“Don’t eulogize the past until the future gets its turn.” – Boyd Crowder
Justified was always a tougher sell than it should have been. A US Marshall returning to a poor county in Kentucky to hand out his unique brand of justice sounds more like the premise of a TLC reality series than it does one of an acclaimed drama. The idea isn’t one that jumps out at you in the way the plots of other well known critical darlings do. “Cancer-stricken teacher becomes meth kingpin,” for example, grabbed you right away. So did “plane crash survivors find themselves stranded on mysterious island.” It’s not a stretch to say that most of the dramas you’d consider to be worthy are built around very unique, tightly drawn premises
But watching Justified wrap up its outstanding six-season run last night, I was struck by the thought that perhaps the conventional-sounding premise was always the point. Or at least part of it. The show, based on one of Elmore Leonard’s short stories, used its locale much like other shows use a main character. The Harlan County of Justified is a quiet, rural town brimming with chaos and character just beneath the surface. It seems the kind of place you’d drive through on your way to somewhere better without giving much of a second thought, but beyond its folksy charms there is a complex community of families and gangs and factions all warring and jockeying for position and influence. Family ties run deep. Scores are settled decades later. Slights are never forgotten. Like Harlan County, Justified felt like a passing marker for many people on their way to something else*, but for those of us who stopped to look around, there was a drama unlike anything else built around a silver-tongued cowboy with a trigger finger.
* The term “underrated” gets tossed around enough to render it meaningless, but surely Justified’s scant award recognition qualifies it for that designation.
Raylan Givens belongs in the hallowed halls of television’s greatest characters, and Timothy Olyphant’s portrayal is nothing short of brilliant: a pitch perfect blend of humor, vanity, and wit, all working together to mask a rebellious rage boiling underneath. Olyphant’s Givens is cunning, brash, and cocksure, carrying himself with the kind of swagger typically associated with hitmen or mafia dons. He’s got the kind of unflappable nerve that made Clint Eastwood’s best antiheroes sizzle and effortlessly doles out the kind of charm that made John Wayne so loved. His gait somehow captures both the silky bravado of a pimp’s strut and the hunched shoulders of a beaten man. He’s a wholly unique take on the complexities of justice, and if that description verges on comic book cliché, it’s only because he’s a walking, jawing embodiment of the pulp heroism of Elmore Leonard’s greatest works. Olyphant dons Givens’s boots with glee and abandon, delivering the show’s best lines – of which there are, honestly, just too many to count – with the confidence to convince you he wrote them himself.
That any show could develop a character this strong is amazing. That Graham Yost and his crew surrounded Givens with characters as complex and stirring as the rest of the cast is downright miraculous. Even the bit players here, like Jacob Pitts’s Tim Gutterson and Garret Dillahunt’s Ty Walker, were given scenes, episodes, and arcs that allowed them to stretch out and become integral parts of the show. Like a finely tuned roster on a championship team, Justified brought together a cast of actors who each knew their roles and were given opportunities to excel. For five years – even as they introduced and killed off “big bads” – the writers planted seeds, creating the kind of rich, vast ensemble that would make Matt Groening jealous. And the final season was their chance to show off, as they brought back beloved characters and tied up loose ends without anything feeling forced or out of the show’s lane.
But in a cast as rich as Justified’s, no character approached Raylan’s depth like Walton Goggins’s Boyd Crowder. Like The Walking Dead’s Daryl Dixon, Crowder was originally an afterthought; meant simply to be the driving force behind the show’s pilot (based on one of Leonard’s short stories), Crowder wasn’t built to last long. But the show struck gold in Goggins’s otherworldly outlaw, catching lightning in a bottle with his peculiarities, his black hair jutting from his forehead like an electrocuted cartoon character, his proto-hipster attire blanketing his bony frame. Boyd shared a history with Raylan, and the two knew each other from days digging for coal and hope in a town of broken souls. For six seasons Boyd became Raylan’s counterpart, his spiritual foil, his equal in wit (delivered with the cadence and verve of an old Southern preacher). And like Raylan, he was just as prone to violent outbursts, his emotional highs and lows accompanied by dead bodies and bullet holes.
Boyd was a man of extremes, though, and the character was most sympathetic when he embraced life. When he loved, his heart enveloped Ava, the woman of his dreams, and he burned with an unquenchable desire to please her. Despite a brutal history of violence, it was difficult not to empathize with him as he hatched doomed plan after doomed plan, all in a vain attempt to have his cake and eat it, too. Yost and his crew expertly played with expectations, whipping Boyd between each sides of the spectrum, pulling viewers to one side with Boyd just as they had settled on the other. The final season – and really the final episode – was the most extreme. Boyd became the worst monster he had ever been, consumed by a desire for vengeance. He fought Nazis, drug dealers, mafia men, and crooked cops, but in the end he was undone by the enemy he had created, the enemy he had become.
This made his final scenes so fitting. Giving Boyd the release of death, even a deserving one – one that he essentially begged for – would have been a disservice to the character. It would have also been a disservice to Raylan. Like the two leads in True Detective, Raylan and Boyd shared a relationship that would form the heart of the show, but their interplay was much more complex. As their stories unfolded and their paths crossed over and over again, the two sides of Harlan County stretched out before our eyes. For years the show’s theme* whispered out, “You’ll never leave Harlan alive.” And for years, we wondered what it meant. Was this a premonition? Or were Harlan’s ghosts merely telling their story? Raylan’s conversation with his deceased father and Avery Markham’s promise to Katherine Hale’s cold body confirmed what we suspected all along. There are only two kinds of people here: the people who embrace the muck of Harlan, and the people dragged into it.
* The real one, that is. Not the opening country rap theme we all grew to begrudgingly accept.
When the theme played for the final time during the finale, it seemed like the time had come for Raylan to join the ghostly chorus, but a stroke of luck prevented a devastating finish. It always did with him. A bullet dodged, a death escaped. But in his eyes you could see something different, even as a last end escaped, untied. His time in Harlan was over; so too was ours.
Justified didn’t owe us a thing, not after season two capped off one of the greatest years in television history, not after creating one of the richest ensembles ever. But it gave us a beautiful and moving finale anyway, and for fans of the show, everything came full circle in the closing moments, as Raylan and Boyd reunited years later for an emotional conversation through the fingerprint-smudged glass of a prison visitation room. In the end, the show’s haunting theme proved true. Raylan moved away to be with his daughter and tried (and failed) to start a family. Boyd was left to serve out the rest of his days from behind a blanket of cold concrete. They both achieved some semblance of survival. They both left the war scathed and standing, but they’ll never really leave Harlan alive. As long as blood moves through their veins, the crooked roots of that county and the history they shared in it will stretch across their memories, tangled reminders of joy and pain that run generations deep. If there’s one thing to take away from the show, here is where we find it. Raylan needed to move away for a daughter. He had to talk one last time to Boyd to protect a son. In Harlan County, the good and bad die all the same. Blood is the only thing you can’t take away.