‘Tis the Season for True Grit (2010)

I just got back from watching the Coen Brother’s True Grit, which is a great deal of fun, and, in a strange way, even a kind of “holiday” movie, with its scenes of snowy weather and fat men with impressive beards (not many red suits or ho-ho-hos though). It even has a special holiday message. As Rooster Cogburn comments, “If a man wants a decent burial, he oughtn’t get himself killed in the winter.” Sure, not your usual seasonal greeting, but  a good point, and one that is effectively driven home by the image of several corpses propped up against a wall, as snow falls on the bodies and on the ground that is too frozen to dig. Part of the dark humor of the film, it seems to me, is in thinking about it as commenting on its own Christmas time release date by combining such holiday staples as gently falling snow with scenes of violent death.

Somewhat surprisingly to me, True Grit (2010) corresponds fairly closely with the John Wayne True Grit, at least in terms of plot events and other incidents. Although the new TG is pointedly not a remake of the earlier film, the similarities suggest how closely both scripts follow the original novel. One of the key differences is that TG 2010 follows the novel in adapting a framing device of having the older Mattie Ross narrate the film’s events via an opening and closing voiceover. And the final scene shows us Mattie 25 years later, one arm amputated (Mattie in TG 1969 survives a rattlesnake bite with no loss of limb), and arriving too late to see Rooster Cogburn one more time.

The new TG is also faster paced, funnier, and better acted than the earlier film. Replacing Glen Campbell with Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is in itself enough to ensure a better job of acting, and both Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Hallie Steinfeld as Mattie Ross are terrific. Mattie is a wonderful character, and if her major characteristics in TG 1969 were her strong will, intelligence, and quick tongue, she retains those qualities in the TG 2010 and is allowed to go further in terms of the film’s action. Her foiling of the ferryman at the river crossing is more effectively realized (she bops him in the head with an apple and makes her escape), and her crossing of the river on the back of Little Blackie is more spectacular than in the earlier film. Also, whereas LaBoeuf is the one who blocks the chimney of the cabin in the earlier film, here Mattie takes part directly in the action by climbing on to the cabin roof to block the smoke. The only real complaint I have about the movie is that Steinfeld’s name is listed so far down in the credits, after both Josh Brolin and Ned Pepper (neither of whom have much more than five minutes of screen time).

I would love to hear what other people thought about the film.


Sons of Anarchy and the Manly Art of Hugging

Perhaps no other show on television includes as much hugging in it as does Sons of Anarchy. Over the last few episodes, “The Push,” “Widening Gyre,” and the just aired “Turas,” there’s been a lot of hugging. At times, it seems that every episode includes at least ten minutes of hugging. A renegade member of a rival gang is executed in a public bathroom, and members of both gangs hug one another afterwards, just to show there are no hard feelings. SAMCRO members stow away and fly to Ireland and meet up with the Irish chapter of the Sons of Anarchy, and we have multiple scenes of men hugging men.

Lest you think the Sons are going all soft and fuzzy, these hugs represent displays of manliness rather than affection. For the most part,  the hugs in Sons of Anarchy are highly ritualized carefully choreographed man hugs. The man hug, otherwise known as a “pound hug,” a “bro-grab,” a “hetero hug,” a “thug hug,” or a “hip-hop hug,” is an important contemporary ritual of manliness. A man hug begins with a handshake. Once the hands are clasped, the two “bros” pull toward each other for a firm half-embrace (the shaking hands remain clasped as a barrier between bodies–otherwise, a full hug might ensue), and the hug ends with a firm slap on the upper back or shoulder with the free hand. As Matt and Kate McKay note in their “Mechanics of the Man Hug” post on The Art of Manliness Blog, “The back slap is key. Somehow hitting your fellow man makes the hug more manly.”

Although there are plenty of guides to the fine art of the man hug published online, there is some disagreement about the closing slap. Everyone agrees that it’s essential to making a hug manly, but there’s wide disagreement about the number of the slaps. Some guides insist that the etiquette of manliness requires precisely two taps, but others are equally adamant that fewer than three slaps is positively girly, and still others insist that a single firm tap on the shoulder is sufficiently manly, and, in fact, any more than one is excessive and contrary to the value of manly restraint.

