Thursday, April 16, 2015

Recommended: Justified

[4/21/15 Update: added 5 paragraphs after the last video, didn't notice the missing text (which was important to me) for 5 days. Damn.]

Justified is one of the best gifts that TV has ever given me. It’s a crime drama centered on Raylan Givens, a U.S. Deputy Marshal who is more a teen’s impression of what he thinks a law-keeper should be than he is a modern-day law enforcement official. It’s immediately evident in the costuming, with Raylan always wearing a white cowboy hat – right there, you can see that Givens wants to be Wyatt Earp, not a “mere” professional in the criminal justice system. Raylan often forgoes backup, bends the rules severely while adhering to their principles, and – in the opening scenes of the first episode – gives a criminal 24 hours to leave town or else... possibly as an excuse to agitate the other man enough to make him draw his gun.

If you watched Burn Notice, try not to say "Hi, my name is Michael Westin" when the clip starts.

It’s one thing to claim you killed someone in order to save a life; it’s quite another thing to admit that you gunned someone down, yet that - as our lead says when asked about the fatality - "it was justified." Not “inevitable” or “necessary,” but “not unacceptable.” Deputy Marshal Givens constantly rides that line, to the viewer's joy and the extreme displeasure of crooks and fellow Marshals alike. His appeal is easy to understand; s--t, it’s why guys from my generation wanted to be Han Solo, not Luke Skywalker - and why women of the Star Wars generation had crushes on Harrison Ford, not Mark Hamill.

FX’s Justified is based on a book series by Elmore Leonard, one of the masters of modern crime fiction. In this cable TV show, a rambunctious lawman is transferred from his job in Miami to the next Marshal’s office with a vacancy. Unfortunately for Raylan, that office is in Lexington, Kentucky – spitting distance from his hometown of Harlan, KY. Givens spent his whole life trying to get away from the coal mines he toiled in, the good ol’ boys who annoyed him with their lousy behavior, and his worthless, petty crook father. Now, he’s right back where he started.

Even worse, his magnificent ex-wife, Winona, has moved back to the area and is remarried and, oh, she also works as a stenographer in the same court building that houses his new office. F--K

Amidst the unwanted reunions and all the reminders of a past best forgotten, one additional ghost rears its head: Mr. Boyd Crowder, a positively loquacious Neo-Nazi bank robber who used to handle explosives at the same mine that Raylan toiled in. Raylan's first case in Lexington involves a racially-motivated RPG attack(!) by a man who shouted Boyd’s old professional catchphrase. And, before you know it, Raylan has to interview Ava – a gorgeous gal harboring a high school crush on him... who just got probation for murdering her abusive husband... Bo Crowder, Boyd’s older brother. F--K

For a hateful man, Boyd puts so much product in his hair.

Justified promises the audience a new look at an old paradigm – a man of the law who's incorruptible, but pushes the boundaries of the system to which he is devoted. Timothy Olyphant was an actor that I never liked until less than a year ago, when I started watching this program. Timothy always did such a great job of portraying total jerks that I kind of reviled him; it was as if I were seeing a better-looking version of Sam Rockwell, and I can barely abide Rockwell as it is (I have yet to watch Moon partly for this reason). On the basis of Olyphant’s work here, I now think he’s wonderful and I am so, so happy that I ditched my expectations and listened to the widespread critical acclaim about this show.

Justified sticks to the essentials of good storytelling by taking its time to establish good arcs, intriguing problems and engrossing characters throughout the course of its six seasons. It does dynamic work with great roles like Raylan, Boyd, Winona, Ava, and a host of minor figures. The series often pulls little tricks which I take to be a mark of quality – it presents issues and impasses that you think will take up at least half of the episode, only to resolve them stylishly and far sooner than any seasoned couch potato would expect. It lets storylines simmer over multiple episodes. And it seldom, if ever, gives you one hour devoted to exactly one issue/quagmire. If nothing else, this is immensely refreshing television.

Pure sweetness, with a dash of double-ought buck.

The joys of this show stem from its writing and acting – but the statement of “yes, we’re a masterclass in TV production” comes from how those strengths are always matched by its execution. Suspense is expertly-crafted, antagonists get ample time to show what they’re good at and why they’re successful (even if just on the small scale of Harlan County's widespread crime problem), and everyone from cameo parts to the right-hand man of a crime boss receives dialogue that makes each role feel true and interesting. This program knows what it is and what it wants to be, and it plays that to the hilt.

