Names are important to me when I’m writing a book…Sometimes I might debate for days what to name a character: Bill or Bob or Billy Bob? Then other times a name will just float down from the heavens and a character is born instantly. Such was the case when I met Raylan. It was at a book distributor convention sponsored by Western Merchandisers in Amarillo, Texas, on a Saturday in June 1991. I was the guest speaker at a sales conference luncheon. I remember standing between a Ninja Turtle and a Miss Texas from a few years back. Don’t ask me why. But what I remember most is the young man sitting next to me on the dais during lunch.
He introduced himself. “Hello, Mr. Leonard. My name’s Raylan Davis.”
I didn’t even hear the last name, I just heard “Raylan” and knew I wanted to use it. I asked him, “How would you like to be the star of my next book?”
— Elmore Leonard, from his personal website
The late, great Elmore Leonard, who would have turned 95 this year on October 12, wrote forty-eight novels and numerous short stories that earned him the respect and adoration of both critics and readers throughout his long and successful career. One of the many characters he created that helped make his novels such a joy to read: Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who is introduced in the novel Pronto, and who later appeared in the novel Riding the Rap, and the short story Fire in the Hole. That short story would go on to be adapted into the FX television series Justified, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.
Justified, which premiered on March 16, 2010, and which would’ve been called Lawman if Steven Seagal hadn’t already claimed the name for his own reality series, tells the story of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who is working in Miami and confronts a gangster named Tommy Bucks (Peter Greene), who had previously been warned by Raylan to get out of town in twenty-four hours or he would be shot dead on sight. Due to Tommy’s refusal to take Raylan’s warning seriously and not leave town as ordered, words are exchanged, and the conversation ends with Tommy attempting to shoot Raylan, only for Raylan to be faster on the draw and shoot him first. (FYI: Tommy Bucks had kidnapped Raylan not too long ago to threaten and interrogate him, so that he’d give up some valuable information. When he felt that Raylan wasn’t cooperating, he placed a stick of dynamite into the mouth of another person who was kidnapped along with Raylan and set it off to explode, killing that person instantly.)
Despite the shooting being a justified one (or at least, that’s how Raylan describes it), Raylan is transferred by his boss to the U.S. Marshals office in Lexington, Kentucky in order to keep a low profile, which doesn’t make him happy in the slightest, due to the fact that he was born and raised in the Harlan County section of Kentucky, and his childhood years there were far from pleasant. Once he arrives and connects with his fellow Marshals, Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel), Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), and former colleague Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), who is the Deputy Chief in charge of the office, Raylan soon finds himself reunited with three other people from his past: Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), Raylan’s ex-wife who works as a court reporter, and is married to a shady real-estate agent (William Ragsdale) who is in debt to the Dixie Mafia; Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), a hairstylist who has just shot and killed her abusive husband and who makes no secret of how attracted she is (and always has been) to Raylan; and Ava’s brother-in-law, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a bank robber/explosives expert now living the life of a white supremacist who, despite his joy at seeing his old friend once again since their days of working in coal mines together as teenagers, really doesn’t appreciate having Raylan interfere with his business.
Thanks to Boyd giving Raylan a familiar ultimatum to get out of town in twenty-four hours or he will be shot dead on sight, it doesn’t take long for the two of them to face off against each other (with Ava caught in the middle, and not standing idly by while doing so). Their confrontation soon leads to Raylan dealing with a wide and deadly assortment of criminals during his time in Harlan County, as well as Boyd doing his part to rise to the top of the criminal food chain while dealing with both Raylan and other outlaws who would much rather see him sink than swim.
