Our Fathers: God on “Justified”

“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.

Draw.

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.

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  • http://www.pdltd.org Tom H.

    Well-said, Mr. Klavan. I was a little put-off by seeming plot and character cliches in the premiere episode but the show has revealed great depths as the season progressed. I’m glad I stuck with it.

  • richard

    No, not you too! For the last time, it’s “Marshal” with one “L.”

  • EdSki

    Interesting, that scripture verse came up in Mass yesterday. I don’t remember if it was the second reading, but the priest brought it up during the homily.

    It is a compelling question, do we do good works because the work is proof we believe, or do we do good work because we believe?

    I could go on for paragraphs about the problems with humanizing God, but this is Mr. Klaven’s blog, so I’ll be polite and simply say good post.

  • ALEXISTAN

    It is a great show and you are wise to call it out, Mr Klavan. The open-endedness of the show is brilliant and mirrors life, not to mention providing a wonderful opportunity for a cast of wild and changing characters to really strut their stuff. And, in the case of the red-thong-wearing judge, well…

  • http://withcomment.blogspot.com Chris M

    The best shows right now deal with our search for God. “Supernatural” (CW), compared God to a “dead beat dad”. “Grace”(TNT), although is no longer in its stride has had good conversations between “Earl” the personal angel of Grace and others about God. Finally, “Battlestar Galactica”(SciFi) was one of the most relgious shows at its core in years. What is life, do we have free will or is a destiny determined for each of us?

  • Synova

    I think that a person would have to actually recount the entire season to adequately convey the whole of it. One is never sure if Boyd’s conversion is real or an act, just like his white-supremist thing was an act. You never know if he just likes to blow things up or if he’s a far more intelligent criminal than his father. The actor is simply incredible. The character is brilliant.

    My take on “justified” is that, at some level, Raylan wants to, or likes to, kill people and Boyd likes to blow things up and that both of them find a way to do that, Boyd on the criminal side, and Raylan by putting himself in a place that sanctions his violence.

    I really appreciate someone who notices that both Raylan and Boyd are broken.

  • Skip

    Raylan Givens is the modern day Jim Rockford!!!!!!!
    and it’s about time!!!

  • Eric

    Synova -

    I too wondered. It was ironic that it was the scene where he struggled with a loss of faith that convinced me that he had it in the first place.

  • Hollywoodron

    Okay okay!!! I’ll freaking watch it!!! :)

  • Tex Ex

    I like to think of Justified as The Shield in Kentucky. I’m not saying that Raylan is as dirty as Vic, but the way they both walk a fine line between Right and Wrong is always riveting to watch.

    As for the show’s treatment of God, it’s refreshing to see an honest portrayal of individual’s struggle with their relationship with the Father.

  • RollyBones

    When I watched the pilot I was sure that this was going to be another bash Christ and all things conservative because of some o the dialogue. Then I watched the next episode and got just a bit more comfortable. The next and the next got me hooked and I’m praying that the bean counters don’t blow it by screwing with time slots and all the other things TV executive morons do to ruin great shows! Thanks Andrew, for puting into words what I finally started to perceive.

    Rolly

  • Skip Martin

    I’m glad to see “Justified” getting the glowing press it so richly deserves. The season finale is widely hailed among my friends and me as one of the best hours on television – ever!

  • Bo

    I would like to know why Boyds white, racist, masogonistic Father wore an American flag shirt?

  • sqt

    Okay, I have to watch this show. Great post Mr. Klavan.

  • Chauncy Gardner

    Rolly:

    Don’t get too comfortable, one of the show’s writer’s is a big leftist conspiracy nut job. I’m sure that will works it way into the show. Just give it time.

  • toddes

    @EdSki,

    I’m a little late to the conversation but the answer to your question is Yes.

    Too many times we want to see it as one (Faith) or the other (Works) but it’s both. It’s a balance between our free will and God’s will. The best example I can think of for this is Jesus’ prayer in the Garden in Matthew 26:39, 42. He prayed earnestly that the cup would be taken from him but even more so that God’s will would be done.

  • RollyBones

    Chauncy Gardner,
    Well in the first episode they atarted to make commentson the 2nd Amendment and that was one of te first things that set me off. I think I know who it is your speaking about and I await either his being ignored because of the base this show is fostering or out right fired because his ideas would ruin the ‘Golden Egg’. But, this being TV and all, I have seen way to many of my favorite shows go to hell because of the rightwing slant and the ignorance of those in charge of the networks. I will be vigilant and see what happens!

    Rolly

  • Jiminator

    Interesting post; it occurs to me that father issues is a theme in a LOT of shows today…the lead character for “In Plain Sight” as well as her entire family are all putting the pieces back together years after their father abandoned the family; the lead character in “Burn Notice” frequently references his troubled relationship with his father; the backstory for “Royal Pains” includes a father who abandoned the family when the mom became terminally ill, and this season includes a significant story line about his return to their lives.

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  • FeliciaB

    Well, you’ve done it, Mr. Klavan. You got me watching “Justified.” And now I’m hooked… doggone it.

  • http://www.freudslastsession.com Rob Stillman

    Dear Andrew,

    I enjoy your Klavan on culture vignettes. I saw the Bible verse and reference to Freud and wanted to plug my Off-Broadway show called “Freud’s Last Session”. It is a hypothetical meeting between C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud based on the book “The Question of God” by Harvard professor Dr. Armand Nicholi Jr. If you want more information you can visit the website http://www.freudslastsession.com If you would be interested in hosting a post-performance Q+A or you know somebody that would be good for that let me know.

    Thanks,

    Rob Stillman