In Sons of Anarchy, the slap is most often a single solid tap, which makes quite a nice sound against a leather jacket, and, if the man hug conveys particularly intense emotions, there might be a double tap. Even Kellen Ashby, the Irish priest (and IRA leader), engages in man hugs, despite his calling, which you would think would give him a reprieve from rituals of manliness. However, he does end his man hugs not with a single slap but with several gentle pats. A priest can do that sort of thing and still be considered manly.

In the recent episodes, SAMCRO has finally crossed the border, not into Mexico as the traditional western would have done, but overseas to Ireland, and into the arms (much hugging ensues) of the Dublin chapter of the Sons of Anarchy, who thoughtfully provide their American brothers with motorcycles for a picturesque ramble across the Irish countryside. The Sons also have a sort of hugging reprieve here, as they haven’t seen their Irish brothers in years, and some of the hugs here are full hugs (no barrier created by the clasped hands), and there’s even a bear hug or two.

As might be expected in a western, our outlaw heroes are set upon by Federales—or, wait, not Federales, since this is Ireland, but by the Irish equivalent of Federales (or, more correctly, the Irish equivalent of Hollywood western Federales:  corrupt, incompetent, easily bribed state-sponsored policemen). Fortunately for SAMCRO, Gemma has escaped from the hospital and incipient imprisonment, hitched along on the plane ride to Ireland, and she quickly dispatches the Irish cops with some well-timed bad driving.

When it comes to true manliness, no one does it better than Gemma. And it’s a good thing she joined the sons, because all the hugging going on between the Irish and American chapters seems to be softening them up some.  I keep thinking that Gemma is the tough woman that so many female Republican office seekers seem to want to be this election cycle.  I’ve seen clip after clip of Republican women taking their Democratic male opponents to task by telling them to “man up.” Gemma does the same here. After all, the Sons are kind of like Democrats, in that they have club meetings and hold votes and seem to believe in a sort of democratic process.  That’s all well and good, of course, but Gemma knows that sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. At one point she tells Jax, “Now is not the time for soul searching. You focus on the hate you need in order to kill all these Irish pricks.”  In other words, man up, and start killing and stop hugging.

As is often the case when the outlaw heroes cross the border, things go all sorts of wrong for the Sons, as they find themselves entangled in an internal IRA power struggle that they don’t quite understand, and the simple solution to getting Abel back—killing Jimmy O’Fallon—isn’t quite so simple after all.

Not every problem can be resolved with a man hug—or a gunshot.

Grand Obsessions

One of the highlights of the 2010 WLA conference thus far for me was the roundtable discussion:  Revisiting “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions”: 21st-Century Visions, Challenges, and Possibilities. The panel looked back at Annette Kolodny’s 1992 essay (published in American Literature) “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions: Notes for a New History of the American Frontier,” with several scholars (all former students of Kolodny) talking about how the essay (and Annette Kolodny herself) has influenced their current work. The panelists were also interested in discussing ways of expanding on Kolodny’s essay, looking at other contemporary grand obsessions that limit scholarship, and suggesting ways to let those grand obsessions go as well. Annette Kolodny also served as a respondent on the panel, offering her suggestions for where American studies might go next.

I’ll try to provide a brief overview of what the panelists discussed, from notes I took while attending the session—and apologies ahead of time for errors and omissions in my note taking, as I know I won’t be able to convey in full detail all the elements of each panelist’s comments.

Chad Allen started the discussion by providing an overview of the key ideas from “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions,” noting the essay “pushed against older traditions of the frontier coming out of Frederick Jackson Turner.”  Allen noted two important points about Kolodny’s revision of the frontier concept: that two things changed in the frontier encounter between two groups of people and as a result of that encounter: both groups of people encountering one another for the first time, but also the land the itself.

