The Grandmother as Godfather: Justified’s Mags Bennett

Curator's Note

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.



Elizabeth, you've picked another brilliant moment from Justified's stand-out season to focus on. Mags's persona, and her cover identity, as you pointed out, are so loaded with markers not just of the maternal, but of the rural and pastoral. So many of the FX women of a certain age live out of bounds somehow--in rural Kentucky, in a haunted house or asylum, with a biker gang--they wallow in the sinister behind the maternal or grandmotherly, and seem set on breaking down the idolization of the countryside or the working class alongside the idealization of motherhood, domesticity, and loving grandmas doling out apple pie. I wonder if being part of FX's dark outsider branding strategy confines them in similar ways that those images of caring mothers and grandmothers confine female characters in other contexts. Thanks for another great post!

Elizabeth, I love your comment on Mags as post-sexual and feel that your clip, although not overtly dealing with her sexuality, showcases a theme surrounding women of a certain age across FX programming. When Mags, describing her "all natural" poison refers to the "all kinds of knowledge in the hills", her lingering look on the dying man paired with this statement feels almost mystical, possibly a more grounded representation of the witches' magical use of plants and herbs in AHS: Asylum. While the witches, unlike Mags, are portrayed as highly sexual women, these women from both series both hold a command of nature that their male counterparts simply cannot match. Perhaps part of the unique identify confines Jorie brings up then includes a connection to nature that, in both this scene of Justified and moments of Asylum, these women often turn dark. Thank you for the very thought-provoking post and clip!

Such a great clip to focus on! Elizabeth, I'm fascinated by this perspective of the "post-sexual" that seems to delineate a new female power, one that doesn't deny gender but resides outside of the hegemonic understanding of it. I think we might wrongly conflate the post-feminist with the post-sexual and I think your distinction is key to discussing the ever-shifting contemporary feminist discourse. Focusing on the maternal (and seemingly innocuous) domestic realms also offers a compelling entry point. There are certainly aspects of Barbara Creed's "Monstrous-Feminine" pushing through the images and story lines, but these abject (or maybe just off-putting) moments seem to point to real transgressive potential.

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