by Matthew Thompson
Based on the Elmore Leonard novella Fire in the Hole, Justified is part modern-day western, part US Marshal procedural and part prestige crime drama. Initially it didn’t seem like it’d be something I would love, but by the end of the first season I was hooked, watching it every chance I got over the past few months. Having finished up the show a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d give my thoughts on this brilliant series.
Justified builds on a strange frenemy-style bond between Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins). Raylan is the old-school, cowboy-hat wearing lawman protagonist. Boyd is the silver-tongued, bank-robbing outlaw villain. They were both born to criminal fathers in crime-infested Harlan County, Kentucky. They grew up together. They dug coal together. Given the way Raylan pushes the boundaries as a Marshal, it feels like if things had gone differently perhaps he and Boyd could have ended up on the same side of the law. But that isn’t how it went. Here they are most often – though not always – adversaries. Their relationship is extremely compelling as the focal point of the show buoyed by wonderful performances by Olyphant and Goggins. In fact, one of the reasons Justified doesn’t really hit its stride until later in Season 1 is because Boyd isn’t as large a part of the series during the early goings of that first season.
Almost as impressive as the leads is the colorful cast of characters that surround them. Backwoods pot farmers, dope-y brothel owners, gun-twirling quick-draw artists and Detroit mobsters all help fill out the rogues gallery that Raylan and his fellow Marshals – interesting characters in their own right if a bit underutilized – deal with throughout the series’ run. I love the way these characters fit so uniquely into both the show and region’s aesthetic.
When Justified shines its brightest, it has many of these supporting characters to thank. In the show’s superlative second season, Raylan tangles with the Bennetts, a local Kentucky crime family that share a history with his own brought to the screen by stellar performances from Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies among others. Another of my favorite recurring characters Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever) plays a large role in Season 2’s success. All this alongside a wonderful arc that sees Boyd trying to shed his criminal ways while growing closer to Ava – essentially the show’s third main character played by Joelle Carter – makes for one hell of a ride and the show’s best season.
While the show never quite matches Season 2, its final season comes damn close. After losing its way a bit the year before, the minds behind Justified knew exactly how to close things out: pitting Raylan and Boyd against each other in one season-long arc with Ava and her complicated relationships with both men somewhere in-between. I won’t say any more than that about this final stretch, but the season, finale and even final scene were all a great way to end the show.
Finally, I must praise the dialogue here. If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for clever dialogue. I love the wit and snark of Veronica Mars and the quick-flying jokes of 30 Rock. Justified’s dialogue is a completely different animal than some of my typical favorites, but oh man it is just so good. Particularly great was the way Boyd talked. It never ceased to entertain me and I liked that the show had other characters’ take notice of his long-winded, wordy style of phrasing.
I missed the boat on Justified when it first started. I had always wanted to give it a try, but didn’t have any easy way of catching up on the series until I recently subscribed to Amazon Prime. I’m glad I finally took the plunge though. I haven’t been this hooked on a series that I wasn’t watching weekly in a long time. Justified was well worth the hefty amount of praise it has received over the years. I already miss spending time with these characters in the weeks since I finished watching.
A few more things:
- I’d probably rank the seasons as follows: 2 > 6 > 4 > 1 > 3 > 5. Seasons 2 and 6 are definitely the best. And 5 is definitely the worst (I didn’t like the season’s big bads or Ava’s arc much at all). The others I’m less sure of their positioning.
- Along with Loretta, my favorite of the recurring characters was probably Wynn Duffy. He was hysterical and a part of some of the show’s funniest moments. I didn’t mention it above, but Justified had a great sense of humor.
- I’ve never read an Elmore Leonard novel, so I picked up the first one with Raylan in it called Pronto. Looking forward to checking it out soon.