“We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Galatians 2:16
Sigmund Freud believed that God was no more than a projection of our ideal father onto the heavens. Myself, I think it’s exactly the other way around. There’s no particular reason I can think of why we should idealize our fathers in the first place; no reason biologically we should even know they exist. And yet we come into the world adoring the old fellows and suffer deeply when they fail to live up to our image of their perfection. It doesn’t seem too outlandish to suppose that that impossible perfect image is, in fact, the fingerprint our Creator has left on the clay of our souls.
The search for God in a world of failed fathers provides a recurring theme for F/X’s wonderful new crime show Justified, the first season of which ended just this past week.
Justified is one more proof of my contention that the best screenwriting and screen acting are now being done for television rather than film. Created by Graham Yost from a short story by Elmore Leonard, the show features a nearly perfect cast led by Timothy Olyphant and writing of the very first water by Yost, Dave Andron and Fred Yolan, among others.
Justified follows the story of Raylan Givens, a modern deputy US Marshal with a penchant for wild west gunplay. Reassigned to his native Kentucky, he finds himself hunting criminals who were once his childhood friends and falling for women who were once his childhood crushes.
In the first episode, Raylan puts a bullet in his old pal Boyd Crowder, played by The Shield’s incomparable Walton Goggins. Boyd, a violent neo-Nazi felon, subsequently has a conversion experience and becomes a violent Christian felon. At this point, the viewer could have been forgiven for thinking, “Here we go. Another shallow Hollywood attack on religion.” But the season’s startling thematic pivot point comes midway when Raylan’s boss, Chief Deputy Art Mullen (a wonderfully witty and three dimensional performance by Nick Searcy) slaps a Bible down in front of Boyd and shouts, “It’s Christians like you who give Christians like me a bad name!”
You can see the look of shock on Raylan’s face – a shock shared by the audience. Mullen is the only Whole Man in the show, the only man entirely comfortable in his own skin and with his own authority. Both Raylan and Boyd, on the other hand, are haunted, tormented – and hampered in their search for God – by the examples of their criminal fathers. Both fathers turn murderous as the season concludes, causing Boyd’s jerry-rigged faith to start to crumble. He asks Raylan (I’m quoting from memory here):
“Do you believe in God?”
“I do,” says Raylan.
“What does your god look like, Raylan?”
“Oh, you know. Old man. White beard. Golden throne.”
When our fathers fail us, the image of Our Father becomes unclear.
But my point in this small space is not to parse the show’s approach to its theme, merely to point out what a worthy theme it is. Unlike popular movies, Justified is not putting forward the idea that “the earth has a fever,” or “America is evil,” or “war is useless,” or any of the other childish lies of our alienated and tapped-out intellectual elite. Because the best screenwriters are leaving the movies, good television shows are where the large and permanent human questions are now on display.
Those questions are what make storytelling justified and what make Justified excellent storytelling.