- “Boyd and I Dug Coal Together”: Norms, Persons, and Being Justified in Justified
Along with other recent shows (notably HBO’s True Blood, FX’s Sons of Anarchy, and AMC’s Breaking Bad), FX’s Justified portrays American locales generally ignored by television. These shows, which we can dub “red state shows,”1 give us a glimpse of American life beyond the confines of New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago—for the most part, the mainstays of American television. Justified offers a particular way of seeing the project of America. From its depiction of legal breakdown, to its depiction of the social, economic, and political conditions of its characters, to its vast and far-ranging historical references, the show underlines the extent to which America remains an unachieved hope.2 Furthermore, the show suggests that the achievement of any such America is to be accomplished neither through a reliance on “pure” or [End Page 1040] “ideal” institutions (J 1.10 illustrates this most forcefully),3 nor through apolitical or non-political solutions (say those pitched at the religious or “merely” interpersonal level). Rather, the show illustrates that the project of America, and thereby the conception of justice behind it, “must be justified by the conditions of our life as we know it or not at all.”4 Any such justification will have to account for the distinctly American legacy of racism, the radical form of American capitalism with its structural poverty, and also the gamut of distinctly American socio-political stances like radical libertarianism, gun possession, and the saturation of the American public space by religion. Justifications must occur in response to such American specifics. In this way (in J 1.1), Raylan’s move from Miami (certainly an international American city, if any) to Harlan, Kentucky highlights this point. Such a move does not deny that Miami is authentically American (or assert that Harlan somehow more so), but rather already suggests the extent to which certain American problems will be, indeed can only be, resolved in Harlan, not in Miami.
I highlight this theme of America to stress the extent to which Justified assumes such a context as its backdrop and the extent to which the show makes no effort to question the backdrop as a whole (or when it does, doing so only to illustrate the futility of doing so). The project of America itself is not at stake. Whatever problems arise for the American form of life, they are not to be resolved by destroying or unrecognizably altering this form of life. Instead, such problems are to be worked through, perhaps dissolved, so that America is truly “achieved,” its pitfalls made sense of, or if not, at the very least, the possibility of such attempts left open. My goal in the remainder of this article is just to suggest a way in which Justified’s central theme, agency, points towards a distinctly American form of life. In this sense, [End Page 1041] my goal here is entirely programmatic, aiming to make this view of Justified plausible, not to justify it in full. This latter task would require a far deeper mapping of that form of life than I am capable of here. My aim is instead to suggest that not only is Justified worthy of serious philosophical study, but especially so in this context.
Now, Justified’s title itself right away suggests a focus on agency as it forces us to ask, with the characters, when and how (or whether) something (usually some violent act of Raylan’s) can be justified. Furthermore, the show’s opening, with its focus on Raylan Givens—a man seemingly straight out of America’s history books, cowboy hat in tow—explicitly asks us, now as viewers, how such a show, based on such a character, could possibly be justified, here and now.5 This latter question quickly loses its urgency as we enter the small, but exceedingly complex world of Harlan, Kentucky. To the extent that the show’s characters find Raylan not only plausible, but in fact, justified, or at least, justifiable, we viewers do the same. Not so, however, for the broader normative question vis...