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Runaway Train: FX’s JUSTIFIED

Warning: Spoilers Galore

This is the ultimate season of  FX’s hit series Justified — based on the short story “Fire in the Hole” and several novels by the late Elmore Leonard — and it looks like the lyrics to Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” fit this final season perfectly. Everyone in the show is on a Runaway Train, going the “wrong way on a one-way track.” Every character has gotten himself  “in too deep,” “has secrets” he “can’t keep,” and “feels like [he] should be getting somewhere,” but, instead, “is neither here nor there.” It’s Justified’s last season, and it looks like the end of the road is coming for many of its characters.

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As in the first season, the major conflict is between US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, above, and below, in hat) and his one-time buddy and mining compatriot, Harlan County criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, above). This last season, however, instead of vying with Boyd for the affections of Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter, below), Raylan is using Ava to get enough information on Boyd to put him back in prison, this time forever. How did Raylan convince Ava to agree to “betray” her fiancé Boyd? By getting her out of prison — conditional on her betrayal of Boyd — for a murder she committed. Not only is Ava’s secret “burning up her veins,” but “it seems no one can help [her] now” since too many other characters want to know how, exactly, she got out of prison and are determined to find out.

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It’s been strangely uncharacteristic, though, that Boyd — who by nature and profession would have to be highly attuned to his surroundings and to the behavior of all the people around him — has not seemed to notice that Ava’s behavior is not that of his formerly devoted and loving fiancée. She’s jumpy, secretive, sad, nervous, and always going off places by herself (she’s either meeting Raylan or, as in last week’s episode, attempting — unsuccessfully — to escape Harlan).

A couple of episodes ago, Boyd did express his concerns that he didn’t feel he knew who Ava was any longer, and she invited him back into her bed (supposedly for the first time since she’d gotten out of prison) to re-gain his trust. Is Boyd’s implicit “trust” or love for Ava putting him on the Runaway Train, leading him back to prison, to death, to a showdown with Raylan, or, at the very least, to a deadly confrontation with Ava, who is the love of his life?

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Boyd may be pretending not to notice Ava’s extremely unhappy and frazzled behavior, especially since, in last night’s episode, he came home to find Ava and Raylan together in the house — an allusion to season 1 where both men were competing for her affections and had a shoot-out. Now Boyd has one of his men stationed at the house with Ava, ostensibly to protect her, though Boyd’s crew this season seems a bit incompetent and mentally slow, to say the least. So Boyd may very well know that something is going on with Ava, though he may not realize that she is actively cooperating with the Marshals, especially with Raylan, and betraying Boyd in order to stay out of prison. It’s her Get Out of Jail card, but it’s not “free.” Ava’s “train” is running on a track back to prison if she doesn’t betray Boyd, or to death if Boyd discovers her treachery.

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At the end of last night’s episode, the criminal Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) betrayed Ava by calling Boyd and telling him that things were going on with Ava that Boyd “didn’t even know that he didn’t know.” That call surprised me as much as it did Boyd. Historically, Limehouse has been sympathetic and protective of Ava while being suspicious and hostile to his competitor Boyd. But Limehouse lost one of his men (who got tazed & supposedly arrested) while he was accompanying Ava to the location of the money Boyd’s planning to steal this season, money which Ava was to give to Limehouse in return for a car so she could run away — from the Marshals as well as from Boyd. Limehouse betrayed Ava because he didn’t get his money and because, like all the other characters, she’s “in too deep.”

Despite the fact that Ava is a murderer, criminal, and “snitch,” however, she has become one of the most sympathetic characters in the show this season, if only because all the US Marshals have become vicious, unfeeling, and completely unsympathetic to the danger they’ve placed her in. The characters of Raylan and Rachel (Erica Tazel, below) have metamorphosed from humorous but extremely competent law enforcement officers to relentless bullies, constantly threatening to return Ava to prison while, at the same time, putting her in an untenable position by having Raylan in almost constant contact with her, making the discovery of her treachery to Boyd more imminent.

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In fact, Raylan’s contact with Ava is so constant that his superior, Rachel, has now begun to suspect that Raylan is once again having a sexual affair with Ava (he’s not, though Ava did kiss him and he didn’t resist). Is Raylan also on the Runaway Train, going the “wrong way on a one-way track,” by allowing his former feelings for Ava to conflict with his intense desire to put Boyd away forever, as well as to interfere with his wish to escape Harlan County by going to Florida to be with his ex-wife and baby daughter?

