FARGO, TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, RECTIFY and the Construction of the American Small Town, Part II

FARGO, TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, RECTIFY and the Construction of the American Small Town, Part II

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In Part One of this essay, I was
pretty tough on Fargo and True Detective, accusing them of an
absence of imagination, and generosity, in their approach to small-town and
rural life. Perhaps I should heed my
own call for generosity, however. Both Fargo
and True Detective are, in the grand
scheme of things (or, at least, relative to so much television that’s come
before), ambitious, stylish, well-made shows. In certain ways, they are
perfectly wedded to their truncated mini-series form; small towns and miniseries
provide and require just enough life to flesh out a narrative but not so much that
they necessarily overflow with life,
with randomness, imposing their messiness on an auteur’s message. Rejecting for
the most part Frederic Jameson’s "thickening continuum" of geographical
indistinguishability, both Fargo and True Detective rely on their locales to
convey an iconoclasm and remoteness that makes possible the tragic events that
transpire. This isolation is reinforced by the general absence of pop cultural
signifiers—the television, film, or musical touchstones that have become so
ubiquitous in contemporary television and film that they often go unnoticed. [1] Modern
technology plays a diminished role, as well (even taking account of the fact
that shows aren’t precisely contemporary). Fargo‘s
disgraced FBI agents Pepper and Budge work in an old-school, analog file room;
the relevant "files" that True
Detective’s
Hart and Cohle seek are said to be lost in post-hurricane
flooding. Instead of GPS tracking there
are French Connection-style
stakeouts. In an age of cell phones, Fargo’s
Gus Grimly nonetheless communicates with his daughter on a walkie-talkie. The
"murder board" at the Bemidji police station is a string figure of
red yarn and local vernacular (one suspect is identified as the "deaf
fella").

It’s hard to tell if the shows
ignore the march of culture and technology as an homage to the by-gone genres they
recall (noir, pulp fiction) or whether those genres provide Hawley and
Pizzolatto an opportunity to slip out of our networked and interconnected world
for a moment, providing a bit of space and quiet to map out their ideas. Either
way, it’s hard not to identify a flattening at work. Still, it’s not as if Fargo or True Detective
are the first shows to reduce small-town and rural life to one-dimensionality
or to a trope. Indeed, twenty-five years before Frederic Jameson wrote his
essay on the false, flat history of small towns and nostalgia films, the Andy
Griffith Show
was providing America with a weekly window into a "time gone
by" via Mayberry, North Carolina. Though it was filmed in, and ostensibly took
place in, the 1960s, Griffith himself has explained that the show consciously
catered to a nostalgia for times past, cultivating an 1930s-ish atmosphere. This is the endless reservoir of our
nostalgia. The Andy Griffith Show has
been on the air (in some form) since it debuted on CBS in 1961, and audiences continue
to watch it today out of nostalgia for a time that the show itself sought to
escape via an even deeper nostalgia. 

The Andy Griffith Show was among the first of its kind. By 1971, CBS
had seven rural-themed shows in its line-up, a glut of bumpkin-escapist fare so
pervasive, so identified with cultural complacency, that Gil Scott Heron
indicted it in his seminal spoken-word piece "The Revolution Will Not Be
Televised" ("Green Acres, The
Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction
will no longer be so Goddamn relevant"
). That year, as part of
an attempt to appeal to a younger, more contemporary demographic, CBS initiated
what became known as "the rural purge"—cancelling its entire line-up of rural
shows, including Mayberry RFC, Green Acres, and (the year before) Petticoat Junction. As one actor joked, "It
was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it." [2] And just like that, the "noble rubes" and
barnyard hijinks were gone. But only briefly. A popular (and political) uproar led to CBS’
attempt to placate critics a year later with The Waltons, which followed a decidedly noble family’s travails in
a hardscrabble 1930s Virginia.  Initially
expected to fail—for both demographic and scheduling reasons—The Waltons stayed on the air for nearly a decade (a run extended by several television movies), and it peaked
at Number 2 in the Nielsen ratings in 1973-74. Although it may have been intended to placate the fans of CBS’s canceled
shows, The Waltons also marked a departure
from its predecessors, in part by being more overtly historical (it took place
forty years before its air date) if still folksy, but also by foregoing broad
characterizations and humor. (NBC would try to tap into a similar audience via
the even more historical, more folksy themes of Little House on the Prairie in 1974.) That
said, pre-Waltons cartoonishness
would make a brief return with the Dukes
of Hazzard
in the late 1970s. And the comic conflict between rural unreason
and urban sophistication (and exasperation) seen in Green Acres would be revisited, and revised, by Newhart (1982-1990). In other words, The Waltons didn’t really supplant the
shows it replaced. It simply added another trope to the mix. 