Amy Hamilton remembered that after she had presented her first WLA paper, in which she talked about the symbolism of bloodied feet in narratives of forced marches,  Kolodny, in the audience, had commented that “some pains are not metaphorical.” The  comment, Hamilton observed, led her to see the limitations of interpreting experience as only symbolic and to  be attentive to the real effects experiences have on places and bodies. The influence of Kolodny’s essay on her work, which focuses on the “trope of  walking” in American Literature, caused her  to look at  American literature from various perspectives, to be attentive to the  impact of region on depictions of walking, and to understand walking not only as a trope but also as a real activity with real effects on bodies and places.

All of the panelists suggested that the key influence of “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions” was its imperative that as scholars we continually rethink received literary and historical paradigms, whether that be the separation of experience and the textual representation of experience (the paradigm of focusing only on the text), or, as Tom Hillard suggested, the need to rethink geographically and chronologically what counts as western literature.

Hillard began with a discussion of his work on the lost colony at Roanoke, which is  “story of frontiers, contact zones, encounters between groups of people,” that, when we look beyond its eastern setting, is the “archetypal story at the center of western literature.” Hillard’s key question was: why does there seem to be so little critical interest in pre-nineteent- century literature in western studies? As part of a study, he looked back at every WLA conference program from 1970 onward, looking for what’s been studied as western or frontier literature. Texts from earlier centuries were mostly absent; there were fewer than 15 conference talks in the past 45 years focused on pre-19th century literature. He noted that there’s still much work to be done to let go our grand obsessions with received geographic and chronological ways of conceptualizing what counts as western or frontier literature.

Building on Hamilton’s comment on the necessity of seeing both the trope and the real experience, Tereza M. Szeghi talked about the frontier as borderlands, observing, following Kolodny, the importance that such studies need to be grounded in the physical space of the borderlands, in the concept of a materialized border rather than just a metaphorical contact zone.

Randi Tanglen built on Hillard’s critique of periodization to ask how we might rethink frontier texts and periodization in the 19th century, departing from the paradigm of using the Civil War, and its north/south division, as the central organizing principle for the century. She suggested that the US-Mexican War, which resulted in “accumulations of new peoples and lands, and which meant that Americans had to rethink what it means to be American,” was an equally important way of conceptualizing the mid-19th century.

Kolodny responded by sketching out some of the history of the publication “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions.” The essay appeared in the first issue of American Literature under the leadership of a new editor, one with a “new eagerness to shake the stuffing out of American Studies.” Indeed,  “the journal and the field would never be the same” after the publication of the issue.  She noted that most of the objections to the ideas in the essay centered around the call for Americanists to get out of the English department, and the call for studying literature in languages in other than English. In keeping with the forward-looking approach of the discussion, she noted that she has a new book coming out next year, In Search of First Contact, which asks two key questions: how does a settler nation justify its acts of genocide? and how do invaded indigenous peoples maintain an ongoing sense of identity in the face of that violence? Kolodny concluded with the comment that the book is “my latest effort to eschew disciplinary boundaries . . . and most of all to keep up with my own former students.”

The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid)

The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid) created on 5 September, 2010 @ 18:56 [Autosave]
Title The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid)

For anyone who reads this and doesn’t know me or the terminology for the blog, let me note that I’m David Cremean, Past-President of the Western Literature Association (2009), and “Paha Sapa” is Lakota Sioux for “Black Hills,” where I teach and live, in Spearfish, just off of I-90, near Deadwood and a scant 10 miles from the eastern portion of Wyoming.

Well, it’s only been a bit over a year-and-a-half since I created this blog, and I’m finally using it for the first time. I doubt the world was any poorer for my non-blogging or will become any richer now that I’m trying to kick start it like a stubborn horse, but here it is. Last night I rewatched (on Netflix direct feed) this post’s title, Director Arthur Penn’s “classic Western” for the first time since, well, childhood or adolescence, and I’m now 52.

