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'Justified' recap: You can never leave Harlan

May 5, 2011 |  8:00 am

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When this season of "Justified" began, we met the fractious, insular Bennett clan, a family in which the constant infighting was only trumped by the suspicion of almost everyone outside of the family. Now, after a season in which the Bennetts seemed to emerge triumphant, after a season in which family matriarch Mags took in an orphaned girl whose father Mags herself had killed, after a season in which brother turned on brother until all turned on those who would strike them down, just one Bennett remains alive at the end of "Bloody Harlan," the second-season finale.

As the episode closes, only Dickie Bennett, something of a human cockroach who can't be wiped from the face of the Earth, is still alive. Mags has committed suicide -– just as I predicted, her poisoned glass came back, but in this case, she used it to kill herself, rather than Raylan -– and Doyle, the one Bennett boy who had a veneer of respectability, was shot through the head by Tim when Doyle was about to shoot Raylan. Coover, of course, died earlier this season, after a brawl with Raylan. We've heard so much about the ancient feud between the Givens family and the Bennetts that it seems sort of sad to realize that where Arlo and Raylan Givens remain (with Raylan's baby on the way), the only adult Bennett left is headed off to prison, presumably for a very long time.

If Season 1 of "Justified" was about how you can't go home again without realizing simultaneously how much and how little has changed (both about you and about the place), Season 2 was all about how you can't LEAVE home again once you've returned. Raylan and Winona talk in the finale about going to Glynco so he can teach marshals in training and she can raise their baby, but by the end of the hour, it's clear that's not going to happen. Raylan is as bound to this place as he's ever been; the one place he simply didn't want to go back to in the pilot is now the one place he'll never be able to shake. Season 2 planted this idea throughout, cannily using the audience as a way to suggest how life may have moved on for Raylan once he left town, but it remained stuck in neutral for too many others in Harlan, Ky.

The gradual unfolding of the long Bennett/Givens feud throughout the season is a case in point: The Bennetts and the Givenses barely know what the feud started over back in the day, but they intimately recall recent incidents, such as Raylan taking a baseball bat to Dickie's knee (an incident Dickie replicated, somewhat, in brutal fashion Wednesday night, stringing Raylan up from a tree and taking swings at him with a bat, as though Raylan were a pinata). We in the audience, of course, don't know all of this local history, and it's the genius of the show to only gradually reveal it, so by the time we know all of the pieces of the puzzle, we accept this as the way things have always been, just as the members of the Bennett and Givens families do.

"Bloody Harlan" plays, in many ways, as a tragedy, even though all of the characters who die were in opposition to our hero. Mags Bennett started the season with a big goal, and she showed her ruthlessness by killing a man who seemingly stood in the way of that goal, then taking his daughter under her wing. From those small incidents, almost everything that happened this season grew. That young girl Mags took in -– Loretta McCready -– finally realized the truth of what had happened and headed after the Bennetts with a gun and some cash, a 14-year-old girl entering a world and a game she was far too young to be a part of, simply because her grief was so immense. (After Raylan asks Loretta what her daddy would want her to do as she's threatening Mags' life, Kaitlyn Dever's reading of the line -- about how she wished her daddy were there to tell her what to do -- should guarantee that the girl ends up with a plumb part on some other series for many years to come.) 

It's that sense of history, of the past reaching up out of the ground and swallowing the people of Harlan whole, that had made this series so spectacular this season. What was a very good show in year one has become a great show, one of the best on TV, in year two, simply because the added amount of time and character detail has made the tapestry the show’s writers weave (from the cloth Elmore Leonard has left them) that much more intricate. After this season, we have so many new faces that could pop up at any point in the rest of the series and enliven what happens, and we can be certain they won't have forgotten any of the events of this season and will, indeed, still be haunted by them. (I can't wait to see what's become of Dickie in Season 3.) Sometimes, these people can overcome their history. After all, Art finds a way to begin to repair his relationship with Raylan (which seemed pretty broken in the last few episodes). It's just hard, and leaning on what came before is often easier.

The mark of a great TV series is that it doesn't just tell us a story or show us fun characters; it finds a way to say something true about human nature, to ask a central question about the characters that might never be answered. After this season of "Justified," which I’d easily mark as a great one, the question that applies to every single character on the show is not whether they can get out of Harlan, Ky. Even if they move clear across the country, the place will be so much a part of them that it will be like they never left. No, the question now is whether the bloody history of this place has its hooks so deep in everyone that the only way out is at the bottom of a glass of poisoned apple pie.

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Complete Show Tracker "Justified" coverage

-- Todd VanDerWerff
Twitter.com/@tvoti)

Photo: Margo Martindale plays Mags Bennett in "Justified." Credit: FX

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