Justified: A Western Sans Damsels in Distress

From a feminist perspective, FX’s new series Justified doesn’t look good. Before the opening credits, a man is shot dead. Soon thereafter a black church is blown up by redneck white supremacists. Then a wife guns down her abusive ex-husband. Considerable more violence ensues.

The plot centers on U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) who, in the opening scene, shoots a gun thug in a Miami hotel. After incurring the wrath of his superiors for his I’m-justified-because-he-drew-first mentality, he is sent home to eastern Kentucky where his old chum Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), now a fugitive bank-robber and white supremacist, is wreaking havoc on the town. Justified is a good old bang, bang, shoot-‘em-up—a modern day Western—replete with showdowns and duels, but surprisingly no damsels in distress.

Instead, we meet three self-sufficient women in the episode. Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel), is a petite African American U. S. Marshal who can gunsling as well as the boys. Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), Boyd’s sister-in-law, shot her husband after he beat her for the last time. Raylan’s ex-wife Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea) is the only character bold enough to tell Raylan about himself.

The women are not incidental to the show. They actually represent its crux because the women represent home. Justified is about a man who returns home to face his past and himself. The women in his orbit are his safe spaces—the only places where Raylan can be himself. Yes, it’s stereotypical for the female characters to inspire a man’s emotional work, but rogue federal agents and rednecks are stereotypical characters on the surface too.

Justified is doing something different. It’s the complicated relationships among the characters and the colorful composition of anger that makes the show worth watching. For example, Rachel is cautioned to be nice when questioning a witness. Must she be angry because she’s the only African American in the cast or will she too have a fully developed back-story? Ava was angry enough to kill. How much more will she feel empowered to do? Winona hints at the simmering nature of her relationship with Raylan when she tells him that he’s the angriest man she’s ever known.

Each of these characters must justify not only their actions but their anger as well. I am eagerly waiting to see whether this Western can justify its stereotypes in exchange for a productive conversation about what happens when angry people meet up in an old- fashioned showdown Tuesday nights at 10 on FX.

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Ebony A. Utley, Ph.D. is an expert in popular culture, race, and love relationships. Dr. Utley’s research explores the tension between power and pleasure in popular culture, examines how Americans talk about race and racism, asks probing questions about marriage and infidelity, and explores hip hop’s relationship to love and religion. She is the author of Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God. In addition to national radio, print, and online appearances, Dr. Utley lectures at universities across the country and is an assistant professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach. She resides on the web at theutleyexperience.com.