Ballad of a Modern Day Gunfighter

“Ya make me pull, I’ll put ya down.”

That is the rattlesnake whir of U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), protagonist of the underappreciated FX series, Justified. Givens is a laconic lawman with a slow tongue and a lightning-fast draw. He is the stereotypical western cowboy living in the modern world. Yet, his black-and-white moral code is thrown off kilter when he comes up against a world of criminals who dwell in the gray areas of life; criminals including his childhood friend, his ex-lover and even his own father.

Such is the premise for Justified, a show based on two novels written by iconic crime author Elmore Leonard. The series pilot, “Fire in the Hole,” is based upon a subsequent short story written by Leonard. The pilot is very faithful to the source material, but for one important detail. In the story, Raylan kills the bad guy at the climax of the story. In the TV series, said bad guy lives and ultimately becomes Raylan’s most prominent adversary.

In the opening scene of the premier, Raylan’s desire for justice (or is it vengeance) propels him into a rooftop confrontation in Miami with a very bad man. Raylan prevails, of course, but his renegade actions force his superiors to transfer him to his home state of Kentucky. This is a true punishment for Raylan, as he makes it clear that he has no desire to go home. Yet, home he goes, and soon runs up against a white supremacist who, in Raylan’s own words, “Loves to rob banks and blow shit up.” The wrinkle comes when we learn that said bank robber is Raylan’s childhood friend, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins.) They weren’t close when they dug coal together in the mines of Harlan, but as both men note at various times throughout the six-year run of the series, mining coal together forges a bond that can never be entirely broken.

The hook that brings the viewer along for the ride of Justified is that, once he is sent home, things become personal for Raylan. His repeated confrontations with Boyd Crowder are personal. His meeting with Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), Boyd’s sister-in-law, becomes personal. From the time of the pilot, everything in Raylan’s world becomes personal, particularly when he attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife, and is forced into an unhappy reunion with his wayward father.

Every colorful criminal Raylan meets throughout the course of the show gets under Raylan’s skin. He hates the bad guys because he grew up around criminals and knows how poisonous they are, particularly in an impoverished community such as his home town of Harlan. This is why he refuses to change his occupation or his behavior, even after he faces the consequences of his actions in Miami. In Raylan’s world, every criminal has a simple choice. “Ya make me pull, I’ll put ya down.” Raylan can easily put head to pillow each night, knowing that the world is better off with one less bad guy to further blight the already bleak landscape of Harlan.

Raylan’s outer trappings harken back to the age of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood. Unlike the square-jawed cowboys from the golden age of cinema, Raylan is far from perfect. He is not an anti-hero, though some of his choices throughout the series stray into anti-heroism. He has a temper. He has difficulty maintaining personal relationships. Sometimes, he has a blind spot to the character flaws of those closest to him. Yet, in other circumstances, he is too cynical to allow for the possibility of change for the better in people. He is quick to warn criminals of dire consequences for their actions, yet he is too slow to realize that his own actions also garner consequences. In many ways, he is the typical protagonist of the 21st century. As the series progresses, Raylan is forced to develop a stronger sense of self-awareness when he faces the prospect of fatherhood. Raylan ultimately must choose between the voice of his wicked father, or his gentler mother when he too becomes a parent.

Raylan’s nemesis, Boyd Crowder, serves as the opposite side of the same coin. He too grew up exposed to a criminal element, but his personality forces him down a different, more circuitous path. During the show’s six seasons, Boyd undergoes several transformations, changing from a white supremacist to a religious zealot to a lost soul, before he finally embraces his father’s legacy; that of his rightful place as the criminal kingpin of Harlan. Raylan proves to be an inflexible man who is mostly incapable of change, while Boyd seems to be in a constant state of flux as he struggles to come to terms with his true nature. The scenes that Olyphant and Goggins share together are the show’s best and it quickly becomes evident that each man is the dark alter ego of the other.

Justified is not a flawless series. Very few shows can achieve what Breaking Bad did in its near-perfect execution. One of the problems of the show is how it treats its female characters. In a crime saga like Justified in which the two main characters are male, the primary purpose of the female characters seem only to be to drive the storylines of the men.

