“Longmire” Renewed

From Variety:

Three months after exec producer John Coveny tweeted that “SEASON 3 for #Longmire is a GO!,” A&E has officially ordered a 10-episode third run of the drama from Warner Horizon TV.

“Longmire” ranks as A&E’s highest-rated original drama series of all time in total viewers, and averaged 3.7 million viewers during its second season. Show also receives a notable boost in L+7 ratings, tipping the total viewership often to over 5 million.

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The Walking Dead: “Live Bait”

As we’ve noted before on the blog, we’re interested in television shows that fall under the category of post-western: television shows that take the Western out of the 19th-century American West and locate it in different places and sometimes different time periods.

The AMC series The Walking Dead literally takes place in contemporary Georgia, but we are metaphorically in a frontier situation brought about by the zombie apocalypse, which has caused civilization to collapse and humanity to return to a state of nature. (See earlier posts, “Two Guys Walk into a Bar . . . .” and “Wrapping Up The Walking Dead.”)

The most recent episode of The Walking Dead, “Live Bait,” played around with several western motifs in a story that centered on a character known as the Governor (or Phillip, in a former life, and Brian, the name he adopts in his most recent self-invention).

One of the early scenes of the Governor, alone and wandering, plays out with the sound of “The Last Pale Light in the West” by Ben Nichols playing on the soundtrack. If the Governor is not literally walking West in this episode, the song suggests that at least metaphorically he is doing so, as the protagonist of the song is walking toward the “setting sun” that is “in his way.” Even if he (like the speaker of the song) is asking for “no redemption,” the song connects the Governor to those two classic western motifs–heading west (into the sunset), looking for, or accidentally finding, redemption along the way.  And what better way to seek redemption than to help out a trio of stranded female homesteaders—I mean, post-apocalyptic survivors—after their father dies? The episode moves forward with the Governor moving on with a new family of sorts, including a young girl that reminds him of his own long-lost daughter.

Throughout the series, the Governor has struck me as being portrayed in a way that suggests or recalls John Wayne. Actor David Morrisey, who plays the Governor, does so somewhat subtly in his vocal delivery, but, I think more clearly in his body language, at various times striking poses that recall Wayne’s cowboy persona. And when he shows up onscreen in “Live Bait” with an eyepatch and an unruly beard, there’s more than a little resemblance to Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn (and a whole lot of resemblance to Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken in Escape from New York), or maybe it’s Jeff Bridge’s version of Rooster that is striking me when I look at the Governor.

As the episode progresses, he shaves his beard, keeps his eyepatch, and indeed looks like a new man. Is redemption possible for the Governor?

New Issue of Western American Literature

The latest issue of Western American Literature (Fall 2013) is in the mail (and online at Project Muse):

http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/western_american_literature/toc/wal.48.3.html

Sons of Anarchy: Aon Rud Persanta

Well, it’s pretty much impossible to discuss “Aon Rud Persanta,” the most recent episode of the motorcycle-club-soap-opera- Shakespearean-television-adaptation Sons of Anarchy without revealing spoilers, so be forewarned, spoilers follow, and if you don’t want to know who shot who, who died and who didn’t, then you should really stop reading about now.

As I’ve noted before, and as the series makes explicit in its allusions and in commentary from series creator Kurt Sutter, Sons of Anarchy is (very) loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Like Hamlet, Jax’s father, the “king” of the M/C, was killed by the man who replaced him as King and in his wife’s bed—Clay Morrow being the new King of the club, Gemma Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, and Jax left to avenge the death of his father by killing his murderer. The problem with this premise, as I’ve also noted, is that Hamlet merely delays the action of vengeance over the course of five acts, and, thus far, Sons of Anarchy has drawn it out for six seasons. Sooner or later, if your stated goal is to kill the King, and as the reasons for not killing him start to accumulate to a degree approaching the absurd, well, eventually, you have to kill the son of a bitch or shut up about it.

And, finally, Sons of Anarchy did it, and Jax finally killed Clay Morrow. This season, the show has lagged when Clay, stuck in prison, has been off the screen as well. So, now the question is, having killed off Clay, can Sons of Anarchy survive without him?

“Aon Rud Persanta” was also the most explicitly “western” episode in a while. Sort of like 3:10 to Yuma, the gang is getting together to spring Clay from imprisonment while he is being transported from one prison to another. Many many westerns have played out a similar scenario. Joining with the Irish, the Sons are planning to break Clay free so that he can head up the new gun-running operation. “It will be clean, fast, and easy,” one of the Irish tells Jax. Yeah, right. He’s clearly never seen a western, or a television show. The Sons are divided up into different plain delivery vans, each a different color, which causes Tig to complain, when he sees the color of the van he’s been assigned, “Why are we pink?” The shout-out here is to Reservoir Dogs, and if the allusion is foreshadowing, we would expect that this might be another heist where things go wrong.

