We’re in the middle of the “Kentucky” desert that is quite obviously California, but this incongruity seems almost beside the point. This is the “Justified” universe, a highly-stylized Elmore Leonard Kentucky populated by erudite criminal masterminds engaged to their brother’s murderers, and U.S. Marshals whose multitudinous inner battles seep into their workdays and it somehow works out great (well, not for the dozens who get shot, but they are invariably bad guys).
Suddenly, Deputy U.S. Marshall Tim Gutterson—heading a decoy-convoy pretending to transport Drew Thompson, who has been living under an assumed identity in Harlan County on cocaine money for thirty years–stops short and honks. Tim has noticed three abandoned cars, and suddenly the incongruous desert of fake-Kentucky melds with the punishing terrain of alluded-to Afghanistan, and Tim recognizes a trap. His Marshall colleagues are suspicious at first, but before long he’s on the phone with Colton Rhodes, sidekick to “Justified” arch-baddie and aforementioned sister-in-law-marryer Boyd Crowder, who has indeed set a Fallujah booby-trap.
Colton and Tim have some important things in common: they’re both vets, they’re both seriously PTSD’d out, and they’re both heroin-addicted psychopaths who murder everyone but the prostitute they’ve been specifically hired to murder—wait, not that last one.
Still, as Tim and Colt engage in a banter that is at once hilarious and terrifying—the cars are indeed filled with live ammunition, set to “Fire-in-the-Hole” the convoy no matter which direction it goes—the two veterans share an eerie, intense calm that makes us realize they are two sides of the same broken coin, two options for today’s death-immersed veterans to reintegrate into society doing the only thing they know. Indeed, half a second from being blown to kingdom come, Tim seems more at home, more collected, and more confident than he has in his four seasons on Graham Yost’s remarkable show.
It is by far the best work I have ever seen on screen by the actor who plays Tim, Jacob Pitts, whom I have known for nearly twelve years. Just in time for the Season 4 finale, and for reasons I still don’t fully understand, Jacob recently agreed to be interviewed by yours truly over the phone while he was decamped in New York for the annual FX “Up Fronts,” which is some sort of publicity thing I don’t understand, and since this isn’t real journalism I don’t have to find out.
Over his “Protein Breakfast” at the Bowery Hotel (“It’s really nice, have you been here?” “No, Jacob, Normals can’t afford hotels in New York”), Jacob humored me with thoughtful, honest remarks about Tim, his castmates, and whatever weird shit I felt like asking him.
The big reason for Jacob’s breakout in Season 4 is Tim’s repartee with Colt (referred to by the nickname Full Metal Jacket in my household), played by Ron Eldard, whom Jacob says “was great, completely ideal to work with, a lovely guy. At the end of shooting I said, ‘I’d love to do a play with you so I can steal all of your shit’.” Though “Justified” lacks the immediacy of the stage, Jacob might still have had some time to osmosis-ize Eldard’s abilities during shooting, because did you know that when actors are having phone conversations, THEY ARE NOT ACTUALLY ON THE PHONE? For example, when Eldard was up in the bushes doing his lines, Jacob was two trees off-screen doing his part; when Jacob was in the truck, Eldard was hunched down in the back seat out of sight, like me in middle school when I was in the car with my parents and we pulled up next to some popular girl. I feel a little betrayed, TV.
My theory—and that of other Internet “Justified”-heads—is that the scenes between Tim and Colt are so intense because, despite their situation back in civilian life on two vastly disparate sides of legality, they are…well, “friends” isn’t the right word, but they are connected in a way only people who have experienced the horrors of our recent-past and current Mideast quagmires can be. This is, of course, both the most difficult and rewarding part of Jacob’s role—to bring to screen the anguish and indelible brokenness of the violence-scarred veteran with respect, without having so much set foot in basic training aside from the ersatz bootcamp the cast of The Pacific did.
“I still can’t lay any claim to that. Anyone who hasn’t been in combat hasn’t the first idea of what it really is about,” he explains, before launching into a wrenching anecdote about meeting a drunk Marine one night outside a karaoke bar in New York. “He’d clearly just drunk himself into a numbness, just in that place where you’re kind of tottering, constantly, and he talked about how he was a sniper and how he killed 24 people and tortured countless others […] and he said it in a way that didn’t make a big deal about it. [slurs in imitation ]‘Yeah, I got PTSD.’ He was saying it like he was reporting a baseball injury. But of course he’s so sadly drunk at that moment. But I can barely even judge that situation. But I think depicting two people as being one of two broken options of coming home from war is fairly accurate.”
