Money Troubles

This is the first of a couple of posts involving the show Justified.

Justified has a problem with numbers. I’ll give you two examples from this past season: first, the sum of Mags Bennett’s great marijuana fortune is too large ($3,000,000); second, the amount of money that proves a sticking point between Robert Quarles and his Detroit backers is too small ($50,000).[1] These might seem like trifling issues (who among us really likes to dwell on our finances?), but Justified’s early-season money troubles represented the first-sighted tip of the iceberg that has carved itself across the bow of the show. Now Justified is taking on water, and I fear it might eventually sink.

Just as it’s rude to talk about money in social settings, TV shows also tend to speak of it in vagaries and in muted tones. Try to figure out how much Tony Soprano takes home each year. What about Avon Barksdale? Nuckie Thompson? Al Swearengen? Stringer Bell? (Sorry, the Wire was good enough that I had to include it twice). Breaking Bad is (to its credit) sometimes more specific, but even their it just turns around and bites them in the ass: that whole stupid Skyler-Ted tax-deficiency storyline was just a way to work Walt’s fortune down to a figure manageable enough for him to feel the financial squeeze.

There are two problems with numbers for shows like these: the first is generalizable and minor; it goes beyond the crime genre of the shows I’ve mentioned so far: Numbers are just another ball to juggle when trying to preserve continuity. If you say Don Draper has a million dollars in season 1, you can’t do a story about him not having any money in season 3 unless you want to do a “Don Draper loses his money” plot in season 2.[2] Better to avoid specifics because it’s just one less thing to deal with.

The second problem is more substantive, because it involves breaking from the realism of a character’s motives and is thus artistically important. Here’s a question that shows about crime face: why do successful criminals stay criminals? That is, if the villains that we watch are smart enough for their schemes to ever pay off, can’t they just retire? Numerical specificity makes this problem more pressing: too much money and the character lacks a motivation to stay a criminal; too little forces the viewer to question why she’s even watching this schlub.

The real-life answer to why criminals stay criminals is probably a combination of “crime doesn’t pay” (enough to impress the upper-class elites who set the critical stage for these shows) and “they just like being criminals.” Some shows do, to their credit, portray this (Take Avon’s “I’m just a gangster I suppose, and I want my corners;” or the Sopranos ballads of, variously, Eugene Pontecorvo, Chris Moltisanti, and Vito Spatafore), but many shows want a narrative where their protagonists have some desire not to be criminals (Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Weeds, The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Stringer Bell in The Wire are a few that come to mind)[3]. For these shows, once you show them the money, you need to find a way to take it back; otherwise you won’t have a story to tell. Repeat this process too many times, though, and you’re watching Wile E. Coyote chase the Roadrunner (a.k.a. Burn Notice[4]).

This all points to a flaw with many TV shows about crime, and it’s a flaw of sentimentality — of wanting to tell a romantic story (the sympathetic criminal pulling one last job) that’s bullshit. It fails because a real criminal in that situation would either (a) die; (b) win (and not be a criminal anymore); or (c) actually be an unsympathetic scumbag who won’t fulfill our desire to romanticize criminals and crime. Movies can sort-of get away with this because they end quickly, but TV shows drag on, so they need to do a better job if they aspire to be art and not just entertainment. Thus, in order to hide this crack in their artistic foundation, shows often mumble away the specific dollar figures that would force an accounting. Justified boldly avoided this (kudos) and gets down to details, but the mistakes they made with the number just show broader problems creeping into the show, which I’ll discuss in my post tomorrow.


[1] $3M is too large because Mags would never have to have gone after that Black Pike money in season 2 if she had three million dollars stashed away (also no criminal in Harlan would ever trust someone else to hold onto that much money for them no matter what).  $50K is too small because given the way Quarles is presented at the beginning of the season (basically throwing away some large payment from Emmett, routinely ordering $30 shots of whisky, etc.), he should be able to come up with that on his own (particularly since he presumably stole all of Emmett’s Dixie Mafia business).

[2] For an analogous case: science fiction shows tend to feel this pain in a more pervasive and more-ridiculous way when they pin themselves down on scientific explanations of phenomena within their universe: the question — if the Borg are a hive-mind, how can they have a queen? is one of the less ridiculous examples of this to come up in Star Trek

[3] There’s not a lot of conflict inherent with people that enjoy their jobs, and the happy criminal is an unsympathetic character to put at the center of a show.

[4] Or How I Met Your Mother

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2 thoughts on “Money Troubles

  1. I think the Wire actually incorporates this conflict you identified into the plot of Stringer Bell. He’s a talented businessman trapped in the drug institution and driven by a desire for legitimacy. So it makes sense that Stringer Bell has no choice but to keep committing crimes long after he could theoretically ‘retire’, because he believes more money will provide him the legitimacy that he so desperately craves.

  2. I largely agree, though I’ve never totally warmed to the way his legitimate enterprises were treated in season 3. Here was a character we were taught to view as formidable, even, seemingly in non-drug-businesses. It always struck me as overly pessimistic of the writers to portray him as being so easily tricked by Clay Davis and (seemingly) the real estate developer, seemed to fit too neatly into their worldview.

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