Penn is, of course, most famous for Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, and as far as I can tell is completely unrelated to Shaun Penn or the other two Penn brothers. Well, in keeping with both of those films, this one is another 3 word title if we count the hyphenated term as a single word: The Left-Handed Gun (1958). It was Penn’s first film, and that fact shows all too well. It was also one of Newman’s earliest roles, and I think that shows a bit too well, too, though as always, Newman has his moments. The best-acted part is John Dehner’s Pat Garrett, though he too is given some awful lines and scenes.

So, as for Penn here: this black and white film, based on some type of script originally written by Gore Vidal and rewritten by Leslie Stephens, is pretty much an incoherent mess with little plausibility or believable suggestion of cause and effect and no apparent themes. It doesn’t even have a mood. Perhaps in the existential and Beat-laden late-1950s that incoherence is the point, though I doubt it. LHG also probably sticks too close to history in some ways (though not close enough in others; see below), or at least fails to use the historical or even the legendary aspects very well. Of course, with a director’s first film in particular, it’s hard to say what a studio may have done to destroy it all. Nevertheless, the outlaws themselves are made far too “good” and thus one-dimensional in Penn’s version.

Newman was in his early 30s when he played this role, supposedly a late teen-, earlier one-score-aged character. This problem has of course been a common one for so many Hollywood films (including many a Western, perhaps most egregiously in recent memory All the Pretty Horses). Of course, Yosemite Sam Peckinpah’s Billy, Kris Kristofferson, created a similar stretch, but in Peckinpah’s case it works because being older is intentionally a major part of the theme and the film’s world: KK’s Billy is not supposed to be “historical” or young. And Penn was reined in a great deal by the restrictions of his time: so many laughably bloodless shooting deaths here. As well, Newman seems too busy trying to do his best Montgomery Clift/Marlon Brando/James Dean (for my money, the greatest of these is Clift, a major influence on the other two). Newman also often overracts, though in this film he’s hardly the only one who does.

Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid obviously owes a great deal to this film and clearly references it at many a turn. Granted, both follow a lot of the historical/legendary facts about “The Kid,” but Peckinpah makes them fit his film. Typical of the Wild Buncher–see also Major Dundee–confusion surrounded his version (there are 3 different film cuts of it still available). Peckinpah’s film, at least in “his” preferred version, is easily the better of these two and to my mind easily the best of the many BTK films: it is at once more focused and more profound. Both films are full of cruciformic imagery of surrendering or dying men (though at least as I recall, it’s only with Billy in Peckinpah’s, and in Penn’s it is each of the 3 main outlaws: Billy, Charlie Boudre, and Tom Folliard).

One wonders if Cormac McCarthy’s kid/man’s demise in the Dantean “jakes,” the end-game in _Blood Meridian_, is an ironic reference to Billy’s use of the outhouse in Peckinpah’s film (in LHG, it is simply the semi-veiled Billy’s need for a trip “outside” that covers anything scatalogically). Even Bob Dylan’s mysterious (and alas, badly acted role) “Alias” in Peckinpah’s film has a precedent in LHG: Hurd Hatfield playing an odd and mysterious hero-worshipping southerner, Moultrie. (Hatfield is most famous as the star of the film version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.)

In addition to Dylan’s fine soundtrack for the Peckinpah film–though Peckinpah had few kind words for Dylan (of course, like John Ford, he rarely had many kind words for anyone). Riding along the same trail, the score for Peckinpah’s film involves the hymnic Dylan classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” used in the film’s single most poignant, memorable, greatest scene, the death of the gutshot Slim Pickens character (one of Garrett’s allies) in the arms of his wife, played by the equally legendary Kay Jurado, as he moves down by the river for a variety of suggestive/symbolic reasons. One of these reasons is that he will never sail in let alone finish his boat (referenced by Gene Hackman’s Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, who never gets to finish his house, which produces William Munny’s greatest line of all, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it”).