Ava Crowder is the best example. When we first meet Ava, Raylan visits her shortly after she kills her abusive husband at the dinner table. Boyd wants revenge on Ava for her husband’s murder, since he was Boyd’s brother. This conflict serves as the climax of the pilot. Once the story is resolved, Ava remains as a presence in Raylan’s life. At first, they become lovers, which proves detrimental to Raylan’s career. Later, after Raylan becomes re-involved with his ex-wife, Ava switches sides and becomes involved with Boyd. Her allegiance to Boyd serves as a centerpiece for the remainder of the series, particularly in the show’s final season, but it never feels entirely authentic. It’s as if the writers loved Joelle Carter’s work and didn’t want to lose her, so they contrived a plot twist in which Ava becomes romantically involved with Boyd as a means of continuing her presence. Ava is a strong woman (all women on Justified are strong), but that doesn’t mean that all of their choices are intelligent, or that the writers do a good job of illustrating Ava’s reasoning in an organic fashion. This defect becomes particularly stark in the show’s fifth season, in which Ava is given a jailhouse storyline that separates her from Boyd for the duration.

Raylan’s afore-mentioned ex-wife Winona is another example. From the moment we first see Winona (Natalie Zea), it is clear that Raylan is still in love with her. Winona is more of an intermittent presence throughout the series than is Ava. She and Raylan seem to be locked in a dance wherein neither can decide if they want to truly commit to the other. Their rapport is interesting early on, but becomes tiresome as the series progresses.

Another female character that is criminally underused is U.S. Marshal Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel.) She is an African-American law enforcement officer in the Deep South. One would think that, over the course of 78 episodes, the writers could give Rachel at least one substantial plot. The most we get is a stand-alone episode in the show’s second season in which we learn a little about Rachel’s family. Aside from that, Rachel usually just serves as back-up for Raylan. The same is true for Raylan’s other Marshal sidekick, Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), who served as an Army Ranger sniper in Afghanistan.

The character of Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), Raylan’s boss in the Lexington office, is far better served. Raylan’s father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) is a hardened criminal and the two men have no love for one another. As Raylan and Art continue to work together, Art takes on the role of Raylan’s surrogate father. This often serves as a burden to Art, who is usually exasperated by Raylan’s off-book methods, even though they yield results.

In the first two seasons, Justified suffers from a mild identity crisis. It can’t quite decide if it wants to be a series of stand-alone procedural stories ala Law & Order, or more serialized ala Breaking Bad. It finally settles on the latter by the third season and is better for it. The best of the stand-alones is the fourth episode, “Long in the Tooth,” in which Raylan chases a former mafia bookkeeper masquerading as a dentist into the desert.

The plotting of Justified is uneven and overly convoluted at times. In true Elmore Leonard fashion, there are periods in which viewers will find themselves watching three or four separate groups of characters, all working across purposes. I mean… I was able to keep up with the dense plotting of Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, for God sake, and there are still times when I will finish an episode of Justified and ask, what the hell was that all about? This flaw is particularly evident in the show’s third and fourth seasons. In times like this, it is best for the viewer with a mid-range I.Q. simply to sit back and enjoy the eccentric characters and colorful dialogue for which the late Mr. Leonard was so notable.

This leads me to the biggest strength of Justified; the colorful cast of villains and supporting players that litter the barren landscape of Harlan, Kentucky. Elmore Leonard was always known as a master of dialogue and nuanced characters. The fact that showrunner Graham Yost worked closely with Leonard until Leonard’s death before the show’s fifth season is reflected in every scene of Justified. The accents range from perfect to passable, the dialogue is laced with wit and humor and the characters feel real.

Yeah… The characters. It may be true that Justified adheres to the ‘baddy of the season’ formula, but what baddies they are! Wynn Duffy (Gere Burns), mercurial mid-level hit man for an organization known as the Dixie Mafia. Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman), one of Boyd’s henchmen with a Nazi tattoo on his neck and nothing in his head. Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), psychotic Detroit mobster in a business suit with more up his sleeve than a scheme to conquer Kentucky. Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), an African-American crime boss with murky motives. Avery Markham (Sam Elliott), a pothead kingpin who seems to growl more than he talks.

