Justified is All Class

Justified, class issues

Every so often, my sister will tell me that I need to watch a television show she thinks I will like. Often I just ignore her but on occasion I’ll give in and watch. Whenever this happens, I almost always get hooked and that is what happened when I started watching Justified on F/X. The show just started its third season but I quickly caught up and am now watching it in real time. Justified is the story of Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. Raylan was working in Miami but, after a controversial shooting, was reassigned to an office near Harlan, the poor, rural coal-mining town in eastern Kentucky where he grew up. As a result, Raylan constantly has to confront the family, friends and childhood acquaintances he left behind in search of a better life.

There are a lot of reasons to enjoy the show (like good writing, excellent acting and nuanced characters) but one of the main ones is that it doesn’t shy away from class issues. In fact, class is front and center. If you really stop and think about it, you’ll realize just how different such an emphasis is for fictionalized television. A quick glance at the Nielsen ratings told me that, besides reality shows and sports, some of the top shows in the U.S. include The Big Bang Theory (physicists), The Good Wife (lawyers), NCIS (Navy personnel), and Person of Interest (billionaire). While you may see an occasional poor person on these shows, they are hardly the norm. However, when you watch Justified, you will see coal miners, hairdressers, farmers and people who sometimes turn to crime just to make ends meet. justified-season-3

I realize that many use television as an escape and don’t necessarily want to watch people just trying to make a living. Where’s the fun in that? The problem is that the poor in this country have no voice; no real vehicle for telling their stories in a dignified way. Sure, we can all watch some reality shows and shake our heads at the foolish behavior of the poor people featured, but they are never given the chance to show what makes them tick — what decisions they made to get them to where they are and why. Context matters in order to elicit both sympathy and liking, and poor people usually don’t get either. This is where Justified excels.

The hero of the show, Raylan Givens, is kind of morally gray. While that sounds bad, it is perfect for this show (and really, in life as well) because hardly anyone or anything is black and white. Raylan drives the U.S. Marshall’s office crazy because he is an “ends justify the means” kind of guy but this philosophy works because it is warranted. No one in this show is inherently evil and to treat them as such would be misguided. These are Raylan’s people; he understands how they think and why they do the things that they do. He also appreciates the way grinding poverty takes away choice and leads people down a path they wouldn’t ordinarily take.

Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the major characters, Boyd Crowder. Boyd was an old friend of Raylan’s who saved his life once when they were both working in the mines. However, Boyd is the son of the man who headed what passes for a crime family in Harlan. When we first meet Boyd, he is a White Supremacist and murderer. By all the usual laws of television, we should hate him but we don’t. Boyd got shot and then seemingly discovered religion while in prison. Throughout the course of the first season, he leads a band of religious converts who live in the woods. You are never quite sure if the conversion is real and, in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Boyd is someone who never had the chance to develop a rock solid moral center and even though he engages in illegal and questionable behavior, it seems like he tries to do the right thing, or at least the right thing as he sees it.

Ava Crowder (sister-in-law of Boyd) is another example of someone trapped by circumstance. Ava is a beautiful woman who, at the beginning of the first season, was out on bail after murdering her severely abusive husband. Ava wants to have a different life but is savvy enough to know that she is stuck in Harlan. She is smart, independent, tough as nails (you go into Ava’s house uninvited, you’d better expect to soon be looking down the barrel of her shotgun) and while she tries to do what is right, she knows that sometimes she will have to break the law in order to survive.

As I said, context is important in sympathizing with people, and knowing what Harlan is like helps with this. There is a real Harlan in Kentucky and I don’t know if it is truly like it is on the show or not. However, the Harlan in Justified is a place where the Confederacy has never really died; where you do not choose who you do business with but instead do business with whoever is there; where your family matters (Raylan is forever being identified as his father’s son); and at least some politeness is valued even when you’re behaving in awful ways. Unlike the huge apartments and houses of the rich seen on other shows, Harlan seems real. It is a place where people wear the same clothes more than once, their hair isn’t always impeccably styled or even combed, their houses aren’t fancy and the yards are often littered with stuff.

Harlan is also home to people who seem real; people who often don’t make sense. Real life is messy and people are complicated. That’s why you have an African American enclave called Noble’s Holler nestled right next to White Supremacist groups. Noble’s Holler can be a place full of violence yet it is also a haven for abused women, a place so safe that the men who abused them wouldn’t dare approach it. Harlan is a place where you can find a woman like Raylan’s Aunt Helen. She loved Raylan so much that she gave him the money and encouragement to get out of there but then turned around and married Raylan’s father, a man he deeply dislikes for his abuse of both Raylan and his mother. In fact, Harlan is a place where you can find a lot of strong female characters because, just as in real life, the women of Justified significantly affect lives.

With its finely drawn characters and the show’s exquisite use of its location, Justified gives us the story of the people who comprise a class we don’t usually see on television. It’s important that they do so because, although we Americans tend to ignore it as much as possible, class is a supremely significant demographic variable. Class matters because it shapes our worldview, especially in how we interact with people. If you grow up in a place where no one has very much money or stuff, then who you are and what you promise becomes valuable. Your word is truly your bond. We see this in the show time and time again. As Raylan is from Harlan, the people still respond to him as “one of us” even though he’s technically the enemy. This is because they know who he is and the forces that shaped him. They do not begrudge him his choices but they also hold him to their standards of behavior. For example, Boyd violently confronts him when Raylan doesn’t deliver on something that he had promised. For his part, Raylan had a different perspective on the request but they settled their differences and were able to move forward.

Class matters because it determines what we value. If you grow up in a place where growing and selling marijuana means that your family gets to have a roof over their heads and food on their table, then it doesn’t seem wrong. For people whose very survival can be hampered by laws that seem punitive and arbitrarily applied, illegal acts may not be behavior to be avoided. It can also mean that jobs many people consider desirable — jobs like lawyer, politician or business executive — are not ones to be sought if they involve work that hurts people; work that seems truly dishonest.

Class matters because it affects how we see our future. If you grow up in a family where your parents are too focused on survival to have the time or the knowledge to help you study, then higher education may not even be a dream. You may see yourself able to achieve only what your parents have, and hope for a better life comes at too high a price. The character of Ava shows us this in all its heartbreak. Raylan tries to get her to move somewhere else, somewhere she would be safe, but she refuses: “Raylan, I’m just a girl from the Holler. This is what I know. Where would I go?” And she’s right. If she were to move, she would be going someplace where she had no family or community to support her, and given her financial situation it would be quite difficult. So she stays in Harlan, and falls into situations we do not wish for her.

If we start to pay attention to class, then we will have to do something about it.
Class matters a lot but we Americans try to dismiss it by saying things like we’re a “classless society” (we’re not and never have been) or accusing people of inciting “class warfare.” We tend to focus more on some of the other demographic variables like sex, age and race yet class is a factor in so many things. It affects physical and emotional health, education, jobs, political views, military service, relationships, having children and housing. Really, it affects almost everything, yet it gets ignored. Although I don’t have the answer to why this occurs, my guess is because of fear. If we start to pay attention to class, then we will have to do something about it. We will have to rectify the institutional injustices that make class differences so stark. America would have to change significantly and that is indeed a scary thought especially to those of us who have benefited so greatly by the status quo.

By focusing on class, Justified makes us look at ourselves. Through the vision of the show, the poor are no longer a group of misfits but are people to whom we can relate. They are who we would be if life dealt us a different hand. We understand their plight and want to change it. In short, Justified brings class out of the shadows and into the daylight and we get the message. Class matters and we ignore it at our own peril.

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