Finally worth noting is that Billy the Kid was, of course, apparently right-, not left-, handed, since the famous photograph of The Kid holding a rifle in his right hand and wearing his revolver on his left resulted from a reversal of the negative. This photograph is actually part of Penn’s film and portrayed incorrectly, when at Garrett’s wedding Billy is photographed holding a rifle in his right hand and wearing his revolver on his left side.

Trivial Pursuit elements (along the lines of iMdb): At least one song I’m aware of and own on a vinyl album directly mentions the Peckinpah movie, is built around it in fact: the late, great folk-singer John Stewart’s “Take Me to Durango” (Mexico, where SP’s version was filmed): “I could play that part just fine you know,” “I never saw old Peckinpah,” “it’ll be the best Billy the Kid of ’em all,” and “shot him down in (New) Mexico,” among other lines. . . . Denver Pyle (as the ill-fated Ollinger, a part that in Peckinpah’s film is utterly inhabited by RG Armstrong) and James Best as Billy’s sidekick Tom Folliard later became Pa Duke and Sheriff Roscoe P. Coletrain, respectively, in _The Dukes of Hazzard_, the ridiculous but for a couple years of its run fun hit television show with plenty of Western elements built into it. . . . And speaking of Cormac McCarthy, likely one of his reasons for interest in “the kid” is that Henry McCarty (not William Bonney) was apparently Billy the Kid’s real name. This kicks up even more interesting serendipitous dust, at least forme: as I learned only 4-5 years ago, the Cremean family name descended from McCruimmen/O’Cruimmen/ McCrimmin/etc., which comes out of Counties Cork and Kerry in Ireland–and was a sept of the McCarthy Clan (also out of Cork and Kerry) and uses the McCarthy/McCarty coat of arms. McCarthy often seems to play with elements of his heritage, such as this. Adding to the serendipity: Hurd Hatfield from LHG died in either Rathcormac or Monkstown, County Cork, Ireland.

Immigration and Science Fiction

The Science Fiction Research Association held its annual meeting in Carefree, Arizona, on June 24 to 27, 2010. The planning of the conference predated Arizona’s passage of the anti-immigration bill, and in response, the SFRA drafted the SFRA 2010 Statement in Response to the Arizona Immigration Bill, SB 1070. The statement notes, “It is with discussion and action in mind that the Executive Committee has decided to hold a roundtable discussion at SFRA 2010 about SB 1070. Instead of standing in silence and throwing away all of the hard work that went into planning, developing, and organizing SFRA 2010, we intend to face the issues head-on at the meeting.”

I thus attended the roundtable, with statements from moderator Doug Davis, Jason Ellis, Mack Hassler, Rob Latham, Yu-Fang Lin, and Patrick Sharp. (Lisa Yaszek, listed on the program, was unable to sit on the panel.) The question addressed was, “What does SF across media have to say about immigration?” I summarize their remarks below, then note some concerns that came up during the discussion with the audience.

Sharp, who lives and teaches in California, which has its own anti-immigration fervor, provided a summary of the history of immigration in the United States, noting that English-speaking whites have held dominion for only about 160 years. Jack London (a proto-SF writer) wrote about the Yellow Peril, and the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon franchises echoed that concern in a manner that linked immigration and warfare.

Latham noted that as teachers, allegory might be used to inform issues of immigration and race/ethnicity–for example, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In regard to this text, Latham noted that two things in particular struck him: first, the constituative ambiguity of the legal bar against androids, which appears clear-cut but in fact isn’t; and second, the assumption of bad faith, which is required before a test is made to make a declaration and apply the law, which thus questions its own motives, and whether a distinction is meaningful. Latham stressed the complex background to what appears to be an easy question.

Ellis and Lin, a married couple, both spoke of their personal fears of visiting Arizona because of Lin’s status as a legal immigrant, with a temporary green card. Both mentioned the fear inherent in being accosted, because untrained state police can stop people at any time, whereas federal agents are specially trained to work with the immigrant population. Ellis linked the experience to another text by Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, where the protagonist’s life is erased and he has to negotiate a world without proper documentation. Lin divided her experience of being an immigrant other (she has been in the United States for 8 years) into the gaze and the encounter, with people staring at her like an “exotic animal,” which may then escalate to encounters, such as people throwing things at her and laughing. She noted that harassment will not make her feel any more an American, and laws like Arizona’s will make it impossible to make diversity work.

