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Justified Season 1, Episode 2: Riverbrook

March 25, 2010

And, just like that, the credibility that I wanted and tried to see in Justified has been completely destroyed. All it took were some “kissing cousins.” Or, in this case, sex toy-wielding cousins. It’s quite disappointing that it took less than two hours of screen time for Justified to resort to one of the most pernicious, hateful Appalachian stereotypes it could have possibly presented.

To compound Justified’s offense, the incest that was presented in Episode 2, titled “Riverbrook,” was completely UN-justified in narrative terms. In other words, it absolutely didn’t need to happen to either advance or provide the foundation for the main “Riverbrook” storyline. In the episode, a prisoner escapes to stop his ex-wife and her lover from finding money he’d hidden before his jail term began 15 years prior. Her lover could have been anyone—the mailman, the cable guy, her co-worker’s pal Brad, some stranger she picked up in a bar…you get the point.

But no, the show’s creators wrote it so that she’s having sex with her cousin. Lots of sex. With toys. And talking openly about it to her ex-husband when he finally comes calling on them. I’d guess that they chose this specific avenue for comic relief (especially in the detailed discussion of their sexual behaviors) because they knew they could get away with it. I can imagine their thinking now, “I mean, that’s just what they do in eastern Kentucky, right?” And sadly, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that most of the audience, accustomed to such media portrayals, would be in on the “joke” and willing to go along with the stereotype, especially as it was handled in such a light-hearted manner.

From a creative standpoint, I can hardly imagine anything more lazy. I guess I shouldn’t have expected differently, given creator Graham Yost’s admission that he and his colleagues spent exactly no time in Lexington or Harlan before or during the writing and filming of Season 1. So let’s think about it: you’re not from a place, but you want to recreate that place as your setting in a creative work. You’re under the pressure of deadlines and budgets, so you don’t have time to develop your own sense of the place’s complex reality. What do you do? You fall back on what you think you know—what you’ve been directly taught and what you’ve indirectly absorbed. In the practical reality of our hyper-mediated world, that means you fall back on media and pop-culture portrayals. For your less than savory characters, you fall back on the ugly side of that coin. In the case of eastern Kentucky and Appalachia, that means you fall back on mullets, bad teeth, racism, ignorance, obesity, lawlessness…and incest.

Running down that list, Justified has already done them all, and it’s only the second episode! Now that I know that every one of those nasty stereotypical elements is on their “creative menu,” I’m no longer operating with the expectation that Justified will fairly portray my home state. After the first episode, I wanted to give the show credit because it at least made some of the eastern Kentuckians relatively intelligent. But the show cashed in those chips as soon as the boinking cousins needlessly made their way onto my screen in this week’s episode.

This is far less important to me than the pathetic incest narrative, but I’m also disappointed that Episode 2 has now set up Justified to be primarily an episodic series. I’m sure that Raylan’s showdown with Boyd, his white supremacist childhood friend, will reappear later in the season. But in the meantime, it looks like the U.S. Marshals will be having a different “adventure” every week, and those narrative threads will be at least somewhat neatly tied up at the end of each episode. I recognize it’s a matter of taste, but I much prefer the somewhat messier, unresolved, arguably more lifelike storytelling found in serial dramas.

So now, less than a week after I was fairly high on Justified’s promise, I’m unenthusiastic about what the series has to offer from now on. I suppose I’ll keep watching for a little while longer, if only to see how else the show will harmfully misrepresent eastern Kentucky. But I’ll no longer be looking for ways to defend what they’re doing. Like Raylan Givens, more often than not I’ll probably be looking to shoot on sight.

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