When Elmore Leonard was first approached about Fire in the Hole becoming a television series, he admitted to being impressed by how the pilot had turned out, but couldn’t help but be curious as how his tone and style could or would be maintained throughout an entire series. And Elmore’s skepticism was understandable, as not every adaptation of his work turned out to be impressive. For every Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown (which was adapted from his novel Rum Punch), and 3:10 To Yuma that were acclaimed by both critics and audiences for very good reason, there were many others that weren’t nearly as good or memorable as the books they were based on, such as Glitz with Jimmy Smits and Markie Post, 52 Pick-Up with Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret, the television series adaptation of Maximum Bob starring Beau Bridges and Liz Vassey (of which you can find several episodes on YouTube), and the TV-movie Pronto which starred James LeGros as Raylan Givens, and which didn’t really impress Elmore for various reasons, least of all the choice of hat that Raylan was given to wear in the film. (LeGros actually went on to make several guest appearances on Justified as drug-and-alcohol-addicted criminal Wade Messer) So he met up with showrunner/executive producer Graham Yost (HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific), and was introduced by Graham to the writing staff for Justified, who had read many of Elmore’s books, and who were all gifted by Yost with rubber wristbands that read “What Would Elmore Do?” to remind themselves of what to do and what not to do when writing each episode.
Fortunately for Elmore, he had very little to worry about in terms of quality, as Justified went on to become near-perfect in bringing Elmore Leonard’s universe to life, and doing so in a way that made fans both old and new happy with what they were watching. The characterization is both unique and outstanding, and much of the entertainment comes from seeing what happens as a result of characters colliding with one another, regardless of whether they’re smarter and more cunning than meets the eye, or if they are dumber than a bag of hammers. Compare what you see in any one episode of Justified to what we’ve gotten a sample of so far in the trailer for Hillbilly Elegy, which looks exactly like the same type of predictable and tired portrayal of Appalachia and of poor people from the South (and it’s not as if the book or its author were held in very high regard to begin with) that is often seen in the media. It soon becomes very clear that making everyone with a Southern accent look and act like Cletus The Slack-Jawed Yokel is of no interest to the makers of the show, and that underestimating any of these characters, no matter what side of the law they’re on, is to be done at your own peril.
Much like it is in Elmore Leonard’s novels, the dialogue on Justified is also sharp, well-written, and damn near poetic. Like Deadwood (the other groundbreaking Western series that featured Olyphant in a lead role), you may find yourself adapting the characters’ way of speaking after watching enough episodes, though unlike Deadwood, you won’t be nearly as profane when doing so.
Deputy Chief Art Mullen runs the Marshals office out of Lexington, and is also a father figure of sorts to Raylan, especially since he’s much better at it than Raylan’s actual father, a career criminal who is largely responsible for why Raylan is, as Winona describes him, the angriest man she has ever known. But Art doesn’t have much tolerance for most of Raylan’s methods when doing his job, while also being fully aware that three of his best Marshals (Raylan included) are all explosive powder kegs that are capable of going off at any given moment. And after seeing his brutal, but somewhat understandable, response when interrogating a man suspected of killing another Marshal, it’s easy to see that he’s also just as capable of going off, and that much of Raylan’s conduct reminds him a little bit of himself. (Be advised that if you’re not already aware of Nick Searcy’s political opinions, they can and will make you angry-sigh when you read them. A lot.)
Rachel Brooks is the one Marshal in Art’s office who he trusts to be an absolute professional that gets the job done without causing his blood pressure to rise higher than an elephant’s eye, enough that she takes over for Art after he is hospitalized. She doesn’t hesitate to call out Raylan for his wild-card tendencies (and also just the fact that he’s permitted to wear his hat during work hours), and Art for letting those wild-card tendencies slide, and who knows damn well that her own badge would be in jeopardy if she did any of the things that Raylan does, because white male privilege is a hell of a drug*. None of that stops her from having Raylan’s back and showing support when he needs it, and he is more than willing to do the same for her, as they’re both aware that Rachel being a Black woman with a badge is not held in high regard in Harlan County, especially when her gun and handcuffs have to be put to use.