Hassler spoke of texts by Robert Heinlein that establish borders and assign citizenship: Starship Troopers and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Social Darwinism is inherent in these texts: characters compete for space and resources. By studying literature along these lines, it is possible to talk about conflict, competition, cooperation, and mutuality. Authors particularly relevant along these lines are Niven, Pournelle, Asimov, and Heinlein. Hassler concluded by noting that it may be more useful to think of people as all citizens of nature, not of competing nations and states. He also noted that legislating otherness and difference is useless; nature will impose it and will create boundaries, as in Moon.

Davis discussed Hollywood films with an immigration theme, where one social order imposes itself on another. Immigration is often conflated with invasion in these texts; invasion is a common SF theme, with the story of immigration often becoming a story of invasion. One of the few texts truly about immigration is the film Alien Nation, which was made into a TV show, and another is Brother From Another Planet. The recent film District 9 is a refugee story more than an immigration story; here, immigration is used metaphorically to represent the present and us, and to critique the inhumanity of the military-industrial complex. However, most of the texts identified are about violence and our own often violent condition, not the issues behind immigration. In many of the films, the alien is a shadowy underworld figure, perhaps a drug dealer, who must be stopped.

During discussion, we sought to list more SF texts with immigration themes. Inherent in the discussion was Latham’s point that SF uses an alien other to describe the present human condition, not to peer ahead into the future in an attempt to prophesy. Texts mentioned include Coneheads (with immigration officials suspicious of the Conehead family), Third Rock From the Sun, Sleep Dealer, Children of Men, actual documentaries, V, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, Men in Black, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Butler’s story “Bloodchild,” Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand, C. J. Cherry’s Foreigner series, and texts that deal with colonialism, such as H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.

Discussion also raised interesting points. Sharp noted that modern science is a product of colonialism and conquests. SF usefully reverses the power differential: in SF, we may be the colonized, not the colonizer. The relatively recent rise of ecofeminism as a cultural movement foregrounds cooperation and mutuality, which has implications for dealing with the alien other. As some texts, such as Men in Black, show, we erase aliens from our mind. We can only exist by ignoring the aliens among us, although they hold a crucial place in our economy.

In practical terms, it was pointed out that anti-immigration fervor is almost always linked to the economy. If the economy is doing well, immigrants are, if not invited, at least tolerated; but if it is doing poorly, anti-immigration laws result. Latham pointed out that the desire to create borders is to alleviate the anxiety about the lack of borders. The literary movement of cyberpunk, which rose in the mid-1980s, is about the meaninglessness of these borders. The Arizona law is attempting to preserve borders that are eroded beyond recovery.

The panel was useful in foregrounding the relevance of SF in generating a response to a contemporary cultural moment. The tenor of the panel was against the anti-immigration law, and the general consensus was that the permeability of borders is now so far advanced that attempting to police them is useless. A better response, the panel implies, might be exploring mutuality and cooperation.

Posted by Karen Hellekson

Abiquiu-Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad has always connected to archetypal western themes: the making of an outlaw, the division between the good and the bad, and where this division lies. In the opening sequence of “Abiquiu” Jesse and Jane visit the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. Abiquiu was the location of O’Keeffe’s greatest period of creativity in New Mexico. In the last season we saw Jane market this visit to Jesse as an opportunity for him to see paintings of vaginas. Now we finally see what discussion they had at the museum. Jesse stares at a painting of a door and is bored out of his mind. He complains to Jane that the visit is not meeting his expectations. In a flirtacious disussion about the art, Jesse says that O’Keeffe must have been repeatedly painting the door in order to make it perfect. But Jane believes that the door was O’Keefe’s way of going home and following “where the universe takes her.” The scene ends with her stubbing out the lip stick stained cigarette butt that we saw in last week’s “Fly.” Breaking Bad continues to do a good job of grounding each episode in interlinking concrete details.