Together,
these 1960s and 70s series have provided, and continue to provide, a template
for the numerous rural and small-town shows that followed. For main characters
and audiences alike, television’s version of small-town America have frequently
served as something more than a source of easy laughs. They suggest an escape
from, or a corrective to, the misguided ambitions and increasing complexity of American
life. There are variations within the tropes, of course, whether it involves shaking
off the corrupting influence of New York corporate law (Ed), or a Manhattan transplant at the liminal edge of Alaska’s vast
wilderness (Northern Exposure), or
the Lake Wobegon-esque hermeticism of a town where everyone is strong,
good-looking, and above-average (Gilmore
Girls
, Everwood, Dawson’s Creek). Northern Exposure debuted a short six months after Twin Peaks and though the two shows are
marked by thematic similarities—an outsider arrives from out of town and is introduced
to a cast of eccentric characters in a rustic Northwestern setting—Northern Exposure incorporated and
civilized Twin Peaks’ rough edges,
retrofitting its strangeness to familiar frameworks. [3] 
Structurally, Northern Exposure was closer
to Newhart, even if it seemed a
little artier around the edges. [4]
Despite their differences, the majority of these more modern rural and
small-town series attack the fundamental premise of a show like Peyton Place—Jameson’s "claustrophobia
and anxiety," or the assumption that small towns are prisons one must
escape—with aggressive eccentricity (Northern
Exposure
), geniality (Ed), and/or
wit (Gilmore Girls). As enjoyable as
these shows were, watching them again, all of the effort nonetheless suggests a
touch of over-compensation.

*          *          *          *

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Though
there’s no question that the charm of the more contemporary shows discussed
above is revved up high, it’s also true that they are, in many ways, more
self-aware and sophisticated than their 1960s and 1970s predecessors. Take Ed, which ran on NBC from 2000-2004.  On one level, it’s a traditional nostalgia
show. Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh), a local son of Stuckeyville, Ohio who left to
become a New York attorney,  "loses
his job and his wife on the same day" (she sleeps with the mailman—which
is the first notice that we’re entering the region of television tropes as much
as we’re entering small-town America)—and takes off to regroup in his
hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio. There, inspired by a brief but genuine romantic
moment with his high school crush, Carol Vessey (Modern Family’s Julie Bowen), Ed buys the local bowling alley and opens
up his law practice inside. He quickly slips back into a slightly revised
version of his teenage life. His social circle is made up of high school acquaintances;
two of them actually teach at Stuckeyville High. The main characters, thirty-ish, mostly
single, prone to juvenile pranks, remain caught between childhood and adulthood.
Ed, in particular, is boyish in all respects, baby-faced, impulsive, stubborn,
and, most tellingly, endlessly impressed with his own cleverness. The stakes in
Ed are so low, the threat of conflict
so attenuated, that Ed aggressively pursues Carol for seasons-on-end without any
indications from the show’s creators that his behavior might be inappropriate. [5]
If anything, the show posits Carol’s resistance to Ed’s advances as a violation
of the narrative contract, punishing her with a series of terrible boyfriends.
Her fiancé, Dennis Martino (John Slattery), was so despised by Ed‘s audience that fans devoted a
website to the myriad ways they might kill him off. Meanwhile, the show unfolds a high
school sub-narrative, the story of current high school student Warren Cheswick (Justin
Long) who (surprise!) has a crush not only on Carol (his teacher at
Stuckeyville High) but also on Stuckeyville High’s prom queen (and thus Carol’s
teenage analog). In other words, Warren acts as both a bridge and an avatar for
Ed, a perfect vehicle for Ed to relive his youth in its actual and its
alternative forms. [6] Ed’s
second chance also extends to his work. His Stuckeyville legal practice has little
to do with his prior life as a lawyer; instead, he becomes a champion of
community values—his low-stakes, high-principle, long-shot cases rarely end
in a positive judgment, but even so, they often trigger heartfelt confessions
or settlements. His clients (aging pastors and doddering party magicians, good Samaritans,
a variety of sad sacks), and his causes (turning his bowling alley into a
historical landmark, for instance) consistently thrust Ed into the role of
quixotic resistance fighter against bottom-line tendencies. In other words, Ed’s
legal battles are antithetical to, and a kind of redemption for, his prior work
on behalf of faceless multinational corporations—a job Ed was fired from for
"missing a single comma in a 3,000 page document." I mean, is there anything
worse than craven capitalism that’s also
prissy about punctuation?

