“You see that guy in the hat?”
“The tall one?”
“The one in the hat!”
Does anyone actually listen to their friends’ recommendations anymore? It’s a counter-intuitive phenomenon, but the more someone goes on about the latest must-see thing on TV, the less likely I am to watch it – so it was with Chornobyl, Baptiste, Dark and so many other shows I ended up really enjoying.
All of which is my long-winded way of saying that my go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a new TV show to bing has always been Justified, but nobody I’ve pitched it to has ever watched more than one episode before giving up. Which is a shame, because it’s easily one of the best shows of the 21st century.
There are a number of potential reasons why Justified never really took off. It occupies a strange place in terms of tone – too lightweight and irreverent to be classed among the top tier of TV, the HBO holy trinity of Deadwood, The Sopranos and The Wire, but also more substantial (and therefore more of a commitment) than the procedurals like CSI, The Mentalist et al. It’s fun, but also has a proper overarching story to it, and some pretty shocking moments, meaning it doesn’t fit comfortably into either camp.
Ironically I only started watching Justified following a recommendation from a friend when I finished Deadwood (my all-time favourite show) and needed something to fill the void it left behind. Both feature Timothy Olyphant as a lawman out of their element, and his character in Justified was described as basically the same character he played in Deadwood, only in a modern-day setting. I was instantly sold!
Suffice to say, both the character and the show are much more nuanced than that, but even so, it’s easily the best recommendation for a show I have ever had. Based on a short story by the legendary Elmore Leonard (the author of Out Of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty Hombre, 3.10 To Yuma and many many more) it’s still my go-to TV show, eminently watchable, with dynamic performances across the board and some of the funniest dialogue outside of a comedy ever seen on television. It never got the attention it deserved (“overlooked” is probably the most frequent word used to describe it in the few overviews I’ve seen), mainly due to having the fatal misfortune of being on at the same time as the phenomenon that was Breaking Bad – there was never any way Justified could compete with that.
Still, it’s strange that the show never made much of an impact in the UK. It received glowing reviews from pretty much every season, but unfortunately, nobody really watched it! It would be easy to dismiss Justified as just another procedural cop show – It’s got all the elements, with the renegade cop, his exasperated boss, the coolly detached law enforcement team, the ex-wife who is inexorably drawn back to him. And it’s true that the first few episodes do follow the episodic, case of the week format of these shows, but it’s quickly revealed to be a lot richer than it first appears, both thematically and in terms of narrative, as Raylan finds himself drawn increasingly into the schemes and crimes of the various colourful villains he encounters in the deep south.
Timothy Olyphant is quite simply brilliant, and gives what is most likely his defining performance. His Raylan is a coiled spring of a character, and according to his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), “just about the angriest person I’ve ever met.” The shootout that kicks off the series, and the one that seems to follow him around wherever he goes like an urban legend, is one of the very best ways to begin a series. Raylan steps out into a Miami pool party, a living anachronism in his wide-brimmed cowboy hat and Gary Cooper walk. He sits down opposite gun thug Tommy Bucks (Peter Greene – one of cinema’s best sleazeballs) and gives him 60 seconds to get out of town or he’ll shoot him. Of course, Bucks draws first so Raylan is justified in shooting him dead, but the question hovers over the series – what if he hadn’t pulled? Would Raylan still have shot him? While he remains decidedly on the right side of the law, his methods find him precariously close to crossing it on several occasions, and while the audience may not believe he will ever be corrupted, his colleagues don’t have the same insight we do, and it’s never not entertaining to see Olyphant play the role when he can explain his actions, but just can’t be bothered.
As a result of the shooting, Raylan is unwillingly reassigned to his hometown, the deep south rural setting of Harlan, Kentucky. ostensibly to help Chief Deputy Art Mullens (Nick Searcy) bring in his old friend turned petty criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Raylan quickly proves a thorn in Art’s side though, even if his deep roots in the community give him an added insight into the numerous criminal enterprises of the county. He runs into his ex-wife Winona, now a court stenographer, his petty criminal father Arlo (Raymond J Barry) and his old crush Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) now under investigation for shooting her abusive husband Bowman – Boyd’s older brother.
It’s a tangled web of relationships, and that’s not even going into the various Crowders, Givens and other criminal lowlifes that Raylan has previous relationships with. It’s a densely populated series, so it makes sense that showrunner Graham Yost would kick the first series off with a run of standalone episodes – entertaining enough but a little inconsequential – before digging deeper into the psyche of his main character.
