For five seasons, Justified has cooled its heels at the border of outskirts of prestige television without ever stirring up trouble. The show has a reputation that proceeds it, but it doesn't cast much of a shadow. Because - like the Elmore Leonard novels that inspired it - is so relentlessly and effortlessly breezy, it’s easy to miss the complex moral questions subtextually shooting it out. The show is ultimately about how a man keeps his head even if it's easy to mistake for a show about hats.
For the uninitiated, here’s the inside of the very dusty dust jacket: Timothy Olyphant is Raylan Givens, a swaggering U.S. Marshal transferred from Florida to his home in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Givens, who comes from a family of bootleggers, drug pushers and hell-raisers, had never intended to come back so he doesn't savor the assignment - especially when he winds up toe-to-toe (and barrel-to-barrel) with an old enemy, Boyd Crowder, who is portrayed by Walton Goggins as a sociopath with a heart as hard as gold.
Boyd is as much a legacy of the Harlan County hills as Raylan. The two grew up together and dug coal together as teenagers. Throughout the series Boyd serves as the Yin to the marshal’s Yang, providing Givens a glimpse of what he might have become in a different life. In the tradition of all of the best antagonists in American fiction, Boyd isn’t 100% evil, but he’s certainly not a good guy either. What distinguishes him from the rest of Harlan’s ne’er-do-well enemies is that he sticks to a code. It’s not a moral code found in any Judeo-Christian text, but it's something, which ain't nothing among those dark satanic mills.
As Boyd, Goggins has been unfailingly brilliant, dexterous and funny. When asked in a tight spot if a fellow disreputable character is his friend, Boyd responds, “I guess that depends on your definition of friend. He’s a nice enough fella, but I wouldn’t ask to borrow his corduroy jacket.”
Boyd’s myriad one-liners get the bulk of the attention, but none of Justified's cast keeps the safety on their wit. The show’s dialogue (its entire ethos, really) is indebted to the best crime writers of them all, whose 2012 novel “Raylan” provided subplots for the show’s second, third, and fourth seasons. Like its progenitor, Justified is witty without being glib, violent without being garish, complicated without confusing denseness for profundity
In addition to the Mensa-level dialogue, Justified’s formal aesthetic is often overlooked. It may not be as bracingly and immediately alive as the cinematography of shows like Breaking Bad, True Detective, or Game of Thrones, but every episode features a handful of shots that are expertly composed and pregnant with some sort of meaning or gravity. Long expanses of the Harlan County wilderness recall John Ford. Mexican standoffs simmer and then erupt in empty bar rooms and back alleys. These moonshiners distill Tarantino.
Close-ups of Olyphant frequently cast Raylan’s face in shadow, or contrast the hard contours of his face and the steeliness of his expression with the light around him. In either case, it’s an easy but effective visual shorthand for the battle waging within Raylan, his urge to mete out justice without descending into vigilantism and his inability to completely reject his roots. A lesser show would pound us over the head with exposition, reminding us that Raylan grew up withan abusive and criminal father. Justified tells us all that and more within a well-placed shot of Olyphant’s eyes. “You’re the angriest person I ever met,” says his ex-wife at the end of the show’s pilot, and no truer statement has come since. The villain isn't as scary as the hero.
The whole show owes a lot to the literary heavy hitters who spent so much of the last century tracing the fault lines of the South in blood. There's a bit of Flannery O'Connor's wit and Cormac McCarthy's bloody-mindedness and, hell, even John Grisham's relentless, plot-driven sweatiness. It's not an intellectual show, but it sure as shit ain't stupid. That matters because it makes the violence truly violent. None of that NCIS soft-focus here.
At the end of last season, Raylan managed to convince Boyd’s ex-flame Ava to turn informant, setting us up for the climactic, decisive confrontation between the two that the show has been building towards for five seasons. And when that showdown comes to pass, each will be carrying the weight of a shared, regional and paternal history as much as a firearm. Justified is a show about how we’re the sum of all that has come before us, whether we choose to acknowledge or even grasp that fact in the first place.
Photos by Kurt Iswarienko/FX Networks