But
Ed is flush with self-awareness, as
well. When Stuckeyville High decides to start a student-run television station,
Warren’s vision of the station’s programming sounds a lot like an original
pitch for Ed: "Americans
these days are looking to television for something comforting, something warm,
gentle and reassuring." The show
not only acknowledges its genealogy (name-dropping Northern Exposure early in Season One), and its peers (via a
guest-starring role for Picket Fences’ Adam
Wylie), it’s also steeped in television history. In addition to the shows
mentioned above, the first season alludes to, among others, Archie Bunker, Happy Days, M.A.S.H., One Day at a Time, and The Rockford Files. This might be viewed
as yet another embodiment of the loss of small-town autonomy (and identity) at
the hands of "identical products and standardized spaces" that
Jameson laments. And perhaps it is. But Ed
relies on pop cultural memories as a source of stability, using that shared
heritage to link the characters in the show to each other and, of course, to
the audience. With its foregrounding of familiar tropes and its web of cultural
allusions, you can almost feel the nostalgia of Ed the show, pulling against the nostalgia of Ed the character, in
its suggestion that what we long for isn’t the idyll of the small town itself
but rather the television shows that have taken its place. And so, although a
large crowd shows up to see the cast of Happy
Days
at a Stuckeybowl promotion, Ed’s attempt to preserve Stuckeybowl
itself as a cultural landmark is met with far less fanfare. In its way, this pop cultural nostalgia signals
a kind of irreversible cultural shift from a childhood of local exploration to
the latch-key childhood of television (or video game) as geographically-indistinct
babysitter. [7] Ed embraces
cultural signification but dispels with the chaotic surrealism of, say, Twin Peaks by stabilizing that
signification. It becomes a kind of
currency.

*          *          *          *

The
persistence of these tropes makes one appreciate all the more those shows that
manage to accrue complexity and ambiguity. Justified,
for instance, which tracks the life and work of a U.S. Marshal banished to his
backwater birthplace, completed its fifth season on FX this year. That
birthplace, Harlan County, Kentucky, is vibrant, and the show takes its time
establishing not just the region’s class hierarchies but also sub-strata, the
teeming and disparate socioeconomic microhabitats that exist even within social
classes. Justified plays out against
a very real backdrop of failed farms and a changing mining industry (Season Two
revolves around the attempts of a mining company to secure land rights) that no
longer supplies the jobs and money it once did. [8]
Not surprisingly, the citizens of Harlan County view both foreign (i.e.,
out-of-state) corporations and the federal government with wariness. And Justified makes clear that the rise of
crime (and drug abuse) in the region is tied to, but not dictated by, economic
conditions. Although the show is genre television—it doesn’t pretend to be
much more than serialized crime fiction—its creators and writers have learned
something fundamental from Elmore Leonard, the genre-master who wrote the novels
and short-story from which Justified
draws its main character, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). [9]
Justified’s stories
are full of family and regional history, nature and nurture, issues of class,
race, and even gender. These forces work their way through most episodes, and
the result is a cast of characters who make life-and-death decisions in ways
that are frequently unpredictable but rarely incomprehensible. There is a local logic to the Justified universe. As a result, its strongest seasons—two and
four—are those that are most grounded in Harlan County’s history, culture,
and economics. 

