan’s newfound lack of balance is most interesting in the way it has reflected on the characters. Boyd, Raylan, and Quarles are all men hardwired to exist in a state of non-equilibrium. The raw desire to “blow things up” has characterized much of Boyd’s arc since episode one, while Quarles is simply an unhinged madman. Interestingly, earlier in the season, we saw the effects a safer, more domesticated life with Winona (Natalie Zea) had on Raylan. He spent much of the first half of the season conspicuously off his game, making uncharacteristic mistakes. The Raylan we know has returned in these last couple of episodes, living alone above a bar and being more or less focused on beating up bad guys whether he’s working or not. Raylan is a man essentially incapable of finding balance; he seems more at home now that he’s on his own and his town is falling into squalor.
It’s easy to draw moral distinctions between Quarles’s violence and Raylan’s own: Raylan is a well-meaning law enforcement officer who’s genuinely motivated to protect people, while Quarles is a sadistic sociopath hell-bent on using a rural town to harvest oxy, and moreover, what he seeks is control. Boyd proves a more enigmatic character, moving back and forth between these two extremes. But while the motivations among these characters may differ, of Justifed’s sanctioned violence operates in largely the same manner as the criminal violence; in and of itself, it’s purely a destabilizing force.
Harlan could be an oblique microcosm of Afghanistan: bad people trying to profit off of opiates while efforts to bring the rule of law into town amount to a failed attempt to achieve order through disorder. It’s not that there aren’t well-intentioned people involved, or that we couldn’t come up with valid justifications for much of the violence; it’s simply that violence is the antithesis of order, and no matter how much the rival factions try to take control of the situation, it’s much more likely to result in a big, bloody mess.
• It took me a moment to realize that Quarles may not be referring to himself as the “winning side” at the end of “Watching the Detectives,” but rather to Limehouse. Limehouse, of course, would never feel any sort of loyalty to someone like Quarles, and we’ve seen already that he has no compunction against manipulating the people he works with. He’ll play every side and simply stand back as they begin to destroy each other. It’s not surprising that Limehouse, the one guy who wants to bring Harlan back to some state of equilibrium, may wind up gaining the most out of everyone.
• On the other side of the spectrum, Quarles’s various machinations and schemes (saving Raylan’s bullet!) seem like the work of a devious mastermind, but in the end we’re left with an unhinged madman with a propensity for torturing “rent boys.” I’m reminded of when Boyd tells Devil that he’s both the skinhead leader and the man who found God in a hospital bed. So far, Quarles has managed to balance the conflicting aspects of his character, but I imagine as his plots continue to unravel we’ll see much more of his unbalanced side.
• This is a great episode for Art and Tim (Jacob Pitts), who are both just the right combination of badass and hilarious. Now, if only they can find something else for Rachel (Erica Tazel) to do.
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