Justified is the clearest example of the shift of intellectual storytelling high-ground from films to television shows. Justified, like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Dexter, Man Men, Breaking Bad, and so many others, have gone to places where modern cinema barely bothers to go or more accurately cannot afford to go. Modern television has, for the past decade or so, largely taken up the role of entertaining grown-ups with intriguing narratives and complex characters. While movies have been busy choking our arteries with super-heroes, TV has kept us on a healthy diet of super-stories.
Justified, one of my all-time-favorite TV shows, competed its 6th and final season earlier this year. I will sorely miss it. There is nothing quite like it and unlikely to be anything like it anytime soon. Not a huge hit, it still had a loyal fanbase who really dug its darkly funny sensibility. There is a Justified Wiki for the real die hards.
The show had an absolutely fantastic start with two incredible seasons that haven't been matched since. It staggered a bit in the middle but came back to its own in the concluding season and tied a nice bow on all lose ends in a rather unexpected but ultimately satisfying arc.
Justified is based on a short story called "Fire in the Hole" by the brilliant crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard, who was intimately involved in the TV show until his demise in 2013. The show features a Leonard regular, the US deputy Marshall Raylan Givens played quite brilliantly by Timothy Olyphant. The story revolves around his return to the hometown in Harlan County in rural Kentucky where the ways of the old still persist. Here the coal country is still mired in its ancient rituals of clans, drugs and violence. This is the Appalachia occupied by hillbillies and conmen, by generations of families and feuds fueling poverty, strife and violence. It is reminiscent of Hatfields and McCoys or Gladwell's famous (if often maligned) chapter from Outliers that outlines the "culture of honor" that runs deep in the fertile soil of this part of the United States. In other words - it is the perfect breeding ground for great crime drama.
Justified worked on many levels. It managed to rise above its rather hackneyed premise of cops and conmen and the blurred line that separates them (and often doesn't) by creating intriguing stories that were inherently personal in a setting that was often anything but. And through its plot devices, it created entertaining stories, with incredible, memorable characters that rose beyond their limited roles and created an enduring mythology, the kind that makes a film or a show far outlive its initial run.
The show kept its stories true to its anachronistic setting throughout. It really is a tale of this remote, poor, economically backward Eastern Kentucky. A land that time seems to have forgotten. Its people have few legitimate economic prospects. Lack of education, broken families and violence further erodes opportunities for economic mobility. Those not living in that world can barely recognize it. The show often made you wonder if this world that they show, that most of us understand so little of, is even remotely real. Can people really live like this? In the United States? In the 21st century? There are feuding families, raging cowboys, brothels and drugs everywhere. Where past still has a heavy shadow on everyone's life. No one seems to have what we call a regular job and no one seems to be too bothered about it. In other words, it is the Wild West.
Justified is violent but in a good way. Violence is never far and yet never gratuitous and mostly, ahem, justified. You feel the tension - like in a good old Western. You know what is about to happen but you don't quite know when or how it would fall out. It is this nervous tension, punctuated by outrageously funny one-liners, that makes you wonder, completely in awe of the wonderful writing and excellent acting.
The show features many regulars but primarily pivots around 3 main characters - the deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens, the criminal Boyd Crowder and their common love interest, sometimes anyway, - Ava Crowder.
Raylan Givens is the urban cowboy who, while harboring a particular distaste for the criminally inclined, does not fight shy to bend the low just enough to let the seemingly honest pass through or hit the bad guys in the head. He is a pretty good Code Hero, the kind who believes in the good in the "end-justifies-means" sort of way. He has a troubled childhood and has escaped, barely, from a criminalized family headed by a rather unsavory father, a relation and a pedigree that bodes heavily on him despite himself. He cannot hold his personal relationships and barely holds on to professional ones. He can shoot though. And with that hat and drawl - he is the best thing to have happened to Appalachia in filmed entertainment for a while.
Boyd Crowder may be one of the most intelligent, endearing and entertaining villains in recent times. He isn't even a villain really - though his actions are often villainous. Growing up in a highly criminalized family, Boyd has been bad and then he has discovered Jesus on and off. He has dabbled into hard honest life of mining coal but has often realized his true calling lies in the family business. Boyd has a gift of gab. He can quote the bible and give long speeches or cutting, often hilarious one-liners. Boyd is the perfect counter--argument to his childhood coal-picking buddy Raylan. The fact that they landed in the opposite sides of the blurred line of law is really just a flip of the coin. While Raylan may or may not be the mind of the show, Boyd definitely is the heart of Justified.
Ava Crowder is a lost soul, desperately wishing to escape the trappings of the the blurred line that separates the similar but opposite viewpoints of Raylan and Boyd. Ava falls for the bad guy over and over again. But what's a girl to do when there are no good men around? We can root for Ava. She seems to be the only character who seems to purchase no joy out of the engulfing, often empowering criminality. She struggles and longs to get away but her life keeps getting in the way.
There is the Marshall's office with Raylan's boss, Art, and his partners who try to get along with Raylan. They are competent and endearing if not particularly novel. But then there are unforgettable conmen like the inimitable Dewy Crowe, conniving Dickie Bennet, slimy Wynn Duffy, and the teenage weed queen Loretta to name a few, that help keep you entertained and staying on for more.
Justified is one for the ages. I think it will be one of those shows that I can watch over and over again across the years without getting bored. Guess I can confirm that in a few years and I can hardly wait.
And here is my favorite scene from the show
- Raylan tosses a bullet at Wynn Duffy and says menacingly, "the next one will come faster..."