At
the end of Season Four, as the violence escalates and the stakes are continuously
raised, it’s a shared, local memory (of an Apollo astronaut’s helicopter
landing at their high school twenty years before) that proves life-saving for both
Raylan and his nemesis, Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins), Raylan’s childhood
friend and, at times, his uneasy ally. Boyd is a brilliant character—most
fans of the show are aware that its creators intended to kill him off in Season
One but couldn’t because Goggins was so good—but he may not be the show’s best.
It will be a while before anyone comes up with an antagonist as fascinating,
terrifying, and ultimately tragic, as the criminal matriarch Mags Bennett from
Season Two. Powered by a smart, steely performance by Margo Martindale, Mags is
all the more compelling because the character’s power and dangerousness is
terrestrial and local—she is inseparable from the Harlan County that she
loves and that she sells out, torn between tradition and opportunity, loyalty
and fairness, family and community. It comes as no surprise, then, that Justified’s weakest season—this most
recent one—was the first to take events far away from Kentucky (even if it
eventually circled back to familiar soil). And it’s probably not a coincidence
that this was the first season in which neither of the two main characters had
a father figure; Boyd’s father Bo died in Season One, and Arlo, Raylan’s father
and Boyd’s surrogate father, died in Season Four. The show’s first steps
outside of the well-developed regional and familial history result in a loss of
gravity that renders the jokes tinny and more mocking and the violence more arbitrary
and gratuitous than in prior seasons. The show has never lacked for the
stereotypes audiences expect of shows in a rural setting (there are "dumb
rednecks" to spare), but when it’s on its game, it shares Leonard’s genuine
affection for characters, including the dimwitted outcasts. Even better, it
plays with those same stereotypes. Outsiders who underestimate the locals do so
at their own peril. In the end, Justified
pays respect to its characters by constructing a complex moral universe; one
worthy of the characters’ life-changing decisions.

*          *          *          *

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Unlike Fargo, True Detective, and Justified, the violence in Ray McKinnon’s slow-building but (for
me, at least) transcendently powerful Rectify
(The Sundance Channel) remains, for the most part, in the distant past or the
uncertain future. Season One follows the first free week in the adult life of
Daniel Holden (Aden Young), once convicted of killing his high school
girlfriend and now released back into the wild (in this case, his hometown of
Paulie, Georgia) after twenty years on death row. [10]
The show doubles its narrative, frequently flashing back to Daniel’s last
year(s) on death row, chronicling his relationship with his fellow inmates,
including his closest friend, Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill), with whom he has a
running dialogue through a vent connecting their cells.  Like True
Detective’s
Cohle, Daniel is an autodidact who leans heavily on
intellectual structure to measure and mediate a universe that has treated him
with cruel arbitrariness. Unlike Cohle, however, Holden acknowledges early on that
the approach has severe limits—that a "world view" that does not allow for "optimism"
is a "kind of fantasy itself."  The first
six episodes are primarily the story of Daniel’s attempt to escape the limits
of a compulsive pessimism that, while necessary in prison, proves altogether
more destructive outside its walls. The show does not shake this pessimism
easily. There’s a lingering acknowledgment in the show’s slow-boiling threat of
malice and violence of the possibility that, as Daniel’s dying former defense
attorney, Rutherford Gaines (Hal Holbrook) puts it to Daniel’s current defense
attorney, Jon Stern (Luke Kirby), we’re nothing more than "monkeys going to
nowhere." Lorne Malvo would no doubt agree. [11]

