I love Justified. It’s a great show, Elmore Leonard to the core, with some of the best dialogue television has ever had. The best season was #2, with its pilot “The Moonshine Wars” introducing us to Mags Bennett, probably television’s strongest female character ever. The last couple seasons, however, have been driven by the conflict between Timothy Olyphant’s (Deadwood) character U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and long-time criminal, Boyd Crowder, played expertly by Walton Goggins (The Shield, Sons of Anarchy).
When the two meet in the pilot, they smile and hug, and seem to be genuinely glad to be reunited. Raylan has just been kicked to the Marshal’s district of Eastern Kentucky, where he was born and raised, after shooting a Miami “gun thug,” who absolutely had it coming, but for some reason the action pissed off Raylan’s bosses. As Raylan says later, “I don’t know why they give us guns,” he clearly has a view of his duties that differs from the Marshal’s service. Boyd is set up in the pilot as the clear bad guy, blowing up a church and then shooting one of his men, who he suspects of being an informant, in the head. The pilot is based on Elmore Leonard’s short story Fire in the Hole, and ends with Raylan shooting Boyd in the chest. Leonard had Boyd dying, but Justified showrunner Graham Yost saw the chemistry between the two characters, and had him survive the shooting. Instead of a game of cat-and-mouse, Raylan and Boyd have been engaged ever since, in a game of cat-and-cat, sometimes on different sides of a fight, often on the same side. They save each other’s lives, and seem to be tied together by their shared pasts.
What tonight’s finale supposedly comes down to is the final squaring off of the two men, but honestly, this battle has seemed to me to be a MacGuffin, a plot device that to me, just doesn’t feel right. I am confident that Yost will end the show in the right way, and I’m hoping for this season’s creepshow character “Boone,” a young gunslinger who desperately wants to add a notch with Raylan’s name on it will meet his end by way of Boyd’s gun, saving Raylan. Yes, there’s a certain symmetry to beginning and ending the show with Raylan shooting gun-thugs, but that doesn’t really resolve the Raylan/Boyd situation, so I’m hoping for a more creative finale.
The Loretta McReady storyline coming around full-circle, with the young girl becoming Eastern Kentucky’s new Mags Bennett, is quite satisfying. I hope both Raylan and Boyd are able to leave Harlan alive, but don’t.
“Sons of Anarchy” is a great show, because it doesn’t try to portray the MC world as it truly exists, but, as Paris Barclay and Kurt Sutter say, a “great comic book.” A character on “Vikings” has it right when he says “Everything begins with stories,” and the mythology of “Sons” has power that extends beyond the world of bikers. There’s so much story told underneath and in between the narrative, and that is what is powerful, not all the speed and guns.
For instance, two or three times in this final season, we’ve seen the guys in the garage working on restoring JT’s 1946 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, the bike John was killed on, that the bike not just be the unfired rifle hanging above the fireplace mantle that Checkov references. I believe the SOA mythology will wrap with Jax dying on that bike. Jax’s riding a big bagger Road King this season isn’t just about his needing a replacement bike after his parked Dyna Wide Glide was run over by that pimp from early in the season. He’s become the leader he was destined to become, and the Road KING helps reveal that. Riding a bike with bags also, I think, represents the additional *baggage* he’s accumulated since taking the gavel. It’s not just for the convenience of having saddlebags in which to hide the gun he needed to kill Damen Pope in the Season 5 finale. Unto his last, Jax’s stepfather Clay, who was responsible for JT’s death, always rode a Dyna. He was never the legitimate King of SAMCRO. Jax is, and that has changed him. I believe it will ultimately kill him.
Gemma was always grateful that “the family flaw,” a heart defect that she survived, but killed Jax’s younger brother Thomas, didn’t manifest in her oldest son. What she has realized, over the past seven season of “Sons,” though, is that a darker flaw, passed down from JT to his firstborn, an existential question shared with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, did, and it’s one that if not answered correctly, will be Jax’s undoing. JT let the flaw overcome him and drive him to despair and the loss of his will to fight for his life. Jax took the opposite road, attacking the question head-on, determined to overpower it. The correct response lies in the middle of these two choices, and it’s one that the audience hopes Able will discover. Fix the problems you can, while not letting those things you can’t control destroy you.
Like “The Shield” before it, a show Kurt Sutter wrote for, “Sons” is a masterclass in telling a story on television, and as a writer, I’ve learned a lot from it. I hope to work with KS someday.
Update: ***Spoiler*** Looks like I was right, though I admit that when I wrote this, I had no preminition that *The Shield’s* Michael Chiklis would play a part. I also realized, in posting this update, that Jax hadn’t replaced his Dyna Super Glide with a Road King, but a Harley Road Glide. Sorry about that.
The TV and Movie business is changing, and it’s for the better. Netflix started the ball rolling for real with its excellent original production of House of Cards, and we’re seeing some great television being launched without the benefit of the networks. Much like when Oz, the gritty prison drama, premiered on HBO, and introduced us to shows not constrained by Broadcast Television’s language, violence and content rules, once we got a taste of disintermediation, where the producers of programming had a little more direct access to the consumers of their creative output, we knew we wanted more.
