Like many people, I have the shows I watch on a regular basis. New ones are constantly popping up, American Horror Story: Coven (which crapped out a bit in the last fifteen minutes but otherwise was great) or Almost Human (which I really want to love but am having trouble) are a couple examples. Then there are my standards, the ones I’ve been watching for years. Breaking Bad was one of those, Walking Dead is another. The one that always sneaks up on me though, and probably gives me the most satisfaction when it comes, is Justified.
At first, I just didn’t care for it. Its arcs didn’t make any sense, it meandered and rambled all over the place, and just seemed to be about rednecks with single digits of teeth murdering and coniving over small scale matters. Over the years though, it has gotten much better. The second season was amazing, and each subsequent season (while not as good in my opinion) has brought certain things in spades. Part of that though, was that as it expanded the world and introduced characters, those small scale matters, these small players, made more sense.
That’s what it really has going for it. Timothy Olyphant is great, steadily building up this lethal, unstoppable badass persona, but what really makes it are the villains and the world they live in.
That’s the reason season two is my favorite. Mags Bennet was a familiar style of villain, a terrifying matriarch who rules her territory like a rabid Mama Bear, but to an extent we’ve never seen and with a flair of character that has made Margo Martindale (who is also great in The Americans) one of my favorite actresses. Mags and her sons are coolly efficient while still being hillybilly sociopaths. Mags is known by everyone in the community, looked on like a grandmother and a mom, yet feared just as much. All while running a legitimate business, a lucrative illegitimate one, and negotiating an underhanded deal with the only entity everyone agreed was evil. Yet they never push her into full gangster, she always has that maternal side with Loretta and her oldest son. His death, and Loretta leaving, is what finally pushes her over into full despair and forces her to give up.
The reason the third season is my next favorite, you have three said villains. Boyd, of
course, who I’ll get to in a minute but it also introduced Quarles (a true sexual sadist and gangster from Detroit) and Limehouse. God, I love Limehouse. An aside on this, you realize that’s this guy, right??? Yep, the same guy who wielded a machete to freaking chop of a guy’s arm is in fact my best, good friend Bubba. The reason I love Limehouse is because he has a very ellaborate code of how he’s going to do things, all while fiercely protecting his people and the community he’s built in Noble’s Holler (which is an Appalachian pronunciation of Hollow, which is a valley, knowledge is power!). Him and his are pretty much the first, and only, black people to show up (aside from Rachel) and are probably the closest knit community in the show. His Holler exists outside of the sphere of Harlan county, playing neutral in their politics and criminal activities, and actually taking advantage of that position by being a bank and resource for information.
And all throughout this, you have the big cheese villain of them all, the drug-running, gun-toting, hillbilly wordsmith joker, Boyd Crowder. I don’t even know if he’s the villain anymore, he’s such an integral part to the show. I am challenged to think of another occasion in which I saw a villain, or any character, have such an organic growth. He started out almost a conman, wrangling up Arians to create trouble so he could rob banks. His soul motivation was money and what was in Ava’s pants. He’s been ally and enemy, played every side imaginable, constantly grown to value and despise different elements of his world. He’s a mystery, incredibly conniving, yet relatable. Oh, and let’s not forget dangerous. The only reason he hasn’t killed Raylan is because they’re equal opposing forces. They’ll get around to it, believe you me.
In the end, what I think makes the villains of the show so great, are their stakes. In the past couple seasons we’ve involved Detroit and national drug trade that has upped things, but even then things are kept to a very small sphere of influence with very intimate stakes. People in the show are fighting and murdering over money that would be small in another show, yet is incredibly important in this world. They’re fighting over relationships and pasts that go back to the Civil War, working within the constraints of culture that are literally bread into its people. It’s these more intimate stakes that make the show. Until recently, you didn’t have a cop fighting national or international drug cartels or even criminal organizations that directly hurt their own community. It wasn’t about an overarching threat, it was about people and homes. Even when they bring in “foreign” threats such as the Detroit gangsters, you see them outwitted, outgunned, and outmanned by hillfolk and small, local players. They perfectly leverage that sense of home town, of the small community. I know it’s not a Southern thing only, it’s more of a rural thing, but being a Southerner, I understand it. This is their home, their community. They own it, they protect it.
Good luck to anyone who wants to take it.