(*If FX ever decides to reboot Justified, it would be great if said reboot is done from the perspective of a U.S. Marshal who is Black or a woman of color. Maybe she could be played by Nicole Beharie, who would hopefully get much better treatment than she did on Sleepy Hollow after its first season, or by Wunmi Mosaku from Lovecraft Country. I’d toss Jurnee Smollett’s name into this hat as well, but she already has enough people clamoring for her to get her own series on HBO Max as Black Canary from Birds of Prey, which I also wouldn’t mind seeing onscreen instead of a spinoff of The Suicide Squad with John Cena as Peacemaker.)
Winona Hawkins didn’t always receive the best treatment on Justified, and it would’ve been so easy to simply portray her as just the love interest who keeps trying to ruin Raylan’s fun by telling him to stop what he’s doing and get inside the house (the same accusation that f-ckboys on the Internet have used when talking about Skyler White or Betty Draper or Lori Grimes). Seeing as how Winona was a court reporter, and not a fellow Marshal or a criminal being hunted by Marshals, it wasn’t always easy to find reasons to give her screen time. Even though she and Raylan still love each other, enough that she makes it clear to Raylan that she wants him with her and with their daughter, Winona also has little to no tolerance for his bullsh-t, for Gary putting both of their lives in danger with his greed and his idiocy, or for any gun thugs from Detroit foolish enough to point a weapon at her while she’s visibly pregnant and threaten her life and that of her unborn child.
“I can’t carry a tune, I don’t know how to shoot a basketball, and my handwriting is barely legible. But I don’t miss.” It’s how Tim Gutterson describes himself and his highly impressive capabilities as a sniper, thanks to his years as a U.S. Army Ranger, which also left him psychologically scarred, and with PTSD that rears its head every time he handles a firearm. He’s also complete and utter smart-ass whose sarcasm is often directed at Raylan and Art, much to their annoyance and befuddlement. Tim’s loyalty to his fellow Marshals and to his friends is unquestionable, and if you ask many a Justified fan, they would tell you that he’s possibly gay (which makes his interactions with Raylan even more fun to watch), but due to the lack of proper screen time, we never get much clarification about that.
Instead of being loved, honored, and cherished during her marriage to Bowman Crowder, Ava Crowder was regularly beaten, disrespected, and made to feel powerless. And once she shot him to death while he was eating dinner in their home, Ava refused to ever be made to feel that way again, even if it means turning her back on Raylan once their relationship goes sour, embracing the outlaw lifestyle alongside Boyd (as well as becoming romantically involved with him), and not hesitating to lay the smack down on anyone who makes the mistake of showing her any disrespect.
There’s a moment when Detroit gangster Nicky Augustine (Mike O’Malley) first meets Boyd Crowder in person and describes him as such: “I love the way you talk. You use forty words when only four will do.” And that really is one of the very best ways to describe Boyd, whose masterful and mellifluous usage of the English language makes him one of Justified’s best and most appealing characters. (“I’ve been accused of being a lot of things. Inarticulate ain’t one of them.”) After going the white supremacist route and taking a bullet to the chest from Raylan as a result, he goes on to become a pastor, only to have his father punish him for his acts of defiance by murdering nearly his entire congregation. Boyd soon accepts that no matter how hard he tries to deny his nature, being an outlaw is who he is and what he’s truly good at, so he may as well stop denying it and embrace it with both arms while making sure to be the best at it. Especially if it means buying a beautiful home with Ava to start a family, and going legit by becoming the owner of a Dairy Queen franchise and being damn good at that as well. (Even Walton Goggins admitted in a recent interview with Uproxx that he could easily see Boyd being in charge of a Dairy Queen and being very successful at doing so) As charming and insightful and loquacious as Boyd may be (which is usually when he’s interacting with Raylan, and they’re giving each other hell as only they can), he is also capable of reminding us all that he is an outlaw, and a very ruthless one when he wants to be.