Rectify
is, like Fargo, concerned with the lessons
in scale and seclusion that attend small-town experience. Over the course of its
first season, Rectify complicates,
but does not fully reject, the Peyton
Place
cliché that small towns are prisons. For Daniel, fresh off of decades
of  Spartan solitude, Paulie’s banality is
almost too much, a source of wonder and confusion he can’t understand let alone
control. [12] But
the show also makes clear that Paulie is painfully restrictive for Daniel’s
family members and has been for years. Notions of freedom, confinement, and
privacy are interrogated from the very first scene, where we watch (in profile,
through a dark room and a window) the intake of a newly-arrived prisoner,
complete with cavity search. In the
background, watching through another window and a closed door, is Daniel, waiting
to be processed and released. For the first time in twenty years, Daniel is on
the other side of a window, the surveillor, not the surveilled. In keeping with
this, a guard turns his back to allow Daniel to change into civilian clothes
and even offers him a drink while he waits. 
These first minutes of the first season are typical of Rectify’s approach throughout: a carefully
arranged scene that lets the camera linger when other shows would move it along.
Here, the camera watches Daniel closely, using the muted bewilderment washing
over him to measure the significance of the changes at work.

The
changes do not last long, and the panopticon of prison life gives way to a
different surveillance state. Because Daniel has not been exonerated—he is
released on the basis of DNA evidence that has called his conviction into
question, pending retrial—there is nowhere he, or his family, can go that is
not noted, watched, catalogued, and commented upon by the citizens of Paulie.
("Remember," his attorney tells the family, before they’ve even been reunited
with him, "everything we do is being watched and judged.") Paulie’s citizens
may not agree about Daniel but they do not lack for opinions and, twenty years
after his conviction, the shockwaves still continue to cause damage. In one
flashback, Kerwin, his friend from the adjacent cell on death row, attempts to
cut through Daniel’s pessimism, asking Daniel to "just imagine . . . a world
full of windows." But we come to understand that windows constitute both a
freedom and a threat; as if on cue, we’re brought into Daniel’s present, with television
cameras crowding around his mother’s car as the two of them attempt to leave
the parking lot of a large box store.

And
yet Rectify never construes Paulie
narrowly. Save for one or two characters, it refuses to simplify even the town’s
most unlikeable citizens. A gossipy waitress (Kim Wall), for instance, who
spreads the rumor that Daniel’s sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer) is sleeping
with Stern, also sends Daniel home with fried chicken from the diner, without
charge. [13]
Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), Daniel’s step-brother, is a familiar brand of
jackass, all bluster and baseless self-confidence, who struggles to be
understanding and supportive on Daniel’s return when, in truth, he feels both
threatened and slightly undone by the events. Nonetheless, Ted Jr.’s love for
his wife, Tawny (he passes up the opportunity to cheat without a thought when
he’s on the road for work) and his step-mother appear unconditional. Oft-maligned
institutions are treated with similar ambiguity.  Rectify’s
portrayal of big tent religious revivalism is in marked contrast to that of True Detective, where the church’s
collection of misfits (resembling a circus sideshow) mostly serves to give
Cohle the opportunity to lob insults (Cohle derides their "collective IQ,"
noting that it’s "safe to say no one [t]here is gonna be splitting the atom"). Daniel,
on the other hand, rushes into a baptism at the urging of Tawny, with whom he
has a not-completely-innocent connection. In keeping with Rectify’s
painstaking narrative process, Daniel’s baptism resolves nothing, registering
as a moment of catharsis that nonetheless leaves Daniel confused and raw.  Transcendence might not be in the offing, but
the show nonetheless refuses to judge those with faith, like Tawny, who dare to
suggest that "miracles" might be possible "in this town, right now." [14]