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As has been Justified‘s pattern since season 2, there are “outside” criminals to complicate matters between Boyd and Raylan, and to give the Marshals something else to do besides trying to catch Boyd. This season’s criminals are comprised of “Dixie Mafia” Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns, in a recurring role, which has been expanded) and Katherine (Mary Steenburgen), who are plotting to steal from Avery Markham (Sam Elliott, right, below, opposite Timothy Olyphant) who is buying up property to grow marijuana in anticipation of its being legalized. At least, that’s why the other characters think Markham is buying up all those adjacent properties.

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Markham is accompanied by his minions, who are led by Ty Walker (Garret Dillahunt, center above, standing), a veteran who has brought along his own crew, including the brain-damaged but endearing former Army Ranger Choo-Choo. Last week, Choo-Choo unintentionally killed a man with one punch, and then, this week, tried to protect the hooker who’d seen the group enter the murdered man’s office.

Choo-Choo’s chivalry got him killed: Markham insisted that Walker “do his duty.” After a shoot-out between the Marshals and Walker’s crew — who’d come to kill Choo-Choo for not killing the girl as he’d been ordered — a wounded Choo-Choo drove away, ultimately parking his car on the tracks of an oncoming train. Ironically, the train managed to stop just before hitting the car. The engineers/conductors went up to the car to ask the driver what he was doing, but Choo-Choo was already dead. Perhaps he thought his Runaway Train should go out in a blaze of fire, if not glory, but he only died, anonymous and alone, “neither here nor there.” Choo-Choo (Duke Davis Roberts, below, in a show-stopping role) did, however, manage to keep his secrets and his honor: the girl he chose not to kill did, in fact, survive.justified 10

Last night it became clear that Ava’s uncle Zachariah (Jeff Fahey, below, with gun), who is helping Boyd reach Markham’s safe through an abandoned mine-shaft, has his own secrets. Apparently, he’d sawed through floorboards in the mine in an attempt to kill Boyd but make it look like an accident. Boyd did fall through, but Zachariah ostentatiously saved him. He then sent Boyd out, and when Boyd’s man discovered the cut — not rotted — boards, Zachariah threw him down the hole to his death. Will Zachariah also succeed in killing Boyd? If so, will he do it before or after Ava’s own treachery is discovered?

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Is Markham “playing” Katherine, as her crime-partner Wynn Duffy suggested, by asking her to marry him? Does Markham know that Katherine is “playing” him by continuing to be his lover while hiring Boyd to steal his fortune? Will Wynn and Katherine get Markham’s money or will Markham discover their plan?

Will Ava tell Boyd the truth before Limehouse does? If she does reveal her betrayal, will Boyd’s outrage and anger be greater than his love for her? If she does get killed for being a “snitch,” will Rachel and Raylan feel morally responsible?

Will any of these deceitful and secretive characters — criminal or lawman — get out of Harlan alive, as each wishes? Or will more of them join the murdered Dewey Crowe (shot by Boyd after he felt he couldn’t trust Dewey any longer) and the dead Choo-Choo?

Viewers cannot know until the end, of course, but things are not looking good. It seems “there’s no way out” for any of the characters. They’re all “in too deep.” They’re all on the Runaway Train, going the “wrong way on a one-way track.”

“Runaway Train” lyrics

Call you up in the middle of the night
Like a firefly without a light
You were there like a slow torch burning
I was a key that could use a little turning

So tired that I couldn’t even sleep
So many secrets I couldn’t keep
Promised myself I wouldn’t weep
One more promise I couldn’t keep

It seems no one can help me now
I’m in too deep
There’s no way out
This time I have really led myself astray

Runaway train never going back
Wrong way on a one way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I’m neither here nor there

Can you help me remember how to smile
Make it somehow all seem worthwhile
How on earth did I get so jaded
Life’s mystery seems so faded

I can go where no one else can go
I know what no one else knows
Here I am just drowning in the rain
With a ticket for a runaway train

Everything is cut and dry
Day and night, earth and sky
Somehow I just don’t believe it

Runaway train never going back
Wrong way on a one way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I’m neither here nor there

Bought a ticket for a runaway train
Like a madman laughing at the rain
Little out of touch, little insane
Just easier than dealing with the pain

Runaway train never coming back
Wrong way on a one way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I’m neither here nor there

Runaway train never coming back
Runaway train tearing up the track
Runaway train burning in my veins
Runaway but it always seems the same

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DEADWOOD Strikes Gold! Again! Still!