No review of Justified would be adequate without a prolonged and respectful nod to Mags Bennett and her boys. They emerge as the chief villains of the show’s second season and, in hindsight, they are the best. Mags (Margo Martindale) is the ruthless matriarch of a crime family who deals in pot and homemade moonshine. She shows no mercy to those who seek to undercut or betray her. When Raylan is forcibly returned to Kentucky, he finds himself smack in the middle of a decades-old feud between the Givens’ and Bennett clans. Raylan holds particular animus for Mags’ son Dickie (Jeremy Davies.) Dickie is crippled as a result of a childhood fight with Raylan. In typical Justified fashion, Dickie is the dumbest of Mags’ three sons, though he believes himself to be the smartest. Of course, this only serves to make him the most dangerous.

The current conflict, which centers on a teenage orphaned girl named Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever), serves as the show’s best season finale. It also illustrates why Martindale was one of only two actors to win an Emmy; Davies being the other.

Sidebar: I was so impressed with the character of Mags that I named my beloved cat after her.

… And I haven’t even addressed the rich cast of supporting characters who aren’t criminals. If you want to meet Judge Mike ‘The Hammer’ Reardon, Constable Bob, Ellen May, Pastor Billy and Raylan’s Aunt Helen, watch the show!

Justified does have an occasional misfire with respect to casting and characters. In the show’s fifth season, generally agreed upon by fans and critics alike as its worst, the producers made the unfortunate choice to cast New York native Michael Rapaport as Darryl Crowe, Jr. The only thing worse than the meandering, tangled plot of the fifth season is Rapaport’s glaringly hideous southern accent. Some fans lament that Yost and company chose to pull the plug after the show’s sixth season, despite pleas from FX president John Landgraf for more. Yet, when I try to rewatch the fifth season, it becomes sadly evident that Justified probably ran one season too long.

It is also worth noting that Timothy Olyphant came to Justified several years after his starring role on another celebrated postmodern western series, HBO’s Deadwood. Olyphant was tailor made for western roles, and fans of both series always wondered who might be next to transfer from the Old West of Deadwood to the Modern West of Harlan. As it turned out, Deadwood regulars W. Earl Brown, Jim Beaver, Garret Dillahunt, Sean Bridgers, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Brent Sexton, Gerald McRaney, Stephen Tobolowsky, Ray McKinnon and Peter Jason all had either single-shot or multi-shot guest stints on Justified. Fans were hoping that Ian McShane might make an appearance, given his electric on-screen chemistry with Olyphant, but it never materialized.

Sidebar: If you want to learn more about Deadwood, I wrote an extensive review of it elsewhere in these hallowed pages. Also, Walton Goggins costarred on another FX masterpiece, The Shield, which I hope to review in the future. Sadly, none of his costars appeared on Justified, mainly because they were all being used over on the inferior Sons of Anarchy.

Compared to its contemporaries such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones, Justified was underrated. As is usually the case with shows of this kind, it had a loyal but small fan base and was adored by critics. Yet, it never really caught on as cubical conversation. Luckily, it is available for streaming and on home media. If you’re stuck with no place to go in the midst of the pandemic and need something new to binge, and if you like noir crime dramas with a western flavor, try Justified.

As for the source material furnished by the late Elmore Leonard, I always found him to be an acquired taste; a taste that I never really warmed to. Still, his body of work is undeniable and he did have a flair for quirky characters and off beat dialogue. Leonard did claim that Justified was one of his favorite screen adaptations. This is high praise indeed from an author. God bless him and those who made Justified a reality for six years.

“It was already in the glass… Not in the jar.”
Mags Bennett

“Next one’s comin’ faster.”
Raylan Givens

“Raylan, the whole world’s a tree. I’m just a squirrel tryin’ to get a nut.”
Boyd Crowder

“I been married for 28 years. I don’t get the pole out as much as I used to.”
Art Mullen