Coal might be the fuel that keeps most American television's glowing, but it doesn't show up in programming very often. In Justified, FX's cops-and-robbers show set in Harlan County, KY, however, the politics of coal mining have started to feature more and more prominently in what's otherwise an excellent but apolitical crime show.
In the first season, the coal economy sat in the background. The main character, Raylan Givens, and his occasional nemesis, Boyd Crowder, mined coal together years ago, and another character makes a passing reference to new mining techniques. Some of the criminals allude to the fact that they'd rather break the law than mine coal.
Looming larger than those stray references, though, is Harlan County itself: a region warped and twisted by decades of extraction and left with a distorted economy ripe for the kinds of meth labs that Givens is always busting. Coal has been mined in Harlan since the late 19th century, the industry took over when the railroad came in 1911 and subsistence farmers were quickly pushed out by the mines. Violence came to characterize the early mining camps, and an eight-day battle in 1939 where company gunmen turned machine guns on protesters gave the county the nickname: "Bloody Harlan."
Reliance on coal has left areas like Harlan highly vulnerable to the boom-and-bust cycles of energy, and modern technologies have a way of leaving miners behind. In 2008, about 34 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. It was only a matter of time before the issues surrounding coal moved from the background to the forefront in Justified.
The writers have drawn the politics of coal extraction in starker terms this season. A few episodes back saw the appearance of Carol Johnson, a Columbia-educated Black Pike mining company representative traveling around the county trying to acquire properties for a mountaintop removal project—a highly controversial extraction technique that does exactly what it sounds like it does, destroying homesteads, creeks, and the mountain itself in the process.
At a meeting in the show, Johnson is actually more forgiving than her real-world counterparts. She makes no attempt at talking about clean coal—but she makes the same argument about economic necessity.
"Coal is dirty, always has been, always will be. But it's still coal that provides more than half the electricity used in the U.S.," she says. "We can bring prosperity back to these lands. God put coal in these hills for just that purpose—I believe that."
But she faces some opposition in the meeting from Mags Bennett, a middle-aged matron who gives an impassioned speech about Appalachian culture, the food, the music, the people, and the holler:
"As long as we've been here, story's always been the same. Big money men come in here and take the timber, the coal, and the strength of our people. And what do they leave behind? Poundments full of poison slurry and valleys full of toxic trash."
Of course, that character is also a vicious gangster who was last seen breaking her own son's hand with a hammer.
Mags Bennet has other plans. She wanted the land the company needed for access roads for herself, and she sells out for the exorbitant price she knows that she can extract from the coal company. For her, betrayal is as much a part of the culture as bluegrass.
"Nothing changes up here, not really. I seen this story played out time and time again and before as it will happen again in times yet to come," she says when Johnson asks how she was able to sell out her neighbors and her holler. "I'll take cash up front."
Justified isn't the only show that's featured miners recently. In Coal, a Spike TV reality series about independent coal miners in West Virginia , the environmental and economic questions behind fossil fuel exploration don't come up as often. The miners are portrayed as bold, devil-may-care geological cowboys picking through a dangerous job for the possibility of big payoffs.
But like Justified, Coal shows a human face behind not just energy debates in Washington but also the dim glow of the laptop showing this article. Johnson is right—coal does account for nearly half of U.S. electrical production. And it comes from places like Harlan County, through the kinds of deals like the kind Mags made.
That episode of Justified ended in a chase, a fistfight, the death of a villain, and the rescue of a little girl. Justified is a cop show, and so guns and drugs stay at the forefront while economic and environmental devastation sit in the background. It isn't unlike the real world in that regard: fights, deals, distractions, and drama make for a good story and in the end, the company is going to blow a thousand feet off of that mountain.
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