The father-son relationship is, in some ways, the most important male relationship in existence. While it is ostensibly a nurturing bond, it is also inherently competitive. Fathers want to raise their sons to follow in their footsteps, but in doing so they make themselves obsolete. This past season of Justified mines this relationship in order to take its characters in new directions which are familiar, but also novel.
This theme seems in retrospect to be an obvious one for the show to tackle, as Raylan Givens, the main character of the show, has had extremely troubled relations with his criminal father in the past. It was obvious that some form of conflict would eventually pop up between them. However, instead of taking the obvious path of bringing them together in a head on conflict, the show ended up taking the theme in a much more subtle route. Raylan and Arlo, his father, are almost never on screen together for the entire season until the very end. Instead, the theme of father and son is explored through the villain before being cast upon the more obvious subjects.
Robert Quarles, the villain of the season, does not, upon first glance, seem to have anything to do with the theme of fathers and sons. As a fast talking drug lord come down from Detroit to tame the wilds of the Kentucky oxy trade, he seemed to embody the expansionist, a theme which is common in many Westerns. However, as the season goes on, the viewer learns that every action that he performs comes from his relationship with his father figures. He attempts to make his adopted father proud by earning money and influence through the drug trade, while at the same time reenacting the terrible things that his biological father did to him on gay men that he kidnaps and tortures throughout the season. Quarles never outgrows the shadow of either of his fathers, and ends up crashing and burning because of it. Even as he is being chased by the Marshall service through the hills of Kentucky, his first priority is to call the head of the Detroit mob, his adopted father, and say that he wants to come home.
This theme is greatly enhanced through the performance of Neil McDonough. He plays Quarles as a cheerful smiling villain who is as funny as he is scary. He cracks jokes as he kills people, and is always polite. However, as the season goes on, it becomes more apparent that McDonough plays the character as an overgrown child. He constantly tries to show off his sleeve holster like a child with a new toy, and he struggles to be seen as better than his “father’s” biological son. All of this is done with the emotional openness of a child showing the stunted development of this man.
This issue of father and son drives Raylan as well. Timothy Oliphant plays Raylan as a very emotionally closed character as opposed to Quarles’s childlike openness. He constantly denies that he has any issues with his father, and does everything he can to ignore the issue at hand. However, Raylan’s drive to show his father that they have nothing in common is the baseline for everything that he does.
All of the troubles he has with his father come to a head in the season finale in which we are treated to a scene in which Arlo attempts to tell Raylan that he is proud of him. The scene is touching, especially owing to Timothy Oliphant’s performance as Raylan tries to pretend that he doesn’t care, but cannot stop himself from feeling glad that his father is finally acknowledging him. This only serves to set the viewer up for the crushing final moments of the season in which Raylan realizes that Arlo has killed a friend of his, thinking it was Raylan, in order to protect his adopted “son.” This realization that he has truly lost his father breaks Raylan in a way that the viewer has never seen. He isn’t angry or vengeful. He just seems defeated. His father has a new son, and he has been left with no one.
Justified has always been about fathers and sons, even from the very beginning, but never before has it been such a central element to the plot. By exploring this tenuous male relationship, the show is able to explore the depths of its characters and bring them to their knees. It can be said that those who know us best can hurt us most, and that statement is never truer than in this past season.
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