I’ve spent the past month not getting very far on my own story, so instead of spending a post talking about my progress (dismal), I thought I’d talk about someone else’s story. Justified is a TV series based on an Elmore Leonard short story called Fire in the Hole. And when I’ve come home late at night, too tired to work on my own WIP or even to make much of a dent in my overflowing TBR pile, I’ve been able to satisfy my craving for good story by binge-watching this series (available through Amazon Prime, in case you’re interested in checking it out for yourself). I’ve been enjoying the writing on this series so much, I thought I’d spend some time here talking about the craft behind it.
First, the disclaimers. I haven’t read Leonard’s short story, and I don’t plan to do so until I’ve finished watching all six seasons of the series (I’ve watched the first three so far). Leonard was involved with the series, which I love because it means they’ve kept a lot of his original vision in the story, and the head writer/show runner Graham Yost has made a concerted effort to keep close to that writer’s voice. But I’ve heard there are differences, as there should be, because TV and books are different media. For purposes of these blog discussions, I’m going to stick to the TV series, and in fact am going to focus on the first season, because there’s so much good story-telling juice there. But there will be spoilers! If this is on your future watch list (I highly recommend that it should be) and you can’t stand knowing what’s going to happen ahead of time, you’ll want to avert your eyes a few paragraphs from here.
The first thing I want to discuss about Justified is the way the series opens, the first scene in the very first episode. But before I talk about what I think the writers got right about that scene, I’m going to return to a somewhat controversial topic among the 8 Ladies: the prologue in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. A few of the Ladies love that prologue, love what they learn about Dain from that opening, and feel they ‘attach’ to the hero because of it. I am not in that camp. I didn’t need to know about his childhood to attach to Dain. I’ve met Jessica – shrewd, smart, capable Jessica – and when she finds Dain intriguing and attractive, albeit disturbing, I trust her enough to feel the same way.
Warning: LoS Spoilers ahead. Dain himself continues to show that as bad a boy as he is, he still has his own moral code and a heart of gold, of a sort. He’s not out to destroy Bertie, Jessica’s brother, just for the hell of it. In his eyes, Bertie is not living up to the moral code of the day. If Bertie can’t keep up with drinking and whoring and still meet his obligations to his family, then Bertie deserves whatever he gets because of that failure of character. We also learn that Dain is deeply protective of anyone for whom he is responsible. He’s so terrified of hurting Jessica, he postpones consummating his own marriage.
I don’t need a prologue to establish that Dain’s had a troubled past. As a reader, I bring enough perspective to the story to recognize that someone so self-destructive had something go very, very wrong in his childhood. Psychology 101 here. And I also don’t need to see him hurting as a child to know he has a sensitive, needy side. That comes across very clearly in his scenes with Jess. But the unnecessary nature of the prologue isn’t the only thing that makes me unhappy it’s there. It’s also the fact that by its oversharing nature, the prologue undercuts one of the most powerful scenes in the book, the scene when Dain finally reveals the horror of his childhood to Jess. If we as readers would have been able to suss out that he’s had some kind of childhood trauma without knowing the details from the very beginning, the emotional impact of that scene would have tripled (at least for me).
As you can tell, I’m just not a prologue kind of girl. Even when a story depends upon the deep, dark past of one of its characters (and I would argue that every story, to some extent, depends on this very human condition of childhood pain), prologues aren’t the only way to do it. Justified is, at its core, a story of ‘you can’t go home again’. The writers had lots of choices about how to open the series. They could have shown protagonist Raylan Givens returning ‘home’, driving down Kentucky back roads, maybe even while voices from the distant past whisper in his ear. We’ve all seen that done. Or they could have started with a tragic incident from childhood, or with the traumatic event from his young adulthood that we don’t know until season 3 precipitated his leaving Kentucky in the first place. We’ve seen those approaches to story-telling as well. Instead, the writers chose to start in situ, with the character where he is in the here and now of the story. Then they put him into action and we watch the dominoes start falling.
