Western Roots of Justified’s New Episode “Fixer”

Is FX’s new series Justified a “Western”? The episode “Fixer” suggests that the series is very much rooted in the genre Western. Although the setting of the show is contemporary Kentucky, multiple elements of the series suggest that while the geographic place of Justified may be the east, the series’ generic home is the western.

In the third episode of the series, “Fixer,” which aired last night, the story centers around Arnold Pinter (played by David Eigenberg, Sex and the City‘s Steve the bartender), a fixer, a bookie, and also a snitch for the Marshal’s office. Originally from Brooklyn, Pinter finds himself “here in the hinterlands,” where “you gotta diversify” to survive (and, ultimately, he hopes, get enough money to get back to civilization). Pinter is a familiar enough western character, operating on the borders of the legal and illegal, his Brooklynness a variation on the archetype of the foreign gentleman (often British) who is sometimes a tenderfoot character and at other times (like Pinter) a player who has his hand in various schemes.

References to the historical West and to the movie West abound in the episode, ranging from a poster for the Overland Stage company that we see near Raylan’s desk to multiple comments about Raylan’s “cowboy Marshall” persona. Referring to the quick draw killing that got Raylan moved by the Marshal’s Office from Florida to the “hinterlands” of Kentucky, Pinter comments, “You’re the guy that pulled a Wild Bill.”  Other characters comment that Raylan “Gary Coopered up,” or that he’s that guy “dressed up like the Marlboro Man.”

One of the episode’s bad guys, Curtis Mimms (Page Kennedy from Weeds), is fascinated by Raylan, and he ultimately wants to play cowboy with him. “I thought you were going to go High Noon on him,” comments one of his colleagues, after Mimms has a discussion with Raylan.

In that first encounter between Mimms and Raylan, we indeed see Mimms playing cowboy, and the scene is set up like a Main Street showdown, with the two characters facing each other at a shooting distance. The camera work in this scene is also evocative of the western, with several shots set up at hip-level looking from behind one shooter toward his opponent, the shooter’s gun hand dangling conspicuously in the corner of the frame.

If Mimms is playing cowboy, playing shootout, Raylan knows what a shootout is really like. “You think that’s really how you do it? Lots can go wrong with a draw.” This is good advice, and prophetic, and, as the episode continues, we see just how many different ways a draw can go wrong (but I won’t say anymore so as not to spoil the episode for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet).

The next episode also looks interesting (particularly from a western perspective), as Raylan indeed goes West, to California, and, in that classic western narrative turn, heads South, across the border into Mexico.

Ai (obituary)

The fascinating poet Ai died over the past weekend. Although I know Ai’s work, especially, her vivid, disturbing, and often violent dramatic monologues, I hadn’t really thought of her as a western writer until I began reading the obituaries over the weekend.  She was born in Texas, grew up in Arizona, and has served on the faculty at  Oklahoma State University for over a decade. And maybe the time has come to reconsider her work in the context of a life spent in the American West.

I’ve pasted in below some excerpts from obituaries and memorials to Ai (click on the excerpt to go to the whole article).

Celebrated Poet and OSU Professor Ai Ogawa Dies (The Daily O’Collegian)

by Kristen McConnaughey

OSU creative writing professor and poet Ai Ogawa, 62, died from illness Saturday.

“She was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday,” said Carol Moder, OSU English department head.

According to her obituary, Ai received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona in Oriental Studies and a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of California-Irvine.

“She was originally hired at OSU in 1999 as a visiting poet,” Moder said.

OSU offered her a tenured position and she has been on the faculty ever since, Moder said.

In Memoriam to Ai (1947-2010) by Jerry Williams (The Best American Poetry Blog)

When I was in high school and college I started seeing work in literary magazines by a woman with this exotic name who wrote what every other poet seemed too afraid to write—disturbing poems, violent, sexy, unspeakably moving, grief-stricken, harrowing, cutting, beautiful, and yet the verse seemed skillfully controlled and peaceable.

Ai, an Unflinching Poetic Channel of Hard Lives (New York Times)
by Margalit Fox

The prominent American poet Ai, whose work — known for its raw power, jagged edges and unflinching examination of violence and despair — stood as a damning indictment of American society, died on March 20 in Stillwater, Okla. She was 62 and lived in Stillwater.
Oklahoma.