The secret of Justified is that it constantly messes with your expectations, engaging the viewer on a variety of levels. And I love everyone involved in the production for bringing that to me. The atmosphere and tone almost never flag, and that's a blessing for anyone who wants a good story.

The other guy got it worse!
But Olyphant is not the lone treasure of this series. Natalie Zea gets rich material to play, and she runs with it so well that you’d almost assume that she and Timothy were really locked into a relationship that needs major work/therapy. Bravado, hope, fear, anger – Natalie’s Winona Hawkins is about as fleshed-out as the male lead, a feat which is sort of exceptional all on its own. Joelle Carter adds so many layers to her sweet-Southern-gal figure that you want to cry – from empathy and awe, not because of her unfortunate history or dazzling demeanor.

Part of the glory of Justified is attributable to the lush roles that women get here; and one of its most egregious missed opportunities is that women like Ms. Hawkin and Mrs. Crowder don’t get even more time, or plots that are totally isolated from those of Raylan and Boyd. As actresses or as characters, these ladies have shown themselves more than capable of holding the audience's attention – easily, and skillfully...

Last, and never ever least, we come to Walton Goggins. In short, he is a superstar here. His character was actually intended to (SPOILER) die in the pilot, yet proved so appealing that he was written back into the show. And, instead of feeling like a forced or arbitrary presence, Boyd Crowder forms (or informs) the backbone for all 6 seasons of this entertaining and enjoyable show. The Justified showrunners already lucked out by landing Olyphant for the lead role; in selecting Goggins to play Boyd, they essentially discovered an evenly-matched Moriarty to go up against our rough-edged, violent Kentuckian Sherlock. Anyone who has ever watched a TV screen would benefit from these discoveries, and as far as I’m concerned, Graham Yost just invented the audio-visual equivalent to champagne - it's a happy and miraculous accident.

PS, screw you to everyone for not uploading clips of Ava and Winona's solo scenes - they're not dependent on the male roles in order to shine!

Much as with The Wire, Justified does not devote any single season to the same “topic” or problem as seen in a prior one. Justified is not overtly trying, as The Wire did, to display why and how one city/county stays in a terrible, dangerous state indefinitely. What’s unintentionally hilarious about it is that the shifting/broadened focus of seasons 2-6 concern a locale that is so small and insular that there aren’t really many places for it to go (hahaha, small town burn). But it always varies the nature and style of the dilemmas that Raylan faces. And, because the cast is beyond-fine in their roles, and because the writing is so damn good, you end up with a sumptuous meal out of material that would be a trifle – a kind-of satisfying appetizer – in any other hands.

The big problems with Justified are rather simple. The non-crook characters, especially those that aren’t romantically involved with Raylan, do not get very much time to build their roles. Fellow Marshals Tim, Rachel, and Art barely get any development at all – Art probably only gets some decent focus because he operates as both boss and father-figure. The entire fifth season is undermined by the writers choosing an uninteresting set of bad guys as the antagonists, as well as going back to old characters in an amateurish “I guess we have to tie up loose ends that don’t need tying” way. Also, Arlo Givens goes from being a diamond in the rough to becoming a player who’s in danger of being overused... at least until the fourth season starts.

Yet any flaws are soon forgotten or forgiven. Raylan Givens is a joy, Boyd Crowder is wonderful, Ava Crowder and Winona Hawkins provide unexpected and exceptional turns – and, while all of these astounding performances are going on, you’re still left shell-shocked by the precise pacing, great acting, and fine action, as well as scripts and plots that are as taut as a yoga expert's body. Justified exceeds any conception of what “cool” and "fun" are. Even in its few weak hours, there are enough good elements to leave the audience sated.

Just the way I could describe Ava and Winona says a lot. Ava Crowder is strong, but she's also needy - and sweet. It's a fine combination, and it's not fake or forced. You can see how tough she is but also that she doesn't want to do things all by herself. These elements collide to make a woman who can have moments of weakness, but never panics - who struggles through years of spousal abuse, then exacts revenge.

It's not always pretty, and it's surely not perfect, but it feels real... good motivations mix with ones that are close to unhealthy. And, in Justified, even this wounded person has standards and beliefs and goals. It's messy and confusing, yet never improbable.

