Justified retrospective: the angriest man I know

Image courtesy of tvguide.com

The opening scene of Justified shows US Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens walking into a bar in Miami and briefly conversing with a known criminal before shooting him dead. That description might seem a little casual, but the show treats the sequence the same way. It isn’t going to examine the actual shooting in depth, or even the event leading up to the shooting, instead leaving the audience with all the info they need to know: Givens gave the man twenty-four hours to leave Miami, and the man failed to do so. The show focuses on the aftermath of the incident, that Givens is transferred from Miami to Kentucky, back to his childhood stomping grounds of Lexington and Harlan County. But that might be a problem. Because Givens has personal ties to almost all of the criminal groups running around Harlan, and it doesn’t matter how much he might want to leave Kentucky, because those criminals don’t want him there either…

Justified is a neo-western crime drama that aired from 2010-2015. It stars Timothy Olyphant as modern day cowboy Raylan Givens, Nick Searcy as his put-upon boss Art Mullen, Natalie Zea as Raylan’s ex-wife Winnona, Joelle Carter as the dangerous Ava Crowder, and Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, Ava’s brother-in-law and a former friend of Raylan who has turned to a life of crime. The show ran for six seasons, and featured an impressive array of guest stars, including; (Beloved Character Actress) Margo Martindale, Patton Oswald, Jeremy Davis, Kaitlyn Denver and (entertainment's most famous mustache) Sam Elliot.

One of the most important things to understand about Justified is that it is less a western than it is a crime show. Sure, Raylan walks around wearing a cowboy hat, and in Season 1 there are plenty of times where criminals talk about trying to “out-draw” him, but the western elements do slowly fade as the series goes on and the characters become more ethically compromised. The characters have layers and their morality and intentions can almost always be called into question. Take the pilot episode as an example. Raylan kills Jimmy Brooks under dubious circumstances but decides to leave Boyd alive, despite the fact that his killing of Boyd would be justified as the criminal has spent the entire episode threatening to kill a woman, before eventually holding both her and Raylan at gunpoint. The series leaves us with this burning question; why did Raylan leave Boyd alive in that opening episode? Sure, they might have been friends once, but Raylan is a US marshal while Boyd is an out and proud white-supremist. However, as the series goes on, those definitions of the two men are called into question. It is suggested multiple times that Boyd isn’t actually bigoted, but that he merely adopts racist ideology to attract thugs that he can use, manipulate and then discard at will, while Raylan is more loyal to the spirit of the law, not the letter of it. Justified asks questions, but it doesn’t give easy answers.

But then again, Justified doesn’t answer some of the questions concerning a few of its characters because those characters barely appear on screen. Justified has two more central cast members other than the ones I listed above; Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel who play US marshals Tim Gutterson and Rachel Brooks respectively. Despite being colleges of Raylan and Art, Tim and Rachel have barely any screen time and little to no development despite their importance to the shows plot. Any information about them comes in small doses and throwaway lines; the only things the audience knows is that Rachel came from a poor background and has a criminal brother-in-law, while Tim is a former US Army Ranger with a fondness for young-adult fiction. Even important developments about the two characters mostly happen offscreen. At the beginning of Season 4 Raylan, and by extension the audience, are informed that Rachel has recently separated from her husband, a man who has never been mentioned before on the show and never appears. Tim has it slightly worse; he was written as a gay character, but his sexuality is never bought up in any episode and his personal life is never explored. The only reason why I knew he was queer character? Because the show’s creator said as much in an interview conducted after the show’s finale.

I’m not upset that Rachel and Tim get slightly sidelined during the course of the show; Raylan dominates proceedings through a combination of sheer force of personality, and the fact that he is the shows main character, while Art needs to appear on screen to provide a foil to the (literal) cowboy cop. But I am disappointed that the other marshals aren’t utilized better. Rachel’s status as a black woman in an area that is presented as being rather backwards is occasionally brought up, but it’s never fully explored in any substantial way. Meanwhile, Tim ends up being just another deputy that Raylan can banter with, and his PTSD is never addressed outside of a few comments that Art makes. Don’t get me wrong, I like these characters, and both Tazel and Pitts give great performances, but it feels like there is more that could have been done with both characters. In the end, they just end up being defined by their relationships to Raylan.

And Justified is a show centered mainly on relationships, because almost every major antagonist has a connection to somebody else in some way, shape, or form. Raylan and Boyd worked down the mines when they were 19. Ava had a crush on Raylan when they were at school, before she married her highschool sweet-heart, who just so happened to be Boyd’s brother. Raylan’s and Boyd’s fathers used to run cons and criminal enterprise together back in the day, while the Givens’ and the Bennetts have a feud running back generations. Almost all the characters have history. Those who come into Harlan from the outside and don’t know that history will ultimately fail in their endeavors, while those who do know it might still meet a grisly end due to their inability to escape the past. Everyone knows everyone else, but history is doomed to repeat itself no matter how familiar we are with it.

Justified is a show I would recommend. Sure, it has problems, the aforementioned underuse of Tim and Rachel comes to mind as well as the show’s habit of injuring or killing women to motivate the male characters, but overall the positives outway the negatives. The show is remarkably written, and is incredibly well cast. I haven’t really mentioned Timothy Olyphant much in this retrospective, but he might be the best modern cowboy actor currently working. Olyphant crafts Raylan into a likable but still incredibly flawed character, nailing everything from the squint and his laid back walk to the way he wears his hat and southern drawl. Raylan is a character that could have either made or killed Justified based on how the audience responded to him; he could have been seen as either a great character or a joke. But Olyphant was able to achieve something great with this character, making him the best part of the show. However, this leaves us with one last burning question; what will his ultimate fate be? And should we, the audience, have hope for him? Because, as the old song goes, “You’ll never leave Harlan alive”...

Justified is available to stream on Amazon Prime

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