If Timothy Olyphant’s playing a law enforcement officer, you know you’re watching something set in a dangerous town. As the reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood, he had to contend with treacherous prospectors, evil brothel owners, and an outbreak of the plague; as the sheriff of Ogden Marsh in the 2010 remake of The Crazies, he had to deal with a virus that turned everyone into murderous lunatics. So when he shows up as deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified, you just know some bad shit is about to go down.
Luckily, when that bad shit does go down, it does so in a compulsively watchable way, because Justified is one of the best TV shows currently on air. Based on characters and storylines created by novelist Elmore Leonard, Justified is about a federal lawman whose uncompromising sense of justice is increasingly out of step with the complicated world he lives in.
Okay – wait, don’t stop reading there. That sounds a little bit dull, but that’s like dismissing Mad Men for being about a boring old advertising company. Justified, like all the best TV shows, is more than just its premise. It’s a character-driven drama filled with violence, pathos, sex, anger, humour, and a kind of run-down, dusty, dirty beauty, and it will wrap its grubby little hands right around your heart if you give it half a chance.
Its hero, deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, initially seems like one of those impossibly cool guys that don’t really exist outside of the movies. He’s stylish and graceful, alternately charming and intimidating; he chooses his words carefully and is never lost for a witty comeback; and he’s driven by a strong sense of right and wrong that resists all outside influence. He seems like one of those guys who doesn’t know what self-doubt feels like. He’s a big damn hero, in other words.
But as the show goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Raylan is a deeply damaged individual. Beneath his super-cool exterior is a core of pure rage. He’s full of simmering resentment, and it colours his every interaction with the outside world – which is, of course, one of the things that makes him so interesting to watch, because you know that rage is always waiting just below the surface, ready to explode whenever a petty criminal pushes him too far.
And the Harlan County of Justified is absolutely rammed with petty criminals. It’s not a prosperous place, and dodgy dealings are everywhere as people use whatever means they can to get by. The show’s supporting cast is stuffed with colourful criminals of one stripe or another, but its main villain, particularly in the first season, is Boyd Crowder.
No hero, no matter how reluctant, damaged, or complicated he might be, is complete without a suitably matched nemesis. And in Boyd Crowder, Raylan gets his perfect foil. They’re complete opposites, and at the same time, they’re exactly the same. The two of them share a long and eventful personal history: they grew up together, worked in a coal mine together, and saved each other’s lives on more than one occasion, but while Raylan moved into law enforcement, Boyd went into law-breaking. The way these two characters are written and acted, you can’t help but buy into their ridiculously complex love-hate relationship.
Timothy Olyphant is, without a doubt, the star of this show – he’s effortlessly cool, magnetically attractive, and capable of conveying all kinds of complicated emotion in the way he moves – but if anyone could steal it from him, it’s Walton Goggins. No matter how despicable Boyd is (and when we first meet him, he’s is busy fire-bombing churches and preaching white supremacy to his loyal gaggle of adoring drug-addicted followers) Goggins’ performance ensures he’s never less than fascinating. Watching either of them, alone, is a delight; watching the two of them together is hypnotic. Even if every episode was just Raylan and Boyd sitting in a room talking to one another, you’d still tune in every week to avoid missing a second of it.
But Justified is more than just two characters. It’s a believable window into a whole world; almost every character that appears on this show, whether they’re a series regular or just a one-off crime-of-the-week baddie, gets enough colour and backstory to make them feel real. Although Raylan is undeniably the centre of Justified’s universe, there’s always the scope for any character to surprise you – everyone’s got layers, from Raylan’s drug-dealing father to his ex-army ranger colleague to his court stenographer ex-wife.
The writing on this show is fantastic; showrunner Graham Yost has an interesting CV, having written the screenplays for various high profile action movies like Speed, Hard Rain, and Broken Arrow, as well as for TV shows including Band of Brothers and Boomtown, and Justified is probably his masterpiece. It’s fast-paced, without ever skipping over character development; it’s witty without being silly; it’s rhythmic, satisfying, and consistently cleverer than you first appreciate. (Season two, in particular, stands up to multiple viewings, because there’s so much going on with so many different characters that it’s almost impossible to pay attention to all of it at once.)
For fans of the much-missed Deadwood, there’s an extra level of enjoyment to be found in Justified. Raylan Givens might be a modern reincarnation of Seth Bullock, but Olyphant isn’t the only Deadwood alumni to show up in Harlan – keep your eyes peeled and you’ll spot W. Earl Brown, Sean Bridgers, Ray McKinnon, Jim Beaver, Brent Sexton, and Peter Jason all popping up at some point.
Even if you’ve never seen a second of Deadwood, though, you’ll be won over by Justified. I can’t heap enough superlatives on it. Watch the first episode, if you don’t believe me. You’ll be sold by the end of the first scene, and by the end of the first season, you’ll be trying to figure out if you can get away with wearing a cowboy hat to work. (Sadly, the answer is: probably not. Unless you’re Timothy Olyphant. In which case… hey, uh, call me?).
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