#No Spoilers

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of its award-winning  & critically acclaimed series Deadwood, HBO had a marathon of all 3 seasons (36 episodes) on a weekend in March, and weeknights in April and May. Though we have the DVD collection, I hadn’t watched it since it originally aired from 2004-2006. What a mistake. Viewing it again during April and May, I realized just how magnificent a show it is. Even 10 years later, it was as exciting and fresh as ever.

Created, produced, and mostly written by David Milch, Deadwood explores the growth of Deadwood SD in the 1870s, before and after its annexation by the Dakota Territory. Previously, Deadwood was on land ceded to the Native Americans, so whites were on it illegally; once gold was discovered in the Black Hills, however, whites went there in droves while the government turned its back on any treaty violations.

The Cast & Characters

Great cast playing fascinating characters, some of whom were really in Deadwood SD, make Deadwood a standout series. The fictional characters are mixed with historical ones: Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane),

Hardware-store owner & Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, L) and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes, R),

Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine),

and Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert)

are just a few of the historical personages who interact with fictional ones in this great drama.

Most of the cast members have gone on to star in other important series and films. Dayton Callie, who plays Charlie Utter,

stars in Sons of Anarchy, Timothy Olyphant in Justified, Paula Malcolmson, who plays Trixie the whore, stars in Ray Donovan as his wife,

and Anna Gunn, who plays Seth’s wife Martha, went on to star  in Breaking Bad as Skyler.

Some cast members were stars when they arrived, like Ian McShane as Al Swearengen — creator David Milch has said he wrote the character with McShane in mind — Powers Boothe as rival saloon/brothel owner Cy Tolliver,

Gerald McRaney as George Hearst,

Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran,

and William Sanderson, in the best role he’s ever had, as scheming sycophant E. B. Farnum,

while Deadwood propelled others to international celebrity status. The cast alone makes the show worth watching. I can’t think of another series, besides The Tudors, that consistently had such a stellar cast, all with outstanding performances.

Integration of Dramatic Elements

So many writers and shows fail because the dialogue, character development, and action are all presented as separate entities. Long monologues interrupt action. Character studies could be entirely eliminated or replaced by commercial breaks without losing anything. Not so in Deadwood, where the language and character development are not only integral to the action, but where the action itself evolves from the language and the characters themselves.

This scene, where Gem Saloon owner and brothel-master Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) insults Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Bullock) who is married (his wife hasn’t arrived yet) but is sexually involved with widowed Alma Garrett (fictional), whose gold-claim Al Swearengen covets, vividly demonstrates the integration of all three elements: dialogue, character development, and action (plot). When Al Insults Bullock.

Warning: Language

The Language & Writing

Yes, there’s lots of obscenity on Deadwood, but there’s also language so poetic, it sounds like some of the best Shakespearean lines ever written. And the actors say it all so naturally. I guess that’s just what really good actors do. Still, the writing itself does allow the actors to ascend to the realm of poetry, even when they’re arguing. This clip contains a montage, and the first four minutes are mostly funny because it’s so many of the characters cussing, but then you get to see the poetry and beauty of the language in Deadwood.

Warning: Language

The Humor

Even in its most serious situations, Deadwood was filled with humor. Some of it made me laugh aloud, the first time I viewed it, and during the 10th anniversary marathon. I honestly don’t know how some of the actors did their lines without laughing through the entire scenes. This one, where Chinese “Boss” Mr Wu (Leone Young) is attempting to tell Al Swearengen, whom Wu calls “Swi-jen,” is one of the classics. Wu tells Al about the “CockSuckas.”

Warning: Language

The show was cancelled far too early — after its third season — when, clearly, future seasons were planned by the creator/writer David Milch and by the actors. HBO gives various reasons for the cancellation, the most oft-cited  is that “Deadwood, as a costume-drama, was too expensive to produce.” Ian McShane was known to respond to that by saying that his character wore the same suit and long underwear through all 3 seasons, while his whores wore basically nothing at all.

Bravo, Ian, for showing such a ridiculous cancellation of a fine series for what it was: A mistake. One which HBO still regrets.

As for me, I’m not waiting another 10 years to watch the entire series again. It’s going to become an annual ritual, at the very least. After all, I have the boxed-set of the DVDs.

Even if I didn’t, I could watch the entire series free on either HBO-Now or on Amazon Prime.

Being able to watch the magnificent series Deadwood any time I want makes either subscription worth its price.

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My Favorite Film & TV Villains

In the past, villains were bad guys, without any redeeming features, and heroes were good guys, with no bad qualities, except maybe a bad wardrobe or hairdo. Then came the era of anti-heroes: heroes who had some less than stellar qualities or who’d made some seriously bad decisions or life choices that prevented them from being perfect, like Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name (played to great effect by the late Peter O’Toole in the film, which is what made me read the novel in the first place, trying to understand Jim’s motivation).

