What in me is dark illumine, what is low raise and support

Netflix has finally come to Canada, albeit solely in its digital form, and dove-like it sits brooding over the vast abyss of my evening, and makest it pregnant with a new addiction.  The streaming quality, for me at least, is impeccable, the selection of films and shows not by any means exhaustive but certainly tempting (and very different from the American digital catalogue, as far as I can tell).  And tonight it brought me the complete first season of Justified, which I have been itching to get my hands on since it made a serious splash last spring.

The premise is this: Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) has a bad habit of shooting people.  They know what's coming to them.  His targets are routinely criminals, and he always puts it to them bluntly: you have a choice here, he says, resist and you will die.  Argue and you will die.  Do anything unexpected and you will die.  Submit to my will, and you'll have your life.  The choice is theirs.  But, damn 'em, they keep choosing wrong. So he loses his job in Miami and has to move back to Harlan County, Kentucky (of documentary fame), site of a coal-mining past and grifting father he has no desire to revisit.

My first thought after watching the pilot?  "Wait... so Timothy Olyphant can act?"  He is brilliant here - a model of self-deprecating subtlety.  You can see every emotion flash across his face, succeeded swiftly by the next one.  Where was this when he was Seth Bullock in Deadwood, a character so woodenly acted that you resigned yourself to viewing his strong-jawed beauty as compensation for a lack of depth?  What's more, Bullock is a character identical in every broad-stroke feature to Raylan Givens - his almost puritanical self-control (over his sexuality, his anger, his symbolic status as the law), his quiet magnetism, his conflicted devotion to the way of justice in all its murky glory.  But Olyphant plays the part completely (completely, I tell you) differently.  Bullock was interesting, but only in apposition with Al Swearengen, the Lord of Misrule, Chaos turned to the cause of Order.  Raylan, by contrast, has all the anxious care of a Jimmy Stewart mind trapped in a John Wayne persona: the lethal fist in the ethical glove.

My first thought after the second episode: this is very well written.  It still has a procedural feeling at this point - each episode ensnaring him in a different crime and its punishment - but you can feel the individuality of each secondary character, and you can sense the weight of Raylan's worries, along with his largely successful attempts to hide them.  Every scene is about big things (justice, violence, the debts of friendship and the duties of morality) and small things (how you wear a hat, how you spot a fake neo-Nazi by the way he unconsciously rubs his shaved head, as if he doesn't really remember that hair is gone).  This is the combination of detail and intellectual complexity that mediocre shows miss completely.

It is good enough to have me quoting Milton, whom I left graduate school with a profound and vehement hatred for.  But there is something distinctly Miltonic going on here, with Raylan insistence on the choice that his criminal targets retain -- a choice of theirs that conveniently relieves him of the ethical burdens of having shot them.  It is a choice that absolves him of choice.  "They drew first," he repeatedly finds himself saying, in the great dusty Western tradition, "It was justified."  But, of course, this is a word which has defensive anxiety built into its very connotations.  To be justified is not to be just.   It is to have formulated or discovered a just explanation, after the fact.

What Raylan has to do in every episode so far  is justify the ways of the gun to men.  And we have already seen these ways in terrible conflict with his other values: friendship, family, sexual attraction, his career (which demands the most justification from him: even though his job as an enforcer depends on the association between the Way of the Law and the Way of the Gun, this power, according to his bosses, should largely be exercised through restraint), and even love.

In the first episode, he tells his ex-wife about a shooting from the first five minutes of the show.  "But he pulled first," he says, casually, looking down at his beer and avoiding her face, "So I was justified."  There is a pause, and then: "But what troubles me ... is what if he hadn't?"  Raylan had given him twenty-four hours to get out of town, or he would die.  "What if he just sat there and let the clock run out?  Would I have killed him anyway? I know I wanted to.  I guess I just never thought of myself as an angry man."  His ex laughs: "Raylan: You do a good job of hiding it, and I suppose most folks don't see it, but, honestly, you're the angriest man I've ever known."  An expression flits across his face that says he didn't sneak into his ex-wife's house at midnight to receive this particular assessment of his character.

So maybe I have the wrong epic invocation.  Maybe this show demands a muse who will sing of wrath, and the countless ills it brings....

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