The cause was pneumonia, a complication of previously undiagnosed cancer, said Carol Moder, head of the English department at Oklahoma State University, where Ai had taught since 1999.

Born Florence Anthony, the poet legally changed her name to Ai, which means love in Japanese, as a young woman. She received a National Book Award in 1999 for “Vice: New and Selected Poems,” published that year by W. W. Norton & Company.

Her other books include “Sin” (1986), “Fate” (1991), “Greed” (1993) and “Dread” (2003). A posthumous volume, “No Surrender,” is to be published by Norton in September.

Ai’s poems, which have been widely anthologized, are nearly always dramatic monologues, a form closely associated with the 19th-century English poet Robert Browning. To this form, she brought a flinty, distinctly 20th-century American sensibility.

“Imagine a Browning monologue rewritten in the terse manner of Sam Shepard,” the poet David Wojahn wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1986, “and you have a good idea of what an Ai poem sounds like.”

(Re)Constructing American West (CFP)

(Re)Constructing the American West — SAMLA 2010 (11/5-11/7)

(Re)Constructing the American West
South Atlantic Modern Language Association (November 5-7)

In his essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau says, “We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.” Similarly, in All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s protagonist remarks on a trip westward, “For West is where we all plan to go some day.” Yet, Warren’s west is starkly different from Thoreau’s. The myth of the American West has provided a geographical space for philosophers, writers, artists, and filmmakers to interrogate, personal as well as cultural, ambivalence towards the promises of Manifest Destiny, the American Dream, capitalism, individualism, diversity, and community. As a result, the metaphorical nature of the American West has reached mythic proportions and is constantly being deconstructed and re-imagined. Thinking about what Roland Barthes says about myth, that “it transforms history into nature,” this panel seeks to examine, through text and/or image, how the myth of the American West has been challenged, transformed, recuperated, or reconstructed since Thoreau. Papers dealing with any aspect of the American West will be considered; but papers dealing with the convention’s theme—the interplay between text and image—are strongly encouraged. Please send 250-word abstracts to Amber Estlund, Georgia State University, at engale@langate.gsu.edu by May 15, 2010. For more information on SAMLA, visit samla.gsu.edu

Justified: New Episode “Riverbrook”

I’m continuing to watch the series Justified on FX, with Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U. S. Marshal Raylan Givens. A new episode, titled “Riverbrook,” aired last night. The plot involves a couple of prisoners who are in a “bluegrass convict band” called “The Big House Boys.” While playing a birthday party, two of the “boys” take the opportunity to the escape. They cross paths with Raylan at a convenience store, which they have broken into (and traded their prison band costumes—cartoonish striped prisoner outfits—for clothing for sale in the store, a fact that Raylan almost immediately picks up on).

This episode pulls back from the more explicit references to the western that we saw in the first episode. The Tombstone poster is still in the Chief’s office, but we don’t see as much of it as we did in the earlier episode. The most explicit reference takes place during an exchange between Raylan and one of the escaped convicts, Cooper. In the convenience store, Raylan figures out too late what’s going on, and as he’s talking with the first convict, the second gets the drop on him from behind. When he sees Raylan’s badge, he asks what sort of lawman he is, and Raylan responds that he’s a U. S. Marshal. Cooper asks, “Marshal? Like in Gunsmoke?” Raylan responds, “More like The Fugitive.” And that’s about it for western references this time around.

Western references or not, the show remains entertaining, primarily because of Timothy Olyphant. However, this episode spent more time with the criminals, with Cooper, his ex-wife, and her “cousin.” Raylan is a far more interesting character than these relatively incompetent criminals, and I found the episode somewhat disappointing in that, so soon in the series, it shifted too much of its attention away from the main character to minor ones. I hope Raylan returns to center stage in next week’s episode.

Fess Parker (obituary)

I must confess that I was once one of those 6-year-olds inspired by Fess Parker to try to wear his coonskin cap to school (although, child of the ’60s, it was Daniel Boone more than Davy Crockett that led to my Fess Parker fascination).