Warning: Justified spoilers ahead. The first time we see protagonist Raylan Givens, in the first seconds of the first scene of the first episode, he’s in tan suit and cowboy boots. But it’s his accessories that really matter: his US Marshal’s star, his gun, and his white cowboy hat (off-white; so much symbolism there – we’ll discuss this more in later posts!). As much as this could be a marshal from Wyatt Earp’s day walking into a saloon, instead it’s a modern-day man walking through an outdoor cafe in Miami, finally sitting down across from a gangster eating his lunch. Within minutes we’ve learned these two met long ago and the marshal warned the gangster their next meeting wouldn’t be pleasant. We also learn they met again the day before in Miami, and the marshal gave the gangster 24 hours to get out of town. After some more back and forth, the gangster pulls a gun on the marshal, but our hero is faster and pulls his own gun and shoots the gangster. It’s a kill shot: quick, precise, and merciless.
So what do we know about our hero just from this first scene? Bringing our own cultural references to bear (John Wayne and Gary Cooper, anyone?), we recognize the ’24 hours to get out of Dodge’ reference, the gunslinger bad guy, the marshal who comes to town to clean up the streets in the Wild, Wild West. Despite the modern-day, chic city locale, we recognize and immediately assign a moral code to our protagonist, based on the references built into the imagery and dialogue of the scene. But wait, there’s more!
In the next scene, the press descends after the very public shooting, and Givens’s boss lectures him on the bad optics of the situation, despite the fact that the shooting was justified (get it? ;-)), and tells him he’s reassigned to Kentucky. Givens tells his boss he just got out of Kentucky and doesn’t want to go back, but his boss gives Givens no choice. To keep his marshal’s star, he’s going to have to go home again. Now we know the value of that star to him – he’ll go back to the one place he never wanted to see again to keep it – and we see that his choices in the first scene have set his course, for better or, as he suspects, for worse. (And this is not the last time the choices from the first scene will haunt Givens; there’s going to be hell to pay on so many fronts for pulling the trigger in that Miami cafe. We’ll get back to that in a later post.)
Another really telling detail about our hero emerges when he’s back in Kentucky, in his home county of Harlan, hunting down a bad guy who, once upon a time, was his friend. The bad guy, Boyd Crowder, is yin to Givens’s yang, and these two characters and the actors who play them have such chemistry, we’ll need an entire blog post just to discuss them. But for analyzing the way the writers are filling out our protagonist’s life story for us, it’s important to note that in the midst of their banter, during which Givens’s has the upper hand, Crowder drops in a seemingly innocent question. “Have you seen your daddy since you’ve been back?”
This simple question tips the balance of their conversation and throws our hero off his game, revealing to us that there’s something dark and foreboding in that father/son relationship. No need for a prologue or flashback to show it. Just a simple line of dialogue and our hero’s complex and unexpected reaction to it. In the last scene of the episode, after more gun fights and near-death experiences, Givens is having a discussion with his ex-wife, whose presence in Kentucky is another reason he didn’t want to return. Their affection for each other, though, is obvious, and is underscored by the fact that he’s come to see her after the recent ‘justified shootings’ he’s committed have given him pause. He tells her he’s never thought of himself as an angry man before now, but recent events have him questioning it. She tells him that, although he hides it well from the world, he’s the angriest man she’s ever known. Fade to black.
By the end of the first episode, we know our hero is complex, troubled, and living by an admirable but antiquated moral code that is likely to get him into serious trouble in the future. We know there’s bad blood with his father, a lot of criminal elements (like his former friend) in his past, and an ex-wife he can’t quite get over. We’ve already started building the story of his past in the back woods of Kentucky in our minds, without the need for a prologue or even a flashback to do it.
Now it’s your turn to jump in and tell me why my lack of love for the LoS prologue is so misguided. Or to share your favorite book/movie/TV series opening. What made it special to you? How did it reveal character and what did it teach you about the story protagonist (or antagonist)?