Over the last couple decades, however, the villains have become sort of anti-villains, as books, movies, and television series show the villains as real human beings. No matter how bad, evil, or wicked the best villains are, they have some redeeming or interesting characteristics, whether it’s caring about women and children (limiting their violence to men, for example) or great senses of humor, or simply being absolutely faithful to their own moral codes, even if they’re criminal ones.

Here are my favorite film and television series villains, in no particular order. And it’s understood that, without the specific actors playing them in these roles, these fascinating and charismatic villains would simply not have been the same.

Hannibal Lecter
Silence of the Lambs

Boy, did Sir Anthony Hopkins deserve the Oscar he won for his chilling performance of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the first film version featuring the character, Silence of the Lambs, from the Thomas Harris novels. Beginning with Lecter’s look — hairstyle and tightly fitted prison garb, which were Anthony Hopkins’ idea — to his voice, his facial expressions, and his threatening demeanor even when standing perfectly still, Hopkins’ Hannibal sent insomniac movie viewers into therapy because, though they were terrified by him, they were also fascinated. Ain’t that what makes a great villain these days? His very first scene, in the underground FBI prison cell, when Hannibal “The Cannibal” meets rookie agent Clarisse Starling (played by Jodi Foster) shows just a hint of how scary and charming Hopkins’ serial killer can be.

Warning: Language

Boyd Crowder
Justified

Walton Goggins, previously known for his role in “The Shield,” plays bad guy Boyd Crowder, the foil to and bane of US Marshal Raylan Givens’ (Timothy Olyphant) life. But the two grew up together, and their shared past, with divergent careers which are mutually exclusive, combined with the actors’ improvised lines in many of their scenes together, make Boyd a criminal whom audiences root for. In fact, Boyd was supposed to be killed at the end of the pilot for the show, but the initial screening audience chastised the studio so much for “killing” Boyd, that the pilot was rewritten. Despite “guest star” criminals each season, none has the fascinating personality or the chemistry with Olyphant’s Raylan Givens that Goggins’ Boyd Crowder has. This sequence shows his initial “Fire in the Hole” activity from the pilot (characters based on an initial story by that name and characters in subsequent stories by the late, great Elmore Leonard, who was an executive producer of the show till his death this year) as well as some other clips (interspersed by music that does not, unfortunately, come from the show, i.e., it’s not as good as the music in Justified). Still, the montage shows you some good examples of Boyd’s violent interactions as well as his humor and intelligence. Though nominated several times for an Emmy for this role, Goggins has never won: I hope they remedy that in 2015’s final season of the series.

Detective Norman Stansfield
The Professional

My first introduction to Gary Oldman’s formidable acting was in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where Oldman played the title character. But when I began to seek out his other films, I found this one, which is one of Oldman’s best. His corrupt Detective Norman Stansfield “directs” Beethoven before confronting a drug-dealer who has stolen from him. Stansfield displays a wicked sense of humor, both in what he says and does. “We said noon” is a great introduction to Oldman’s villainous Stansfield in a gripping film that also stars Natalie Portman, in her film debut, as the abused daughter of the man who stole from Detective Stansfield and whom Stansfield is seeking, and French actor Jean Reno as the professional hitman, Léon, “hired” by Portman’s Mathilda to protect her from Stansfield while teaching her to defend herself from him as well.

Warning: Violence

The Archangel Gabriel
The Prophecy
(Trilogy)

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I think Christopher Walken is one of the greatest actors ever. Comedy, Drama, Films, Theatre, Singing, Dancing, Hero, Villain — the man can do it all, and he does it all with consummate skill and amazing range. One of my favorite roles (and Walken’s, as he’s stated in interviews) is as the villainous yet deadpan-funny Archangel Gabriel in The Prophecy (Trilogy), where, in the Second Angel War, Gabriel is trying to steal the blackest human soul ever — which angel Simon has taken from the corpse and hidden in someone else’s body — to use that evil human soul in Gabriel’s fight to keep humans out of heaven.  Gabriel uses some of the human characters, whom he calls “talking monkeys,”  to  get things he can’t obtain himself or to travel (he can’t drive). He uses humans who were either suicides or criticially ill & dying patients, “reviving them” (or as Walken’s Gabriel describes it to Adam Goldberg’s character in the first film, “letting them die slower”). This montage, showing clips from the first two films in the trilogy, show his menace and his deadpan-humor. His scenes with Adam Goldberg (not included here), Amanda Plummer, and the late Brittany Murphy are among some of the best moments in the films. Walken’s Gabriel combines his fearsome portrayal of villains with his comedic talent, to great effect.

