The early months of 2010 found me unexpectedly living alone in Canada, working hard to distract myself from the fact that my wife was hospitalized in the United States, and I had chosen the selfish route of continuing with my diocesan-sponsored studies instead of remaining by her side and taking charge of our two young sons, who instead I had entrusted to my in-laws to manage until Uxor was better. My primary mode of distraction was the aforementioned studies, and most days I would spend at the library from late afternoon when classes ended until the wee hours of the morning, with only brief breaks for food and the quick nightly Skype call home. My classmates, few of whom knew much about me aside from the pleasant banter we exchanged, often marveled at the “fortress of knowledge” I would construct around myself at my table in the library, often hauling thirty or forty volumes at a time from the shelves and poring through them for source material for my various papers.
But I can’t study all the time, and so I also watched a lot of video entertainment. I made frequent walks to the public library to check out films from the past decade that I had never had the opportunity to see. I also embraced the Apple iTunes Store and the weekly offer of a handful of episodes of new shows as free downloads. Many of these were utter tripe, and the fact that I downloaded and watched the pilot episodes of shows like Basketball Wives and Bubba’s World should adequately illustrate how avidly I was seeking to absent myself from a dire headspace. (That even with all of the above, I still ended up drinking myself to sleep most nights with several ounces of increasingly-cheap Scotch is probably also on indicator of something.)
On 23 March 2010, one of the free episodes was the pilot of a new FX series called Justified. Unlike most of the shows, which I downloaded and played blindly (and usually deleted with a shudder after the initial viewing), I had heard rumor of this series in the preceding weeks, and I had liked what I had heard. Spoiler-proof as I am, watching “Fire in the Hole” for the first time was a tremendously enjoyable experience, even though I had read descriptions of most of the key scenes already in The New York Times review online. The opening reveal of the back of Raylan Givens’s hat, and the poolside showdown with Tommy Bucks that follows: I bet I watched that 100 times that week. I watched the episode as a whole at least a dozen times through, enough that, the following Tuesday, I made a highly unusual choice: I decided to splurge the $2.09 American to download the second episode to see if it carried through on the promise of the first.
It did, and so did the third, and by the time I had purchased five or six episodes, I stopped looking back. The characters became part of what I clung to through the remainder of that lonely semester: the life-and-death drama of Harlan County became an integral part of my own struggle to survive long enough to rejoin my convalescent wife and begin to rebuild our life together. And when the show survived it’s initial season to tell more of the story in a breathtaking second season, and jaw-dropping, gut-churning third, it was definitively established as part of the fabric of my life experience.
Not only has this series held me mesmerized from one cliffhanger to the next, but most importantly to me, it has held up to repeated viewings. Most notably, as the third season unfolded in all its sordid wonder, I re-watched all the episodes to date each week while I waited for the next one top drop the following Wednesday morning. Many were the nights I paced up and down our tiny rented house in suburban Ottawa, soothing our newborn third child while watching the machinations of Robert Quarles and Elstin Limehouse on the tiny iPod screen I held behind her.
Tonight, the final episode of this sixth and final season of Justified will air, and sometime tomorrow morning that finale will be available to download via iTunes, and – unable to wait until evening – I will spend my lunch break huddled over my desk at work and gorge myself on every delicious minute of the last hour of this marvelous show. It has been a glorious ride, a show I have allowed myself to invest in like very few others. Someday, I hope to put into thoughtful words the great esteem I have for this grand exercise in storytelling. I am not ready to do so yet. If you are one of the many who have watched and loved this show over the past six years, you understand. If you are not, and you love good storytelling (of the violent variety), do yourself the great favor of giving Justified a chance to amaze you, too. It pays off in spades.
*The title of this post is a hat tip to a lovely little Tumblr project of reflections on each episode that sadly only made it halfway through the second season. But once you watch that far, I highly recommend reading Meghan’s posts, they are gems.