As I noted last week, prior to Justified, Harlan County, Kentucky, was known primarily as the site of Harlan County, U.S.A., Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning 1976 documentary about the violent struggle between 180 striking coal miners and the Duke Power Company, which brought in gun-toting goons to break up the protests. (We famously witness actual gunfire, as well as some thuggery aimed at Kopple and her cameraman.) With that in mind, it now seems obvious that the show would eventually address those tensions directly, though it has certainly taken its time, spending the first season and much of the second with coal-mining as a mere fact of life in the region, not the focus. And now that the industry is front-and-center, Justified has gotten all the richer for it.
Picking up the momentum from last week’s episode, “The Spoil” feels like part one of an unofficial two-parter, just as the recent “Blaze Of Glory” and “Save My Love” played in consecutive weeks, but it accomplishes more than mere table-setting. I’ll wait a bit to talk about the episode’s extraordinary centerpiece—a town hall meeting where competing factions nearly come to blows—but I think we’re seeing a great convergence of all the dark forces this show has to offer. Characters and storylines are starting to dovetail, and the tension has been amplified masterfully over the arc of this second season. Aggressive moves by the local coal company have added another layer of intrigue that may or may not be authentic but feels true to the spirit of a region where coal provides and exploits in equal measure.
“The Spoil” also provides a nice showcase for Timothy Olyphant as Raylan, who spends most of the episode with a terrible hangover, literally and figuratively. A brief talk with Art at the batting cage confirms what Raylan (and many of us) suspected: Art knows about Winona and the stolen money and holds the couple’s fate in his hands. Raylan dreads the consequences, but the opening suggests that he’s overcome with guilt and shame, too; his respect for the law and for Art is not to be underestimated, and that comes out when he tells Winona that he’d turn them in if he were in Art’s position. (When the teenager who runs the batting cages gets on Raylan for not wearing a helmet, Art and Raylan flash their badges. His reply is all-too-telling: “Guess you should know how to obey the law.”)
In the meantime, Raylan gets a different kind of headache to go along with his hangover. He gets assigned to escort Carol (Rebecca Creskoff), a coal company power broker, to a contentious town-hall meeting where she intends to explain the company’s local land grab. It’s a job both dangerous and unsavory: dangerous because Carol is squaring off against the Bennetts, who are more formidable adversaries than even a shrewd, unscrupulous businesswoman like herself realizes and unsavory because Raylan sees through her promises to bring prosperity to the region. In the standoff between Black Pike and the Bennetts, Raylan is Yojimbo, someone who works both sides without aligning himself with either one. This puts him in the crossfire but makes him a clear hero, too, because he recognizes all parties for who they really are. The only wild card in this scenario is Boyd, who’s been hired as a gun thug for Black Pike but has never been the submissive type. His alignment with Carol is more tenuous than she realizes.
Now to The Big Scene, in which Margo Martindale closes her case for an Emmy. The tension at the town hall meeting is electric, and the mood of intense ambivalence over the coal issue seems dead-on. Quite apart from the gross self-interest that drives Carol to argue in favor on mountaintop removal and Mags to argue vociferously against it, the average citizens at that meeting have cause to swing in either direction, because for them, the coal industry exploits and provides. (Keep in mind, in West Virginia, just one state over, former Democratic Governor Joe Manchin aired a notorious ad for his recent—and ultimately successful—Senate campaign in which he literally shoots a cap-and-trade bill.) Given the pulpit, Carol makes a good case (with no help from Raylan) on the obvious benefits of mountaintop removal: jobs for an area that’s suffering during this economic downturn (“We’re here to stimulate this economy, make it fertile in infertile times”), and Black Pike can fill their pocketbooks. And she gets some nice support from unlikely company man Boyd, who calls on his preaching skills to connect Black Pike’s capitalist motives to God’s will.
But then, Mags takes over, and it’s a thing of beauty. Her oration is so stunning that it’s easy to forget the ruthlessness that underlies it. While not an environmentalist by any means—that position is conspicuously absent, and Mags’ store sports a McCain/Palin sign—she touches on “the spoil” that infects the region whenever Big Coal does its business. She also plays on the insularity of Harlan, which has its own food, dialect, music, and values and views all others as outsiders. She invites everyone to the Bennett estate for “a big ‘ole whoop-tee-do,” but it’s unnecessary: She’s won this battle on her home turf.
- “There you go poking the bear, and it’s his fault when you get bit.”
- Boyd’s role in this unfolding conflict is pretty fluid at this point. He preaches the company line in the town hall, but he shares with Raylan an iconoclasm and an ability to see a situation for what it is. I’m guessing the season will ultimately pivot on his choices.
- A few weeks ago, Mags taught Coover a lesson by smashing his fingers with a ball peen hammer. This week, she breaks up his scuffle with Raylan by poking him in the head with a shovel. The Bennett boys are like a pack of abused, snarling, mangy dogs.
- How long can Raylan rebuff Carol’s advances? He seemed less tempted than he might have been under the circumstances—Winona having gotten him in trouble, a creeping apathy perhaps weakening his defenses—but maybe that changes. Say this for Carol: She makes a strong case.
- Really entertaining stuff with Raylan, his father, and Aunt Helen, culminating in Raylan simply zipping away with the $20,000 they owe the Feds.
- Carol, on saving her love for her “cat:” “I pet him, but he never purrs.” Yikes.
- Love how the episode ends so abruptly with Raylan walking away purposefully, leaving us to anticipate Mags’ whoop-tee-doo right when the next episode picks up. Lots of chatter from TV critics already about the fireworks to come next week.