How TV Dramas Like 'Justified' and 'Mad Men' Deal With Fatherhood

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Babies have long been a staple of television, but these shows are handling pregnancy and childbirth in new ways.

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AMC, FX

Justified has justly drawn praise for being a groundbreaking show, from its crackling dialogue to its nuanced depiction of the rural south—a setting typically underutilized on television. But the third season of Justified does follow one TV tradition: It looks like it's going to feature a "new baby" episode.

There's a history of "new baby" episodes on television that stretches back more than five decades. I Love Lucy grabbed headlines (and ratings) in 1953 when Lucille Ball's real-life pregnancy was written into the show. "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" was viewed by 44 million Americans; the presidential inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower, which aired the following day, drew only 29 million viewers . Though the increasingly fragmented television audience means we're not likely to see a success on that scale again, "new baby" episodes can still sometimes be a draw—when The Office aired the 2-part episode "The Delivery," in which Jim and Pam have a baby, the series beat its timeslot rival Grey's Anatomy for the first time. But an interesting, divergent trend has emerged in recent TV dramas: a subdued, sometimes all-but-unremarked-upon approach to the birth of a child. AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad have each seen their lead protagonists grappling with new fatherhood—going through the full arc of the experience, from pregnancy to birth—but in a way that hasn't significantly alter the either show's overarching narrative.

Justified's Raylan is set to join Don Draper and Walter White in the fatherhood department. Last night's generally strong episode, "Cut Ties," is vintage Justified: clever quips, tense shootouts, likable guest stars, and gloriously hammy villain monologues. In the midst of all the action, it's easy to miss the brief reference to Winona's pregnancy. It was discussed, as a matter of course, at the beginning of the episode—but only so that Raylan could get in a couple of good barbs before going off to another dangerous day of marshalling. And that's been Justified's approach to the pregnancy from the start; when Winona told Raylan she was pregnant in last season's finale, she did it as an afterthought, in the morning, in the breezy kind of tone you'd use to tell someone they were out of toothpaste. That blasé approach is partially rooted in character; both Raylan and Winona routinely use understatement and humor as a way to deflect the very serious issues that threaten to upend their lives. But it raises intriguing questions about what will happen to Justified when the nine-month clock hits zero.

And Justified has more in common with Mad Men and Breaking Bad than its general approach to the "new baby" plot device. Each of the show's pregnancies was unplanned, and all three babies are potential casualties of the fundamentally unstable unions that created them. What we're seeing is a new approach to what a new baby means on television. These babies aren't characters unto themselves; they're plot devices, which threaten to draw our leading men away from their respective callings (the law, advertising, and methamphetamine, for those keeping track at home). There's a reason that "new baby" episodes tend to feature more heavily in sitcoms; where babies offer a host of new opportunities for jokes in comedies, they rarely offer more than obstacles to be overcome in dramas.

And, of course, there's the question about what the baby will do to Raylan's relationship with Winona, which is one of Justified's shakier subplots. Winona gave Raylan an ultimatum in last season's finale—an ultimatum Raylan ultimately ignored. But Justified has been strangely remiss in dealing with the aftermath of Raylan's decision to risk his life against Winona's wishes. Will Winona become less forgiving when Raylan's death would make her the sole parent of a newborn child? Of course, on a purely logical level, Raylan can't change; Justified is about a sharp, reckless federal marshal, and he's not going to suddenly become un-sharp or un-reckless. But that kind of lifestyle rarely leads to long-lasting, mutually-satisfying relationships (which is, after all, why Raylan and Winona got divorced in the first place). There's a reason we've seen so little of the personal lives of the rest of the marshal's office; it's hard to imagine that they have any.

And though Natalie Zea turns in a fine performance, Winona has never quite fit into Justified's world; last season's Winona-based subplot, in which she stole money from the evidence room, was far less compelling than the three-way battle going on among the Givens, the Bennetts, and the Crowders. Justified seems to be aware of its Winona Problem; the series keeps going out of its way to set up theoretical romantic entanglements for Raylan, from season 2's coal executive Carol Johnson to last night's Karen "Goodall" (read: Karen Sisco, from the much-lamented, Elmore Leonard-based series of the same name, played here once again by Carla Gugino).

Justified is primarily a show about family, and after two strong season, there's no doubt that creator and executive producer Graham Yost knows what he's doing. But it's worth noting that the most intriguing women in Raylan's life have been platonic: his bond with his surrogate mother, Aunt Helen, and his dicey relationship with the dangerous Mags Bennett. As a character, Raylan may be too much of a loner to be in functional relationships—and from a viewer's perspective, it's more interesting when he's not. What that means for Winona, their unborn baby, and the future of Justified remains to be seen.

Quip of the night: Raylan, on Winona's ultrasound— "It bears a striking resemblance to the creature from Alien. Don't come running to me when it busts out your ribcage."

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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