Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Justified's Rich History is Its Greatest Weapon

In order to sustain a multi-season show with a serialized narrative, you must always be expanding the world. If not, you risk the story becoming stagnant or, even worse, running out of stories to tell altogether.  The way that most shows go about this is that they expand "outward."  Gradually throughout the seasons, new characters are introduced, old ones are jettisoned, and new areas of the setting are developed.  By nature, plot moves forward, and so too does the world of a show.  Even on a show like Lost, which in its early seasons was contained to a single island, found new aspects of the island to explore.  It's not so much that the old features of the island were gone as much as the way that we thought of the island was changed.

Over the course of three and a half seasons, Justified has fleshed out Harlan County into this living, breathing entity.  Just like we would imagine any rural southern county in reality to be, Harlan is full of intricacies, from its various factions and their myriad feuds between one another to its old urban legends.  All of the major players on the show come with their own past connections with everybody else, dating back years and sometimes generations.  It wasn't until last night's episode that it really clicked for me, but the way that Justified progresses is that it expands its world "backwards."  Every episode, it seems like we gain a little insight into the past of Harlan and its citizens, through a funny little anecdote or reminiscence about an old squabble.  Watching Justified can often feel like you're only getting a glimpse into 1% of these people's lives.  Ties run deep in Harlan, and with every new detail, those ties come into sharper focus.

In that way, the show Justified is most similar to is my favorite show of all time, The Sopranos, where tales of "the old days" were doled out more frequently than wackings.  On both shows, knowing about the pasts of the characters are essential to defining how they are in the present -- why they are so damaged, distant, and duplicitous.  Perhaps the reason why both of these shows are able to expand backwards the way that they do is because the process is so thematically tied to the shows' foundations.  The Sopranos is all about being haunted by an imagined past, one that may not be exactly what existed, but is close enough to inform the reality of the present.  Justified, with all its concerns about familial ties and the difficulties of escaping ensconced labels and habits, equally lends itself to constantly reminding us of the past and uncovering more facets of it.

I thought about this alot earlier today when I was watching Angel, as a part of my continuing obsession with Joss Whedon.  One of the episodes I watched was season 3's, "Double or Nothing."  It's a frustrating episode, because it's the type of momentum staller that seasons of Whedon shows usually have around episode 18, when they realize that there's still time to kill before the finale.  However, it's even more problematic because the main plotline revolves around learning something about Gunn that happened 7 years in the past.  An argument can be made that because Angel, the show's main character, is constantly dealing with the bad things he did in his past, that it's fair game to spring a random detail about a secondary character on the audience with no warning.  Unfortunately, the execution of it in "Double or Nothing" just feels clunky.  Because we have very little basis for Gunn's past life, suddenly learning something that is so crucial to driving the plot of the episode just doesn't feel right.  On a show like Justified, when we're introduced to a new element from the past, it feels like a natural addition to the tapestry that is the history of Harlan.

These well-established backstories can lead to some problems as well, primarily when a new detail gets introduced and it doesn't gel with what we already know.  Fans of The Sopranos might've had a problem with season 5's introduction of Tony B. (played by Steve Buscemi), Tony Soprano's childhood best friend who'd spent the past few years in jail, yet the show never made any mention of him in the previous 4 seasons.  (Of course, it's easier to roll with since The Sopranos was famous for introducing characters and pretending they'd been there all along).  With something like the introduction of Noble's Hollow in season 3 of Justified, it makes sense that we wouldn't hear about that side of town until it was completely necessary, given the racial divide that still exists within Harlan.  On the other hand, the big reveal of last night's episode isn't sitting well with some, who find that it doesn't map out correctly with the rules of the past that Justified has so thoroughly established.

This meticulous attention to the past is the vein from which Graham Yost and the writing staff of Justified draw much of the conflict each season.  Their rich histories give each character on the show a sense of community; one that constantly seems to find itself at odds with outsiders of some kind.  Season 4 in particular has been leaning heavily on the past to inform the present -- in fact, the main mystery this year revolves around something that happened over 30 years ago.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the distant memory of this event, all of Harlan County is thrust into action by old feuds and transgressions revisiting.  Who knows whether the fraught past of these characters will lead to a grim and short future, but it's responsible for a rollicking and tense season of television.

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