In “Abiquiu” the universe takes Jesse to revenge, a classic theme in numerous westerns. In a bid to unload his stolen blue meth, Jesse picks up a girl at his group meeting only to learn that her little brother was the one who gun downed Combo, Jesse’s friend who was selling meth for him. The episode concludes with Jesse identifying Tomas, the young killer, and walking away with revenge written all over him.

Skylar also continues to break bad, just as she started to do in “IFT” earlier this season. In one of the episode’s funniest scenes her and Walt meet with Saul. Saul starts to use a jar of jelly beans to explain money laundering only to be cut-off by Skylar. She’s already fully informed and was the one to concoct Walt’s gambling story. She wants to make sure that Hank and Marie won’t figure out the origins of the money. Skylar takes Walt to the car wash where he used to work and tells him that they should buy it instead of using a laser tag business as a front. Only they need “a Danny,” someone on the inside who’s willing to be morally compromised. Skylar volunteers for the job.

Gus, Walt’s meth employer, invites Walt over for dinner. Walt walks into his palatial house and is asked to cut the garlic into thin slices as Gus prepares his grandma’s stew. For a moment, Walt just stares at his reflection in the knife and then he asks what he’s doing there. Gus says since they are working together, they might as well break bread together. During the meal, Gus poetically muses on the connection between food and memory. Walt responds in typical fashion with an explanation related to brain chemistry and biology.

Abiquiu is one of my favorite episodes of the season because of the way it lets the show’s setting speak. The desert southwest can be a place of restoration, where the universe can guide someone, and a woman can go into the desert and emerge a stronger individual. However, the old western themes of revenge and coming blood shed can never be completely escaped.

Olyphant Goes Hatless!

This past week’s episode of Justified, “Hatless,” begins with Marshal Raylan Givens suspended from duty, and, with time on his hands, looking for trouble. He gets in a bar fight, gets pretty well beaten up, and loses his trademark cowboy hat (one of the guys he’s fighting takes it as a souvenir). The episode title “Hatless” works on multiple levels. Raylan literally loses his hat, but, more to the point, he has also lost (if only temporarily) the vocation that the hat symbolizes, and lost as well the legal status that “justifies” his tendency to violence. And, outside of that legal status and its encumbrances, Raylan is also free in this episode to operate outside the law.

If the loss of his hat symbolizes his loss of identity as a lawman in this episode, the episode is “hatless” in other ways as well. Without the iconic cowboy hat atop its hero, this episode is also one that moves away from the genre western, and our hatless hero is less cowboy and more of noirish hard-boiled detective. He has no official standing to solve the story’s mystery or to counter the episode’s bad guys, but he serves in a private and personal capacity, doing a favor for a friend—in this case, his ex-wife Winona. That complex history with Winona, Raylan’s ambivalent attitude toward her new husband, his own sense of attachment to Winona, all create a nicely conflicted hard-boiled hero for the episode.

Winona’s rather hapless husband, Gary Hawkins, has gotten in deep with loan sharks to help pay for a real estate deal, and a sociopathic “security consultant” and his henchmen (an ex-boxer whose fists are quicker than his wits) are putting the screws to him for payment. And Raylan recognizes as well that Gary’s troubles put Winona in danger.

The episode works particularly well because the secondary characters are so vividly drawn, from the former NFL running back (Gary’s college roommate) who (to his regret) offers to accompany Gary and look threatening, to Gary himself, to the ex-boxer, who, although he is a stock character in many ways, has some memorable exchanges with Raylan. Hatless, Raylan is also less the silent cowboy, and he displays an ability for smart cutting remarks, silencing the ex-boxer with his comments more effectively (and quickly) than his fists.

By the end of the episode, you’ll be relieved to know, Raylan retrieves his hat. However, I do hope the series lets Raylan go hatless more often, as taking Raylan out of the Marshal’s office (and perhaps out of the genre western) worked really well in this episode.