A lot more television gets produced than ever airs. Between late January and late March, Hollywood enters “Pilot Season,” where there’s a mad dash of activity on sound stages anywhere television is produced. It’s the busiest time of year for actors who have decent agents, and it’s not uncommon for one to work on several projects. The hope is, one gets picked up by a network and becomes successful. A few attract enough good attention that they get a shot, and every so often, one becomes a Cheers, Seinfeld or 30 Rock. Usually though, they become a Roll Out, the decidedly unfunny sitcom that tried to cash in on the success of MASH* in a show about race relations among American troops in World War II. Didn’t work. Twelve painfully boring episodes were produced and aired before the whole project was quietly thrown into the trash. Don’t ask me how I remember it. Believe me, the thought that I’m using brain cells to retain all this disturbs me greatly. Regardless of the show’s failure, there was apparently a pilot that led people to believe the show would make it. I’d hate to see the shows that Roll Out beat to make a spot in its network’s lineup. The point is, a lot of pilots get made. A very few get picked up. The vast majority are never seen by the public.
Amazon recently began a bold and innovative program that provides a pathway for independent productions to gain commercial release. Here’s how it works:
The pilot is produced, and made available to Amazon Prime Video subscribers. Amazon customers can watch it, and based on the success of the show, Amazon either picks it up as a regular series or not. It’s putting the decision of whether a show becomes a thing or not a little closer to the people who truly matter, the audience. It’s not perfect, since Amazon Prime Video customers don’t necessarily reflect the tastes of the video-watching public, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to reality than some group of Hollywood TV industry guys deciding what you and I get to watch.
Amazon’s most recent Pilot is excellent. Really. Hand of God tells the story of a judge, (Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman) who loses it after his son attempts (and mostly succeeds in) suicide. The first scene shows a police officer, played by Emilio Rivera (Sons of Anarchy, Gang Related, and one of the Priceline commercials where William Shatner plays a long grey bearded biker – Emilio’s one line is “Hey, those guys ain’t no Dragons,” which he wisely delivers with a bandana worn to almost cover his eyes – you have to be an Emilio fan to recognize him, which I am), who wades into a big fountain to coax Perlman’s character out. The judge has shed all his clothes, and is in the fountain speaking in tongues. Obviously, this is a problem, not just for the judge, but also for his wife, played by the magnificent Dana Delaney (Desperate Housewives, Body of Proof, China Beach, and his business partner/Mayor, played by Andre Royo (The Wire). Judge Harris is obviously unbalanced, and claims to be in communication with God. In his court, he finds an acolyte to command and inspire, a heavenly henchman, if you will, in KD, played by Garret Dillahunt (Life, Burn Notice, 12 Years a Slave). Dillahunt is perfect. My exposure to him to date has been as recurring characters in the excellent ABC series, starring Damen Lewis, Life, and the successful USA Network spy series that ended a great run last year, Burn Notice. In both cases, Dillahunt played complete psychopaths, and he does it well. Perfect for KD in Hand of God.
Perlman as the damaged Judge Harris is wonderful. As big and bold and unique as he is as an actor, the subtlety with which he brings his characters to life is really incredible. As satisfying as it was seeing Clay Morrow die last season in Sons of Anarchy, I have to admit, the show feels Perlman’s absence. I’d like to think Sons show-runner Kurt Sutter intended that, but as good as KS is, I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Sutter has admitted the audience’s reaction to the loss of Jax’s best friend, “Opie,” in the previous season was a surprise, and if it was in his plan to eliminate an evil character, but then have an even darker, denser evil rush in to fill that void, then my outlaw-black half-helmet is off to him. Well played, indeed, sir. I am shocked at how much I miss Perlman on Sons. The point is, when you have an actor as skilled as Perlman in your cast, you have a brush that can fill entire sections of canvas with paint in seconds, but still highlight the crow’s feet on a face we see from several yards away.
I’ve often remarked that Al Pacino is such a great actor, because we can see him play, not only Michael Corleone, the quiet, yet ruthless crime family head but also the sad, passed over wiseguy, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, without any hint of the other character present in either performance. Pacino is amazing. And so is Perlman, I’ve come to realize. Though some mannerisms are similar, the raised voice of Clay Morrow is the raised voice of Pernell Harris, but they’re different in a way I can’t identify. I don’t expect Judge Harris to walk out of the courthouse and swing his leg over a Harley Dyna-Glide. Even when Perlman hammers down his gavel from the bench, issuing his ruling as KD stands before him as a defendant, it prompted no flashback at all of Clay Morrow gaveling an end to a SAMCRO meeting around the reaper table on Sons of Anarchy. Amazingly, I didn’t even notice the gavel connection until I was writing this. Two different guys, using two different gavels for two completely different purposes.
Hand of God is great television. Well-written, cast and shot. It’s absolutely top-notch television. GOD, I hope Amazon decides to pick the show up. The twist at the end, completely unexpected, and game-changing, makes leaving this story untold something that will seriously disappoint me.