Raylan Givens is a good man and a good Marshal, neither of which changes the fact that he is drawn to trouble like a moth to a flame, much to the anger and frustration of his friends, his enemies, and even to himself. As much as we know that Raylan can be effective when he’s on the job, and as cool as it is to see him emerge victorious after many a gunfight, it can’t and shouldn’t be ignored how difficult and nearly impossible it can be for some people to watch his behavior as a law-enforcement officer onscreen in the year 2020 compared to being able to watch it onscreen in the year 2010. Not when Black people have been and continue to be reminded constantly of how much their lives don’t matter in the eyes of law enforcement, and with cop shows as a whole being called out as “copaganda” for constantly portraying cops as heroic figures protecting everyone from harm (and by “everyone,” I mostly mean “white people”), using any means necessary to do so, and how there is absolutely nothing wrong with that*. And Raylan attempting to do his own thing by bending the rules as far as he can without breaking them usually end up going completely pear-shaped. From his shooting of Tommy Bucks, to sleeping with Ava while she is the suspect in an active investigation, to helping Winona return money that she has stolen from an evidence locker, to looking the other way when Nicky Augustine is gunned down by Sammy Tonin and his crew, Raylan often has to deal with the consequences of his actions, and rightly so. Much like the detectives on The Wire, another show that has also been accused of being “copaganda”, Raylan doesn’t get to break the rules and be an insufferable white male genius to everyone around him while walking away unscathed. He is, as one character describes him, someone who would run into a burning building to help others, despite the fact that he’s also the one who is starting the fire.
(*If any police drama truly deserves to be labeled as “copaganda,” that would be Blue Bloods, and the many reasons why that is can be found in this article here.)
And yet…Raylan does have his moments where he shows himself to be more than an angry and reckless federal agent who acts without thinking, and who would make Vice Admiral Holdo roll her eyes hard enough to get stuck in her forehead. His willingness to look out for Loretta and come to her aid, whether it’s her being hunted by Coover Bennett, or simply going to see her and help ease her mind about living with her new foster family. There’s his installation of a brand-new flat-screen television for a woman whose son has just been killed after a business deal gone wrong with one of Limehouse’s henchmen. He also knows how pointless it would be to ruin the lives of both Ava and her son by taking her into custody after tracking her down, hence why he is willing to travel all the way back to Kentucky to visit Boyd in Tramble Penitentiary, and lie to him about Ava’s fate in order to keep her safe, and ensure that Boyd never has a reason to look for her. Raylan Givens may be a massive pain-in-the-ass to deal with at times (and he also has issues with how to pronounce the word “realtor,” though he’s not alone in that regard), but he actually can be trusted to do his job with honor and integrity. Which is more than can be said about far too many cops, federal agents, and service members in the military who can’t or won’t do the same in real life.
Quite frankly, what Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins do with their performances as Raylan and Boyd in each and every episode are greatly deserving of all of the chef’s kisses and all of the awards, more so when they’re onscreen together and immediately make each other step their game up.
Along with its main cast, all of whom are impressive to watch and whose own performances are nothing at all to scoff at, Justified had a long and terrific list of guest stars and recurring actors that also contributed greatly to the show’s quality: Damon Herriman (Dewey Crowe), David Meunier (Johnny Crowder), Patton Oswalt (Constable Bob Sweeney), Larenz Tate (Clinton Moss), the late Chadwick Boseman (Ralph “Flex” Beeman, and if you ever wanted to see Boseman play a drug dealer who dreams of someday becoming a magician, and who gets really upset because he thinks that dream has been deferred, Justified is the show for you), Desmond Harrington (Fletcher “Icepick” Nix, who looks like the evil version of Jim Caviezel in Person of Interest, and whose utterance of “You understand why I’m not paying for that pizza, right?” is downright chilling), Jenn Lyon (Lindsey Salazar), Raymond J. Barry (Arlo Givens, father of Raylan, and another example of Raymond J. Barry playing horrible fathers who don’t give as much love and support to their sons as they should), Abby Miller (Ellen May), Linda Gehringer (Helen Givens), Stephen Root (Judge Mike Reardon), Ron Eldard (Colton “Colt” Rhodes), Kaitlyn Dever (Loretta McCready, who is both tough and cunning enough to potentially become the next queenpin of Harlan County), Jeremy Davies (Dickie Bennett), Jere Burns (Wynn Duffy, who would break the fourth wall and stare at the camera in disbelief like Jim from The Office if he actually could), and Carla Gugino reprising her role as the title character from the critically acclaimed and short-lived Karen Sisco (which was a television adaptation of Out of Sight) and making a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo as Assistant Director Karen
Sisco Goodall, who is reunited with Raylan as they work a case together, and kick plenty of ass while doing so. (To say that I was very happy to see Raylan Given and Karen Sisco appear onscreen together would be a massive understatement.)
