Here’s why I’m going to miss FX’s modern-day Kentucky Western, Justified, so much.
In last week’s episode, our hero, unflinching U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, has ambushed his bitter rival, backwoods Kentucky crime lord Boyd Crowder, shooting at him from across a darkened field on the side of a mountain in hopes of finally putting down the man who is most like his opposite number.
“You’ve given up everything that you are, so you can murder me,” Crowder (Walton Goggins) yells at Givens (Timothy Olyphant) while hunched behind a rock for cover.
“I crossed the line with my eyes wide open,” Givens replies.
“Well, whose eyes you goin’ see when you kill me Raylan…your daddy’s?” Crowder says, bringing up the lifelong criminal Givens has spent his life and career trying to live down – an awful patriarch who died in episodes aired two years ago, but whose presence still haunts his son.
“Not anymore,” Givens says, before moving in for the kill.
The show’s series finale is tonight, so Givens didn’t get his man then.
But every theme the show has worked since its debut episode in 2010 is in this scene – from Givens’ hope that killing Crowder will break his ties to his hated hometown to the question of how far the marshal will go to finally settle their score (Justified nerds will remember he avoided killing Crowder in the show’s pilot, so his current determination feels like a journey nearly completed).
Like all good Westerns, it’s a story of the white hat versus the black hat, with a beautiful, strong-willed woman in the middle, Crowder’s fiancée and Givens’ onetime crush Ava Crowder.
Somehow, over six seasons, the show’s producers have retained the style and attitude of their source material – author Elmore Leonard’s work, including the short story “Fire in the Hole” – to craft a smart, engaging modern day Western that feels classic as a John Wayne shoot ’em up and modern as the next season of True Detective.
And as the show barrels to a powerhouse finish tonight after a final season packed with ace guest stars like Patton Oswalt, Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen, you have to wonder: Why aren’t there more shows like this?
(Click here to hear me talk over this topic with Robin Young on today’s edition of Here and Now)
Sure, the ratings may not be amazing: According to the website TV By the Numbers, last week’s Justified episode drew about 1.8 million viewers on that day (that figure will increase once those who watched by demand or DVR over the next few days are factored in). That’s a middling number, especially among younger viewers advertisers love.
It seems the TV industry has noticed, because the Western series has become an endangered species on the TV dial.
Longmire, another powerful modern-day Western about a laconic sheriff in Wyoming, was canceled by A&E and picked up by Netflix. AMC’s Hell on Wheels, which has drawn a decent audience after the channel moved it to TV’s black hole of Saturdays, will end after its next season.
CBS’ Vegas, which tried melding a mob drama with a new school Western set in the ’50s, lasted just one season ending in May 2013. But pickings weren’t always this slim.
Back in the late 1950s, Westerns were the most popular genre on television. During the 1958-59 TV season, seven of the top 10 shows on television were westerns, including classics like Bonanza, according to Robert Thompson, head of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University,
“The Western is the great American epic; it’s our Exodus, our origin story as a nation,” Thompson says. “It’s always had a lot of impact on the culture.”
So what happened on TV? Back in the 1960s, the emerging civil rights movements, feminism and rising awareness of Native American issues helped make Westerns look outdated, sexist and racist, leading to decline of the genre through the 1970s, Thompson says.
The form nearly rebounded a few years ago, when various TV networks ordered Westerns from well-known creators like Shaun Cassidy (American Gothic) and Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica). And HBO’s Deadwood, which aired from 2004 to 2006, remains the best post-modern Western set in the Old West on television — bringing a gritty realism and willingness to subvert classic character types.
But many of those new show concepts never made it to air, the promised Deadwood movie never materialized and now Western TV fans tonight will say goodbye to the best version of the genre now airing new episodes. Tough times, for sure.
This is happening for a couple of reasons: Young viewers probably still find some of tropes of Westerns a little old fashioned, so it may be tough to get them involved.
And proper Westerns usually follow a familiar theme: a lone hero with an unshakeable personal code, comes to a lawless land (or a land where the law has been compromised to serve evil men) and eventually takes action to impose order.
What else does that sound like? Well, that could be the capsule description for Netflix’s new superhero series, Daredevil, where a blind man with super-sharp senses fights to keep a crime boss from taking over Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. Or the latest Captain America movie, where super soldier Steve Rogers fights to keep the shadowy, evil organization Hydra from killing millions and taking over the world.
It’s possible that superhero movies and science fiction have taken over the space in young hearts where Westerns once resided, leaving us old fogeys to remember how cool Clint Eastwood looked in those ’60s-era Spaghetti Westerns alongside Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach.
Given the explosion of new series in today’s TV world, I expect it won’t be long before a few more Westerns pop up to help fill screens of all sizes and types. In the right creative hands, it’s a stylish, uniquely American setting to explore questions of good, evil, imperialism, racism, sexism, violence and much more.
Still, as the ballad of Raylan, Boyd and Ava winds down tonight on Justified, fans of great western TV should savor the last moments of this amazing example of the genre.
Because it may be a good, long while before you see many more shows like it on television.