The Messy World of Justified's Women
It’s easy to see the world of FX’s western drama Justified as particularly male. After all, the show primarily follows U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and his dark mirror, criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). It’s a show where it’s easy to ignore the contributions and importance of the female characters, much as it would be in the tough backwater dealings of Harlan County itself.
The world of Justified, however, is full of messy, complicated, and great female characters. From Margo Martindale’s Emmy-winning turn as murderous matriarch Mags Bennett to Ava Crowder’s (Joelle Carter) road to the dark side, this is not a show interested in pigeonholing women in bland love interest roles.
You won’t see any Madonna/whore dichotomies in Harlan; even characters walking mostly on the right side of the law like Raylan’s ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) will occasionally dabble in the criminal life. The show never quite knew what to do with Winona, but felt most interested in her character when she gave into temptation and swiped a bag full of cash from a courtroom evidence locker. Why? Because Justified likes its characters to have the capacity for acts of both kindness and cruelty.
The show, based on stories by the prolific writer Elmore Leonard and helmed by showrunner Graham Yost, isn’t interested in clearly demarcating the difference between right and wrong. Unlike a childhood game of cops and robbers, the bad and the good blend together in a way that gives the world depth and gifts the characters with multiple layers. The criminals in Justified's world can be downright charming, while heroes like Raylan are far from angelic.
Justified's storytelling interest lies in the messy complexities of both hero and villain, and how the line between crime and justice can easily blur. This is certainly true when it comes to the female characters. There are few women on the show who could be pigeonholed as purely “good” or entirely “bad”.
For instance, season two’s main antagonist Mags Bennett was a cold-blooded killer, sure, but she was just trying to make a better life for her family. Like a moonshining Gatsby, Mags was just pursuing the American Dream with the only tools available at her disposal. She also looked after Loretta with a mama bear ferocity, made even more complex by the fact that it was Mag’s herself who’d killed Loretta’s father.
This season, Ava Crowder has also started down a very dark path. Once upon a time Ava only killed in self-defense; now she’s ordering a hit on the prostitute she once promised to protect. As Willa Paskin noted in her excellent piece on Salon, Ava is now an anti-heroine who just keeps breaking bad.
While Ava is obviously influenced by her Bonnie and Clyde love affair with Boyd, she’s always in control of her own decisions. It was her decision to let Boyd stay in her house, her decision to lift the ban on criminal enterprises, and even her decision to change her tune on running the prostitution business in Harlan.
Most recently it was Ava, not Boyd, who decided the ultimate fate of Ellen May (Abby Miller) should be death. This decision came about almost entirely out of self-interest, since Ellen May’s comprising knowledge has the power to land Ava behind bars. Ava is breaking bad just as surely as Walter White over on another cable show where drugs are currency.
Yet while Ava is clearly an anti-heroine, she and Boyd are still presented by the show with a great deal of sweetness. Their relationship is built on mutual respect, trust, and genuine affection. When Boyd gets down on one knee to propose to Ava, it’s clearly meant to be a heartwarming moment for these two characters. (And one which might have brought a tear to my eye, although I’m willing to blame allergies.)
It’s not a wholly pure moment however, as Boyd produces the ring from underneath a giant pile of cash accumulated from their criminal enterprises. As Boyd himself notes, they’re not exactly a normal couple. But it’s the dichotomy that allows for these two people to be at once beautiful and repugnant that interests the writers of Justified.
This holds especially true for Ellen May, a bit player on the Harlan stage until this season, when the question of her ultimate fate pushed her towards center stage. Initially Ellen May worked as comic relief, like when she accidentally shot a furry client in a bear costume. But even comedic characters have an inner life, and this season Ellen May began to be haunted by the things she had done.
A particular weight was the murder she’d witnessed by Ava’s hand. So Ellen May takes up with the new religious movement in town, the aptly named Last Chance Salvation church. In another great example of a female character being a lot more than meets the eye, the duplicitous mastermind behind the church’s hit on Harlan’s criminal element is actually not the preacher but his sister Cassie.
Ellen May’s inner life, usually denied characters like her, will clearly continue to reverberate for Boyd, Ava, and the rest of the criminal domino pieces in Harlan. In fact Ellen May could potentially be the key to taking down Boyd’s whole operation.
From Harlan County criminals like Ava to Lexington marshals like Rachel (Erica Tazel), the women on Justified are just as messy, complicated, and ultimately tough as the gun-slinging male leads. And we wouldn’t want them any other way.