Rectify is slow-paced, and its long silences hang heavily. The
deliberate pace is also a destabilizing force; Rectify packs abundant weirdness into its vast, languid spaces. A
lot of this weirdness stems from Daniel, who remains as much of an enigma to us
as he does to his family and fellow citizens. We come to learn a little about
the child who was sent to prison twenty years before—smart, strange—and he
retains no small amount of teenage goofiness. Early in the first season there’s
a scene where Daniel dances in the family’s attic, wearing his father’s hunting
gear and spinning a duck call while listening to Cracker’s "Low" on his old Walkman,
that is absurd, touching and very funny all at once. Still, his anger and his urges are quite
real, and very powerful. Just how lost Daniel is becomes clear in the fifth
episode of Season One, when, wandering the streets sleepless, Daniel is picked
up by a grizzled (and, yes, mysterious)
stranger [15]
in a beater of a truck (W. Earl Brown) who asks Daniel to help him with some
errands. To go into too much detail would be to destroy a delightfully strange
hour of television. Nonetheless, at one point Daniel and his new friend wrestle
in a field in the early morning and, as the violence becomes increasingly
pronounced, the scenes suggest the real possibility that Daniel could, in that
moment, kill or be killed. More than this danger, and dangerousness, however,
the scenes reveal a loneliness so deep that Daniel is willing to throw himself
into the fight’s visceral, brutal tenderness as a (lousy) surrogate for
intimacy and touch. Watching the episode—in addition to being strange, one of
the finest hours of television I’ve watched in a long time—I was reminded of
the dark, funny surrealism of Denis Johnson’s classic Jesus’ Son, which navigates similar territory, blurring the lines
between reality and dream and between violence, failure, and transcendence.

Rutherford
Gaines tells Stern, a lawyer for a death penalty public interest group, that Stern
will never understand Paulie’s treatment of Daniel because he wasn’t there to experience
the terror and anger that gripped the town at the time of the murder and trial.
But if collective memory is the engine of the town’s anger, it also suggests inherent
limits. There are characters—not just Tawny, but a hair stylist, an
acquaintance or two, a few random individuals—who suggest the possibility that
Paulie will be able to move on from the events, that the specter of Daniel will
not always linger. Of course, it’s
not as simple as forgetting. A town’s collective memory can be persistent and
self-perpetuating, and legend and folklore frequently step in when actual
memories start to fade. This persistence is driven home in Rectify’s second season, when Stern and Amantha are confronted by a
Paulie resident outside of the town’s roller-skating rink for nothing more than
the mindless enjoyment each other’s company. Stern challenges her indignation:

Jon: How old were you then?
Five? Eight?

Woman: I was old enough.

Jon: Old enough…for what? To listen to what your parents told you and
believe it because they told you it was the truth? Afraid to think for
yourself? Scared to look at all the facts?

Perhaps word-of-mouth and local legend also have their
limits, however. More than any other characters, it’s those, like Daniel’s
half-brother, Jared (Jake Austin Walker), who weren’t born when the events
transpired (and thus, like Stern, weren’t there to experience that collective
pain) that provide the most substantial indication that Daniel could reclaim possession
of his life. This promise is evident even in the obnoxious teens who snap
photos of themselves with Daniel. They’re drawn to Daniel out of a morbid curiosity,
a horror-attraction that’s familiar to many of us who grew up in small towns. At
a certain age, darkness has an appeal simply because it’s different. And who needs Black Sabbath when you have a convicted
killer next door? But that attraction is abstract, the opposite of experiential—indeed, it is based on the foreignness of
the horror—and thus a passing phase. Even Daniel seems to understand this,
explaining to Jared, somewhat ominously, that Jared’s curiosity about him (or,
as Daniel phrases it, his curiosity about the "taboo") is natural,
but demands caution.

Although
Rust Cohle is True Detective’s philosopher-king,
it’s Harrelson’s Martin Hart who provides us with the show’s core philosophical
observation: "infidelity is one kind of sin but my
true failure was inattention."
This inattention abounds in the True
Detective
universe – whether it’s the intrinsic inattention of the state
police force, families, and schools that ignore the disappearances of their
daughters or the extrinsic inattention of the world at large, the failure of anyone
to notice what is going on in southern Louisiana allows evil to fester and
grow. [16]
This is what makes Rectify’s rejection
of traditional narrative demands so remarkable. The town’s vigilance is, in
many ways, pernicious; and yet it’s the show’s refusal to look away for the
convenience of narrative, its willingness to let moments hang in the air, and
its patience in following side characters through seemingly digressive
plotlines, that grants it a rare, and powerful, moral authority. 

