Deadwood, the HBO series that ran for three seasons in the early 2000s, has many fans. They are numerous and very vocal in their love for the long-lamented series, and with good reason. It’s from a prestige network. It was among the early crop of prestige television series. It’s got a prestigious cast. It aired in the same era as The Sopranos, on the same night. And it stars the brilliant Timothy Olyphant as a cowboy-hat-wearing lawman with a hunger for justice. It’s rightly regarded as a modern classic of the Western genre.
But there is another.
A Western series with fewer shiny credentials. Less prestige. A network that didn’t scream “awards contender.” A style that, at first glance, seems low-rent. The characters are working class, commonplace, sometimes downright down-home stupid. It’s understandable it’s overlooked next to the period costume drama of Deadwood, but you sleep on Justified at your peril, partner.
The brainchild of show creator Graham Yost and Elmore Leonard, whose short stories and novels it’s based upon, Justified also stars Olyphant, here as Raylan Givens, and if you got the CliffsNotes you’d be forgiven for thinking it was more of the same old, same old. Givens is a US Marshall, whose penchant for shooting to kill in less-than-legal situations has him sent from his job in Miami back to his hometown of Harlan County, Kentucky.
This sounds like it could be any number of forgettable modern Western stories, but what sets Justified apart, along with its brilliant writing, is the genuine love you feel for its characters and, almost as important, it’s setting, deep in the hollers of coal country. It draws as much from Leonard’s early work in the Western genre, with stories like 3:10 To Yuma, as it does from his more well-known work in hardboiled crime. The setting has the lived-in, visceral feeling of a small town with a strong gravitational pull, one that its people can’t quite escape, even if they very much want to.
A classic character of the Western genre is the lawman who wants to put down his guns, but refreshingly this isn’t exactly the case with Justified. Olyphant as Givens is a pistol expert with a nearly unbeatable draw, and his reticence to drawing it is more about staying out of trouble with the Feds than an aversion to violence or the job. He desperately wants to shoot fewer people, even as the series lines up more and more people that Raylan would very much like to shoot, and shoot them he often does.
But Givens’ best moments are when he’s resisting the urge to pull. In the season three episode “Harlan Roulette,” Raylan confronts the gangster Wynne Duffy and the psychotic Detroit trigger man Robert Quarles (a slimy Jere Burns and an ice-cold Neal McDonough, respectively). After beating Duffy to the ground, Raylan ejects a round from the chamber and catches it, holding it up to Duffy. “Look here.” he says, throwing it on Duffy’s chest, “Next one’s coming faster.” Never in the entire genre has the sheriff not shooting been more dramatic than the alternative.
Although the series goes through a number of major and minor antagonists, the main threat to Givens’ Marshall through six seasons is the oldest child of a family as entrenched in coal country as Raylan’s, the irascible Boyd Crowder. Played with Old Testament intensity by the perpetually scene-stealing Walton Goggins, Crowder’s first appearance as a redneck Neo-Nazi in the series pilot “Fire In The Hole” could easily be written off as retreading Western tropes, pitting a broad personification of evil against the lawful good of Raylan Givens. However, the swastika tattoos and confederate flag belt buckle decorate a coal miner and ex-soldier with combat tours in Kuwait, one who returned to his hometown in the middle of nowhere to take up the reins of a family dynasty of crime, one that he had little chance of escaping.
Boyd’s character arc, from the aforementioned White Power hillbilly, through a born-again revival tent preacher, to his last stand as the big bad crime lord of Harlan County, is believable because it is so human. Throughout all of it, Crowder’s motivations seem human; he kills and robs and blows things up, but all in a sincere desire for a better life, for him and his loved ones. It tells a story familiar in Western films, but one that would usually be subtext, the backstory of a character forced to take on “one last ride.”
That Raylan and Boyd grew up together and spent time in the coal mines, makes their disparate paths all the more interesting to watch. When the pilot episode ends with Raylan putting a bullet in Boyd’s chest, and we see a flashback of the two younger men running out of a collapsing mine vault, shoulder to shoulder, the characters’ link through violence and danger is cemented for the rest of the series.
There are a lot of reasons a show might get missed. The fact that Olyphant starred in two acclaimed Westerns in the same decade can confuse things. FX wasn’t a particularly well-known commodity when Justified first aired. And it has a truly awful opening credits theme song.
Nevertheless, Justified deserves your attention, as a show that covers everything from the rural Appalachia opioid crisis to PTSD, with the characteristic humor and grit that the late Elmore Leonard built his career on, all while keeping at least one foot planted in the cowboy boots and standoffs that define the genre. As with most things that are worth watching, though, it’s the heart that pushes Justified beyond the cliches, well into the territory of a modern classic, not to be forgotten. As the adage goes, there’s gold in them there hills.