Jax and Juice are in a van together, and Juice confesses that he wonder’s sometimes if he’s the good guy, and Jax assures him that “after this, it’s all white hats,” another western allusion (the cowboy hero is, of course, the one in the white hat), which is followed on the soundtrack by a rock song that begins with the lyrics “when I was a cowboy, out on the western plains . . . .” as the fleet of vans rides off into action.

The other “western” moment in the episode involves a conversation between Unser and Gemma, in which Unser tells her, “It’s not 1967. This life’s no path to freedom. It’s just dirty and sad.” This is a classic western lament—the frontier is closing, the outlaw life of freedom that used to available is no longer there. See, for example, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. As a lawman himself, or rather as someone who has straddled both sides of the law, Unser’s position is a little bit like Deke Thornton from The Wild Bunch, as his comments here seem to echo some of Deke’s from the film (as well as some of the conversations between Pike and Dutch).

The clean, fast, and easy part doesn’t quite work out, as Bobby is shot and wounded badly, although they do successfully free Clay (or take him into another sort of captivity). Clay does not realize until the last minute what he is walking into. When Jax pulls a gun and shoots Irish bad guy Galen in the head (almost immediately after Clay and Galen share a friendly man hug of greeting), he figures out pretty quickly what is about to happen. After some discussion and explanation, Jax shoots him in the throat, and then fires several volleys into his torso just to make sure (and, there can be no doubt, Clay is dead after this—any resurrections from the grave after this would be hard to do without seeming completely bogus). The bodies are arranged so that it looks like Clay and the three Irish gangsters shot one another as part of some falling out over a gun deal gone wrong.

Throughout the series, Clay has been the main purveyor of man hugs, and it’s a nice touch that he gets two final man hugs before he shuffles off this mortal coil (to quote Sons of Anarchy writer William Shakespeare), one with Juice, and the final one with Galen (sort of like a warped version of a Marty Robbins song, one man hug, and, Felina, good-bye). Will the death of Clay be the end of the man hug on Sons of Anarchy?

The final interesting piece of the puzzle in this episode involves Tara. She is called in to operate on Bobby, since they can’t take him to a hospital. While driving with Gemma and Nero to the hospital to pick up supplies, she receives a phone call from Patterson, who offers to meet her at her office, as the “deal” for Tara’s freedom is suddenly back on the table. There has not, at this point, been a reconciliation between Tara and Gemma, but having to work together to save Bobby’s life has at least produced, if not exactly a thawing, a little less coldness and open hostility. I’m not quite buying the plot point that they all suddenly trust Tara enough to let her go into the hospital by herself—and thus have a secret meeting with Patterson. For enrolling her and her sons in witness protection, Tara offers the possibility of evidence—the bullet she will eventually remove from Bobby during the operation.

At the end of the episode, we see Tara contemplating that bullet. Her earlier gambit to get free did not turn out well, and it was not a very good plan, ultimately. This, however, gives her a much more powerful game piece than she had earlier. The question to be resolved is: will she play it?

Sons of Anarchy “Aon Rud Persanta” By the Numbers:

Man Hugs: 2

Man Hugs Before Dying: 1

Man Hug Count For the Season: 18

Reservoir Dog Allusions: at least 1

Individuals Sorry to See Galen Dead: 0

Western Writers Online

For anyone who hasn’t seen the new online journal Western Writers Online, just click on the excerpt from the Editor’s Note below to check it out:

From “Editor’s Note,” Western Writers Online:

In 1972, two English faculty members at Boise State University began publishing a series of 50-page, tan-covered booklets introducing the lives and works of authors of the U.S. west. Western Writers Online brings the mission of the BSU Western Writers Series to the web. Like our print predecessor, we intend to make authors of the North American west better known and better understood by a wide audience of teachers, students, scholars, and interested readers.

