Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Cowboy Bites the Dust

 I was a big fan of Justified during its first season.  Timothy Olyphant, as cool U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, was always three steps ahead of the bad guys.  He barely mussed his hair as he rescued hostages, hunted down an escaped convict, and broke up a murderous drug ring.  I couldn't have been more fond of this kick-ass lawman.  He reminded me of the movie heroes of my childhood.  Sometimes when I watched the show, I squinted my eyes to make Olyphant's face blurry so that I could pretend I was a child again and I watching a new Clint Eastwood movie.

'zat you, Clint? 

However, a number of critics complained that this hero was so much in control that he never seemed in danger.  So, the next season, Marshal Raylan Givens was shown to be deeply flawed in character and judgment.  The good marshal was no longer able to do anything right and it is beyond credibility that he made it out of the season alive.  It disturbed me to see how far this hero had fallen.

It took a larger-than-life hero to battle the cruddy, bristly criminals that populated the marshal's home in the hill country of Harlan County, Kentucky.  But, when it came to the second season of Justified, the marshal's true grit, equal parts courage, wit and toughness, had been transferred to a variety of female characters.  Never had a television series featured such a formidable group of women.  This gave prominent roles to several actresses, including Margo Martindale, Joelle Carter, Linda Gehringer, Erica Tazel, Rebecca Creskoff and Kaitlyn Dever.  Not one of these women would duck for cover during a gun fight or buckle at the knees if a bomb exploded.  Natalie Zea, whose main job seems to be to provide male viewers with eye candy, was the one woman on the show exempt from the tough-as-nails sisterhood.  Her character, who was dependent on the men in her life for happiness and security, often came across as foolish and inept.

Compared to Harlan County's hard-ass women, the men with whom they associated were pathetic.  Dever's character, 14-year-old Loretta McCready, took care of her hopelessly drunken father (Chris Mulkey).  Gehringer's Helen Givens took care of her no-good husband (Raymond Barry) - a broken-down, two-bit crook who was prevented from leaving the house by a clunky ankle-bracelet locked to his leg.  Barry dragged around his trapped leg as if it was deformed.  Martindale's Mags Bennet took care of two defective adult sons - a scraggly, crippled, sociopathic crybaby (Jeremy Davies) and an oafish, violent half-wit (Brad William Henke).  The sons lived in terror of their mother, who would not spare the rod to keep her overgrown boys in line.  Mags only showed respect to a third son, Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor).  Unlike his neutered layabout brothers, Doyle was married, had children, and was employed as the local police chief.  Still, Doyle was no less submissive to his big mama.  He may have worn a police uniform, but he only got himself the job to protect his mother's drug trade.  He may have been a father and husband, but we never once got to see him attending to his wife and children.  He was, in truth, a paper man.

Hollywood has lost the ability to depict masculinity in a meaningful and appropriate manner.  Television viewers are led to believe that men are foolish boys who need the women in their lives to act as their mothers.  This is also evident in children's shows, including Hannah Montana and iCarly.  The girls on these shows are smart, brassy and controlling while the boys are either timid and sensitive or goofy and poorly regarded.

It shouldn't surprise me that the marshal found himself in so many undignified situations.  He got beat up more often than Jim Rockford.  I remember in particular a scene in which Givens is hanging upside down in a tree while Mags' crippled boy, Dickie, whacks him with a baseball ball.

Earlier this month, we had to say goodbye to James Arness, who played the greatest marshal on television.  Arness' Marshal Matt Dillon never hesitated to resort to violence to subdue a villain, but the violence was just part of the job and it did not define him as an person.  He was, as a man, wise, kind and honorable.  His intuitive nature prevented wrongdoers from catching him off guard and fans of the show never saw this as a reason to complain.  It is sad that Hollwood no longer sees value in this type of hero.

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