How lucky are we to be able to enjoy a pair of scripted television series that aren’t simply two of the best of their time, but also two of the all-time best? I’m speaking of FX’s “Justified,” which concluded its densely entertaining third season this week with what may be its strongest episode ever, and AMC’s “Mad Men,” one of the very few drama series in the history of the medium that started out as something better than anything else on television and has continued to raise its own bar during each of its subsequent seasons.
When it began, “Justified” appeared to be just another procedural crime drama, albeit one with characters a bit beyond the norm for such shows, and a locale refreshingly far removed from the big city settings of virtually every other current entry in the genre. But in a short time every aspect of this show, from the performance styles to the dialogue to the regional quirks that characterize heroes and villains alike, made clear that “Justified” was in every way a series we had never seen before.
The show caught lightning in a bottle last year with the addition of Margo Martindale’s lethal mountain woman Mags Bennett, a character that made so deep an impact it took three new arrivals to fill the narrative crater left by her exit: Neal McDonough as drug-addicted crime boss Robert Quarles, Jere Burns as local mobster Wynn Duffy (first seen, briefly, in season one), and Mykelti Williamson as butcher and Bennett family associate Ellstin Limehouse. Not surprisingly, the show utilized each of them to brilliant effect. (By the way, does this show have the coolest character names or what?)
The climactic sequences in this week’s season finale were filled with unexpected moments, but two stand out, one because it made me shout, the other because it left me in stunned silence. Significantly, Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens was at the center of both, and so convincingly played so many emotions and reactions to so many different things in so little time that he cemented his position as one of the best actors working in the medium today. I figured Quarles would eventually use the hidden gun he had rigged up his sleeve, but I didn’t expect Limehouse to slice off Quarles’ arm with that cleaver of his. And while I wasn’t shocked when I learned that it was Raylan’s dad Arlo who gunned down Kentucky state trooper Bergen (to protect Boyd Crowder), it hadn’t occurred to me that Arlo mistakenly (and horrifyingly) thought he was shooting his own son. Raylan’s reaction to all this made for Olyphant’s finest moments. “Justified” is so damned entertaining it kills me.
The fifth season of “Mad Men” is just getting started, and the drama, intrigue and sometimes self-destructive passion of the executives and their staffers at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are as provocative as ever in their reflection of its era. But the most memorable moments for me have so far involved Don Draper’s ex-wife Betty and their daughter Sally (played by the increasingly fascinating young actress Kiernan Shipka). First seen in the season’s third hour, Betty’s stunning weight gain brought something to dramatic television that I have never seen before: a story about a woman who obtained everything she thought she wanted in life -- twice -- only to feel completely unfulfilled but unable to express that, and who turned to food to dull the pain and escape from her unhappiness (hence Betty’s seemingly unconscious decision to consume two sundaes in one sitting). It reminded me that the media began making weight an issue in the '60s, but health and well-being had yet to become big business.
The most recent episode also included something I recall from childhood but had never before seen dramatized on television: the fear that kids felt as the story of Richard Speck and his savage killing of eight nurses in Chicago played out over time on the evening news. This occurred two years after the reign of terror by the Boston Strangler, which I don’t remember, and three years before the horror of the Manson slayings, which I do. All those multiple murders were especially terrifying in their random violation of the safety people are supposed to feel in their own homes. I remember being scared then -- and many friends admitting they were scared, as well. I’d forgotten all about this until I saw how frightened Sally was and how uneasy her strange new stepgrandmother was with the entire situation.
I tune in every week for the period drama and intrigue of it all, but for me, personal moments like these add an extra magic to this show. I have felt that way since the sequence in season one when the Draper children tumbled from the back seat to the floor of the family car as Betty slammed on the brakes, and then giggled about it. My brother and I used to enjoy such spills, too. “Mad Men” is so damned detailed it dazzles me.