Olyphant’s performance is so witty, so fun, that it’s easy to overlook the excellent work he puts into the character. He goes through a great deal throughout the series, confronting his anger, his ageing, processing grief, and eventually trying to be a better person, but this never feels forced or gets in the way of the various storylines.
Raylan’s dynamic with Arlo is one of the most authentically toxic representations of a father/son relationship I’ve seen on television, rivalling that of Tony Soprano and his mother. There is no big reveal, no exposition dump, of how Arlo mistreated Raylan as a child, it’s all just there in the barely suppressed rage on Raylan’s face in every interaction, and the lack of a real resolution (combined with Olyphant’s beautifully nuanced, raw portrayal of someone who has suppressed all emotions relating to his father) is incredibly true to life. For his part Barry is great as Arlo, playing him as a wily grifter, whose one redeeming feature is his marriage to Raylan’s aunt Helen (Linda Gehringer) – the pair’s constant bickering is a highlight of the series (When Arlo is broke and in the hospital, Helen comes to visit and he angrily asks where she’s been “I was down in the parking lot, giving blowjobs for cash” “Were you paying or were they?”)
Raylan himself is one of TV’s best renegade lawmen. Decked out in his Stetson at all times, and with his distinctive walk, he’s effortlessly cool – he’s also entirely fallible, and the show never pretends otherwise. He constantly walks the line between unconventional police work and outright corruption, something that comes to a head at the end of season four, when he allows someone to get flat-out murdered in front of him in order to save his family. It’s a decision that is both completely understandable from the point of view of a husband, and indefensible from the point of view of a Marshal, and it drives a wedge between him and Art that lasts the duration of the series. Art sums up Raylan perfectly when he calls him “a lousy marshal, but a good lawman”. He is a lawman through and through, but a terrible colleague, constantly drawing the ire of fellow marshalls Tim and Rachel for getting preferential treatment and screwing things up for the department through his complicated relationship with Boyd and Ava.
It’s the alternately combative and playful relationship between him and Boyd that makes the series so unique. The two have a shared history that binds them (they dug coal together – something that is never really explored in detail but adds a level of poignancy to their relationship) but this doesn’t stop Raylan from actively pursuing Boyd. Alternately Boyd often helps Raylan despite himself – although his actions are largely less altruistic than self-serving, and he repeatedly tries to use his relationship with Raylan to get himself out of sticky situations. Their dynamic, especially in seasons 1-4 is a great source of comedy and pathos, and at times Boyd feels as much a protagonist as Raylan, as we see him struggle to stay on the right side of the law in season 2, before embracing his outlaw identity and take on the crime bosses of Harlan, from the Bennett family to Detroit gangster Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) and Kentucky kingpin Avery Markham (Sam Elliott) – all while contending with numerous unreliable allies, weaselly cousin Johnny (David Meunier) to the blissfully idiotic Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) an inspired creation, whose constant aphorisms are a highlight of the writing throughout the show – advised to stop referring himself in the third person, he responds by pointing at another marshall and saying: “Third person? You mean this guy?”
Added to all this is the arc of Ava Crowder, an excellent depiction of a strong, independently-minded female character who finds herself more and more out of her depth as the series goes on. Starting off as a truly innocent character, she finds herself fully immersed in the criminal lifestyle as the series goes on until she finds herself caught in the middle of Raylan and Boyd in the final series. She’s contrasted with Winona, who knows exactly who she is, and what she wants, with a better insight into Raylan’s character than anyone. Winona is a sometimes frustrating character, making some bizarre choices that serve to make her a little unsympathetic at times, (comparisons with Breaking Bad’s Skyler were inevitable) but Natalie Zea makes her incredibly believable, and she and Olyphant have undeniable chemistry together.
More than anything else, Justified is fun. In an age full of prestigious, event television, it knew what it was and constantly played to its strengths, and while there were plot strands (and one whole season) that felt like a misstep, the characters themselves remained consistent.
One of my favourite elements of the show is the incredibly rich, deep bench of supporting characters. As an example, take Brent Sexton, who plays the corrupt sheriff Hunter Moseley in the first season, then disappears, only to turn up again in season four. The rule is, if they’re not shown as being conclusively dead, they will probably return at some point. Actors like Garrett Dillahunt, Ron Eldard, Jeff Fahey and even Mary Steenburgen make excellent recurring villains, but the beauty of this show is that “villain” hardly ever does these characters justice, they’re all full of personality and utterly distinct from one another, and most are given at least one humanising moment.