*          *          *          *

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I
suppose I shouldn’t find it surprising that each of shows on which I’ve focused
centers around the law, whether it be
lawmen, lawyers, or alleged law-breakers. After all, the law is our foremost nexus
and repository of social and cultural currents. And if criminality is an
expression of frustrated ambition, what better specimen than a small-town
crook? Even Cecil County, where I grew up, has its version, straight out of Justified’s playbook. In the late 1970s,
the area in-and-around the county, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, was
the stalking ground of the infamous "Johnston Family Gang," who made
a small fortune stealing farm equipment, cars, drugs, money, and antiques they
fenced through friends and neighbors they’d charmed or intimidated into silence.
Although the Johnstons "worked" out of Chester County, Pennsylvania, Bruce
Johnston, Sr., the ring-leader, was living in Elkton with a girlfriend at the
time of his eventual arrest, and the gang’s crimes routinely crossed state
lines into Maryland and Delaware. From a distance, the Johnston Gang seems in
keeping with television’s tradition of hillbilly rebels—the kind whose crimes
are more ornery than malicious.  But the
Johnstons were ruthless. In 1981, Bruce Sr. and his brothers Norman and David
were convicted of murdering six people (among them three teenagers, including Bruce
Jr.’s fifteen-year old girlfriend, Robin), and attempting to murder Bruce, Jr.,
in order to silence potential testimony against them. Papers around the country
covered the trials, and in the end each brother received multiple life
sentences. Just five years later, in 1986, the Johnston Gang served as the
lightly-fictionalized basis for James Foley’s At Close Range (starring Christopher Walken and Sean Penn), providing
fifteen fleeting minutes of fame for our pocket of the mid-Atlantic. 

The
Johnston legend did not end with those convictions, however. In 1999, Norman hatched
a daring, if old-school, plan of escape, managing to break out of Huntington
State Prison by "stuff[ing] a dummy trimmed with
human hair into his cell bed, then bust[ing] through window bars and
vanish[ing]
." He avoided custody
for 19 days. And for those 19 days he was a constant presence in the papers and
the constant source of sightings—on a porch, in a park, at a fruit stand,
along railroad tracks—and speculation in Cecil County, particularly that he
was returning "for revenge or to get money." Johnston’s escape provided ample opportunity for city papers to reinforce small-town
and rural clichés, proving that hackneyed depictions of small towns are not the
exclusive province of the television writers’ room and translating the county’s
“cornstalk lined neighborhood yards” into hoary tropes:

None of this is comforting
to residents of Cecil County, many of whom are used to leaving doors unlocked.
Now, many of them report staying home, with their windows locked and front door
bolted. Streets that last week were filled with the noise of children on
bicycles have fallen silent.

There’s no question that Johnston’s presence
was unsettling for locals. But the above is the stuff of folklore, not news. Instead
of terror, the evidence suggests that, like the curious teens of Rectify, the people who lived along the
Mason-Dixon line enjoyed their brief flirtation with the lawlessness (or taboo)
that Johnston symbolized. That, not
fear, goes a long way toward explaining why copies of At Close Range flew off the shelves of local video stores during Johnston’s
time on the run
. Buried under the bullshit in those 1999 newspaper
articles, as well, is a sense of pride, a belief among locals that Johnston’s knowledge
of the land and homegrown resilience would be enough to evade the massive
manhunt dedicated to his capture:

"He knows the area.
… The man was a hunter. The
man was a farmer," said Tim Bickling, who has been following reports about the
manhunt. "If he wants to hide, he can hide," said Bickling, standing
outside his white clapboard home in nearby Cherry Hill.

The combination of memory, fear, morbid
fascination, and regional pride is potent, and the area buzzed for the duration
of Johnston’s flight. In the end, however, his capture proved both
anticlimactic and a little comic:

But for days on end, he was on the run from state troopers,
crouching in the cornfields, his heart pounding with each pass of the state
police chopper. He was frustrated by his inability to steal new cars with
tricky alarms and to operate self-serve gas pumps. After 20 years in prison,
even his old Chester County stomping grounds didn’t seem the same. "He was
dazed by all the change," said his brother, Joe Rivera, who spoke to
Johnston once during his time on the run.