Tony Soprano
The Sopranos

Though marred by some uneven writing in a few of its seasons, the ground-breaking HBO series The Sopranos introduced us to New Jersey mob-boss Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini. And, boy, did Gandolfini play him to perfection. Totally loyal to his own criminal code, Tony Soprano was nevertheless a lying, philandering (unfaithful to both wife and mistresses), murderous criminal. The very premise of the show — a mob boss entering therapy because he’s having panic attacks — was part of its charm. Tony Soprano’s crush on his therapist, played by Lorraine Bracco, as well as his anger at her refusal to be anything but his psychologist and her insistence that he examine his “feelings” were among the show’s highlights. Gandolfini’s Emmy win(s) as Tony Soprano were well deserved for his consummate acting in this role. This “If you lie” scene, when Tony is attempting to uncover the identity of an FBI informant, show’s Gandolfini’s Soprano as his most fierce and most vulnerable.

Warning: Language

Sheriff Little Bill Daggett
Unforgiven

Sheriff Little Bill doesn’t like guns or violence in his town of Big Whiskey, despite or because of his own past as a gunslinger and killer. Played to Oscar-winning perfection by Gene Hackman, Little Bill is cruel and ruthless, but is building his own house (though he ain’t no carpenter) — Hackman’s idea — and a born storyteller, especially if he’s discrediting an old arch-enemy like English Bob (one of Richard Harris’ best roles) in front of his biographer W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Repeatedly calling English Bob’s biography, titled The Duke of Death, the “Duck” of Death, and referring to English Bob as “The Duck”  — another of Hackman’s improvizations, which, according to director and co-star Clint Eastwood, caused the entire cast and crew to break out in uncontrollable laughter when Hackman first said it — Hackman’s Little Bill is wickedly funny without ever cracking a smile. At the same time, he’s deadly serious about the fact that he will be the only one doing any killing in his town. After he’s viciously beaten and kicked English Bob for carrying firearms within the town limits, then lying about it, Little Bill dares the biographer Beauchamp to try to shoot the sheriff (but not no deputy), then offers the gun to the imprisoned English Bob. The “First, You Got to Cock It” scene reveals Hackman’s Little Bill at his fiercest, bravest, psychologically cruelest, and most complex, and, ultimately, honest.

Al Swearengen
Deadwood

If you’ve never seen HBO’s Deadwood — with its multi-star cast, superb writing, outstanding storytelling, fascinating characters, and historical accuracy — then you don’t, as they say, know what you’re missing. Ian McShane’s portrayal of Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon/Brothel and one of the “founding fathers” of Deadwood SD while it was still a territory illegally on Native American land, makes him the classic villain for all time. Foul-mouthed, violent, sarcastic, murderous, and otherwise cruel to the point of sadism, McShane’s Swearengen is nevertheless also empathetic,  a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abandonment, and frequently hurt by those whom he believes he can trust (though he usually reacts in anger to betrayal). Creator David Milch apparently created the role with Ian McShane in mind, and McShane’s performance as the vicious yet vulnerable Al make him one of the most memorable and oft-quoted villains in history. For the 10th anniversary marathon weekend showing of Deadwood, which is also playing serially weeknights on HBO Signature, numerous blogs imitated Al Swearengen’s voice — not that of any other character. No one scene could possibly show you McShane’s range as Al. Ian’s subtle facial expressions, voice intonations, and glances alone demonstrate more ability and talent in this role than some actors display in their entire careers. The fan-made montage “Al Talks the Talk & Walks the Walk” displays just some of Al’s villainy and McShane’s talent (one of the “murders” shown is actually a mercy-killing of a severely afflicted and dying character, which Al had to be persuaded to assist in, since no one else — not even the camp’s doctor — was willing to help end the character’s intense, progressive, and incurable suffering).

Über-Warning: Language
(Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You)

If you’ve missed any of these brilliant actor’s performances as one of these top villains, you can rent them (or, even better, often view them for free, on HBO GO or with Amazon Prime), you’ll want to catch them when you’re in the mood for some fine acting, fantastic characters, and even some occasional dark, villainous humor.

And if your comments aren’t too villainous themselves, you can nominate your own top villains. If I’m not familiar with them, I’ll put them on my “To Be Watched” list.

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