Check out Part One here.
The FX show Justified is a real conundrum for me. The first time I watched it, I was very young and didn’t have much of an idea of what makes a great TV drama, so I thought it was all amazing. And undoubtedly, there are some things that make this show unique: the exploration of southern culture in Kentucky, the look inside the US Marshall Service, the atmospheric use of country music, the intense dialogue in that wonderful accent. But when I went back to it years later, after having seen The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, I recognized the many ways in which Justified really is not that good a show overall. It starts out amazing in the pilot episode, and then the next eight or nine episodes turn into a boring, generic cop show mess, before the last three episodes of season 1 are awesome again, and I’m sure I know where the problem lies, because the show’s saving grace is Walt Goggins as Boyd Crowder. As complicated as Raylan Givens, the actual protagonist, may be, and as nice as Timothy Olyphant is to look at in boots and a cowboy hat, Boyd Crowder has always been the coolest, the most captivating, and the most interesting character, and he just wasn’t present for most of season 1 because Goggins was off shooting Predators (and what a waste of his time and our money that was). Accordingly, the middle part of the season, when Boyd is in prison, had to be constructed around his absence and that just didn’t work. In season 2, Goggins joined the main cast, and it did the show a whole lot of good, because most of that season was great. There was Boyd trying to find himself after his faith in God was destroyed, his slow progress towards becoming Harlan’s leading gangster, and Raylan’s constant tension with the newly introduced Bennett family. Some parts still felt a bit forced or generic, and the writers would have done themselves a favor in making Winona a bit less annoying, but I could tell the show was finding its footing, whereas in the first season it didn’t seem to have a clue what it actually wanted to be. And then, well, the third season happened, and it was absolutely brilliant. The writers left all notions of generic cop shows behind and finally focused on amazing TV drama. There was one clear arc that led the season (where is the Bennett money?), but it had enough side plots to keep the audience on their toes, while there were betrayals, murders, and the introduction of some interesting new characters. As the best TV dramas are prone to, it also managed to blend drama and comedy, as we can see in that hilarious episode where Dewey Crowe runs around thinking someone stole his kidneys. And the season ended with an absolute bang, in terms of action as well as emotional impact.
The extremely high bar set by the season 3 finale was unfortunately also Justified’s downfall. The scene in which Limehouse chops off that creepy villain’s arm with a meat cleaver is pretty much the best scene of the entire series, and the moment when the audience realizes Raylan’s father really wanted to shoot Raylan and not the State Trooper was the most shocking, and the way in which this truth is revealed to the audience is beautiful and simply done very well. It just wouldn’t get any better than that, and that much became obvious in season 4: Justified had jumped the shark. Season 4 was just not very good. Apart from the introduction of some not very interesting characters, there was that nonsensical episode where Boyd and Ava have to go to this weird sex party organized by the former sheriff in order to achieve something (what exactly, remains unclear), not to forget the incredibly pointless and just plain stupid game cock episode. And going back to the structure of story arcs, this season functioned similarly to Teen Wolf season 4 because at the beginning of the season, a riddle was posed: who is Waldo? No, I am not kidding, that is the riddle. Some dude died some decades back, and apparently his name was Waldo, or maybe it wasn’t, and then Raylan has to find out who he really was. As far as story arcs go, this kind of idea is of course not uncommon, but whereas the stakes were high in Teen Wolf, in Justified season 4 the question remained: why do I need to care who Waldo is? The sad answer was: I absolutely do not care at all. It did not make any difference to anyone if Waldo was ever discovered. It seemed that the writers had used up all of their creativity on season 3 and just had nothing left. A few moments were still great, of course, such as the way Raylan’s father’s death was handled, or Boyd’s proposal to Ava, not to forget the finale, when Ava is arrested and Boyd completely falls apart. But while Teen Wolf and Community completely recovered from their terrible fourth seasons, Justified did not. Season 5 was a lot better, of course, as it went back to what had worked so well in season 2 with the Bennett family and introduced a new family: the Crowe clan from Florida. And I know Michael Rapaport’s accent was less than perfect, but I couldn’t help but be interested in the guy and his dynamic with Boyd. Nonetheless, the show couldn’t quite recover; the plot was a bit too convoluted, people scheming with and then against each other so quickly one had to stop and wonder what exactly the point was. This issue continued into season 6, although the finale was worthy of the show as a whole. Putting Boyd back in prison and making him a preacher again was a stroke of genius as it showed that some people are incapable of change.