For all his ingenuity, Johnston
couldn’t anticipate or adapt to the changes in landscape and technology that
took place during his twenty years away. There were new housing developments
and factories where once there were open fields. His old networks had dried up and disappeared.  And so, after all of that work to get free,
he escaped into a world that was not just unwelcoming but foreign to him. Which makes me think of Daniel Holden’s attempts to
navigate a once-familiar world that similarly moved on, inexorably, during his
twenty years in prison. The irony, of course, is that these disorienting forces
of change are also those that might, eventually, set Daniel free.  Even then, however, it can’t help but be a long,
dark journey. 

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of
poetry,
Tremolo (Harper 2001), was
awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have
been published in
The Boston Review, Coldfront, the Columbia Review, Hyperallergic,
Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Brooklyn.


[1] It’s easy to point to shows like Buffy
the Vampire Slayer
, Versonica Mars,
and even light comedy-dramas like USA’s Psych,
all of which rely on popular culture in a variety of ways.  But even a show as by-the-book as CBS’s NCIS includes a character (Tony DiNozo)
who provides film-based metacommentary on the narrative.

[3] Some
shows, like David E. Kelley’s Picket
Fences,
tried to triangulate Twin
Peaks
and Northern Exposure,
keeping a touch of the menace but losing the strangeness.  Picket
Fences
also stands out for its embrace of hot button public/social issues.
It struggled with ratings for most of its relatively short life, however.

[4] The
shows share not only a conceptual framework but also a flair for the surreal
with their forebearer, Green Acres.

[5] Although I tend to disagree with her
examples, and even (to some extent) her thesis, it’s hard not to apply
Genevieve Valentine’s take on the nice
guy
stalker to Ed Stevens. See http://www.avclub.com/article/full-boyle-guys-who-dont-hear-no-just-arent-funny–202474

[6] Like Ed, Warren has an unpopular classmate
(Ginnifer Goodwin) who pines for him. Ed never truly considers Molly (Lesley
Boone), his funny, charismatic, loyal friend, an option. Unlike Ed, Warren eventually
reciprocates the attention. 

[7] Its purest form can be found on VH1’s contemporaneous (and successful) pop
culture/nostalgia-fetishizing shows like I
Remember the 90s
and Pop-Up Video.

[8] The
latter is the result of a variety of factors, including depletion from a
century of mining and  the advent of mechanized
surface mining that has cut down on the need for manpower (while devastating
the landscape). See http://www.maced.org/coal/mining-employ.htm

[9]
Givens is, himself, an anachronism, a throw-back to the shoot-first lawmen of
Westerns (the genre that gave Leonard his start).

[10]
Although Season Two recently began,
I’ve limited my analysis (for the most part) to Season One because I’ve had
time to watch and re-watch the shows. While I’ve enjoyed Season Two a great
deal, the show really demands more time and attention than I’ve been able to
devote to it.

[11] For
Malvo, animal is our true nature, and he believes (and
Lester Nygaard seems to prove) that embracing our inner-predator constitutes a
liberating return to form. For
Gaines, however, our primal origins constitute (literally) a form of original
sin. As a result, Rectify inverts Fargo’s frustrated race-to-the-bottom
into the story of our failed transcendence.

[12] If
I have one complaint about the show, it’s that it leans a little heavy on this
wonder, with its barrage of lens flares, its high blue skies, and its endless
meadows.

[13]
Bigger surprises lurk in Season Two.

[14] It shares this sensibility with Justified, whose.  Its traveling evangelists in Season 4 aren’t
saints, but they aren’t wholly insincere, either. And there’s no questioning at
least some positive influence on at
least some portions the community
(I’m looking at you, Ellen May).

[15] Erik Adams, at the AV Club, reads these
scenes as a straightforward Christian allegory (and Brown’s character as,
essentially, "the Devil"). I don’t read it quite so narrowly, if only
because the "temptation" offered by Brown’s character is so slight,
so temporary, and, in the end, oddly
therapeutic
.  It may have set Daniel
on the path to his baptism, but not because of any latent evil. Rather the
experience lets him know just how lost he is (and remains).  See http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/rectify-drip-drip-97543

[16] Cohle
is, perhaps, most guilty of inattention – neglecting the moment, community, his
own needs and hiding behind work and nihilistic cosmology.

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