We enter the field of online publishing with three essays representing the range of our interests in public scholarship on North American western authors. One goal of our site is to bring little-known writers and books to the attention of interested readers. Randi Eldevik’s “From the Dust Bowl to Frederick Manfred’s The Golden Bowl—A Journeyman’s Masterpiece” considers why a book that one critic calls “by far the best” Dust Bowl novel has fallen out of print, and shows us why it should be better known. Another goal of our site is to provide a forum for shorter scholarship on original topics, pieces designed to solve a narrowly defined scholarly problem, or to interpret individual texts or even performances of texts. Tara Penry’s discovery of the context of a letter in her library archive and Michael K. Johnson’s analysis of a First Nations production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear both fit in this category. Our niche is shorter, public scholarship. We plan to select topics that can be treated in approximately 1500-4000 words and to approach them with human curiosity and scholarly tools. We will follow the example of the print Western Writers Series in asking our editors and board members to contribute some of our first essays, so that we who edit also know what we are asking of our writers in this form.

Ripper Street and the Western Genre

When it comes to western television, I’m most interested in series that fall under the category of post-western: television shows that take the Western out of the 19th-century American West and locate it in different places and sometimes different time periods.

The AMC series The Walking Dead literally takes place in contemporary Georgia, but we are metaphorically in a frontier situation brought about by the zombie apocalypse, which has caused civilization to collapse and humanity to return to a state of nature. (See earlier posts, “Two Guys Walk into a Bar . . . .” and “Wrapping Up The Walking Dead.”)

The F/X series Justified places the western and its Stetson-wearing hero U. S. Marshal Raylan Givens in contemporary Kentucky, where the metaphorical state of frontier lawlessness has been brought about by local drug dealers and crime families hidden away in the Kentucky hills and worsened by incursions of organized crime from the metropolis of Detroit. (See, for example, the blog post Justified: Season Two Begins.) Breaking Bad similarly uses a contemporary setting for its story of  and outlaw chemistry-teacher-turned meth kingpin, but actually locates its story in the American West, New Mexico.

One of the most interesting post-westerns at the moment is Ripper Street, a joint production of BBC One and BBC America. Ripper Street is particularly interesting to consider as a western in large part because its setting comes nowhere near the American West (or America). A collaborative British/American production, Ripper Street fashions a deliberately British/American hybrid drama by setting the drama in nineteenth-century Whitechapel. The Jack the Ripper murders are in the recent past, but their effects are felt throughout the series. But it’s not Jack the Ripper, really, that dominates the series—it’s the setting of Whitechapel presented as a kind of frontier town. One character describes the East End of London as Frederick Jackson Turner did the frontier, as a “safety valve” destination for civilized London’s excess population: in this case, the immigrants, homeless, criminals, prostitutes, and addicts.

With plenty of mud, blood, and violence, Ripper Street combines the sensibilities of the series Deadwood with those of the British costume drama. With its focus on a police station in 1889, with its central character Detective Inspector Reid, played by Matthew McFadden, and its fascination with the early days of the medical post-mortem, you might think of Ripper Street as combining Deadwood, Downton Abbey, and C. S. I. And for those of us who miss the creative cursing of Deadwood, it’s quite a thrill to hear one Ripper Street character call another “A low murdering false son of a bitch cocksucker.” The allusions to Deadwood are quite clear and deliberate.

The television post-western  signals its genre roots through visual signs and other allusions to western conventions (e.g. Raylan’s hat in Justified). Ripper Street’s most obvious western allusion is the character Homer Jackson (American actor Adam Rothenberg), an American in London, who is the Al Swearingen of the series, operating a brothel with his wife and partner Susan. As we discover, not only does Jackson have medical skills, which he employs as a kind of freelance coroner, but he is a former Pinkerton agent—a staple character type of the dime novel western.

In the most clearly western episode of the series, “A Man of My Company,” a group of Pinkertons arrive in London as bodyguards for a wealthy American investor. In the group is Frank Goodnight, who has a grudge with Jackson. The Americans do what Americans do in British drama: bring crateloads of guns with them, ignore the rule of law, beat up women, torture journalists, and engage in kidnapping, murder, and general brutality. The climax of the episode is a showdown in the center of a city street between Jackson and Goodnight. As is typical of the hybridization of the series, the gunfight plays out in ways that suggest both a European-style duel and a western showdown.

Given the popularity of the western in the golden age of television, almost all television programming in America since the 1970s is in a sense post-western. What is unique about the contemporary shows that I categorize as post-western is that they very clearly, even obviously, draw our attention to their roots in the genre western.

Season Two of Ripper Street is currently airing on BBC One and is scheduled to air on BBC America in 2014. The first season of Ripper Street is currently available on DVD for American audiences.

More on Western TV

We haven’t had much of chance to talk about Hell on Wheels‘s (very good) season 3. If you’re interested in the series, be sure to check out the discusion at the Westerns Reboot blog: http://westernsreboot.com/2013/11/16/hell-on-wheels-season-4-confirmed/