I mention during this conversation that my favorite part of the convoy scene is that as the situation gets direr and realer, Tim just descends into total, rock-solid calm. “That was the best writing I’ve ever had, ever,” he says. “I realized that [Tim] is panicked on a level, on the level of ‘All right, only I understand the direness of this situation.’ There is that kind of low-level panic running through it; ‘I have go get all these people under my control, because otherwise someone’s going to die’.” And yet Tim is just on-point here, like he’s finally home in abject terror, because “Gutterson, when he’s not working, he has no idea what to do with himself.” As a veteran there is a bit of an “adrenaline junkie” about him (as opposed to his foil Colt, who is just a regular-junkie), who is really only comfortable when he’s back at war. And this is why, when Tim finally has to kill Colton, on his face is mostly sadness and disappointment—because despite Colt’s heroin-addled homicidal psychopathy, and despite the minor fact that he killed Tim’s addict friend Mark, somehow Colt was something approximating Tim’s friend.
All right, enough heavy stuff.
Jacob’s covetousness of his castmates’ talents extends well beyond the dragon-chasing stylings of Eldard, and to coworkers present and past, including…are you ready for the BIGGEST NAME DROP THIS BLOG HAS EVER SEEN?—Jesse Tyler Ferguson, with whom Jacob appeared on stage many years pre-“Modern Family,” back in 2004 in the wonderful Christopher Shinn’s powerful and multivalent Where Do We Live. “Just watching [Jesse] in rehearsal, I saw how he would find a character. What he was doing was, he would do a simple grammatical emphasis; he would emphasize or really hit one word in a sentence, a little different each time. It was kind of mathematical. Each variation indicated a different version of what the character was thinking about that sentence.” You heard it here, people: Jesse Tyler Ferguson is hereby known as the Ludwig Wittgenstein of acting. [I can hear my partner reading this and going: IN WHAT WAY do you MEAN THAT? I’m not sure that WORKS. I mean it in the following ways: Jesse would use his acting-powers to “analyse” each sentence he spoke, almost mathematically, and thus determining which parts could resonate, i.e. make acting-sense, and which were relegated to acting-gibberish—Wittgenstein-similarity #1, to Tractatus-era Wittgenstein—and he would also change the character’s “truth” with the variations in use of each time he did a sentence—Wittgenstein-similarity #2, to Philosophical Investigations-era Wittgenstein. IT WORKS. Sort of. Anyway. This is what happens when legitimate publications don’t want to see what happens when I interview the one famous friend I have. YOUR LOSS!]
At any rate, the endearing jealousy of castmates goes on, including guest stars like Lindsay Pulsipher, who plays the deus ex sperpentima-departed preacher Billy’s intense-ass sister: “There’s this constant [brigade] of people who can outact me at every turn, who just come on the show for a couple of episodes and I’m like, GOD DAMMIT. It dispels your illusions of invincibility.”
Although they didn’t work much together, as I suspected, Jacob is going to miss Raymond “Arlo Givens” Berry, who has “a rhythm all his own. He’s from another time and place, that guy. And probably in his other time and place, he was from another time and place.” Nice. Praise was also heaped upon the luminous Joelle Carter (Ava Crowder, whose recent hairdos on the show have referenced a Casino-era Sharon Stone, which portends that perhaps in the finale she is going to just go batshit fucking nuts?), and the sublimely absurd Damon Herriman, whom I’ve sorely missed in Season 4 as Dewey “You Mean I Got Four Kidneys?” Crowe.
Before this gets to Infinite-Jest length, I will end it by saying that sadly, Jacob wouldn’t tell me what happens in the finale—DOES WINONA DIE?!?!? I WILL NOT BE ABLE TO TAKE THE VISCERAL VICARIOUS GRIEF I HAVE FOR RAYLAN IF THIS HAPPENS—because he isn’t in it much, and so he elected not to read the final script, so he can be surprised along with the rest of us. When he saw it, he says, it read like this: “Scene 43. To be determined. All we know is that it’s going to be Raylan, Boyd, and a shitload of bullets.” Sounds both like the best band name ever, and a good time on my television.