In the opening episode of Justified’s second season, Mags Bennett (played by Margo Martindale) poisons employee Walt McCready with a glass of home-made moonshine – her so-called “Apple Pie.” The scene has since become one of the season’s (and the show’s) most infamous. But it may also be one of its most instructive. For it is only the first of many times that Mags will use her age and gender as an alibi – erect a reassuringly grand-maternal screen for her illicit, at times staggeringly sadistic activities. Here, Mags comforts the dying Walt (“Ooh, this is the bad part!”), and shares the folk recipe for his fatal dose (“Mixture’s all natural…from up in the hills…”) even as she kills him in cold blood.
Murder by apple pie, then, is an apt metaphor for Mags’s M.O. She hides her gun behind a candy jar; she closes an environmentally disastrous deal with a coal company while hosting a “good ol’ fashioned whoop-de-doo!”; she tries to railroad U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens with a tearful show of maternal grief. She is likely the only crime boss on TV whose cover is running a general store.
As such moments suggest, Mags succeeds not only in subverting many of the stereotypes with which “women of a certain age” have historically been saddled, but in leveraging these sexist (and ageist) assumptions to consolidate conventionally masculine forms of power. In a notable sequence, Mags has a sit-down with Helen Givens–matriarch of the family with whom the Bennetts have a shaky truce – who reveals the full extent of the older women’s authority: “twenty years of peace…for twenty years we held it in our hands…” What’s interesting is how self-conscious the show is about Mags’s strategic manipulation of age- and gender-based roles. This may be most evident in her wardrobe, an amalgam of men’s clothes (work shirts, oxfords, tool belt) and “feminine” accessories, which seem designed to reinforce her status as un-sexual, or as she implies, post-sexual. “My time has passed,” she tells her ward, Loretta, as she primps the young girl for a party. “But you, you’ve got something…power you haven’t even come to understand.” The history of film and television is full of women exploiting their sexuality–exercising this type of power. So the sight of a female character not using it– playing, instead, on her non-nubile status–seems like a rarer and more interesting phenomenon.