As for the Big Bads who make life difficult for both Raylan and Boyd each season: there’s M.C. Gainey as Bo Crowder, Boyd’s father who refuses to accept any defiance or disrespect from Boyd when it comes to his business of controlling the sale of meth in Harlan County; Mykelti Williamson as Ellstin Limehouse, who runs the African-American community known as Nobles Holler, and has very little tolerance for his reign being placed in jeopardy, or his people failing him for any reason; Neal McDonough as Robert Quarles, a ruthless and sharp-dressed member of the Detroit Mafia who becomes even more dangerous to everyone around him as he slowly becomes unhinged during his time in Harlan County; Jim Beaver as Sheriff Shelby Parlow, who’s not exactly a Big Bad, but he is actually Drew Thompson, former member of the Detroit Mafia who has been in hiding ever since he…you know what, let’s have Art break it down for us:
Mike O’Malley as Nicky Augustine, who is hell-bent on becoming the one who calls the shots in the Detroit Mafia, and will kill anyone who gets in his way of becoming the king of the jungle; Mary Steenburgen as Katherine Hale, who intends on avenging her husband’s betrayal and death while making herself very rich in the meantime; Sam Elliott as Avery Markham, a legendary gangster from Kentucky who makes it very clear that he intends on running things when it comes to marijuana being sold in his territory; and last but definitely not least, Margo Martindale as Maggie “Mags” Bennett, who looks like a sweet old lady, but runs her marijuana empire with little to no mercy and will look you in the eyes with a smile on her face as she ends your life slowly with a jar of her apple pie moonshine.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned anything about Michael Rapaport and his appearance on Justified as Daryl Crowe Jr., the Big Bad of the show’s fifth season…please don’t. Rapaport’s performance was one of the worst things about a disappointing season, and the less said about him and how he committed the ultimate sin of making Justified damn near unwatchable, the better. Let us all treat Season 5 of Justified the same way we treat Season 2 of Friday Night Lights, Season 4 of Veronica Mars, and every season of Dexter after Season 5, and give them very little attention so that we may be much happier in discussing these shows with the fondness they deserve.
As tense and heartbreaking as Justified can often be (Loretta confronting Mags at gunpoint for killing her father, and both Mags and Raylan working together to convince her not to do anything that will send her to jail and ruin her life; Mags realizing that her favorite son Doyle is dead and how she chooses to respond afterwards; Raylan’s quiet acceptance of his father’s death; Winona realizing who Arlo was really trying to kill when he shot and killed a “man in a hat” in order to protect Boyd; Rachel reuniting her nephew with his father, and being reminded of her sister’s death; Boyd breaking into the house on sale, and imagining his future with Ava as it slips through his fingers after she is arrested; Raylan’s grief over the murder of his Aunt Helen, and his love for her stopping him from killing Dickie), it’s also really hilarious, and probably funnier than most sitcoms.