1. Boardwalk Empire
It was obvious right away that Boardwalk Empire would be great. It was produced by HBO, and they went all-out, employing Martin Scorsese as one of the main directors and Steve Buscemi for the lead character. The wardrobe alone must have cost HBO millions, not to mention the fact that they built a life-sized replica of the original Atlantic City boardwalk. So this show had no need to find its footing. Right from the very first minute of the series premiere, it knew what it was and it did the job: high quality TV drama in a historical setting. As is usual for HBO shows, the story is populated by innumerable characters, all of whom have their own interesting backstory, their own motivations, and are portrayed by brilliant actors. The show harshly criticized American politics, the ideal of the American Dream, and World War I, while simultaneously underlining the fact that pretty much all Americans are immigrants, and it managed all of that through intricate, complex plots and subplots, and the first two seasons were glorious. At the end of season 2, the show found itself at a crossroads when two main players left the game: Jimmy Darmody first killed his father, the Commodore, and was subsequently killed by Nucky. These two characters, especially Jimmy, had been central to the plot of the first two seasons, so a completely new story arc was needed, and boy, did the writers deliver. Season 3 brought us Gyp Rosetti, one of the most fascinating and unpredictable TV villains I have ever seen, and Bobby Cannavale seriously deserved the Emmy he received for that role. But his story ended after only one season, sadly. And season 3 was the best season of that show by far. It’s almost impossible to choose one scene as the best one when there are so many highlights to choose from. The fact is, this season could not be topped, and indeed it was all downhill from there. Boardwalk Empire, too, had jumped the shark, although it wasn’t immediately visible.
The fourth season started out great and definitely had its bright sides. The introduction of the FBI agent Knox, the vilest creature this show has to offer, did the plot a whole lot of favors. Unfortunately, the dark sides slightly overshadow the season. For one thing, there is Eli’s son Willie, who in season 3 was a very mature, reasonable young man who had to grow up fast in order to care for his legion of younger siblings while his father was in jail. Now in season 4, the character has been recast, which happens and isn’t a problem, and has undergone some significant personality changes, which very much is a problem. Gone is the mature, reasonable kid; it seems like going to college has made Willie regress into a snotty, emotionally unstable teenager who makes spectacularly bad decisions. Most of the problems in that season could have been avoided if Willie had just used his brain a bit more. Then, there is the new villain Narcisse, who seems interesting enough, but most of the problems he brought about could have been avoided if Chalky White had a) treated Purnsley a bit more like a human being and b) kept his dick in his pants. And that leads us to yet another issue I have with this season. Her name is Daughter Maitland. Yes, that’s her name. She is a very talented singer. And how do I know that? Because the writers of the show seemed to think it a good idea to have her sing at least one song in every. Single. Episode. That doesn’t sound like much of a problem at first glance, but hear me out. Of course she had to sing once to demonstrate her talent and justify Chalky’s interest in having her perform at his club. But every performance after that first one was completely redundant. This isn’t going to turn into a tangent about musicals, but Boardwalk Empire is not a musical, and if her singing does not contribute anything to her character or the plot (and it never does), then I do not want to hear it. Her constant singing, as pleasant as it may sound, gave off the impression that the writers were running out of ideas and needed to fill some minutes of screen time, so why not have the pretty singer perform some more? This feeling was rather disturbing because it really was not an issue I had encountered before. Never had any of the musical performances (and there had been quite a few) felt so forced and so redundant and so incredibly repetitive. It appeared inspiration was dwindling.
And this trend was continued in the abysmal season 5, full of flashbacks that told us nothing new, only repeating facts we had already been told in detail. We already knew everything (!) about Nucky’s involvement in Gillian’s introduction to the Commodore, so there was no point, none at all, to rehash it all in a flashback. Again, there seemed an acute lack of ideas and an acute need to just fill a few minutes with something, anything, and the season only ran for eight episodes. Of course, it had its highlights, but they were few and far between. And that is why Boardwalk Empire is number 1 on this list. While Justified tried to regain its footing after season 4 and managed to produce a fifth season that was noticeably better, Boardwalk Empire’s fifth season was even more disappointing than the fourth one.
Author: Miriam (@miri_mh8)