From Richard Severo, New York Times (click on excerpt to go to full article):

Fess Parker, whose television portrayal of the American frontiersman Davy Crockett catapulted him to stardom in the mid-1950s and inspired millions of children to wear coonskin caps in one of America’s greatest merchandising fads, died on Thursday at his home in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, where he ran a successful winery. He was 85. A family spokeswoman, Sao Anash, said Mr. Parker died of natural causes.

The first episode of the Davy Crockett trilogy, “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter,” with Buddy Ebsen as Mr. Parker’s sidekick, George, was shown on Dec. 15, 1954. “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress” appeared on Jan. 26, 1955. By the time the last episode, “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” was broadcast, on Feb. 23, 1955, the country was in a Crockett frenzy.

Children wore coonskin caps to school and wore them to bed. They wore them with their Davy Crockett plastic fringe frontier costumes while they played with their Crockett trading cards, their Crockett board games and puzzles, their Crockett color slide sets and their Crockett powder horns. They pestered their parents for Crockett toy muskets and Crockett bubble gum and Crockett rings and comic books.

By the end of 1955, The New York Times reported, American children had their choice of more than 3,000 different Davy Crockett toys, lunch boxes, thermoses and coloring books.

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca (CFP)

Call for Essays/Articles for an Edited Collection On:

THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF FABIOLA CABEZA DE BACA:
“New Mexican Woman and Pioneering Writer.”

The focus of this collection is Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, a historically significant New Mexican woman who was ahead of her time in documenting life on the staked plains of New Mexico. Cabeza de Baca is a figure who has been largely studied in American studies, Chicana/o studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, environmental studies, culinary studies, educational studies, and literature. Nationally, Cabeza de Baca has served as the inspiration for a number of scholarly articles and essays. This collection will contribute to western American studies, women and the west, and will re-map Chicana studies in relation to “recovering” early Hispana voices.

The edited collection will include essays/articles about Cabeza de Baca’s life and work(s) (either published or archival). Suggested topics include southwestern history, education, culture, tradition, folklore, land, the environment, or cookbooks as historical documentation. If you are interested in submitting an essay/article for possible publication in this collection, please submit your 250-word abstract, along with a current CV, by May 1, 2010 to

Karen Roybal
Department of American Studies
The University of New Mexico
310 Ortega Hall
Albuquerque, NM 87131
kroybal1@unm.edu

Is Justified a Western?

The premiere episode of FX’s new series Justified aired last night. So, is it a western?  Is Harlan County, Kentucky, indeed (as FX advertising claims) the  “21st century Wild West”?

Well, Justified is certainly a post-western, consciously drawing on and reinventing traditional genre conventions. The series alludes to those conventional westerns in several ways: by casting Timothy Olyphant in the lead role (and thereby alluding to his earlier role in Deadwood, connecting, via the actor, the characters of Seth Bullock and Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens); via the character’s signature clothing (Stetson, cowboy boots, gun holstered at his hip); and a number of other smaller ways as well.

On the wall of the Chief Deputy’s Lexington office is a large poster for the film Tombstone, a visual reminder of the series’ awareness of its western roots. There’s a nice moment when Raylan meets up with old friend and new enemy Boyd Crowder that is reminiscent of Deadwood exchanges between Bullock and Swearengen—they toss back a shot glass of moonshine together.

And Raylan is the fastest gun in the west (or, rather, the east, or, well, probably anywhere). His fast draw speed places him in a long line of western heroes. He’s fast enough to draw and shoot first against a man who already has his gun in hand.

That said, the first episode was very attentive to establishing the place of the series in Kentucky, and the landscape of the series is that of eastern mountains and valleys. Justified seems serious in acknowledging its debt to the genre western, but it also seems serious in depicting a setting that is specifically Appalachian and not western.

So if you’re interested in the American West, should you watch Justified?

I think it’s worth a continued look. At the very least, it’s good to see Timothy Olyphant on screen, and, boy, is he looking good. He seems younger than in his role as Bullock, and he wears jeans and a black shirt as well as he wears his Stetson. I will also be curious to see if the series continues to make allusions to western conventions and to specific westerns. Why use the poster in the Chief Deputy’s office to highlight Tombstone and the OK Corral? A hint of what might be in store for Raylan?