The Lost Zone

Yesterday, I wrote about the problem shows about crime have with sentimentality and how that problem is reflected in their refusal to talk about money. Today I’m going to write about Justified’s own problems, which are not primarily of the monetary variety. Instead, Justified (a show I really love) is in danger of entering the Lost zone, the place where a show-runners’ addiction to thrills and drama infects their characters with that terminal disease of psychological implausibility. Can this patient survive? Before answering, I suppose I should first explain my diagnosis.

The reason I stopped watching Lost[1] was because I got tired of the characters continually doing things that made no fucking sense. [2] This happened to coincide with the show’s plot and mythology[3] both making no fucking sense.[4] The creators of Lost were like the Wizards of Oz of television: they liked showing you a lot of smoke and pretty colors, but there was ultimately nothing behind the curtain. They wanted each episode to be thrilling, each revelation stunning, but they didn’t want to do the hard work that would make it all make sense. They didn’t care enough to ground their characters in realism and paint their motives to be true to life.[5] It’s fun as an entertainment (good for them), but it was just a sugary treat and easy to get tired of. Who cares about the explosions if they involve characters whose only enduring quality is the ability to be around explosions?

Thus, the Lost zone tempts all shows: it’s always the easier choice to sacrifice realism and plausibility for the momentary thrill of more. The trick behind great drama is to create the same thrills and fun of a Lost while maintaining a core of character and realism that speaks to actual human experience. Breaking Bad and The Wire both do this very well. I worry, however, that Justified is itself succumbing to this disease of More.

This season of Justified can be described charitably with the word “thrill-ride” and uncharitably as “over-stuffed.”[6] They’ve replaced one Big Bad in the second season (Mags) with two: Quarles and Limehouse. They’ve kept Dickie Bennett around the action, expanded the focus on Boyd’s crew, given more time to Wynn Duffie, added ancillary characters like Errol and Tanner, and even given us a couple episodes worth of Dewey Crowe (who doesn’t love Dewey Crowe?). This has combined to produce tremendous forward momentum and give the episodes a bang-bang structure of climax after climax, payoff after payoff, that is fun until you step off the roller-coaster to ask “what the hell happened?”. Intrigued by the enigmatic Detroit hustler Robert Quarles (a great character)? Watch The Man Behind the Curtain to get a peek behind his motivations and his background (one that appears not so different from the Bennett clan spotlit in Season 2). Want the curtain ripped off entirely? Watch Guy Walks Into a Bar, to see Quarles emotionally naked before you, in tears telling his horrific life story. Want to see Quarles actually naked[7]…. Ok, I think you get the point.

So with all that good stuff, how could there be a problem? Well, there’s still that niggling question of accuracy and honesty and realistic detail; of telling not just a fun story but a true one, one you care about, and here’s where, as Justified careens forward, its wheels are starting to wobble a bit, rattling and getting ready to spin off.  Because amidst all of that excitement, the actual characters and the reasons behind their actions, are starting to get lost. Maybe the annoying “how-could-Boyd-be-this-stupid” twist at the beginning of Episode 12 can be forgiven as run-of-the-mill suspension of disbelief (but you’ll have to also forgive (spoiler alert): Wynn’s decision not to push his trigger before the end of episode 12; Boyd’s spending crucial hours on a plot that he later said he was never interested in; Boyd’s leaving two dangerous men to be guarded by a cripple, one bad-guy’s bounty of $100,000 dead and $200,000 alive on a guy that he knows is so dangerous that pursuing the $200 is stupid;  Dickie’s idiotic plan to get back his money; Raylan’s decision to holster his gun in front of a bad guy waving his; Raylan’s trust that Quarles will take the gun from him in the season finale rather than just shooting Raylan, Johnny’s crazy idea that getting rid of Boyd would be good for him, etc.) But what about Limehouse’s entire motivations for his grand plan this entire season? How does that make any sense given his goals and motivations[8]? It can’t be claimed that that seeming inconsistency doesn’t matter or does not need to be explained – it goes to the whole point of the character. After a while, these inconsistencies start to add up; they start to chip away at the stake the viewer invests in the show. It begins to seem like the writers are just putting on a light-show whose only purpose is to dazzle, that they’re not even attempting to make their gripping story about true characters we can relate to, one that still shines, but with even more spectacular dramatic heat.

I’d imagine the defense the writers would give would be that many of the inconsistencies I flag are just instances of the characters’ eyes being too big for their stomachs, that they’re giving in to temptation. whis is making them do stupid things, that the deep structure of the show punishes those who try to be something they’re not – on getting greedy with their aspirations. But a theme is not an explanation – if you want to make that (or anything else) the reason for characters making mistakes and doing things that baffle the viewer, you need to do the hard work of actually showing the character’s motivations; you can’t just skip ahead to the fun part where you get to watch shit blow up. Or, well, I suppose you can — it’s just that people will subconsciously notice, and next season they’ll wonder why they’re just not that into Justified anymore and ask themselves when the show jumped the shark.

Next Monday, I’ll continue with how the problem of Justified might reflect a broader issue afflicting its genre of ambitious television and speculation as to a possible cause.

[1] Also The Walking Dead

[2] (spoilers) Hey, Sayid, why become an assassin for Ben (who you hate) (also, why be an evil psycho-killer and then change your mind)? Hey, everybody, why not ask the Others about all those mysteries on the island, like, ever? Hey, Dogen, why try to force Sayid to take poison (via Jack, a doctor)?

[3] Hey Others, why did you steal all those children, exactly (or commit genocide against the Dharma initiative, or be so fucking evil for no reason?)

[4] If you can’t tell, I have a lot of unresolved anger towards the show.

[5] See, on the other hand, the Game of Thrones books for a series that has so far handled mysteries, answers, and realism well. Harry Potter also did a decent job, I think.

[6] Traits it shares with Season 3 of True Blood: Season 4 of that show did not go well.

[7] Watch Coalition. No, seriously. Dude’s naked (and SPOILER ALERT: free-basing Oxy out of a shotgun). 

[8] Specifically SPOILER ALERT: Limehouse’s motivations seem to be that he wants his fiefdom of Noble’s Hollow protected from outside encroachment. How does that justify fucking with Boyd and Quarles to get them to go after each other? Where do we see the gain in that for Limehouse? Wouldn’t he have been better off just ignoring Boyd and never introducing himself to Quarles?


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