“Holy shit! You mean I have four kidneys?!” Raylan holding Quarles’ severed arm and slowly pulling it away from him as he attempts to reach for it. The look on Wynn Duffy’s face whenever someone is shot in front of him, or when he sees something that he probably shouldn’t have. “Your teeth glow in the dark.” The look of shock and disbelief on Raylan’s face when he kills an assassin who is disguised as a sheriff. Almost every line of dialogue out of Tim’s mouth. “Me and dead owls don’t give a hoot.” Raylan questioning an elderly woman in a nursing home who demands two milkshakes in exchange for answering his questions, just so she can pour one milkshake all over Raylan, and then drink the other one while smirking and watching him clean himself up. Raylan finding a severed foot when looking for a suspect and responding with “Well, my goodness.” Constable Bob cracking many a joke at Yolo to get under his skin, while taking a beating from him and refusing to give the information that he wants. And the one line of dialogue from Justified that has become popular on the Internet for obvious reasons: “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you are the asshole.” There are many more funny moments to list here, but this article is long enough already.
Earlier this year, Michael Schur, creator/executive producer of The Good Place, was interviewed by TVLine about Timothy Olyphant making a surprise appearance on the show during its final season. And towards the end of the interview, where he sang nothing but praise for Timothy’s performance, he shared his overall feelings about Justified:
…I believe Justified is one of the most underrated TV shows of this prestige era, and it just kind of got subsumed by Mad Men and Breaking Bad and whatever. But when you see [Timothy Olyphant] in full Raylan Givens mode, it’s just so fun to see that guy back again. Hopefully, this will spur some kind of Justified movie or something that Graham Yost can get up and running again, because that character is just too good to never see again. The second he appears, Maya [Rudolph’s] reaction, that sort of open-mouthed gape… it was basically my reaction, even though I knew it was coming! [Laughs]
It’s hard to disagree with what Schur said and feels about Justified, and how underrated it is. Yes, the show has won its share of awards, including an Emmy for Margo Martindale as Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Drama Series, an Emmy for Jeremy Davies for Outstanding Guest Actor In A Drama Series, and the Peabody Award, but it still never got as much respect and award recognition as prestigious and high-profile shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. And yet, if you were to ask most critics and nearly all of the show’s fans, Justified is just as great, if not better, as all of the other shows that are lavished with attention from the Emmys, and could easily go toe-to-toe with any of them when it comes to the quality of its writing, directing, editing, acting, etc. (The same can easily be said about another critically acclaimed FX drama: The Americans, which also got plenty of respect when it was on air, but really should’ve walked away with an entire wheelbarrow of awards after every season.)
None of this changes the fact that when most critics and die-hard television fans discuss “Peak TV” or “Prestige TV,” and the shows which defined that particular moment in entertainment, Justified is not only very likely to enter the conversation, but also to have its influence recognized in other crime dramas that came afterwards. It’s easy to look back and see how many authors of crime fiction followed in Elmore Leonard’s footsteps and tried to replicate his techniques for their own success, and it’s just as easy to imagine other television writers looking at Justified and attempting to do the same, once given the opportunity by Hollywood to do so.
At the unsentimental heart of Justified is a story of friendship and brotherhood between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder. Two men who know and understand each other better than anyone else in all of Harlan County, and whose bond actually found ways to become even deeper as they crossed paths once again and ended up on opposite sides of the law, though it’s easy to imagine how either one of them could have turned out differently because of one push and end up going through a different door altogether. (For a brief glimpse at how Walton Goggins would look playing a federal agent, take a look at this teaser for what could’ve been the fourth season of Veronica Mars, in which creator/executive producer/sworn enemy of the Veronica Mars fandom Rob Thomas considered having Veronica become an FBI agent instead of remaining a private eye.) And that bond can be summed up in just four words. Four simple words that carry so much weight and history not just for the two of them, but for the hundreds of men who spent more time with one another working in coal mines (and fighting to keep each other alive while working in those coal mines) than they do at home with their own families.
And those four words are…