It also has some of the coolest, slickest dialogue you are likely to ever hear on the telly. While Elmore Leonard remained an Executive Producer throughout the series, he rarely wrote dialogue himself, but Yost and the other writers emulate his iconic style perfectly (Yost is a seasoned writer in his own right, writing the screenplay to various action thrillers including Speed, Broken Arrow and the underrated Hard Rain). While Leonard died during the filming of the fifth season, the writers included one last tribute to him in the final episode. When Leonard first saw Goggins as Boyd Crowder he said “I don’t believe a word coming out of his mouth. But I love watching him lie” – a line that made it into the final scene between Boyd and Raylan. In fact, the show had a handle on quotable dialogue from start to finish: “Me and dead owls don’t give a hoot”, “I’d call this the united nations of assholes” and best of all, when Raylan drops a bullet on a villain’s lap before adding “next one’s coming faster”
If the show has a weakness, it probably lies in the depiction of Raylan’s colleagues, Tim and Rachel. Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel are excellent in their roles, but they are given very little to work with and aside from the occasional episode focused on them they get very little backstory. Tazel in particular is criminally underused – Pitts at least gets some funny lines and some suitably awesome moments as the ice cold sniper – Tazel gets some characterisation in early seasons but as the series goes on quickly turns into the resident buzzkill. Any good moments she gets are purely down to Tazel herself, who is always brilliant and manages to find the human being inside.
There is also a clear lack of focus in the inferior season five, where behind-the-scenes issues and some questionable narrative choices lead to a muddled, disjointed and inconsistent tone. However, that being said, when the season draws to a close, and Boyd becomes the main target of the Marshals office, the places are set for a dynamite final season, and thankfully it largely delivers, as the Marshalls office put all of their resources into apprehending Boyd, who has almost imperceptibly grown into a legitimate crime boss in his own right.
The villains are some of the best ever shown on television, and each one is unique. The Bennetts are probably the most perfectly realised – Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies rightfully won Emmys for their performances as criminal matriarch Mags and her crippled son Dickie, both of whom have a justifiable grudge against Raylan. Character actress Margo Martindale is fairly ubiquitous now, (appearing in series as varied as The Americans and BoJack Horseman) but Mags is still my favourite performance of hers, effortlessly slipping between the image of southern hospitality to a steely determination, making her a truly formidable foe. Her big speech in season two’s The Spoil is a particular highlight, as she faces off against the mining company that is trying to buy up all of the land in town. Dickie is a very different character, serving more as an irritant for Raylan than a true enemy, and evolving from a creepy presence to a more comic one as the show goes on. In season three, Neal McDonough’s performance as the increasingly unhinged Robert Quarles is brilliantly sinister and genuinely unsettling in places. As he is confounded by both Raylan and Boyd in his attempts to corner the oxycontin market in Harlan, his slick city persona begins to slip, revealing the unpredictable psychopath beneath. Mykelti Williamson’s implacable, enigmatic Limehouse is an imposing presence, even if his allegiance is something that’s never entirely clear. You’re never sure if he’s a true villain or just someone trying to keep his own people out of the crossfire. Finally, there’s the resident slimeball Wynn Duffy (played by Jere Burns, most recognisable from Dear John and Breaking Bad) who gets a proper character arc, going from out and out psychopath in season one to voice of reason in season three and as close to an honourable villain as you can get in the final season – Duffy also gets the lion’s share of great lines – when Art threatens to shoot one of his accomplices unless he leaves in 10 seconds, Duffy remarks “FYI, that’s kind of a thing with these marshals”.
One of television’s best-kept secrets, Justified is a joy from start to finish and one that really holds up on repeat viewings. It’s probably the show I’ve watched from start to finish more than any other (apart from maybe Deadwood) and I pick up on different lines and references each time. If any more reason was needed to watch it, Olyphant gamely sent up his character in a pitch-perfect parody on The Good Place. It’s also one of the few series that manages to have a satisfying ending, without going completely scorched earth and killing off all the characters. It’s a bittersweet ending, but one that feels entirely in keeping with the rest of the series, as well as being a perfect farewell to Elmore Leonard, incorporating several affectionate nods to the writer in the final few scenes.
Justified is available to watch on Amazon Prime and All4