Winona Hawkins, meanwhile, is also proud and strong. This smart, independent Southern woman will always think problems through, standing firm on hard choices. She's incredibly punchy with Raylan, but I think it's mostly because he's a lot to put up with.

Winona, who's more prone to panic, never displays the possibly suicidal tendencies that Ava does - yet she doesn't run at the first sign of trouble, either. Ava is clearly a homecoming queen gone awry after domesticity, whereas Winona found a profession, and got a divorce.

It's almost an achievement that I can say so much about these two main female roles without even describing their future plot lines. We need more characters like this on TV!

Watching a season of Justified is like tearing through the best crime/Western/noir novel you ever read, just in a visual format. It's certainly better than the best book I've ever taken along for a day at the beach... Even my overview of the series feels like a copout, as I would happily spend a while discussing and describing each season, if not all the episodes.

Speaking of: the last ep aired this Tuesday, April 14th - I'm caught up on all but the final hour, already knowing I will miss it dearly. And I have Olyphant, Goggins, Carter, Zea, Yost, Leonard, Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K, and a whole host of other people to be grateful towards for the pleasure of this experience. At this point, the only complaint is that I had to sign up for Amazon Prime in order to watch the series; I would’ve gladly paid for the DVDs...


  1. Great writeup. I love the connection you drew between Goggins and Rockwell, since Boyd's a Rockwell character just with much more charisma and way less twitching (I love some of Rockwell's performances where he's twitching for a reason, but in many places it doesn't work for me). Goggins is amazing in Justified, and seeing him there makes me want to re-watch (and in the case of the later seasons, watch) The Shield, which features Goggins as a very different character.

    One thing I'd add to your review is to emphasize how awesome the guest stars and the guest star casting for this show is. Margo Martindale in S2 is the obvious Emmy-winning example, but you also had Jeremy Davies, Neal McDonough, Jim Beaver, Kaitlyn Dever, Jere Burns, Damon Herriman, Mykelti Williamson...even one-shot guests like Alan Ruck and Carla Gugino did amazing work.

    1. Thanks, DJ! But you're making me seem smarter than I am - I compared Rockwell to Olyphant, not Goggins. But I can see what you're saying, and it certainly bears thinking about.

      Yes, he really is great on The Shield. Thats a very odd show for me, as I find most people who are engaged by The Shield are folks who grew up in very safe locales. As a result, the stories and plots don't blow me away bc there's little shock value for me. The performances, however, are quite wonderful.

      You're dead right about the extensive guest list. I didn't want to get into it - partly to not spoil things, and also parfly because... Well, you listed all those great actors - and still left out John Kapelos, Alan Tudyk, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, Garret Dillahunt (aka the ghost-faced dilla), and Max Perlich. So many fine people! I hadn't seen Dever until I saw Short Term 12, so her talent was truly stunning; after S2 of Justified, I see she's been kicking actorly ass for ages...

      But the depth afforded to many of these performers also serves to underscore that Ava and Winona could carry whole seasons with both hands tied behind their backs, nor do their plots so frequently need to be tied in to the two male leads.

      God, we didn't even discuss Limehouse.

    2. D'oh! Reading comprehension fail!

      Then again, I can't see Raylan twitching and dancing his way through life, as Rockwell's characters must. Raylan's got an old Western gunfighter's stillness to him. I think Olyphant carried that quality over from his character on Deadwood, who was the stereotypical Western man of few words. The big surprise from Olyphant (and something he shares with Rockwell) is the easy sense of humor he gives Raylan.

    3. Oh, you're right, I was describing more my instinctive dislike of them, not similarities in mannerisms or style. Anyway, I've come around - even on Rockwell, I'm not bothered by his "himness" any more.

      I feel extra dumb as I only noticed today that there was a section of text that got left out of this post: 5 paragraphs, placed after the last video, wherein I talk about Winona and Ava. Damn, I'd watch a show about any of the four leads...

  2. Great write up! i saw two episodes a while back and somehow it just didn't grab me enough to continue but I really must give this another shot.

    1. Thank you! I think it's a wonderful show, but I can imagine seeing any two episodes and deciding it's not for you. The setting may also be a little less interesting to foreigners, and I have to acknowledge that as a potential factor.

      But, if you do really get into it, I think it'll bring you much joy - and you'll (somehow) have managed to be cooler than you already are!


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